Since I started my job at B’nai B’rith International, I have written several blogs being critical of the Trump Administration and Congress’ proposals to cut funding from affordable housing. Over the past twenty months, there have not been many opportunities to applaud our elected representatives in Washington, D.C. for bi-partisan legislation that looks to tackle the severe shortage of reasonably priced homes in this country. Consequently, the recently introduced bipartisan Senate legislation, called the Task Force on the Impact of the Affordable Housing Crisis Act, should be positively recognized. The purpose of this task force is to study how affordable housing financially impacts other government programs (federal, state and local), different facets of people’s lives (i.e. health, nutrition, education, employment, etc.) and make policy recommendations to Congress on how affordable housing can strengthen additional federal programs.
Working at B’nai B’rith offers me the unique opportunity to see how housing is intertwined with other areas of senior’s lives, especially health care. One of the goals of B’nai B’rith is to “age in place” which we accomplish through our sponsored Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Section 202 housing. Older Americans are able to “age in place” because service coordinators connect residents with community based services, which have demonstrated a greater likelihood of retaining residents in their existing buildings and therefore avoiding more pricey institutions like a nursing home.
The benefits of the Section 202 program go to the very heart of what this potential task force is hoping to accomplish, that is, to find ways affordable housing can help other federal programs. For example, the financial cost of three seniors in a Section 202 building with home and community-based services is about the same as one person in a nursing home. Keep in mind that Medicaid is a key subsidizer of nursing homes. According to HUD, 38 percent of Section 202 tenants are frail or near-frail, and consequently need help with daily activities, making them potential candidates for long-term institutional care. Therefore, the more Section 202 buildings that can be developed for frail or near-frail seniors, the less financial resources Medicaid will require for nursing homes.
In addition, bi-partisan policy solutions generally have a better chance of becoming law, especially in the Senate. This legislation was introduced by U.S. Sens. Todd Young (R-Ind.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Angus King (I-Maine), along with cosponsors from both political parties. Furthermore, the people who serve on the Task Force will be appointed by both Democrats and Republicans. These Senators should be commended for taking an important “first step” toward discovering how integral affordable housing is to other federal programs.
Obviously, the introduction of this legislation is a far cry away from being sent to the president’s desk for his signature, and even further away from any policy recommendations from the task force to Congress. However, you have to walk before you can run. Hopefully, this legislation becomes a reality, and the policy proposals are Congress’ full sprint towards creating additional affordable housing in the country.
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.
Most among us are familiar with the adage, “two Jews, three opinions.” The idea squares with the concept of a Jewish intellectual legacy, so called by Rabbi Joshua Waxman, in which we consistently emphasize the value of posing questions, debate and education. But in a time when there are so many internal (and external) threats to Jewish Peoplehood, how do Jewish institutions and leaders begin to harness diversity of opinion as a collective strength? And in this increasingly fractured world, what is our responsibility to foster the safe spaces in which we can begin to challenge the status quo?
Enter the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship (NGF), which has successfully modeled communal leadership development by promoting and empowering the very diversity that is so often shunned as a divisive factor. The fellowship is operated by the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture (MFJC), of which B’nai B’rith International sits on the Board of Trustees. Our organization has been actively involved with the MFJC since its very inception. Two former B’nai B’rith International presidents, Philip M. Klutznick Z"L and Jack J. Spitzer Z"L, went on to serve at the helm of the Memorial Foundation, and our organization currently employs five NGF alumni.
The NGF itself is a pluralistic leadership development program for young Jewish professionals and lay leaders from across the world. The immersive, week-long program convenes expert faculty and eager participants for exploration of Jewish identity and shared learning with a focus on the future of the Jewish people. According to the MFJC, “the initial goal … was to create a space whereby the Fellows could explore their relation to their own Jewish identity and redefine it based on their own particular Jewish journey. It also aimed to help these individuals redefine their roles as young Jewish leaders.” In other words, as later articulated, “the development of the social capital of the Jewish people.”
This August, I had the great privilege of participating in the 3rd cohort of the NGF Network Leadership Seminar prior to and concurrent with the 30th International NGF held in Hanover, Germany. Invited as an alumna of the 28th International NGF that met in Cuernavaca, Mexico in 2016, I arrived in Germany enthusiastic about the opportunity, once again, to plug into that “Jewish intellectual legacy” and recharge.
This year’s fellowship was the first held in Germany. In addition to a packed program on the topic “From Generation to Regeneration — Engaging Memory, Culture and Identity,” participants in this year’s NGF met with German officials and visited the Bergen-Belsen memorial site—both firsts in the program’s history — and visited with the local Jewish community in Hanover, whose partnership was indispensible to the hospitable welcome we felt.
This fellowship’s greatest strength lies in the network's diversity, itself a microcosm of Jewish Peoplehood, and each cohort’s willingness to bond in productive discomfort. In this way the NGF endeavors and so powerfully succeeds in transcending denomination, affiliation and politics. Alongside B’nai B’rith Program Officer for U.N. Affairs Oren Drori and fellows from 17 countries, NGF 30 tackled some of the most pressing questions of our time through a lens reflecting the broad scope and depth of values shared across the Jewish world. The result is an unparalleled enthusiasm for Jewish communal engagement and a generation of future leaders better equipped to face tomorrow’s challenges.
At first take, NGF was an important thought exercise in my personal Jewish journey. But upon reflection of the breadth of my NGF experiences, it has evolved into so much more: a vastly important and growing network of mentors and friends all over the world; deep, meaningful and thoughtful scholarly exchange that seek substance and connection; and a highly successful model for leadership development of Jewish professionals and lay leaders.
I return from Germany as I did Mexico; once again inspired by the quality of the fellows, the passion they hold for their work within Jewish communities around the globe, and the unmatched devotion of MFJC staff, its Board and NGF faculty to foster this critical global network.
Sienna Girgenti is the Assistant Director for the International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy and Director of the Cuban Jewish Relief Project at B'nai B'rith International. To view some of her additional content, click here.
The law recently approved by the Israeli Knesset, reaffirming that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, sparked a heated controversy not only inside Israel but also throughout the world. Some of the things that have been said about this law though, are inaccurate and, therefore, it is necessary to carefully analyze what the law is really about as well as the reasons behind its approval.
First of all, it is important to understand that, unlike the United States, Israel does not have a written Constitution. But it does have a number of “basic” laws, which have been given a “quasi-Constitutional” status over the years. The recently approved Nation-State Law is one of them.
Until this law was enacted, there was no legislation in Israel referring to Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. But what exactly does this means?
Actually, this is nothing but the basic principle of Zionism and the very foundation of the creation of the state of Israel. It means that Israel is the realization of the right of self-determination of the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland. It also means that it is the place that every Jew in the world can call home, and where any Jew can go to in case of persecution.
This concept is also the basis of the almost universally supported two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When the United Nations General Assembly recommended, back in 1947, the partition of Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish, this is exactly what it had in mind. Israel was always meant to be the nation-state of the Jewish people.
So what is it that bothers some about this law? Many believe that the inclusion of the "Jewish" character of the state in a basic law could have a detrimental effect on the rights of Israel’s non-Jewish minorities, particularly the Arab minority, which today constitutes 20 percent of the population. But the truth is that Israel has always defined itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and this has never affected the individual rights of its non-Jewish citizens. This is so because Israel is not only a Jewish state but also a democratic one and, therefore, all Israeli citizens have the same individual rights, regardless of race or religion.
What is also important to understand is that when we refer to Israel as a Jewish state, the word “Jewish” does not refer so much to religion but to a much broader concept: the concept of Jewish “nation.” In this regard, to say that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people is no different than saying that Spain is the nation-state of the Spanish people or France the nation-state of the French. And in fact, unlike many other states, Israel does not have an official religion.
But why is it that the Israelis felt the need to translate this concept into a law? The answer probably lies in the fact that today, more than ever, many Israelis feel that the Jewish identity of the state is under attack. There is a movement, led by the Palestinians but supported by many around the world, which seeks to delegitimize Israel’s existence. They say they are in favor of a two-state solution but categorically refuse to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. In other words, they seek to establish a Palestinian state but want Israel to stop being a Jewish one.
This is so because they promote the so-called "right of return" of the Palestinian refugees to what is now the state of Israel. And by Palestinian refugees they not only mean the surviving refugees of Israel’s 1948 war of independence but also their paternal-line descendants, numbering today more than five million people.
Naturally, the “right of return” is something that no Israeli government would ever accept, as it would mean the end of Israel as a majority Jewish state. The Palestinian refugee problem (a problem that started because the Arab countries decided to fight a war against the newly created state, Israel, with the intention of annihilating it) has to be resolved inside the future Palestinian state, in the same way the problem of the Jewish refugees (who were expelled from the Arab countries where they had lived for generations when Israel was born) was resolved mostly inside Israel. (It is estimated that the original Palestinian refugees were about 700,000 while the Jewish refugees were approximately 800,000).
But the right of return of the Palestinian refugees to Israel is fully supported by the United Nations, as the current debate on UNRWA (the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency) underscored. While UNHCR, the U.N. agency that deals with all the other refugees of the world, strives to reduce the number of refugees by resettling them in the countries that received them (when repatriation is not possible), UNRWA does not try to resettle the Palestinian refugees. It maintains that, until a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is reached, their refugee “status” should not only continue indefinitely but also pass from generation to generation. It is for this reason that today, the children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of the original refugees are still considered “refugees” by UNRWA, and the U.N. continues to promote their return to Israel.
The recent decision of the Trump Administration to stop the funding of UNRWA was, in this regard, a step in the right direction. The "right of return" that this entity promotes (a “right” that has no real basis in international law) constitutes today the single most important obstacle to the achievement of a two-state solution.
But UNRWA is not the only problematic U.N. entity when it comes to this issue. The Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (which was created by the U.N. General Assembly in 1975, together with the infamous resolution that declared that Zionism was equal to racism), and the Division for Palestinian Rights (which was established within the U.N. Secretariat in 1977 to assist the Committee) are two entities that actively promote the right of return while engaging in the most radical anti-Israel propaganda activity throughout the year, in the name of the U.N. The funding for these entities is renewed – year after year – by the U.N. General Assembly and is something that should be disrupted.
All of these clearly explain why so many Israelis felt the need to secure the Jewish character of the state through the enactment of a basic law. It was clearly a reaction to the increasing attempts to transform Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, into another Arab state. It was also a reaction to some of the decisions of the Israeli Supreme Court, which have been perceived by many as not safeguarding the Jewish character of the state.
Many well-intentioned critics though, feel that the law is missing two important words, which, in their view, would not detract from all that is right about it. After a thorough analysis of the text, I agree that perhaps the words democracy and equality should have been mentioned, even when these concepts are already enshrined in Israel’s brilliant declaration of independence and also embodied in other basic laws. Because this is a law that defines Israel’s identity, it might have been advisable to mention not only its Jewish character but also its democratic nature. This would have made the Druze minority, for example, feel less uneasy, and the law would have probably gathered wider support at the Knesset.
Having said that, the international criticism of the law was absolutely out of proportion, as is often the case with every piece of news that involves Israel. Israel has been accused of racism and apartheid, and there were outrageous comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany. All of these characterizations of Israel are nothing but vicious manifestations of anti-Semitism. Israel, with all of its flaws and imperfections, is an extraordinary democracy, the only true democracy in the Middle East, and this will not change with the enactment of this law.
Adriana Camisar is B’nai B’rith International's Special Advisor on Latin American Affairs. A native of Argentina, Camisar is an attorney by training and holds a Master’s degree in international affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.
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