For a student of political science, these are illuminating, if often also unnerving, times.
Many of us had thought that we—perhaps as a species, certainly as a society—were more or less above, and also beyond, upheaval. We were governed by rationality, oriented to stability, predisposed to decency. In 2016, cold war was supposed to be a relic of a different century, holy war even more outdated. In an age of near-instant “fact-checking,” flagrant falsehoods were supposed to be deprived of any traction, and at a time of growing political correctness, demagoguery was supposed to be deemed distasteful, when not laughable.
Wherever one stands on the myriad global and domestic issues of the day, few of us, it is safe to say, are laughing at the moment.
In the year 2016, seven decades after World War II, our high-technology world has watched, with a mixture of wariness and impotence, a five-year-long Syrian civil war that has killed and maimed well over half a million people. As soon as that and nearby conflicts began to propel refugees outward, the European Union—that great exercise in regional collectivism and answer to the continental fissures of the past—began in earnest to crack, and now at least one of its leading members is headed for the door. The 20th century rivalry between East and West has also made a riposte in a territorial standoff on European soil, in Ukraine. And while the world has somehow grown numb to serial decapitations and other barbarisms in the Middle East, Europe has responded with the advancement of multiple rightist and other extreme parties. Much of France’s left, for its part, recently joined in advocating restrictions on Muslim women’s personal right to dress in accordance with their religious convictions.
Meanwhile, 77 years after Hitler was so brazen as to announce that a genocide of Jews would come if the Jews brought it on themselves, and 41 years after the U.N. General Assembly voted to equate Zionism with racism, members of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization have perfected a new perversion by effectively severing Judaism from its holiest of sites in Jerusalem by relabeling them as exclusively Arab and Islamic.
Perhaps not least disturbingly, much of the globe has been experiencing a wave of populism, authoritarianism and questioning of the rule of law. Vitriol or worse has been directed at religious and ethnic communities, civil society and political opposition, especially online, and a general “post-truth,” “fake news” age seems to have dawned. Even in the West, more than merely a coarsening of rhetoric or a lessening of civility, we’ve seen the risk of erosion of democratic norms.
During an American election season when both presidential candidates had children who either are Jewish or have Jewish spouses, Jews in particular have watched social networks overwhelmed by some “alt-right” aggressors posting sentiments like “dirty kike, get back in the oven.” Separately, the platform of a consortium called the Movement for Black Lives—despite the fact that many American Jews, but also Israelis, have been in the forefront of championing civil rights—singled out Israel for depiction as an “apartheid state” that commits “genocide,” and that is thus deserving of divestiture and a cutoff of defense assistance.
These and many other realities underscore the precariousness of social cohesion even in the contemporary period, with all its blessings. Simple parallels to previous eras would advisably be avoided, if only because ours and its conditions may in some ways be unique. But a general sense of malaise and uncertainty—whether founded upon security, economic, cultural or other concerns—can lead to worse, with fringe elements seeming actually invigorated by the prospect of chaos and conflict. At times of apprehension, more citizens are susceptible to shallow solutions—or worse, the politics of divisiveness. (In turn, journalists and politicians tend to romanticize popular passion—just look at conventional wisdom within so many countries’ chattering classes, where the unarticulated view is that the “Arab street” is so angry and formidable, like the Arab bloc at the U.N., its claims against Israel could never possibly be wrong.) This climate is conducive to the deepening of mutual estrangement and an ethos of plain offensiveness for the sake of offensiveness.
Even where we’ve seen one step forward, such a step has often been followed by another back. Jarred by the heightened uproar this year, some governments pledging not to repeat unprincipled voting at UNESCO on resolutions whitewashing Jewish ties to Jerusalem have proceeded to vote “yes” on motions doing the very same thing at other U.N. bodies.
On the eve of his exit from office, after a full decade at the helm, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon finally acknowledged that Palestinian grievances are not the cause of all the Middle East’s wars, that Palestinian terror and incitement continue unabated, and that “bias” is manifest when “[d]ecades of political maneuverings have created a disproportionate volume of resolutions, reports and conferences criticizing Israel.” He added, “rather than helping the Palestinian cause, this reality has hampered the ability of the U.N. to fulfill its role effectively.” But the secretary-general went on to say, beyond recycling the same old shoddy condemnations of Israeli policy, that “another troubling measure of the current state of play is that, during my tenure, the Security Council adopted only two resolutions on the Middle East peace process, the most recent almost eight years ago.”
Sadly, one week later, last Friday, the council took the entirely unhelpful step of adopting a new resolution, which, while calling in general terms for an end to violence and incitement, singled out Israel by name for condemnation over Jewish settlements, even communities in Jerusalem, deemed the primary impediment to peace. (No heed, of course, was paid to the fact that Israel has over the years uprooted entire settlements or frozen their growth—and offered Palestinians statehood and virtually all the territory publicly demanded by their mainstream leaders—only to receive unending terrorism and intransigence in return.) The U.S. abstained on the motion, enabling its passage. American enablement of the council resolution, though widely seen as a swipe at Israel’s prime minister, was ironically perhaps most stinging to the Arab leadership of Egypt, which had taken the political risk of agreeing to shelve the text just one day prior.
While withholding an American veto on this type of resolution is not unprecedented, it is a departure from the common practice over the course of many years, and a breach of the principle that Palestinians can achieve political goals only through direct talks and compromise with Israel, not lobbying the U.N. The day before Jews were feted with greetings of “Happy Chanukah” for the festival recalling the lighting of the menorah on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount—and the day before the birth of a Jew “in Bethlehem of Judea” was celebrated by Pope Francis at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome—the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., in a subtle escalation of a position merely deeming further settlement activity “not legitimate,” made reference to the presence of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria as having “no legal validity.” And, this week, Secretary of State John Kerry followed up with a speech on Middle East peace parameters in which he invoked a view that settlements are “inconsistent with international law.” He also employed, at a time when disputes over territory and demographics elsewhere continue to be wholly ignored by the international community, a straw-man assertion that regular criticism of Israel is often maligned as anti-Semitic.
The content of last Friday’s U.N. resolution is, admittedly, not very novel and, by itself, of limited direct impact on realities in the Middle East. What is significant about the resolution is its timing. Coming as the International Criminal Court (ICC) has been conducting preliminary consideration of Palestinian accusations against Israel, fresh Security Council action could push the ICC to direct a full probe at the Jewish state. At least until a new U.S. administration settles in, Palestinians will surely be emboldened to further pursue a strategy of combativeness and unearned, unilateral recognitions of statehood (notwithstanding the new resolution’s own censure of “all measures aimed at altering the… status of the Palestinian Territory”). And, not least, the resolution’s call for countries “to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967” will be used as fuel by partisan activists agitating for discriminatory boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
Arguably, coalition politics in Israel—the joining of those leaning rightward with those leaning to the left, or the recurrent succession of one by the other—have helped encumber Israeli efforts to advance a clear defense, in historic, security, legal and ethical terms, of the country’s settlement policies. After all, whatever the long-term future may be of any given settlement under a final peace agreement, these are communities in the heart of Jews’ ancestral homeland, with long roots prior to their various forcible displacements. The existence of the settlements has broadly shifted Arab focus from the elimination of Israel entirely to the resolution of a dispute over final borders. The settlements actually comprise a tiny fraction of the landmass of the West Bank, and none remain in Gaza. Their growth mirrors, but pales in comparison to, the continuous increase in size of the Arab population on the Israeli side of the pre-1967 lines. The applicability of particular international conventions regarding the settlement of contested lands is also highly dubious considering that the territory in question, acquired during a defensive campaign, lacked a previous sovereign.
This said, the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War is undoubtedly seen by Palestinians as an occasion to ratchet up a global diplomatic offensive against Israel. Whether the international community fully re-immerses in such combat will depend on an array of factors, from the course taken by new leaders in Washington and at the U.N. to the degree to which other crises, including the carnage in Syria and Iranian nuclear activity, allow focus to shift back to the Palestinian narrative.
More than a dozen years ago, William Kentridge's “9 Drawings for Projection,” a series of highly personal animated films focusing on South African society under apartheid, was screened for audiences in museums around the world. It was then that the artist, working since the 1990s, rose to international fame. Today, he continues to demonstrate his genius through multi-disciplined projects, many of which incorporate music, dance, poetry and drama.
Born in 1955, Kentridge was the son of Johannesburg lawyers who devoted their lives to fighting for the rights of victims brutalized by South Africa’s system of segregation. Later on, Kentridge and his wife, a physician, became activists who placed themselves in great danger by taking in and offering medical assistance to men and women hiding from the police. The artist’s own experiences are at the heart of his imagery; his Jewish heritage and values are implicit, but certainly perceived, and ever present. A printer, filmmaker, poet, dramatist and stage director, Kentridge has been influenced by wide variety of sources, including Javanese shadow puppet theater, German Expressionism, 19th century medical illustration and non-traditional art like graffiti.
Projects completed within the last two years have touched the lives of millions. In late 2015, Kentridge’s Metropolitan Opera staging of Alban Berg’s “Lulu” plunged audiences into Weimar, Germany’s nightmarish decadence. Garish color, skewed sets and crass pantomime revealed the persona of the opera’s central character, a prostitute, while projected visuals—period currency, newspapers with prophetic headlines, photos of world leaders, and the artist’s own animations, drawn and then erased before the viewer’s eyes—distilled the essence of a world on the verge of cataclysm. A finishing, and most frightening touch, was the box-like, cartoonish mask encasing the head of the principal dancer.
This year, Kentridge executed a site specific work, on view 24 hours a day, which is intended to draw attention to the neglected and polluted condition of the Tiber River and its environs. In the 1640 feet long “Triumphs and Laments,” silhouettes of Rome’s military leaders, political despots from ancient times to the presentand the people they have conquered, exploited and enslaved, parade silently across the high stone river embankment. The process was unique; the monumental figures were blasted out of the biological detritus and garbage that has accumulated on these natural walls. Without conservation, the figures will be overtaken by more growth, and will eventually disappear.
Kentridge’s world is not all gritty. Only recently, elegance has prevailed as the famed men’s haberdasher, Ermenegildo Zegna (EZ), unveiled Kentridge’s new tapestry, “Dare/Avere” (Credit/Debit), commissioned for its beautifully designed New Bond Street, London, location. Inspired by documents in the store’s archival holdings, the artist’s design brings together attributes which distill EZ’s 106 year history: an antique Italian map, an old accounting ledger referencing the work’s title, a sewing machine, the store’s trademark label. In characteristic Kentridge style, the dapper silhouette of Ermenegildo, who founded this family business, makes his entrance as part of the foreground procession.
Israel Is Strengthening Ties With Several Latin American States, But Will This Impact The Way These Countries Vote At The U.N.?
There are reasons to be optimistic about the progress of the bilateral relations between Israel and several Latin American states. Changes in the leadership of several countries, as well as a more proactive Israeli policy towards the region, are proving quite promising. On the other hand, it seems that there is still a long way to go when it comes to translating these good relations into changes in the voting patterns of some of these countries at the United Nations on resolutions involving Israel.
Let’s start with Paraguay. From the moment, Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes took office in August of 2013; the relations with Israel (which had already improved during the interim government of President Franco) got a strong boost. The Paraguayan government started to distinguish itself from other voices in the region and took a principled stance every time Israeli actions were judged by other nations. During the latest Gaza war, for example, there was an attempt at a meeting of Mercosur (the economic bloc that includes Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela) to issue a joint communiqué strongly condemning Israeli actions. Paraguay opposed this measure. And it took similar positions in support of Israel in different international forums. Today, Paraguay abstains on almost all anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations.
An important step taken by Israel to strengthen the bilateral relations with Paraguay was the decision to re-open the Israeli Embassy in Asuncion (which was closed in 2002 for budgetary reasons). This was very well received in Asuncion by both the Paraguayan government and the local Jewish community.
Three key anti-Israel resolutions were put to a vote at the General Assembly a few days ago. These are the resolutions that renew, year after year, the mandates and the funding authorizations for the following entities: 1. the Palestinian Rights Division; 2. the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People; and 3. the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People. These resolutions are very important because they maintain a powerful anti-Israel propaganda apparatus that functions under U.N. auspices.
Paraguay kept its abstentions on these three anti-Israel resolutions this year. Even though these abstentions are highly appreciated, it would be desirable for Paraguay to go a step further and cast “no” votes, as abstentions unfortunately do not prevent resolutions from being approved at the General Assembly. Time will tell if Paraguay will be ready to make that positive move, in light of the increasingly close relations between this South American nation and Israel.
Israel’s relations with Peru have also improved in recent years. But Peru’s recent role at UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee was a cause for concern. The Peruvian representative actively supported a draft resolution (when the Committee met in Istanbul last July) that was quite insulting to Jews, referring to the most sacred places for Judaism only by their Muslim names (it was, of course, insulting to Christians as well). The draft resolution could not be put to a vote because of the attempted coup in Turkey but when it came up again in October, Peru abstained, which clearly showed that the ambassador received instructions in this regard from the new government of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who took office in late July. The outlook of the new president, a brilliant economist who spent many years in the United States, and who has Jewish roots, bears well for the progress of the bilateral relations between Israel and Peru.
Peru has abstained on these anti-Israel resolutions at the General Assembly for many years now, and it kept these abstentions this year. As in the case of Paraguay though, it would be desirable for Peru to start voting “no.”
The arrival of Mauricio Macri to the presidency of Argentina in December of 2015, which put an end to the 12 years of “Kirchnerismo,” opened a window of opportunity for improving this country’s bilateral relations with Israel. And the positive signs are many. One of the first things President Macri did when taking office was to nullify the shameful “pact” that the previous government had signed with Iran to “jointly investigate” the 1994 terrorist attack against the AMIA Jewish Center (the worst terrorist attack ever suffered by Argentina or any other Latin American country). The president also promised to guarantee the independence of the judiciary so that the mysterious death of AMIA case Prosecutor Alberto Nisman, and the complaint that he had made against the government, are properly investigated.
Last April, the Executive Board of UNESCO approved a very troublesome anti-Israel and anti-Jewish resolution. The Argentine representative supported it but, when the resolution was taken up by the plenary last October, Argentina abstained. With regard to the three key General Assembly resolutions, since 2004, Argentina voted “for” two of these resolutions and “abstains” on one. Unfortunately, there were no changes this year in this regard.
Since Brazilian President Michel Temer took office last August, the country’s sometimes shaky relations with Israel appear to have entered a new phase. His Foreign Minister Jose Serra is close to the local Jewish community, and the government seems to be determined to get Brazil’s foreign policy a new turn. We still need to see if this will indeed happen, as Brazil’s powerful Foreign Ministry (Itamaraty) has proved over the years to be quite resistant to change. But there has been already a positive sign when it comes to Israel. Even though Brazil supported the troublesome resolution approved by UNESCO’s Executive Board last October, the Ministry issued a communiqué stating that unless the text is revised, Brazil will not support a similar resolution in the future. A small but positive step in the right direction. Brazil, however, supports, year after year, the three important General Assembly anti-Israel resolutions and, unfortunately, there were no changes this year.
Something very interesting happened in Mexico, a country that for many years has consistently voted against Israel at the United Nations and other international forums. President Enrique Peña Nieto traveled to Israel recently and promised that Mexico would not support the biased UNESCO resolution that was going to be put to a vote in October. His decision, however, was never transmitted by the career diplomats in the Foreign Ministry to Mexico’s new UNESCO representative, who happened to be Jewish. He cast a “yes” vote but not without protest. The local Jewish community then made its voice heard and Mexico (after trying unsuccessfully to modify its vote) decided to abstain in the plenary.
In addition, at the General Assembly, Mexico moved from “yes” to “abstain” on one of the three important resolutions, which is a pretty significant step.
Since President Tabaré Vasquez returned to Uruguay’s presidential office in March of 2015, that country’s relations with Israel made a turn for the better. Even though Vasquez belongs to the left-wing Frente Amplio party (the same party of former President Jose Mujica), he is a far more centrist leader and has interesting personal ties to Israel, as he had the opportunity to do post-doctoral studies at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot several years ago.
With regard to Uruguay’s votes at the General Assembly, like Argentina, Uruguay votes for two of the resolutions and abstains on one. There were unfortunately no changes this year.
Guatemala has given us a pleasant surprise this year. After a recent visit that President Jimmy Morales paid to Israel, during which the Israeli government pledged to support Guatemala on a number of areas, the Guatemalan U.N. representative cast a “no” vote on the three key anti-Israel resolutions, something that has no precedents in Latin America. This is a very important development and a strong sign of friendship between the two countries.
The bilateral relations between Israel and Honduras have improved considerably in the last few years. And this change has been reflected in the way Honduras votes at the U.N. This year, even though Honduras has kept its abstentions on two of the three important anti-Israel resolutions at the General Assembly, it cast a “no” vote on one of them, which is quite important.
Colombia continues to have excellent relations with Israel, even though President Santos does not have the same kind of personal ties that Former President Uribe had both with the Jewish community and Israel. Colombia has abstained on the three key anti-Israel resolutions at the UN for a number of years now and there were no changes this year.
Panama was, until now, the only Latin American country that voted “no” on one of the three key anti-Israel resolutions (the Special Committee to Investigate Human Rights Practices). This was a decision made by Former President Martinelli, who had excellent ties with Israel and the Jewish community. This year, Panama’s U.N. representative cast a “yes” vote when this resolution was put to a vote at the General Assembly’s Fourth Committee. A pretty dramatic change as it is unusual for countries to move from “no” to “yes.” The local Jewish community reached out to President Carlos Varela and this is probably why, when the resolution was taken up by the plenary, Panama abstained. Still, this move from “no” to “abstain” represents an important setback in the bilateral relations between Panama and Israel.
The current political environment is certainly favorable for the relations between Israel and Latin America to grow. And there is a lot that Israel can contribute to the countries of the region in the fields of agriculture, technology, security, science, education, etc. But Israel must ensure that the improvement of its ties with several Latin American states has a certain impact in the way these countries vote at the U.N., especially when it comes to resolutions that makes it possible for a powerful and strongly biased anti-Israel propaganda apparatus to operate under the U.N. roof.
I had explained how caring about the people of our community and doing things that helped someone could be a profession and something that they and their families can do as volunteers. I also explained why we as Jews care about society because of something we call “tikun olam,” repairing our world.
We recently gave a similar challenge to leaders of B’nai B’rith at the 2016 Leadership Forum, held in Washington, D.C. We assembled a panel of experts who are the chairs and community leaders who deliver community programming year after year. They were given the task to describe in just five minutes their program and provide a take away to provide information on how it is done. The subject matter was diverse and each representative was able to deliver a message from their own heart and experiences and in record time. The time limit was to provide an “elevator speech,” about what can be said to involve people in what we do. The audience in that “elevator” or in your office or living room, is a potential participant, donor or member. If one can describe what a program or mission is all about in this short period, you have done justice to the cause and project you represent.
The content of this workshop was a diverse list of topics. Programs were presented to promote adult learning, provide opportunities for participation in activities such as sports and community service projects. It also described the Holocaust remembrance and awareness program, “Unto Every Person There is a Name,” held on Yom Hashoah. The programming is done each November for the annual observance of the anniversary of Kristallnacht, held in Latin America. They heard about the European Days of Jewish Culture, a vehicle to explore Jewish Culture across Europe. The secret to raising funds through community award dinners (recognizing community leaders and spotlighting B’nai B’rith) was shared. The audience also learned how the lodge and unit structure provides meaningful programming in many communities and how the Young Leadership Network is reaching out to young people with unique opportunities to participant in the B’nai B’rith agenda.
A high-level international gathering in Hamburg, Germany this week will focus attention on one of the greatest challenges in the global fight against anti-Semitism: Establishing a clear understanding of this ancient social illness. The past decade and a half have seen new manifestations of the world’s oldest and most resilient social pathology, as well as a weakening of the anti-bodies that once warded it off for much of the post-World War II period. This worrisome trend has caused the Jewish community no small amount of exasperation and alarm in the 21st century.
What exactly is anti-Semitism in its modern incarnations? The answer contains an important key to monitoring and combating the problem.
The Hamburg meeting of the Ministerial Council of the 57-member-state Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will now tackle the matter. The Council will weigh whether to adopt a working definition of anti-Semitism for use throughout Europe, Eurasia, and North America.
The IHRA document is an important affirmation by an international organization of the serious problem of anti-Semitism in the form of the demonization and delegitimization of Israel. It should be disseminated as widely as possible to educate public officials, educators, journalists, and others about the current nature of anti-Semitism.
For the OSCE – an organization that includes the United States, Canada, Turkey, and an entire continent in between – following IHRA’s example by using a similar definitional template would be a major step forward in the struggle against anti-Semitism. Such a document could attain wider circulation than any before it and should foster deeper levels of understanding of the dimensions of the problem. This in turn would guide governments in acquiring more sophisticated tools for combating anti-Semitism, in the form of data collection, law enforcement training, hate crimes legislation, education, and other measures.
The fight against hatred is an ethical obligation, one that remains as strong now as ever before, in light of the dramatic surge in anti-Semitism in recent years. It is essential to continue the difficult struggle against anti-Semitism, the distinct and uniquely resilient social illness that gave rise to the Holocaust and that persists, in both new and old variations, today.
B'nai B'rith International has widely respected experts in the fields of: