Working at B’nai B’rith International during the past year has afforded me the opportunity to visit our sponsored Section 202 buildings across the country. B’nai B’rith in partnership with Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sponsors Section 202 housing for low-income seniors throughout the United States comprising 38 buildings that serve more than 4,500 people. While touring the properties, I have gotten to talk with residents and see exactly how seniors benefit from living there. Learning about affordable housing is always a humbling experience, never more so than visiting the food pantries in the buildings. Staff members in multiple buildings explained to me how residents, unfortunately, at the end of the month, often don’t have enough money for food. Consequently, these food banks provide vital nutrition for low-income seniors who now don’t have to choose between food and healthcare.
According to HUD, the average annual income for a Section 202 household is around $13,300 or $1,108 or a month. Clearly Section 202 residents are not a group of people from great wealth. Given the type of resident these buildings attract, I am saddened a proposal introduced by HUD may RAISE residents’ rental contributions.
For people reading this blog, you have read correctly! The policy recently proposed by HUD could raise the rent on low-income seniors!
First the proposal changes how HUD calculates Section 202 rental contributions from 30% of adjusted income to 30% of gross income. Simply put this change will subject more of low-income seniors very limited financial resources to rental contributions. Secondly, the bill is requesting $50 a month minimum for rental contributions. To put this in perspective, this impacts people who make less than $2,000 a year, the exact type of person who the government should be looking to shield from further financial hardship.
The Administration and some members of Congress argue that government spending is out of control with our country’s debt reaching around $20 trillion dollars. There is no argument that our country’s debt needs to be tackled. However, addressing our debt on the back of elderly Americans is not acceptable. How is a better way of governing, one that leaves seniors without a roof over their head?
The proposed legislation slashes assistance for our most needy seniors by reducing their assistance for affordable housing. If taking away basic necessities for low-income seniors is required to return our country to greatness, I think the Administration’s definition of greatness is in my humble opinion morally bankrupt!
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Assistant Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School. Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.
Last week I attended the Eighth Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru, and the fact that more than 25 presidents of the Americas came to this year’s conference shows a positive side of the Summit. Also, the gathering of the Civil Society and Business Forum (which are two conferences that take place before the Summit), created a discussion on the most crucial and difficult issues of the region.
Is it possible to measure the effectiveness of the Summits?
Yes, this time it has been possible to get results and we have attained more information than in previous years.
The central theme of the summit, “Democratic Governance in the Face of Corruption,” looked a little ambitious in the previous months of the event. Corruption is undermining several governments in the past year and we saw what has happened in Brazil: President Dilma Rousseff was impeached and former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is in prison. In Peru, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was forced to resign, in Ecuador, former President Rafael Correa will face accusations of corruption shortly and the ongoing corrupted regime ruling Venezuela.
There was a strong document signed by all participants committing their governments to work solidly and in agreement to combat the scourge of corruption at all levels. Is this document a strong and definitive tool for the immediate future? No, it’s not. It is just the first step, but at the same it is an encouraging beginning that the Civil Society is fighting corruption.
The second big issue has been the ongoing and endless humanitarian situation in Venezuela. Venezuelans are leaving the country to all possible places and there are hundreds of thousands living today in Colombia, and tens of thousands in Brazil, Panama, Argentina, Peru and Uruguay. Unfortunately, only 16 countries had the courage to sign a statement declaring loud and clear that the next elections in Venezuela are a farce, and warning the Americas of the humanitarian situation under President Nicolás Maduro’s regime and also among the millions of Venezuelan citizens who are arriving in other countries.
Panama was very clear on this matter and its president, Juan Carlos Varela, said that it is an obligation of all the Americas to recognize the very dramatic situation and help do something. They must face the lies of the Venezuelan government which does not recognize the humanitarian crisis that is occurring in its own country, and Venezuela blocks the possibility of real aid to its population and it is backed by proxies like Cuba and Bolivia in the region.
United States Vice President Mike Pence, Argentine President Mauricio Macri, Brazilian President Michel Temer, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto were the main voices denouncing Maduro’s dictatorship.
The third big issue was not previously in the agenda. The Summit discussed the situation in Syria. Most people condemned Syria for using chemical weapons, however Bolivian President Evo Morales blasted the United States and said “Bolivia is fully backing the Syrian brothers in this moment that they are suffering an aggression.”
Populism in the region has brought misery and pain to the region, however it is decreasing. But Morales, Cuban President Raul Castro (who did not attend) and Maduro (who was not invited to attend) are still insisting in carrying out their totalitarian regimes with proxies from outside the Americas like Iran and opening doors to Hezbollah.
The B´nai B´rith delegation had conversations with different Civil Society organizations, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro and officers of several delegations. The Civil Society main meeting was attacked by Cuban members of Castro´s regime, who were shouting insults at Peruvian Prime Minister César Villanueva and the OAS secretary general. Regardless, the Civil Society was able to end its three day meeting, despite members of a dictatorship showing that open dialogue is not acceptable in Cuba.
We believe that the strong condemnation against Syria has been very important. It shows that the comprehension of Middle East unrest is now better understood in the region, and that populism is decreasing.
The next OAS General Assembly will be held the first week of June in Washington, D.C., and it is celebrating its 70th anniversary. This General Assembly will show if there is a real and strong majority to sanction the outrageous regime of Venezuela. Such a decision would help the OAS look stronger and the whole region look more democratic.
Eduardo Kohn, Ph.D., has been the B’nai B’rith executive vice president in Uruguay since 1981 and the B’nai B’rith International Director of Latin American Affairs since 1984. Before joining B'nai B'rith, he worked for the Israeli embassy in Uruguay, the Israel-Uruguay Chamber of Commerce and Hebrew College in Montevideo. He is a published author of “Zionism, 100 years of Theodor Herzl,” and writes op-eds for publications throughout Latin America. He graduated from the State University of Uruguay with a doctorate in diplomacy and international affairs. To view some of his additional content, click here.
A few weeks ago, several media outlets in Argentina reported about a recent meeting between an Argentine journalist and a man named “Ibrahim Yassin” in Israel.
Yassin is well-known in Israel, but almost nobody knew about him in Argentina. Originally a Shiite Muslim from Lebanon, this man told the Argentine reporter the amazing story of how he became an Israeli citizen and an Orthodox Jew, changing his name to Abraham Sinai.
The story of his transformation began during the civil war in Lebanon, in the 1970s and 80s, when he witnessed the atrocities committed by the Syrian army and also by Hezbollah combatants. When the Israeli army entered Lebanon, Yassin was able to confirm that they operated under a different set of values, especially when an Israeli army patrol, putting his own life at risk, rescued Yassin's pregnant wife and arranged for her to be taken to Haifa, where she was able to give birth safely. According to Yassin, she would have died if left in Lebanon.
Yassin’s closeness to the Israelis generated the suspicion of members of Hezbollah, who kidnapped and tortured him for months. According to Yasmin, a man named Imad Mughniyeh, tired of not getting the information he was expecting to get from him, burned Yassin’s 8-month old son alive in front of his eyes.
After a while, and convinced that Yassin was innocent, they decided to release him. According to reports, it was then that Yassin decided to infiltrate Hezbollah and spy for Israel. He did so for 10 years, and the valuable information he provided to the Israelis saved the lives of many Israeli soldiers.
In 1997, when the Israelis felt that Yassin was in serious danger, they took him and his family to Israel, where they have lived since then.
Yassin’s story is relevant in Argentina, not only because it is not very common to find stories in the local media where the Israeli army is portrayed in a positive way, but also — and most importantly — because of the connection between Yassin’s testimony and the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish Center in Buenos Aires.
According to Yassin, Mughniyeh, the same man who tortured him and murdered his son, was the person that ordered the AMIA attack, as Hezbollah’s global operations chief. Yassin in fact states that he was there when the attack was ordered.
Even though this is probably not news for many Israelis, in Argentina his testimony is very important. In fact, Alberto Nisman (the federal prosecutor that conducted the AMIA case investigation for over ten years before being murdered in 2015) had accused Mughniyeh of being one of the masterminds of the bombing, and had even secured an Interpol red alert against him.
Mughniyeh, who is widely believed to have also participated in the planning of the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and a number of other terrorist attacks around the world, died in a car blast in Syria in 2008, so he will never be interrogated for his crimes. But Yassin’s testimony should serve as both a vindication of Nisman’s courageous work and a reminder of the dangers of Iran’s global terror activities.
Adriana Camisar is an attorney by training who holds a graduate degree in international law and diplomacy from The Fletcher School (Tufts University). She has been B'nai B'rith International Assistant Director for Latin American Affairs since late 2008, and Special Advisor on Latin American Affairs since 2013, when she relocated to Argentina, her native country. Prior to joining B'nai B'rith International, she worked as a research assistant to visiting Professor Luis Moreno Ocampo (former Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court), at Harvard University; interned at the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs; worked at a children's rights organization in San Diego, CA; and worked briefly as a research assistant to the Secretary for Legal Affairs at the Organization of American States (OAS). To view some of her additional content, click here.
In March, I was incredibly fortunate for the opportunity to travel and explore Japan with the B’nai B’rith Young Leadership Network, as we participated in the Kakehashi Project. The Kakehashi Project was created through the Japan International Cooperation Center (JICE), designed to build and strengthen ties between the U.S. and Japan. We were provided with a diverse itinerary that gave us a taste – both literally and figuratively – of a country rich in history, yet at the same time, at the forefront of modernization.
Immediately upon arriving in Japan, we were in awe of the beautiful country and culture. It was easy to feel welcomed in a society that places such a high value on respect and honor. No matter where we turned, the warmth of the Japanese people, and the depth of their culture and history embraced us. In Tokyo, we experienced firsthand what life in the largest city by population in the world is like.
Tokyo is home to the world’s largest fish market, the Tsukiji Market, where we were able to see, smell and taste the freshest sushi. At Ippodo Tea Company, we participated in a tea ceremony, learning how matcha tea is made and given the opportunity to make and taste tea ourselves.
In Kyoto, we explored cultural sites such as Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, a Zen Buddhist temple and the Fushimi Inari Taisha, a shrine built in the eighth century. One afternoon, we rolled up our sleeves to hand dye handkerchiefs using a centuries-old Japanese technique called Yuzen.
While Japan’s history and culture make it unique, it certainly doesn’t hold it back from keeping up with modern times. From small conveniences in our hotel rooms, to the abundance of vending machines strewn about, it was clear that technology played a large role in day-to-day life. Our travels between Tokyo and Kyoto were via the Shinkansen, Japan’s bullet train. A trip that would have taken over six hours by car was a mere two and a half hours thanks to this high speed train. We also had the opportunity to spend an afternoon at the offices of Pasona, a career placement company with a dedication to inclusion. Here, we learned why securing jobs for all, especially for those with disabilities, is a priority and how it impacts their overall society.
One of the truly unique opportunities that the Kakehashi Project afforded us was the ability to meet with various government officials. On our first day, we met with representatives from the Japan-Middle East Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We were briefed on Japan’s role in the peace process, and the projects they are supporting in different regions to help further advance peace. Only one day after Women’s International Day, we were invited to the home of Yaffa Ben-Ari, the Israeli ambassador to Japan. She shared with us her personal story of becoming the Israeli ambassador and why Israel-Japan relations are important on the global stage. Kentaro Sanoura, special advisor to the prime minister, took time to meet with us on our last day in Japan. He shared his thoughts on how the relationship between the U.S. and Japan are stronger than ever, and welcomed our questions and thoughts on Japan.
What made this trip so special was the ability to view Japan through a Jewish lens. We celebrated Shabbat at the Jewish Community of Japan, a non-denominational synagogue located in the heart of Tokyo. Even half way around the world, the familiar sounds and songs of Shabbat made us feel right at home. Together we sang Eliyahu HaNavi as Havdallah approached, and engaged in conversation as to what the trip meant to us as young leaders of B’nai B’rith. Throughout the trip, we made many parallels of our own traditions and to those of the Japanese people.
This once in a lifetime opportunity left a lasting impression on me, and my perspectives of Japan. The word “kakehashi” translates to “bridge” in Japanese, but a special type of bridge that connects two important and honored places. I could not think of a more fitting title to name this journey. Words alone could not encompass how thankful I am to the B’nai B’rith Young Leadership Network and the Kakehashi Project for this experience. I can’t wait to continue to building strong relations between the U.S. and Japan by sharing my experiences with others.
Laura Hemlock is a native New Yorker and currently works for UJA-Federation of New York as a Senior Donor Center Specialist. She holds a Masters degree in Education and a Bachelors in theatre, both obtained from the University at Buffalo. Passionate about all things Jewish and community, Laura is excited to be involved with B'nai B'rith Young Leadership Network. Laura also sits on the Meyerson JCC Manhattan's 20s&30s board.
“The systematic campaign of abuse against Churches and Christians reaches now its peak as a discriminatory and racist bill that targets solely the properties of the Christian community in the Holy Land is being promoted…This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe…”
The above quote from a harshly worded statement — suggesting that Israel has instituted abusive measures against churches and Christians in Israel reminiscent of Nazi-era anti-Jewish laws — was issued late last month by heads of the three principal historic churches in Jerusalem — Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian — that claim to be the legitimate caretakers of Jerusalem’s Old City Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Christianity’s holiest site).
It came after two unrelated steps were taken simultaneously by the Jerusalem municipality and by Knesset member Rachel Azaria (from the coalition member Kulanu party) to start collecting property tax on church-owned properties and to allow the government to exercise its right of eminent domain on some real estate properties sold by the Church to private investors. The statement went on to accuse Israel of “intimidating Christians and discriminating against churches in the Holy Land…critically undermine[ing] the ability of the churches to carry out their pastoral mission.”
To ensure that their infuriation at what they described was “actions [that] contravene the long-held Status Quo which is foundational to the guarantee of the churches’ rights and privileges in the Holy Land” was not ignored, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, the Catholic Custos of the Holy Land Francesco Patton and Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manougian blocked all entry to the Holy Sepulcher on Feb. 25 — an unprecedented step in modern history. Israeli government officials dealing with the churches on a daily basis were outraged at the curtailing of access to the holy site during Lent, preventing thousands of foreign Christian pilgrims from exercising the rights of religious freedom and free access on which Israel prides itself.
The crisis that threatened to wreck relations between Israel and the historic churches and beyond was averted three days later when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intervened. Netanyahu announced the formation of an interministerial team led by the minister of Justice to formulate a solution to the land question and another, led by Minister of Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi with representatives of the Ministries of Finance, Foreign Affairs, Interior and the Jerusalem Municipality to formulate a solution to the municipal taxes issue. The taxation and legislation were suspended while the teams deliberate; the church leaders publicly thanked the prime minister for his intervention and reopened the Church.
But the hesitation by the Israeli government in confronting the looming conflict with the churches allowed Hamas and pro-Palestinian Christians within the churches to cynically use the crisis to call for an Intifada, claiming that just as Israel allegedly attempted to take over Temple Mount and eradicate Muslims, the Jewish state now seeks to expel Christians, adding that Zionist Jews are waging war against anyone who is not Jewish.
As explained by experts in Church-Israel relations, the crisis provided ample opportunity for publicity and political wrangling in an emotionally-charged atmosphere as pro-Palestinian element in the churches seek to wrestle control of these strategically-positioned institutions and use them to open another front against the State of Israel.
Examining more closely the measure implemented by outgoing Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, the Jerusalem Municipality was fully within its mandate to apply municipal taxes to Church-owned properties that are not actual houses of worship (which are completely exempt while hospitals, orphanages and other charities are assessed a nominal fee). Rather, Barkat sought to augment the city’s income by assessing municipal taxes to the many stores, commercial zones, hotels and other business properties owned by the churches. Acting on a legal opinion that found that the municipality had no authority to exempt commercial church-owned property from municipal taxes despite the practice of doing so, dating back at least to the Ottoman period, Barkat estimated the debt rung up by the churches over time at $200 million.
Barkat — who just announced that he will not run for reelection after serving ten years as mayor but will rather seek Knesset membership on the Likud list — has invested considerably in building and maintaining cordial relations with more than 15 diverse Christian communities active in the city. Some commentators described his decision to tax the Churches now as “nothing more than a badly-timed publicity stunt” aimed at squeezing the government to allocate additional funds to the city coffers that are overextended because two large segments of the population (the ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs) contribute proportionally less to the budget than the general population.
The other measure that raised the ire of the churches — Azaria’s private draft legislation — would have, in principal, annulled any sale by the churches of real estate leased decades ago to the Jewish National Fund and on which residential buildings had been built, giving Israel an option to purchase the property instead and thereby preserving the investments of some 8,000 residents in some of western (Jewish) Jerusalem’s iconic neighborhoods such as Rehavia and Talbiyeh.
Although the proposal was in the very first stages of the legislative process and the churches had received assurances from government representatives that it would not allow it pass into law, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch launched an international campaign of meetings with international figures — including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pope Francis — in which he accused Israel of persecuting Christians.
Analysts believe that Theophilos launched this campaign in an effort to fend off allegations that he, like his predecessor Irenaios I, was party to divesting church properties to “Zionists” (Irenaios was unseated in 2005 after he was accused of selling strategic church property to Israeli developers). Still, accusing Israel of “racism” against the Church and utilizing the doomsday countermeasure of closing the Church of the Holy Sepulcher over an economic dispute with Israel — and not in response to more immediate threats against Christian communities in the Palestinian Authority and the Muslim world – seemed cynical to many observers.
Be that as it may, this public friction with the historic churches in Jerusalem comes at an inopportune time. For one, tourism — including Christian pilgrimage that accounts for over half of foreign visitors to Israel — is at an all-time high, but could flounder if Israel is perceived as being hostile toward Christians, hurting Jerusalem’s income as a result. Furthermore, as Christianity is now widely recognized as the most persecuted religion in the world at the hand of Muslim extremists, Israel would be wise not to allow itself to be boxed into that same corner.
Israeli authorities should take the breathing space provided by the current hiatus to establish a formal policy on state-Church relations, taking into consideration the fact that these are not local issues to be determined by the whims of mayors or private MK bills, but matters that affect the image of Israel, particularly among Christianity’s 2.2 billion adherents. At the same time, Israeli officials should not hesitate to respond stridently when Church leaders stoop to incitement and even to groundless Holocaust allusions. If not, the next crisis could be looming close by.
Alan Schneider is the director of B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem, which serves as the hub of B'nai B'rith International activities in Israel. The World Center is the key link between Israel and B'nai B'rith members and supporters around the world. To view some of his additional content, Click Here.
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