Over two years of planning and hard work culminated on the evening of Nov. 7 when a whole-day program at the Knesset to mark the adoption of the Balfour Declaration on Nov. 2, 1917 ended on a note of success. The B’nai B’rith World Center-Jerusalem — leading an initiative on behalf of the Balfour Centenary Committee — was the first to raise the specter of the impending, but still distant, historic milestone with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at a meeting in his bureau back in 2014 — but not before pro-Palestinian organizations had already started their campaign to pressure the British government to rescind the Declaration. This petty stunt got zero traction with Prime Minister Theresa May who declared that Her Majesty’s government would “mark the centenary with pride”— which it in fact did, both in Israel and in the UK.
Our committee felt that the right place in Israel to reflect on the various aspects of the historic event and on the current state of UK-Israel relations was the Knesset, and were pleased to receive immediate support from Edelstein who endorsed a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, an international conference and a Knesset plenary session all dedicated to the Balfour Centenary.
While the excitement around the centenary was somewhat eclipsed just a month later when U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and adopted a new global strategy that no longer sees the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as the main cause of Middle East turmoil, the positive buzz left by these events persists: that Israel’s legitimacy, while constantly challenged, is firmly anchored in diplomatic convention going back 100 years and in the profound Jewish cultural-religious connection to this land going back thousands of years. These sentiments were borne out in many of the presentations made on Nov. 7.
The scope of this blog does not allow me to summarize all the many excellent speeches made during the day by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Head of the Opposition Isaac Herzog, Lord Jacob Rothschild and others. I would though like to share some of the poignant remarks made in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the most restricted of the sessions held that day.
Committee Head MK Avi Dichter opened the hearing, noting that the principal statement in the Declaration — that “His Majesty’s Government view with farvour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” — represented the beginning of modern Jewish history.
Lord Stuart Polak recalled the rarely-remembered end of the Declaration that states: “…nothing shall be done which may prejudice the …rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” Polak argued that while some 170 U.N. resolutions, 13 U.N. agencies and billions of dollars have supported the Palestinian cause since 1948, nothing has been done in support of the 850,000 Jews forced out of Muslim lands after Israel’s creation who should have been protected under the terms of the Declaration that were later incorporated into international law.
Labour MK Joan Ryan, chair of Labor Friends of Israel, said she believed that in light of Israel’s progressive values and international humanitarian aid “Labour’s founding fathers would have felt their support for Zionism more than justified.”
Lord Jonathan Kestenbaum, chair of the Balfour 100 Committee in Britain, said that despite apprehensions the Balfour Centenary events in Britain were successful because it brought back to life the sense of shared purpose that Great Britain and the Zionist movement enjoyed 100 years ago, during the First World War period and shed light on the shared value, shared purpose and shared language that bind the two counties today.
Celebrated British historian professor Simon Schama interjected a more cautionary tone, noting that on the American and British campuses he teaches at, “Zionist is a title of honor one has to fight for.” He argued that in the context of Jewish history the “public knows only about the Shoah and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but has no sense of the richness of Jewish history, its complexity and above all its connection to some of the great epic moral dramas of the history of the world — particularly the epic of homelessness and not just about the decency and virtue of our political position and the right to our defense.” He argued that the Balfour Declaration succeeded in part, because there was an “educated sympathy” by its protagonists toward the destiny of the Jewish people. “That sympathy is under siege today and we have to think creatively how to fill the world with the story of the Jews.”
B’nai B’rith International CEO and Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin expressed regret at the ongoing campaigns to erase both the intent and promise of the Balfour Declaration that prevail at the U.N., with that body’s 1975 “Zionism Equals Racism” resolution only the tip of the iceberg. Restating B’nai B’rith’s passionate support and devoted partnership with the State of Israel, Mariaschin said that “As we commemorate the Balfour Declaration as a monumental act of decency whose purpose was to recognize the injustices of the past and the legitimate right of the Jewish people to live in peace and dignity in its own nation, there are those who engage in global campaigns to turn the clock back in order to deny our people that right.”
The Balfour Declaration has engendered one hundred years of debate around the motivation, timing, relationships and interests that led to the decision taken by the British Government led by former Prime Minister Lloyd George. The policy shift taken by Trump will also inevitably be the source of vociferous debate into the future. In both cases, the responsibility lies with the leaders of the Jewish people and the State of Israel to make the most of these declarations and work with friends to ensure they will provide their intended benefits.
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 right of every American to vote is one of the most cherished liberties in the United States. An individual’s ability to make his or her voice heard at the ballot box should be protected by all levels of government. However too often state legislatures are passing laws which make it more difficult for all people to vote, especially seniors. In particular, photo identification laws have made going to be polls too onerous for the elderly, and have chipped away at their ability to make their vote count on Election Day. In 2017, 17 states require citizens to show photo identification to participate in an election, which has put an unnecessary hardship on seniors, who are one of the least likely population groups to have a driver’s license or other government-issued photo ID.
A study conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice in 2006 (the latest year available) demonstrated that 18 percent, or eight million older voters, did not have a government ID. This can often be explained because many seniors give up their driver’s licenses, and consequently have an expired government ID.
Many people, upon hearing these numbers, might just say, “Why don’t seniors just get a government ID. How difficult can that be?” The problem for seniors is that obtaining government-issued identification can be cost-prohibitive and/or require extensive travel.
For example, a Harvard Law School study published by Richard Sobel, “The High Cost of ‘Free’ Photo Voter Identification Cards,” concluded that between public transportation expenses, fees associated with documents and waiting times, it could cost between $75 and $175 to obtain an ID. For low-income seniors who sometimes have to choose between health care and eating, a government ID is a luxury they just can’t afford. Furthermore, there are states that necessitate a birth certificate upon registering to vote. Many seniors were born before issuing birth certificates to a family was standard procedure. Even when a birth certificate can be located in a county clerk’s office, some elderly people would be required to travel to the cities in which they were born to pick up documentation. In addition, the validity of birth certificates at times can be called into question because it might contain minor errors regarding their name, especially for women who changed their last name when they married.
In 2014 Ruby Barber, a 92-year-old woman from Texas with an expired driver’s license, faced incredible obstacles to get an ID in order to vote. Incredibly, Barber was unable to obtain an identification card that would allow her to vote, despite providing her social security card, two utility bills, an expired driver’s license and a Medicare card. Barber couldn’t provide her birth certificate because one did not exist. Barber said, “I’m sure (my birth) was never reported because I was born in a farmhouse with a coal oil lamp.” Eventually Barber was granted her constitutional right to vote when her birthday was discovered in the 1940 U.S. Census. Baber’s story illustrates how burdensome voter identification laws can be for elderly Americans. These types of laws could discourage otherwise eligible voters from going to the polls on Election Day.
Outside of the obvious fact that every U.S. citizen has the right to vote, a small group of people can make a big difference in the result of an election. In 2014 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a study, “Issues Related to State Voter Identification Laws,” that indicated that stringent voter ID laws can suppress voter turnout by two to three percentage points. Further to the point, the study demonstrated that senior voter turnout was decreased by one to two percentage points because of changes to voter identification laws. While mere percentage points might not seem like a lot of people, this reduction in voter turnout can mean thousands of lost votes in a single state. Elections can be won or lost based on a few thousand votes.
Proponents of voter identification laws argue they are needed to stop voter fraud at the polls. While voter fraud at the polls is a reasonable initial fear to have, studies and statistics don’t provide any evidence of meaningful voter fraud. Voter fraud is just not a problem in the United States. Professor Justin Levitt at California’s Loyola School of Law in a study discovered only 31 credible allegations of voter impersonation, between 2000 and 2014, when 1 billion ballots were cast. Obviously any voter fraud is unacceptable, still, I don’t think 31 allegations of voter impersonation is enough justification to make it considerably more difficult for seniors to exercise their constitutionally protected right to vote.
In the U.S. we should be thinking of new and creative ways to increase voter turnout by passing legislation that ensures every senior entitled to vote is able to cast a ballot on Election Day. Sadly, state governments around the country have implemented policies that make the simple act of voting for seniors too burdensome all in the name of stopping fraudulent voting at the polls, a problem which doesn’t exist.
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.
sIt was a historic announcement: President Trump declared on December 5 that the U.S. now recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, thus acknowledging a longstanding reality and seemingly ending 69 years of mixed signals from the U.S. government about Jerusalem’s status. The U.S. will eventually bolster this decision by moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Trump indicated.
Trump’s announcement is consistent with the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, which required the U.S. to move its embassy to Jerusalem but allows the president a waiver every six months in the interest of national security. For the past 22 years, presidents of both parties have relied on the waiver to delay the move.
But has the confusion over U.S. policy come to an end, or has it simply entered a new phase? Recent indications of a disconnect between the White House and the State Department over Jerusalem have raised questions about the meaning of the presidential declaration, even as supporters of the policy shift continue to embrace the symbolic change they have long sought.
Two days after the president’s announcement, Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield told reporters that “on consular practice there is no change at this time” in the wake of the White House declaration. This raises important questions about implementation of U.S. policy. For example:
1. Americans born in Jerusalem have never been allowed to designate Israel as their country of birth in their U.S. passports; rather, their place of birth is merely identified as “Jerusalem.” Will this change in light of President Trump’s decision to “finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital”?
2. The U.S. consulate in Jerusalem has always reported directly to the State Department instead of the U.S. embassy to Israel, as though Jerusalem were a separate country. Will the consulate now report to the embassy, which is set to move to Jerusalem?
3. White House and State Department official documents have until now identified Jerusalem simply by the name of the city, rather than by “Jerusalem, Israel.” Will U.S. government communiqués finally acknowledge what President Trump’s announcement did, namely, that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, rather than an independent city?
Then there is the matter of when the embassy move, the most tangible symbol of the U.S. policy shift, will actually take place. Many procedural steps remain, such as finding a site in Jerusalem, securing funding, completing construction, and satisfying complex security requirements. This could take years. In the meantime, it is possible Trump will continue exercising the presidential waiver, as he has done twice this year. Until the move is finalized or at least well underway – until the U.S. policy shift becomes grounded in steel and concrete – America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will seem more ephemeral than permanent.
Nevertheless, the United States has crossed a threshold of sorts. The administration has conceded that Israel, like any other country in the world, is entitled to select its capital and have that choice be honored by the international community. On Israel’s path toward the long-overdue normalization of its place in the world, this step cannot be discounted.
Eric Fusfield, Esq. has been B’nai B’rith International’s director of legislative affairs since 2003 and deputy director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy since 2007. He holds a B.A. from Columbia University in history; an M.St. in modern Jewish studies from Oxford University; and a J.D./M.A. from American University in law and international affairs. Click here to read more from Eric Fusfield.
Snow-capped mountains, natural springs feeding into luxurious spas, amazing fine and decorative arts, gorgeous architecture, and delicious cuisine: vacationers to the Gifu Prefecture, centrally located in the Chubu region in the heart of Japan, may remember their visit as a waking dream. For Jews who travel there, the experience resonates with intense spiritual significance, a modern-day pilgrimage leading to the town of Yaotsu, whose citizens take pride in the life and deeds of its native son, Chiune Sugihara (1900-1986). A diplomat and specialist in Russian political affairs assigned to the Japanese Embassy in Kaunas, Lithuania in the summer of 1940, he ignored his government’s orders to withhold assistance, and instead, issued exit visas to Jews desperate to leave the country ahead of the Nazi invasion. Witnesses reported that even after the consulate was shut, and he was transferred, Sugihara continued his work, tossing signed visas to the crowd as his train moved out of the station. Now recognized for his quiet courage at Beit Hatfutsot, where he is named among the “righteous of the nations,” Sugihara signed as many as three hundred visas each day, and in a few short weeks saved the lives of over 6000 Jews. The number increases when the lives of their many descendents are added to the equation.
In 2015, B’nai B’rith responded to a request for assistance by the town of Yaotsu and its museum, the Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall, as we helped to locate entries for its UNESCO “Memory of the World” submission, a catalogue documenting the history and provenance of the extant, lost or destroyed visas issued by the diplomat. Through its NGO status at the UN, our organization also provided support in endorsing the application. Applying established criteria, and the recommendations of the United Nations International Advisory Committee, The Memory of the World Register recognizes specific locales or projects which preserve documents and artifacts defined as possessing outstanding universal value. Out of many applications, the Sugihara visa catalogue was included in the roster of finalists, but ultimately was not selected. As Yaotsu’s mayor Masanori Kaneko wrote: “we continue holding unswerving belief to deliver not only his deed but also the importance of thoughtful mind, human life and global peace all over the world. It is our mission to pass the humanitarian [acts] of Chiune Sugihara onto the next generation.”
Last January, B’nai B’rith planned its annual Holocaust Remembrance Day in New York as a tribute to “Sugihara: Being an Upstander in a Tumultuous World,” with the participation of our supporters, volunteers and a group of survivors’ children and grandchildren, including keynote speaker Richard A. Salomon. His father, Bernard, who was issued visa #299, endured an arduous odyssey to Russia, Japan, China and India, but finally reached his destination in the United States. His son now serves on the boards of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and the Visas for Life Foundation, dedicated to the memory of the Yaotsu-born diplomat.
While a steadily increasing number of predominantly Israeli groups have toured Gifu, those who wished to make their own trip have had difficulty in making arrangements. In an ongoing effort to serve the needs of potential travelers, Gifu’s Department of Tourism has launched a special website, and has established Jewish heritage information centers, with a dedicated phone line, based in the Los Angeles and New York branches of the Japan Tourist Bureau. Providing outreach, its personnel can arrange transportation, lodgings, guided tours, hire drivers, and make sure that all details are arranged prior to departure.
Those interested can access the preliminaries, included in a special “Chiune Sugihara Experience” leaflet, online, or by directly contacting the Japan Information Center via email at Chiuneemail@example.com or by telephone at 1-877-798-9808.
Perhaps it was Sugihara’s empathy for the plight of the Jews, whom he had met and befriended in Kaunas, that motivated him to disobey his superiors. After he was dismissed from his government job, he often worked in menial positions to support his family. When asked to reflect on his actions in later years, he concluded: I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives… The spirit of humanity, philanthropy… neighborly friendship… with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation — and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.”
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.
It is almost time to celebrate Hanukkah, and while we check to see if we have enough oil for the menorah and we have enough latkes, we at B’nai B’rith also look back on the way that Hanukkah was celebrated by our B’nai B’rith family in the past, and find that there are some great ways to bring this to our communities today. While we needed paper directions then, you can find this all on the internet now.
Celebrating Hanukkah with B’nai B’rith has been a time for socializing, enjoying entertainment and sharing traditional foods. We offered a song sheet called “Latke Ditties” including everyone’s favorite to encourage a sing-along just in case you didn’t remember all of the words to The Dreidel Song. We included the rules of the dreidel game and what each of the four letters mean. Singing together and playing dreidel is timeless.
Very often, there was a play or reading done at a meeting to mark the observance. Each of the eight candles provided an opportunity to learn something new or remind us about what we forgot about Hanukkah. We could share moments of Jewish history and the famous men and women associated with them. Who would you select to represent a candle this year? Another chance to hit the internet, or visit your Jewish library shelves for some research.
The work of B’nai B’rith has often been recognized in this way, with each candle representing a project or program that we are proud to share. In the past, each of the agencies was highlighted. Now, we focus on our program centers. We also pointed out the internationality of B’nai B’rith with information about activities that occur under the B’nai B’rith banner around the world. Check out the B’nai B’rith website at www.bnaibrith.org for information about our programs and projects worldwide.
Our Center for Community Action has turned the spotlight on the Shamash (or servant) candle. It remains ready to assist us with fulfilling the mitzvah of lighting the other candles on a menorah. So much like our B’nai B’rith leaders and volunteers who help perform the mitzvahs of community service and advocacy. Their efforts make all of these projects possible and help us increase the impact on the world as the lights are added to the menorah.
We also shared recipes of holiday foods, and asked people to share a tradition that their family had for their Hanukkah celebration. The internet is filled with Hanukkah favorites from latkes to jelly donuts. Another interesting program is a meeting to share the menorah itself. Attendees are asked to bring their favorite menorah and share a little about its history. We learned about the one their child made in Hebrew school, the Israeli artist’s creative rendition or grandpa’s menorah that was smuggled in pieces from Europe after the Holocaust.
The Center for Jewish Identity has also offered some programmatic insight about Hanukkah as it is the best example of the struggle for preserving Jewish identity. The Jews in ancient Israel were forced to abandon their practices and observances by the Syrian emperor Antiochus and were not allowed to live as Jews. Mattathias and his five sons led the Maccabees to rebel against the troops and regained control of the Temple in Jerusalem that had been desecrated by the Syrians. They wanted to restore the practice of lighting the holy menorah with ritually pure oil. They found enough for only one day and while it would require eight days for new oil to be prepared, we are told that a miracle happened and it burned for eight days until more oil was available.
Hanukkah is a holiday with specific requirements about lighting times, where the menorah should be placed, and a mandate to enjoy the time while the candles are burning. What more can we ask, but a forced respite from everyday routine and a chance to see the glow of the menorah reflected in our window?
Wishing you and yours a happy and healthy Hanukkah and if you have some materials that you have created, please share it with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 brith with the Julius Bisno Professional Excellence Award. This June will mark her 38th anniversary at B'nai B'rith. To view some of her additional content, Click Here.
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