This year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) General Debate, like so many parts of life in 2020, was completely different this year. The General Debate, though it is dominated by long and dry speeches by world leaders, has always led to some noteworthy moments and drama. This year, the debate was mostly virtual, and it lacked notable breakout moments in the video messages, even from the speakers who are known to be more bombastic.
For B’nai B’rith, the General Debate period focused on the opportunity to meet with world leaders and discuss issues of primary concern to both our organization and the wider Jewish community. As such, for many years, we have served as the coordinator of a group of major American and international Jewish organizations that seek meetings during this one week in September, in addition to other requests that we send out on our own.
When we began to discuss the UNGA internally in late spring it was somewhat unclear as to how to move forward. New York had suffered a catastrophic spring and it was apparent that our normal in-person meetings would not happen. And, of course, the coronavirus was still the only thing that many of us (world leaders included) could think about at the time. Would countries be too focused on combating the virus to participate in our normal discussions? B’nai B’rith has contributed to coronavirus relief efforts around the world, but our disaster relief is not typically a major focus during UNGA meetings, which tend to revolve around issues of anti-Semitism, Iran and Middle East issues.
As the summer came, though, political issues were still very much relevant, as there was much discussion about Israeli plans to extend sovereignty in areas of the West Bank, a landmark peace agreement between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and the U.N. Security Council’s failure to extend an arms embargo against Iran, the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism. Certainly, anti-Semitism has been a grave concern pre-COVID, but has spiked around the world in connection to the pandemic.
With that in mind, B’nai B’rith requested meetings, making it clear that these would be virtual meetings only. Just as we were unsure about what UNGA would like, so were our diplomatic partners in U.N. missions, New York consulates and embassies in Washington, D.C. Some were unsure if there would even be bilateral meetings surrounding the UNGA, virtual or not. Eventually, though, many countries engaged diplomatically on the sidelines of the UNGA, not wanting to miss an opportunity for dialogue on substantive issues.
Overall, the experience was a mixed bag. We met with fewer leaders than we normally would have and could not meet with some world leaders with whom we usually meet.
But, we were also able to stretch the horizon of these meetings out — from early September throughout October (and possibly beyond) — which allowed us to meet with some leaders that we might not have during a normal UGNA.
We are, as always, grateful to the world the world leaders who gave their time to engage with us on important issues in the global Jewish community during a difficult year. We also want to thank the diplomatic missions that helped us to pull off these meetings. We hope, though, that this will be the only UNGA that we have to experience virtually
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.
We learn in the teaching of Rabbi Shimon in Pirkei Abot, Ethics of the Fathers that “There are three crowns – the crown of the Torah, the crown of the priesthood and the crown of kingship, but the crown of a good name surpasses them all.”
B’nai B’rith helps the world remember names every year as we observe Yom Hashoah. We bring the program “Unto Every Person There is a Name” to communities. The namesake poem by Zelda, begins with these words. “Unto every person there is a name bestowed on him by God and given to him by his parents.” This program demands that, when we speak about the Holocaust and the loss of “six million Jews,” we see each victim as more than a number. They had jobs and families. They had names that identified them. We remember them by reading the names of the victims aloud. These names have been collected and maintained as a memorial to them in the archives at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, in Jerusalem. There is a continuing search to collect the names via the Pages of Testimony campaign.
Every year on Sept. 11th, the names of the nearly 3,000 victims of the attack on the World Trade Center are read aloud. Since the pandemic began in March, the media and some of the governors around the country are taking the time to remember by name a sampling of those who have died during this pandemic. The purpose, we know, is to ensure we do not forget that these were individuals with families, that they were loved and not just part of a sum we recall when we reference these events.
Parents spend a great deal of time choosing a name for a new baby. It will be the main source of their child’s identity. My family’s tradition was to choose a name that honored a deceased family member. The Sephardic community uses a name to honor a beloved living person.
What is your Hebrew name? It’s an interesting question to ask someone if you want to know more about their family’s tradition and someone special in their family.
I remember feeling that there was a good deal to consider when I had the chance to select a first name for my children. Everyone around me had a recommendation or opinion to share. One suggested saying a first name and your last name together out loud to see how it’d sound when it is being yelled in a public space. Another said to think about how a more creative name could be used by other children when teasing your child. Some cautioned not to pick something so common, for there could be two or three of the same name in a single school class.. I decided to use a “y” in my children’s name, not necessarily thinking about how it would need custom personalization and would never be found when looking at gift or tourist shop trinkets.
Political opponents have recently been heard mocking the pronunciation of a candidate’s name. Is it racist or childish? It’s both. It’s not appropriate behavior for anyone, let alone an adult.
I chose a name for my daughter that is now being used as a way to call out horrible behavior by horrible women. To be called “a Karen” is extremely insulting. It implies a woman is rude and intolerant of those around her. Even though I named my daughter “Caryn” with a “c,” the principle remains: I do not want my daughter’s name to be associated with such horrible things.
I recently read a book by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. entitled, “Finding Oprah’s Roots Finding Your Own,” which offered meaningful insight into the African American experience in the search for their ancestry. While other ethnic groups have a name to search official records, this community has been denied that identity because slaves were denied names. Any record of their existence was as property, listed by age and gender under their owner’s name. First names were what they may have called themselves, but there was no written acknowledgement of their existence by name in what could be available as research documents.
Gates goes into detail about the choice of surname when they were freed, stressing the difficulty they experience when they want to find out about their ancestry through typical genealogical research. Gates shares that it was not until the U.S. census of 1870, which was the first census that African Americans were listed with two names, first and last.
I have been fortunate to have found a wonderful husband with a terrific last name. I have the honor of my first name used in a popular song, thank you, Beach Boys. This has also gotten me to think about a song called the “Name Game,” by Shirley Ellis, a song that celebrated rhyming words with a first name.
What’s in a name? Plenty.
Rhonda Love is the Vice President of Programming for B'nai B'rith International. She is Director of the Center of Community Action and Center of Jewish Identity. She served as the Program Director of the former District One of B'nai B'rith. In 2002 she received recognition by B'nai B'rith with the Julius Bisno Professional Excellence Award. Rhonda has served on the B'nai B'rith International staff for 41 years. To view some of her additional content, click here.
One of the pillars of B’nai B’rith International is our Center for Senior Services (CSS), which focuses on issues that impact older Americans. Throughout my time working at CSS, I have written about a variety of traditional topics that touch the lives of seniors like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. However, I want to take this opportunity to address an issue that is probably not at the forefront of people’s minds: older Americans who are incarcerated.
According to the National Corrections Reporting Program, in 2016, people 55 and older accounted for about 150,000 inmates in state correctional facilities. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBP) indicates there are currently over 18,000 inmates 56 and over in federal prisons. Clearly, there is a sizable population of older Americans incarcerated. Are correctional facilities able to meet the needs of seniors?
Throughout the country, there is a movement to provide distinct resources to older incarcerated Americans. The federal government opened a Memory Disorder Unit in Massachusetts for inmates with dementia, the first of its kind. The facility mimics a nursing home model that tries to meet the unique, specific needs of people with dementia. Also, this type of correctional facility is needed because staff at traditional prisons can’t meet the needs of dementia patients. These prisoners often fall prey to other inmates.
It’s not just outfitting prisons for older Americans; advocates argue criminal justice reform should include expanding “compassionate release.” Compassionate release allows elderly or infirmed inmates to be released early from prison because it would be unjust to keep them incarcerated and they don’t pose a danger to society.
According to the Marshall Project and the New York Times, between 2013 and 2017, FBP only approved 6% of the 5,400 compassionate release applications they received. Case files demonstrate that applications usually get rejected because the inmate is a danger to society or because of the severity of the crime they committed.
However, many criminal justice reform advocates argue that compassionate release has been too strictly applied. In December 2018, with bipartisan support, the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act (FIRST Step Act) became law and was designed to make it easier to apply for compassionate release.
Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified calls for compassionate release. For example, according to the FBP, during April, 268 inmates were granted compassionate release, a significantly higher percentage than the 144 inmates who were granted release from December 2018 (when the FIRST Step was signed into law) to March 2020. Furthermore, Senators Dick Durbin, D-Ill. and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced the COVID-19 Safer Detention Act in June, which expanded the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program that moves elderly inmates from prison to home confinement. Durbin said, “My legislation with Senator Grassley would help ensure that the most vulnerable prisoners are quickly released or transferred to home confinement for the remainder of their sentence – just as the First Step Act intended. This is especially critical during the COVID-19 pandemic to protect against the spread of this deadly virus.”
Our country’s judicial branch of government is also confronting the aging prison population. In Alabama, Vernon Madison was sentenced to death for killing a police officer. Madison developed dementia in his 60s after he had multiple strokes in prison. His attorneys argued that capital punishment violated the Cruel and Unusual Punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment because Madison could not recall why he was convicted as a result of his dementia.
The Supreme Court found that Madison was legally required to receive an evaluation of whether dementia and other mental conditions barred him from the death penalty.
“Given this trend, we may face ever more instances of state efforts to execute prisoners suffering the diseases and infirmities of old age,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in an earlier appeal. Madison passed away before the case was resolved.
Professor Marc Stern from the University of Washington, a prison health care consultant, said, “It would be nearsighted for any state or county not to be planning for an aging prison population.”
All inmates deserve a basic level of care in prison and older Americans who are incarcerated are no exception. We should provide better, specialized care for seniors who are incarcerated. Introducing additional medical services will only apply a band-aid to what will be a consistent challenge as inmates continue to age. We should consider methods to reduce the overall number of older inmates in our prisons, given the care they often require.
With recidivism rates for seniors being significantly lower than for younger people, maybe it’s time we start asking whether there is value in keeping seniors who are nonviolent offenders in prison; they are often are more costly to incarcerate.
One thing is for sure: Our country’s prisons are graying, and we need to be better prepared.
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Legislative 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.
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