The world is learning, in a truly frightening fashion, just why the World Health Organization (WHO) is so vital to the health of humanity. The WHO is the United Nations agency that works on many critical health issues, but the most important at the moment, of course, is its response to epidemics and pandemics, such as the coronavirus that the world is currently experiencing. Through expertise in combating infectious disease, the WHO can help to prevent or at least try to mitigate the spread of these illnesses. It is in some ways the U.N. as it should be—countries pooling resources and working together to address global emergencies.
But, there is a danger that the WHO could fall into the same trap that has plagued much of the U.N. system: politicization. It has flirted with doing so before, and—thankfully—pulled back, but we now can see clearly why that was flirting with disaster.
After UNESCO illegitimately recognized the Palestinian delegation as a “member state” in 2011, there was some noise about continuing to push this internationalization strategy and looking for similar recognition at other U.N. agencies, of which WHO is one. However, many countries did not take sufficiently into account (or did not care) what this status at UNESCO actually meant. The United States was forced by law to swiftly de-fund UNESCO for bestowing member state status upon a country that does not exist.
This de-funding was no small matter. The U.S. paid in about a quarter of UNESCO’s budget, leaving a huge hole. Once the Palestinians became members, they set on a path of politicizing the work of UNESCO through passing ludicrous resolutions—thanks to the automatic majority that the Palestinians enjoy—that sought to claim the Kotel as a Muslim site, or accused Jews of planting “fake Jewish graves” in a cemetery. These resolutions left the organization’s reputation in tatters, and it has still yet to recover. The U.S. and Israel have left completely, and the best the organization can seem to do is not pass any additional outrageous resolutions on the Middle East…for now.
If there was a silver lining in the tragedy of what has become of UNESCO, it is that the threat posed by the Palestinian internationalization agenda was exposed. Many countries did not want to see what happened to UNESCO repeated at other, more critical, agencies. The Americans and others put pressure on the Palestinians not to continue down this path. The results of this are mixed—the WHO and other agencies have so far been mostly spared, but the Palestinians decided instead to pursue member state status at the U.N. itself. In 2012, the General Assembly granted them “observer state” status, which allowed them to accede to international conventions, including the Rome Statute. We are in the midst of seeing the consequences of that vote now at the International Criminal Court.
Though the membership issue has not come up at the WHO, there are still politicization issues at play, not necessarily as much within the bureaucracy of the WHO itself, but in the World Health Assembly (WHA), which is the decision making body of the WHO. Since the WHA is made up of member states’ representatives, there is always the possibility for trouble, as often happens at the U.N. And we have seen this at the WHA, where Israel has been singled out yearly for an absurd stand-alone resolution. The next session of the WHA is set for the end of May, and there is no news yet on whether this will be held then or, as so much else in the U.N. system currently, postponed to an undetermined date.
Now is not the time for politics. It is a time for unity in fighting this deadly disease. That is the only thing that the WHO should be concerned about at this moment. But this moment shall pass and humanity will beat back this virus, in no small part thanks to the efforts of the WHO. What needs to be remembered once that happens (and that day cannot come soon enough) is the basic need that all of humanity has to have a WHO that is devoid of politics: a health bureaucracy that has a strong reputation and does not take absurd political positions forced upon it by some member states.
Oren Drori is the Program Officer for United Nations Affairs at B’nai B’rith International where he supports advocacy and programming efforts that advance B’nai B’rith’s goals at the U.N., which include: defending Israel, combating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and promoting global human rights and humanitarian concerns. He received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota in 2004 and an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago in 2006. Click here to view more of his additional content.
If your budget, work schedule or other circumstances have put a damper on that bike trip on the continent, a great sightseeing holiday is not out of the question for anybody these days. Jewish history in all its glory comes to you via three websites reviewed below.
Sponsored by the Council of Europe under the umbrella of its “Cultural Routes” program, (www.AEPJ.org), the website of The European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage is supported by a consortium of 21 organizations, including B’nai B’rith Europe. Claude Bloch, B’nai B’rith Strasbourg and historian of the Jewish community of Alsace, who founded the association and developed its annual European Day of Jewish Culture, is now its honorary president; its current president is B’nai B’rith leader Françoise Moyse. Visitors to its pages are able to hop from country to country, exploring both restored and unrestored synagogue landmarks housed in an ever-growing group of European countries, from the United Kingdom to Turkey; the journey is augmented by three themed sections charting modernist currents (spanning Art Nouveau and Art Deco through Expressionism), surveying the construction of Polish wooden synagogue buildings and locating places where important Jewish women left their mark. Through their beautiful and detailed photos, even those who possess an expertise in subject matter connected to 19th and 20th century art and history will come away with new insights that recontextualize Judaism’s significant contribution to, and inspiration from, the evolution of European culture.
Far from stagnant, the AEPJ website is continually introducing and developing new methods for expansion and education through its “incubator” pages, recent additions to the site that outline opportunities for those who wish to create, develop, learn or teach. Innovations in technology meld the past with the present on a sister website, Parallel Traces: a new lens on Jewish heritage, (https://paralleltraces.eu/), where award-winning entries of cutting edge multi-media works and pictures shining the light on Jewish life and history by European artists and photographers can be viewed. Through this site, those interested can also download three apps devoted to different aspects of Jewish heritage.
AEPJ has recently entered into a collaboration with Ruth Ellen Gruber, coordinator of Jewish Heritage Europe (https://jewish-heritage-europe.eu/), a site sponsored by the Rothschild Foundation, which includes the latest news about resources for restoration support and recently opened heritage sites. Here, a series of exhibits describe and document imagery and symbolism specific to Jewish architecture, liturgical objects and decoration, folk art and monuments, including gravestones, located throughout the continent. Similar to the presentation on the AEPJ site, a series of photo galleries are devoted to the art and architecture of specific countries. This joining of forces will surely foster the continued appreciation and renewed understanding of such important and literally eye-opening subject matter. To be sure, there is much that remains unexamined.
For those inclined to venture closer to home, but who still want to thrill to some amazing sights, the website of The Shapell Collection (https://www.shapell.org) has much to offer. There, everyone can see and learn about actual letters written by Jewish Civil War Soldiers or tour curated exhibits which spotlight Jewish legends like Albert Einstein or investigate the lives of President Abraham Lincoln and the writer Mark Twain, historic figures impacted by their encounters with the Jewish community here and abroad, all presented in the letters and manuscripts they left behind.
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B'nai B'rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, click here.
In late December 2019, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague, Fatou Bensouda, announced that a “basis” exists to investigate the “situation in Palestine” and whether Israel committed war crimes during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, as well as the Gaza border conflict of 2018-2019. Earlier this month, the court gave the green light for Bensouda to open an investigation of alleged war crimes committed by American servicemen during the United States’ war with Afghanistan.
If it sounds worrisome for Israel and the U.S., that’s because it is. Both Israel and the U.S. are not members of the ICC and did not ratify the court’s founding Rome Treaty, precisely because both countries feared it was a structurally biased institution and would become the politicized body it has. The ICC does not try states, but individuals. That means although the U.S. and Israel are not parties to the Rome Treaty, their citizens, leaders and soldiers are not immune from indictment, prosecution and arrest warrants in countries that are parties to the treaty (and there are 123 member countries of the ICC).
The International Criminal Court was created in 2002 to prosecute individuals for international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The institution was meant to function as a “court of last resort," which means it should step in when rogue nations do not hold ostensible perpetrators of war crimes accountable. In this sense, the ICC is a powerful resource to maintain law and order around the globe and to serve as a deterrent to tyrants from committing grave crimes. However, as we have witnessed another international body, the United Nations Human Rights Council, stray from their noble cause into a political farce, so too has the International Criminal Court.
The United States and Israel both have vibrant democracies, each with some of the world’s most respected judicial systems that investigate alleged wrongdoings by their militaries. The notion that the ICC would open inquiries into both countries is obscene. The U.S. and Israel currently view the court as a politicized and illegitimate institution. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently called the most recent ruling on Afghanistan a “truly breathtaking action by an unaccountable, political institution masquerading as a legal body,” and Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon referred to the investigation of Operation Protective Edge as “diplomatic terrorism.”
For years, the Palestinian Authority (PA) along with several Palestinian NGOs, backed by thousands of euros from European governments, has threatened to open a probe of war crimes against Israel. In 2015, the PA joined the Rome Treaty and several countries recognized Palestine as an independent state. However, contrary to some wishes, Palestine is still not a sovereign state according to the Vienna Convention, upon which the Rome Statue is based. Therefore, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has argued that “only sovereign states can delegate criminal jurisdiction to the International Criminal Court. The PA does not meet the criteria.” It’s quite straightforward. The ICC has no jurisdiction to investigate the PA’s request, and it certainly has no jurisdiction over Israel, which is not a party to the institution.
In over two decades, the ICC has only ever convicted three people in trials of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Given the last decade and the atrocities out of Syria or human rights abuses out of Iran, let alone the nearly daily war crimes committed by Hamas, e.g. sending incendiary balloons across the Gaza border to land in school yards, that there has been little interest in prosecuting such crimes speaks volumes about the political agenda and anti-Israel bias of the court.
Israel's short history has been consumed by Palestinian warfare since before the state’s creation, from terrorism to the battlefield, to the media and the BDS and delegitimization campaign and now through lawfare. We cannot underestimate the use of lawfare as a weapon against the Jewish State and dismiss it as mere politics. It may be a political show, but this time Israel cannot dismiss the ICC’s legal positions in the same way it dismisses rulings by the U.N. General Assembly. International law carries with it very real consequences and not just from a P.R. perspective of assigning the label of war criminal to an Israeli leader. If said person refuses to submit to interrogation by the ICC prosecutor and travels to an ICC member state like Germany or England (as well as much of the rest of Europe, South America and Africa), that person could theoretically be arrested as soon as their plane lands on foreign soil. That scenario would lead to an international scandal of epic proportions, causing severe diplomatic rifts—rifts Israel cannot afford.
The ICC Pretrial Chamber is expected to decide sometime after this month whether or not it will recognize a “State of Palestine,” (meaning whether or not it actually has jurisdiction), and determine if they will proceed with a full criminal investigation. For now, we will watch as things unfold, continue to advocate on Israel’s behalf and hope Israel continues to mount a multi-layered defense against this delegitimization.
For years, we have made the case that Israel continues to be subjected to unequal footing and outright systemic bias within the international community. The latest moves by the ICC add it to the growing list of anti-Israel, arguably anti-Semitic, international bodies. The real tragedy here is that victims of actual crimes against humanity may never see justice because a pervasive international obsession with the one Jewish State trumps all else.
Rebecca Rose is Associate Director of Development & Special Projects at B’nai B’rith International. She holds an M.A. in Political Science in Security and Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University.
Purim, and before it “Shabbat Zachor” and the Fast of Esther, are particular times of community for us as Jews. The specter of so many now being forced away from community reminds us of its immeasurable importance – and not to take it for granted.
Especially in our age of social media and smartphones – when new generations’ definition of “social” is nothing like that of predecessors, and many of us are less than present even when we are physically present – we’re reminded that while we can sometimes call in for meetings, we never should “phone it in” when it comes to the many relationships that give life its very value. Our tradition has much to say, and to model, about the implications of excessive separation, of aloneness. While the Bible describes the Jewish people as am l’vadad yishkon – a nation that in some respects will “dwell apart” – we’re also told lo tov heyot ha’adam l’vado, that it is not good for people to be alone. Estrangement from the community, even if temporary, is considered a substantial hardship, and we’re taught, of course, that the very essence of Torah is v’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha, to actually love our neighbor as ourselves. We’re a social people, a social community, and a social, interconnected species. Isolation – social distancing, quarantine – is not a natural, let alone optimal, condition.
For those of us involved in cultivating our community’s ties to others, Purim is a particularly relevant holiday. On the one hand, it highlights the theme of external enemies committed to our harm and negation. But it’s also about more complex relationships – for this, look no further than the Persian King Ahaseurus – as well as outright allies; unlike so much of the scriptures, the Book of Esther involves critically navigating intergroup engagement – maintaining identity and values, while engaging with others – in the context of exile.
Beyond the particular Jewish crisis of Purim – though it arguably reflects a broader human susceptibility to bigotry – a more “general” emergency, especially an epidemic or pandemic like the coronavirus outbreak, underlines our common humanity. The current reality – with its alarming specter of infections in China and the United States, in Iran and in Israel – brings home the point not only that challenges like diseases don’t discriminate, but that we’re all united in our basic similarity, in our vulnerability and in our need to combine efforts to tackle these adversities, out of decency but also a fundamental self-interest that are ultimately one and the same. Such cooperation in harsh circumstances can be not merely the most effective approach, but the only effective approach.
During a trying period like this, we find one more critical takeaway in Purim: hope. Our sages tell us that though the Book of Esther is remarkable in the absence, explicitly at least, of God in its text, it is this same book, with its account of salvation against the seeming odds, that will uniquely be preserved in the Jewish canon, forever. Reflecting all that we’ve overcome in our history, Purim points to the promise of v’nahafoch hu – of times of anxiety and difficulty giving way to better ones. As the megillah says, neh’pach la’hem miyagon l’simcha, u’me’evel l’yom tov. Its story is one of grief transformed into joy, mourning into a time of festivity.
Ken tih’yeh lanu – so may it be for us all.
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B'nai B'rith International, where he began working in 2004 as Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and past winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University. Click here to view more of his content.
In the Times of Israel, B'nai B'rith International CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin writes:
The best word to describe it would be chutzpah.
In a letter to British daily newspaper The Guardian, 50 former European foreign ministers and government leaders castigated the Trump administration’s long-awaited peace plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The letter asserts the Trump plan favors one side, and “has characteristics similar to apartheid — a term we don’t use lightly.”
Amongst the signatories are a number of longtime, incessant critics of Israel who, when in power, seemingly did little to hide their bias toward the Jewish state. Indeed, some – early on – applied “apartheid state” to describe Israel and rarely, if ever, criticized the Palestinian side for its intransigence toward good faith negotiations with Israel.
Read the full op-ed here.
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