The upcoming European Parliament elections will be crucial.
Amidst the chaos and confusion of Brexit, the established political parties, such as the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D), are predicted to lose a significant amount of seats and, with them, their combined majority in Parliament.
Years after the so--called migration crisis, the established parties have still not found an answer to rising far-right, populist and anti-European movements that have significantly grown among almost all EU member states, taking the lead in polls in at least three: Italy, Poland and France.
This trend will have significant impact on the new European Parliament, which is being elected from May 23rd to May 26th across Europe and will have its constituent session in July of this year.
In addition to S&D and EPP losing their combined majority, far-right and nationalistic groups are predicted to double their seats yet again. It was just announced that some of these groups are planning to form a new coalition with parties ranging from the German Alternative for Germany to the Danish People’s Party to the Italian 5 Star Movement that will significantly increase their influence in the EU Parliament.
To make matters worse, the biggest group, EPP, is shrinking further, having just suspended Victor Orban’s Hungarian Fidesz party due to its anti-European and anti-Semitic campaigns, which might also put into jeopardy the nomination of Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber as new commission president.
With the election campaigns just starting, politicians from centrist parties are calling for a doomsday vote, hysterically reiterating the importance of this vote as the year of destiny that will make or break the European Union. But one cannot ignore the strange feeling of having seen and heard all of this before:
The slogans and warnings were the same in 2014 during the last elections, when the campaign promises from the various parties were almost identical to the current ones.
The only thing that seems to have changed, besides the increased urgency of the surge in right-wing populist movements, is the fact that the political groups in the EU Parliament spent yet another five years unable or unwilling to address the urgent issues and present a proper alternative to rising populism, nationalism and, with it, also the terrifying rise of anti-Semitism across Europe.
It might look as if the EU has done quite a lot in the time between the 2014 elections and today, including creating the position of a special coordinator on combatting anti-Semitism, implementing a code of conduct with IT companies to tackle hate speech and anti-Semitism online, adopting an EU Parliament Anti-Semitism Resolution in 2017 and Council Declaration in 2018 and making combatting anti-Semitism a priority in the last two EU Council presidencies of Austria and Romania.
But despite all of these efforts, the phenomenon of anti-Semitism has nevertheless escalated across Europe. The 2018 EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency Report on Anti-Semitism is the undeniable proof for this devastating failure.
The fear is that this further shift to the right after the elections will also significantly threaten the already too-little and too-ineffective efforts against anti-Semitism on the EU level and in its member states.
The political power shift will have direct implications for the European Parliament committee chairs and the Parliament president and vice-presidents as well as the nomination and confirmation of EU commissioners.
Imagine what will happen if the relevant European Parliament committee for fundamental rights and combatting anti-Semitism, the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home affairs committee (LIBE), is chaired by a far-right nationalist member of parliament. Imagine having a xenophobic, populist justice commissioner a few months from now.
This is not doom-mongering, but is unfortunately a possible scenario that already exists in EU member states such as Austria, where all ministries relevant to Jewish issues are in the hands of the populist far-right FPÖ, a party with which the Israelite Community of Vienna rightfully refuses to engage.
And to complicate matters even further, the European heads of state have just decided in a special council meeting in Brussels that the U.K. will get yet another extension until Oct. 31, 2019, to sort out the messy Brexit negotiation gridlock, including full membership rights and obligations that will make them participate in the EU elections as well as negotiations for the upcoming EU budget and composition of the new EU commission should they be unable to leave beforehand by agreeing to the existing deal.
There is still so much to do to even slow down the ugly resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. The last thing anyone needs is yet another deterioration of the political status quo in the EU that will make the fight against anti-Semitism even more difficult and might lock down the EU institutions altogether, thereby making them unable to protect what they were established to do: protecting and promoting the European values of fundamental rights for each and every one of its citizens.
Benjamin Nägele was named director of E.U. affairs for B’nai B’rith International in 2015. In this capacity he focuses on promoting EU-Israel relations and advocates for Jewish causes at the European institutions in Brussels. He previously worked as an EU affairs officer for B’nai B’rith International and as a policy advisor at the European Parliament. Click here to read more of his work.
Manuscripts, diaries, Torah binders, menorahs, amulets, coins, notary stamps, wedding dresses, Yiddish theater playbills: all of these and much more, from nearly every country and every century, are defined as “Judaica.” Many of these works will always be mysterious; it will always be impossible to know who made and owned them, or their country of origin, since Jewish craftsmen were itinerant and largely self-taught. Making things more complex, non-Jews would sometimes create Jewish works. Yet collectors and scholars appreciate Judaica’s diversity and cherish it as a connection to the past. Found in homes, synagogues and temples, objects that were part of Jewish life for thousands of years are still relevant today.
Housed at Cincinnati’s Skirball Museum, the B’nai B’rith Klutznick Collection contains some fascinating examples of Passover Judaica from all over the world. Some tell us a lot. Stamps punched into the back of a Passover plate made in the city of Arboga, Sweden, in 1779 reveal the initials of its maker, pewter smith Baltazar Rokus. A second set of initials may be those of the engraver—perhaps there was more than one—and/or the owner. Bold Hebrew calligraphy engraved on the plate’s lip references the order of the Seder, while a Paschal lamb—an ancient sacrifice—prances between two spring blossoms on top of the banderole.
The illustration on the early 20th-century Cup of Elijah was etched in the crystal by an anonymous but skilled artisan from Bohemia, renowned for glass-making. Here, the prophet blows his shofar for the Messiah, who rides a donkey. Similar images are found in 17th-century Italian Haggadahs, while its biblical source is from the book of Zechariah: “Rejoice Daughter of Zion! See your king comes to you…triumphant and victorious, lowly, riding on an ass.” Glimpsed at right is Jerusalem, whose high castle turrets come straight out of medieval Jewish and Christian illuminated manuscripts.
A Seder set inspired by…Japan? Completed in 1969, this silver Seder “compendium” does double duty as sculpture and ritual artifact. Clean geometric shapes of the bowls for the ritual foods are offset by their undulating stems, including one decorated with a gingko leaf addition, that reference 19th-century Japanese art. Mr. Fishman, a Guggenheim-winning fellowship winner on the faculty at Brown University since 1965, is known for his three-dimensional works in a wide-ranging variety of media, which have been exhibited worldwide.
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.
Until she was 28, Kasia Jachnicka thought she was Catholic. Like the majority of Polish citizenry, her family celebrated Christmas and Easter. Then one day, Jachnicka’s mother, after years of internal struggle, ultimately revealed a new truth: her family is Jewish.
In the beginning, Jachnicka felt there were a lot of questions and very few answers. “What does it really mean? What should I do? I felt sorry for the fact that my mom saw her roots as a dangerous burden, a flaw that she passed to her children.” Surprised and fascinated, Jachnicka began a journey of tracing her roots and rediscovering her identity. Unlike the generations before her who, either by choice or by circumstance, hid their Jewish roots—first during the Holocaust and then under communism—Jachnicka could embrace her newfound heritage.
“After all these years, embracing my Jewish heritage was like coming back home. Finding a missing element of the whole picture,” Jachnicka reflected after more than a decade of research and learning. She is now deeply involved in Warsaw’s Jewish Community Center (JCC), where she has met others on the same journey.
I had the distinct pleasure of learning Jachnicka’s story—a familiar one in today’s Poland—on a weeklong study tour of Jewish Poland. The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has conducted a series of study tours for select American Jewish professionals and lay leaders to experience Jewish Poland firsthand. At the invitation of the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Washington, D.C., I had the honor to travel with the most recent study tour—the third of its kind—on behalf of B’nai B’rith International.
Our delegation of seven diverse Jewish professionals and lay leaders traveled between Warsaw, Lublin and Krakow for an intimate look at Jewish Poland through the juxtaposition of death and rebirth. The study tour featured visits to a variety of sites relevant to the historical presence of Jews in Poland and the Holocaust, including a visit to the esteemed POLIN Museum, the Jewish Historical Institute and Emanual Ringelblum Archives, the Okopowa Jewish cemetery, the Katyń Museum, the Museum of Yeshiva Chachmei, the Majdanek concentration camp and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps.
In contrast to the dark and difficult history explored at those sites, meetings were also held with leaders of local communities breathing life into today’s Jewish Poland. We met with communal leadership, including those from the Mi Polin project, the Taube Center, the Nożyk Synagogue, AJC Central Europe and B’nai B’rith Poland. Over a festive Shabbat dinner, our group was hosted by Agata Rakowiecka, executive director of the JCC Warsaw, for a look at how her community is reasserting its identity and revitalizing Jewish life in Warsaw through weekly Shabbat programs, holiday celebrations, lectures, educational opportunities and more. Like Jachnicka, Rakowiecka is another member of the community emblematic of the newest generation of Polish Jews rediscovering their roots.
One thousand years of history and Jewish contribution to Polish society were nearly extinguished over 70 years ago. Alongside Jachnicka and Rakowiecka, among those who should be credited for Jewish revival in Poland are the non-Jewish Poles at the fore of preserving this memory and carrying it forward. Our group was briefed by a multitude of civil society organizations (CSOs) dedicated to exactly that. We met with leaders like Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka, president of the Jan Karski Educational Foundation and former consul general of the Republic of Poland in New York, and Marta Usiekniewicz, communications coordinator for the Forum for Dialogue. Both organizations provide essential educational resources, trainings and programs across Poland and are staffed primarily or entirely by non-Jews.
Another important CSO, the "Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre" Centre, is a municipal cultural institution based in Lublin. In a visit with Deputy Director Witold Dąbrowski, we learned the Centre draws on the symbolic and historical significance of its residence, the Grodzka Gate, which had previously been used as a passage between the Christian and Jewish parts of the city. Beyond the gate today extends the empty space of the destroyed Jewish district. Through several unique exhibitions, educational and artistic initiatives, the Centre is dedicated to preserving the memory of the former Jewish quarter of Lublin. Dąbrowski and Junczyk-Ziomecka are two of thousands of non-Jewish Poles embracing roles as custodians of Jewish memory.
At the same time, today we are witness to a resurgence of anti-Semitism throughout Europe and around the globe. Weighing heavily on my mind heading into this trip was the dramatic increase in anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial that has appeared in some sectors of Polish society in recent years. Just last year, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party silenced criticism of Polish complicity in the Holocaust by pushing a bill that criminalized the attribution of blame to Poland for any crimes committed during that period. The Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, or IPN law, popularly known as the Holocaust bill, was viewed widely as an attempt to regain control of a revisionist historical narrative that cast Poles as blameless victims. The law has since been watered down after facing severe international backlash, but there has yet to be significant movement on Poland’s part to have an open and honest discussion regarding the country’s wartime history.
Hosted for a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with Ambassador for Jewish Diaspora Affairs Jacek Chodorowicz, our group raised these concerns and advocated for mandated standards on Holocaust education, the adoption of the widely-accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, and a systematic and government-wide inquiry into the full history of the period of the Holocaust. While the sensitivity that Poles have around the issue of the Holocaust is understandable, not enough is being done at the highest levels to address the history of anti-Semitism that preceded the Holocaust and continues to this day.
A highlight of our delegation’s visit was a meeting with Commissioner for Human Rights Adam Bodnar, and Mr. Marcin Sośniak, head of the Migrants and National Minorities’ Rights Department, on combating anti-Semitism in Poland. The Commissioner is the independent constitutional authority charged with safeguarding the equal treatment of all persons. Bodnar and his team have taken an important and vocal stance as defenders of minority rights, even in the face of PiS-adopted legislation diminishing human rights protections and a prosecutor’s office which has been known, in Bodnar’s experience, to turn a blind eye to recommendations for legal proceedings against documented cases of anti-Semitism. The political reality leaves the Polish Jewish community acutely aware of their oft-perilous minority status. Bodnar is a critical voice in opposition to the ruling party, and this meeting offered a slightly more well-rounded picture of the political climate on the ground.
Without a doubt, Poland has much to celebrate. It has one of the fastest-growing Jewish communities in the world, and there are many within Polish society and government who are fighting tirelessly to combat the ills of anti-Semitism, revive Jewish life and preserve Jewish memory. While Poland’s broader relationship with the Jewish people remains complicated, projects like these study tours are an important tool to bridge the divide. Cultivating a space that is open to the tough and earnest dialogue necessary to carry relations forward is challenging but invaluable. I am most grateful to our hosts for this compelling look at Polish-Jewish relations.
Sienna Girgenti is the Program Director for Strategic Engagement at B'nai B'rith International. She joined the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy in 2013. To view some of her additional content, click here.
Anyone driving near Jerusalem’s government district cannot miss it. On a triangle-shaped lot bordering the Knesset, the Israel Museum and government ministries (did anyone say “location, location, location”?), a magnificent addition to the capital city’s landscape is taking shaper under a jumble of cranes, earthmovers and other heavy machinery: The National Library of Israel building.
In the scintillating promotional material posted on the library’s web site, the futuristic design is described as follows: The building’s curved, elevated and cantilevered form necessitates a contemporary take on the cut Jerusalem limestone found throughout the rest of the city …Openings and carvings, whose shapes are derived from a projection of erosions on ancient stone walls, are designed to minimize solar heat gain on the windows behind. The pattern is reminiscent of culturally specific imagery and text but remains abstract in origin. The mineral surface continues to the vitrine legs below…Uncommon in contemporary Jerusalem, the wood brings a human scale and detail to the pedestrian experience while linking the building to timber traditions important to the local vernacular from ancient to early modern times…Our design responds to the context and reflects the ambitions of the National Library of Israel. It is open and transparent but grounded in the traditions of great libraries and the city itself. As in the past, books will remain at the center…”
The National Library’s new building – which, like the Knesset and other monumental projects in Israel, is being funded by the Rothschild Foundation – is ambitiously slated to open in 2020.
But this institution has its foundation 108 years earlier in a historic decision by members of the B’nai B’rith Jerusalem Lodge to establish a library in Jerusalem that would be the home to the huge fountain of Jewish wisdom contained in its great written tomes. Led by visionary and pragmatic figures like David Yellin, Zeev Hertzberg, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, Yosef Meyuchas and Yehiel Michel Pines – all leaders of the “New Yishuv” - who were inspired by the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the Jerusalem Lodge (est. 1888) succeeded where two earlier attempts had failed to establish a sustainable library in the cradle of Jewish renaissance then stirring in the Land of Israel – Jerusalem – after libraries had been established by B’nai B’rith lodges in Jaffa and Tzfat (both chartered by the Jerusalem Lodge). Founded to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the New World and the Spanish Inquisition, the library in Jerusalem was named for the great Jewish statesman and scholar Don Isaac Abravanel, who led the convoy of denuded Jews out of the Spanish kingdom. It opened with 947 books donated by lodge members and other Jewish residents of Jerusalem. Two years later, 2,000 books from a defunct library established earlier by Eliezer Ben Yehuda – the father of modern Hebrew – were gifted to the B’nai B’rith Library, and in 1895, Dr. Josef Chasanowich augmented the collection with his private corpus of 10,000 Jewish books, sending them from Bialystok to Jerusalem. The library was officially renamed “Midrash Abravanel ve’Ginzei Yosef” (Abravanel Seminary and Yosef Archives”). In 1899, Theodor Herzl, in the name of the Zionist Congress, sent Chasanowich a congratulatory letter and a donation towards the library, to which Chasanowich remained committed. By 1886, the rented quarters had become cramped and the lodge began to plan a purpose-built facility which opened in 1902 to great fanfare. The building, which sits on B’nai B’rith Street in the center of the historic district surrounding Prophets Street, is still owned by the Jerusalem Lodge. In 1920, the collection was transferred to the World Zionist Organization and subsequently (in 1925) to the Hebrew University, at which time it took on the name Israel National and University Library. The next year, it opened in its new venue as the Israel National Library.
Leading historians have long recognized the role of the B’nai B’rith Library in the development of Jewish culture and education in Jerusalem and as the foundation of the National Library. Writing in The Book of Jerusalem, Yosef Salmon writes “…the ‘B’nai B’rith’ library…served at the time also as a community center for the New Yishuv in Jerusalem and eventually became the National Library…”. Dov Sidorsky, writing in Libraries and Books in Eretz Israel at the Close of the Ottoman Period, notes “The ambition to establish ‘the treasury of Jewish books’ in the city, which is a center for Judaism, indicates the primary purpose of the library and was a guiding light of the board of the B’nai B’rith library…” Writing in “New Jerusalem at its Beginning”, Yehoshua Ben-Arie writes, “Behind the idea of combining the two libraries in Jerusalem and the addition of Sirkin’s books to the ‘B’nai B’rith’ library in Jerusalem stood Zionist ideology about creating a national library in Eretz Israel.” Finally, writing in “Prophets Street, Ethiopia Neighborhood and Musrara Neighborhood”, David Koryanker writes “In 1892…the third attempt [to establish a library] … was crowned with success at the initiative of B’nai B’rith …The establishment of the library – the nucleus of the National University Library – was the fruit of a determined decision by Jerusalem intellectuals and Hovevei Zion in the Diaspora, who believed that a library is one of the important symbols of national renaissance…’”
The significant contribution made by the B’nai B’rith Jerusalem Lodge and subsequent B’nai B’rith lodges established in Jaffa, Zichron Yaacov, Tiberias and elsewhere at the end of the 19th century, to the Jewish renaissance in Eretz Israel, even before the establishment of the Zionist Movement, is indeed well-documented. These contributions include the establishment of the first Jewish settlement in the Jerusalem area (Motsa), the first Hebrew-speaking kindergartens and adult education in Jerusalem, hospitals and civic institutions. They also made clandestine missions to Jewish communities throughout the Levant with the purpose of drawing them into the modern era and harnessing their support for Jewish renaissance in Eretz Israel and fought the discriminatory decrees of the Ottoman authorities against Jewish immigration and property ownership. Many of their initiatives were designed to counter the Christian mission to the Jews, very active at that time. They laid the veritable building blocks upon which the “state in the making’ was founded at a time when Jerusalem’s Jewish population stood at a mere 15,000.
Together with Jerusalem Lodge President Zvi Rotenberg, and with the support of B’nai B’rith President Charles Kaufman, we are currently engaged in an effort to ensure that B’nai B’rith’s critical role in the founding of the National Library will be recognized in the permanent exhibit that will be a major feature of the new building, and we are seeking other opportunities to bring this proud history to the fore. As President Kaufman concluded in his letter to Library chairman David Blumberg: “This important legacy is too precious for us to ignore and I am sure that you too wish to strive for historical accuracy and recognition for the accomplishments of those who came before us.”
Ma’ase Avot Siman L’Banim (The actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children – Rambam).
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.
The dynamics at the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) slowly started changing in a slightly more positive direction at the recently concluded session. It should be clarified at the beginning of this post, though, that the changes are relatively minor in the broad scheme of things, and—at most—merely the beginning of a wholly necessary (and long-overdue) process to transform the council from an anti-Israel forum to a body seriously concerned about universal human rights.
The shift in the council is due in part to more countries that are friendly to Israel joining the UNHRC as members in recent years, including Australia, Togo, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. Australia, it should be pointed out, was the only country to courageously vote against all the anti-Israel resolutions in this session, as they have since they joined the council. The United Kingdom has been threatening for the past few sessions to vote against resolutions falling under Agenda Item 7—the agenda item that singles out Israel for criticism at each council session while all other countries are examined under a different agenda item. This session, the U.K. went through with its threat, followed by another EU member state: Denmark. Denmark’s decision was a bit of a surprise, as the Scandinavian country is not normally seen to be in the staunchly pro-Israel camp within the EU.
The U.K. and Denmark did not vote against a resolution on “ensuring accountability,” only abstaining from the vote when the Palestinians, perhaps sensing that the tide was starting to turn on this particular resolution, moved the resolution to a different agenda item. This resolution endorsed the report of the council’s biased “Commission of Inquiry” into the rioting along the Gaza border last year. The conclusions in the report largely ignored Hamas instrumentalizing the “protests” as a cover for attacks against Israel, despite the fact that Hamas openly bragged that this was exactly what they were doing. The commission also deposited with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) a secret dossier with a list of Israelis that the commission believes could be threatened with prosecution by the International Criminal Court (which also is looking into the justified Israeli response to the violent riots). The resolution passed, but only with 23 votes in favor, meaning that more countries either voted against, abstained or did not vote than voted in favor.
Spain’s vote in favor of this resolution was especially outrageous. It was the only European country to do so. Even Iceland, which I would normally not include in a list of close friends of Israel, criticized the resolution and abstained. On the other hand, Brazil is to be commended for changing its voting pattern under the new administration and voting against both this shameful resolution and an absurd resolution on the Golan Heights.
The voting on the “ensuring accountability” resolution shows the limits of the change at the council, however. The U.K. and Denmark only promised to vote against Item 7 resolutions, and when it was moved to a different item, they abstained (despite the fact that other EU states did vote against it).
Item 7 is perhaps the most glaring example of bigotry in the entire U.N. system, but it is not the only issue. The resolutions, with their instructions to OHCHR to operate against Israel, are a major problem, and merely shifting resolutions to another agenda item means that the UNHRC is still continuing its anti-Israel modus operandi, just under a different guise. If the council were to eliminate Item 7 (which, in and of itself, might be a very difficult task), but keep the overall action the same, the result will not be a greatly improved UNHRC.
Similarly, there were complaints at the council that the number of anti-Israel resolutions was too high and that they need to be streamlined. The excessive number of resolutions and reports on Israel is another glaring deficiency at the council, but simply wrapping all of them into one or two resolutions is not a meaningful change. It’s just a cosmetic change to make it appear that the council is functioning better, when in fact the anti-Semitism at the heart of the matter has not actually changed.
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.
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