2020 has been a trying year. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a terrible toll – in human life, in economic terms, in the functioning of society and in frayed nerves. The impact has been universal, if unequal. Our hearts go out particularly to those who have suffered, and lost, the most.
While the swift emergence of not only one but multiple vaccines effective at combating the coronavirus represents a substantial source of hope – and a scientific marvel – all signs indicate that months will pass before the treatment is very widely accessible, and during these months thousands more may yet die. Despite that threat, fatigue over restrictions meant to contain the pandemic have too many – from virtually every demographic group – relaxing or outright refusing to abide by precautions that grate on all of us. Some people, perhaps given pause by the very speed of the new vaccinations’ development, will hesitate to accept inoculation once possible.
Highly religious communities – by their nature placing a premium on congregating for prayer and other rites, on tradition uninterrupted and on faith – have been especially vulnerable to the spread of the novel coronavirus, and to resisting the perceived dictates of secular authorities. Certain religious groups, including Catholics and fervently observant Jews, have gone to court to fight, of late successfully, against curbs on gatherings for prayer. National media have shown some hassidic Jews continuing to gather in large numbers for weddings, schooling and eminent rabbis’ funerals. These episodes, though not reflecting the entirety of a large and diverse population – and not necessarily implying the absence of any health precautions – do indicate a suspicion of anti-religious (or specifically anti-Jewish) tendencies by some in government. This outlook is the product of long and difficult historical experience, and is also borne of a sense that in some places gyms and bars have been subjected to less scrutiny and regulation than synagogues and other places of worship.
Of course, ultimately nothing can condone reckless behavior that endangers the collective well-being. Scenes of fundamentalists – of whatever stripe – completely flouting public health guidance are deplorable.
But what does Judaism itself have to say about exceptional circumstances like those we have confronted over the past year?
While undoubtedly committing the fate of human beings to God – and charging human beings with reaching out to God and with bettering their treatment of fellow creatures in the divine image – the Torah says “v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoteichem” (Deut. 4), commanding: “and you shall guard your souls exceedingly.” It further says, of keeping God’s ordinances, “v’chai bahem” (Lev. 18), that “you shall live by them” – not perish by them. Additionally, relates Deuteronomy (chap. 30), “lo bashamayim hi” – the Torah is “not in the heavens,” but is to be observed within earthly realities.
Accordingly, rabbinic tradition has held that “pikuach nefesh docheh et kol haTorah kula,” that saving a life takes precedence over nearly all other obligations in Judaism; indeed, if a Sabbath must be violated by first responders to prevent death, or if medical experts require a patient not to fast on Yom Kippur for the same reason, doing so is not only allowed but mandatory. After all, the Ten Commandments themselves include “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20) – and the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4) says that “anyone who destroys a life, it is considered as if he has destroyed an entire world, while anyone who sustains a life, it is considered as if he has sustained an entire world.”
Preserving life, then, is a most elemental of Jewish religious duties – a righteous deed that is prerequisite for all the rest. “I have set before you life and death... And you shall choose life,” states Deuteronomy.
Of relevance, the Talmud also repeatedly makes clear that “dina d’malchuta dina,” the law of the land is the law: when official regulations are established, they demand compliance. And Jews are called upon to be paragons of rectitude – for their public trespasses create “chillul Hashem,” a desecration of God’s name, while their acting justly represents “kiddush Hashem,” sanctification of God’s name.
And not least, Jews are instructed to choose “darchei shalom,” paths conducive to peace among people. The Talmudic Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Chanina (Berachot 64a), “Torah scholars increase peace in the world.” The sage Hillel famously taught (Avot 1), “Be among the disciples of Aaron: love peace and pursue peace, love humanity and bring them closer to the Torah.”
Life, and observing dueling commitments within its confines, involves complexity. Virtually all action involves some sort of risk, and it is for competent decisors to provide guidance on navigating tension of the kind that will periodically surface between religious commitments and civic commitments, let alone between religious commitments and the call to “choose life.” What is clear, though, is that for all the importance of communal religious practice – and in a community-centered people, places and acts of public worship are indeed vital – saving lives and preserving societal harmony are also critically important religious imperatives.
Believers, who discern God’s hand even in dark times, must work to see God’s hand in solutions to plight as well. And they must strive to be active partners in enabling these solutions to bring their healing.
In this last month of the year, the United Nations General Assembly established that “Israel must renounce to have nuclear weapons” in a vote of 153 for, 6 against and 25 abstentions.
Israel was asked not “to develop, produce, test or buy nuclear weapons.” Israel was also asked to “renounce possession of nuclear weapons and to submit all its nuclear facilities without safeguards to the U.N. requested safeguards as a step forward toward trust among the States in the region and as a step forward to improve peace and security.”
The U.N. presumes that Israel is one of the nine nuclear powers of the world, but Israel has never admitted any possession of nuclear weapons and nobody has ever demonstrated that the U.N.’s presumption is true. There are eight countries which are recognized as nuclear powers; five of them – China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States – have signed the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. India, North Korea and Pakistan have not signed the Treaty but have admitted having, and testing, nuclear weapons.
Those 153 countries voting “for” decided to make an exclusive call to Israel, asking Israel to sign the treaty under the accusation of “the risk of nuclear proliferation in Middle East.” The resolution is part of two U.N. packages. One, asking all the world globally and generally for a nuclear dismantling, but singling out by name only Israel. The other package is the endless litany of more then 20 resolutions per year singling out only one country: Israel. Meanwhile, chemical weapons can be used in Syria, millions of civilians are displaced by the Venezuelan dictatorship creating a hunger crisis in the region, the extent of which has never been known before; and except for useless reports which nobody pays attention, the U.N. agencies are not interested in such tragedies.
There were some more-than-disconcerting votes on these resolutions. While Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE (which have peace treaties with Israel) were among the sponsors of the resolutions, there are differing interpretations as to why — not the least of which is the need to play to a broader Arab constituency.
Perhaps more alarming were the abstentions of 15 European countries, Australia and some African countries. It is unacceptable that all Latin America voted for the resolution, with only Panama abstaining. It is a very serious mistake that Latin America, hidden under the alleged umbrella called GRULAC (Latin American Group) voted almost unanimously against Israel in such a sensitive question as nuclear weapons. It is indeed odd that Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Costa Rica, Paraguay or Uruguay voted together with Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia. No U.N. resolution supported by Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia should ever be shared by democracies.
But the U.N. obsession with Israel is not new. The language about nuclear weapons, and presuming that Israel has those weapons, is the same for more than 30 years. Such a resolution was voted in 2019, and in 2018, and so on. Meanwhile the countries with nuclear weapons have increased their capabilities. North Korea has openly shown it is increasing its arsenal, and no resolution has come to the table. The United Nations General Assembly wants to show by these votes that the only danger in the Middle East and beyond is Israel.
Iran signed an agreement about the nuclear weapons that the Ayatollah´s regime wants and does not have yet. Iran regularly lies to the U.N. and to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran uses the U.N. stages to threaten Israel and to “promise” the destruction of Israel. The U.N. GA has never discussed the behavior and threats of Iran when once a year the almost 200 countries “discuss” the “dangers” in the Middle East.
The changes in the resolution about nuclear weapons in the last three decades have been ideological, but no country has even tried to show real concern for the main issue: nuclear advances put all the planet in danger. The resolution was not obsessed with Israel 30 years ago. And at that time, all of Latin America, without exception, abstained. But today Venezuela, as a Latin America host of Iran and Hezbollah, opens the windows of danger everyday.
Early Dec. 2nd, in one of the sessions with five votes against Israel, Latin America showed how its votes have changed in the last decade or so. And it happened almost all this year and will likely repeat in the next year.
How is Latin America divided today vis a vis Israel in U.N. agencies? Brazil, Colombia, Honduras and Guatemala are with Israel. Their governments do not believe in the litany of charges against Israel or in the harassment of Israel. Panama, Peru, Paraguay and Uruguay are abstaining in most of the resolutions and mainly in those that support the Palestinian offices which get a great amount of funds and use them to incite hatred instead of solving the problems of the Palestinian people. And the rest: Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Costa Rica? Some time they could abstain but in general, sadly, they vote together with Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran and North Korea.
Maybe these Latin American democracies voting together with dictatorships against Israel believe that they may have sometimes some political or economic benefit. But these votes, irrelevant and noisy as they usually are, stay on the record and are well registered. And there are stains that can't be cleaned. As simple as that.
As a Jewish European, last week’s ruling to by the European Court of Justice to allow member states to impose restrictions on ritual slaughter was personal.
I say that as a secular Jew, one who does not eat kosher meat. I was raised in Eastern Europe, in Romania, where Communism nearly obliterated what was left of Jewish life after the Shoah. I was one of those Jews, who like many in the region had Christmas trees alongside their Chanukkiah. My parents – as their parents – are not well versed in Jewish liturgy. Our home – while deeply embracing our Jewish identity, was empty of regular Jewish practice.
Yet, Jewish religious freedom is personal to me; it’s personal to all Jews. We know the history of suffering and indignities that our ancestors have endured to preserve that freedom. And we know the richness of thought and culture, of philosophy and tradition that has stemmed and continues to stem out of Judaism, binding Jews of all stripes together worldwide, and shaping, without a shadow of doubt, the European ethos – it’s values and principles, as we know them today.
I, like most Jewish Europeans, love Europe. This is not merely anecdotal. Multiple surveys of Jewish Europeans confirm this attachment, which is often greater than that of non-Jewish Europeans. And how could that not be so? Post-WWII Europe is founded on a promise to safeguard Jewish life and to celebrate it as part of European life; a promise to nurture pluralism and diversity; a promise to protect fundamental freedoms. That is a Europe that the dwindling Jewish community after the war decided to embrace – that was our home, and in this new Europe we could bring forth a Jewish renaissance.
That is why today’s ruling bore down so heavily. The ruling grants EU countries the right to require further restrictions on religious slaughter of animals, a core tenant of Judaism – one that has animal welfare at its core. It comes on the back of a prior ruling in Belgium, that granted such restrictions, balancing religious freedom and animal safety and favoring the latter. Today’s ruling though, had to deal with another balancing act: this time, religious freedom was weighed against the member states rights and jurisdiction. This ruling too favored the latter. It went against the recommendations made by the Advocate General (AG) to the ECJ, that such a ruling would be a disproportionate infringement of fundamental rights. In both cases, the fundamental right to freedom of religion had a negligible weight.
At best, the decision shows an utter lack of understanding and empathy for the essential place that the preservation of certain religious laws – such as ritual slaughter – occupies in one’s religious expression, in one’s faith and sense of self, in one’s communal affiliation and feeling of belonging and of course, in the collective identity and manifestation of a community. At worst, it is a not-too-subtle message: “You don’t belong”, to Jewish as well as Muslim communities throughout Europe – ergo, to millions of Europeans.
The feeling I have today is one I’ve had too often – disappointment, otherness, frustration. Yet it is nothing compared to what practicing religious Jews are experiencing today. For them, Jewish life is, as of today, effectively limited. Families may choose to relocate. Their sense of safety in society will undoubtably be diminished.
Just the other week, the Council of the European Union produced a unanimous declaration reaffirming states’ commitment to safeguarding Jewish life in Europe. It’s worth repeating part of it here:
Judaism and Jewish life have contributed considerably to shaping European identity and enriching Europe’s cultural, intellectual and religious heritage. We are grateful that 75 years after the Holocaust, Jewish life, in all its diversity, is deeply rooted and thriving again in Europe. It is our permanent, shared responsibility to actively protect and support Jewish life.
If the Court of Justice ruling is to stand alongside the above declaration – we need a new framework for religious freedom in the EU.
Read Director of EU Affairs Alina Bricman's expert analysis in the Times of Israel.
Alina Bricman is the Director of EU Affairs at B’nai B’rith International. She formerly served as president of the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) from 2017 to 2019 and worked for the Representation of the European Commission in Romania and for the Median Research Centre, a Romanian civil society NGO focused on civil engagement and combating xenophobia. She studied political science at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies in Bucharest and at the Central European University in Budapest.
Who says the pandemic has killed theater in New York? It thrives at one of the world’s largest stages – the United Nations. In no other place in the world does comedy and tragedy mix with such demonic fanfare. While the ever-popular Lion King is scheduled to resume in June 2021 at the Minskoff Theatre, the Lying King continued its notorious run last week at the UN General Assembly.
What began with “Palestinian Solidarity Day” weeks ago ended with nothing more than another round of votes to appease Palestinians and allow them to perpetuate their victim-for-profit campaign. As the dust settles from the latest round of UN voting, we find nothing has changed, albeit the number of “Yes” votes is declining. The “All The World’s a Stage Theater” allows Palestinians merely to add to the list of anti-Israel resolutions and build on anti-Israel bias. Beyond screaming headlines, not much else is reality.
This year, my fellow theater-goers, the plot thickens. In the 2020 version of The Lying King, the early acts are the same as the days of Partition on November 29, 1947, a day celebrated by Jews and condemned by Arabs. The story line is summarized this way: Out of disgust with Israel’s existence, Arab nations wage war on their enemy, hoping to push the Jews into the sea. Military defeats to Israelis fuel the Arab world to wage future conflict, all the while using the UN as a platform for demeaning the Jewish state with a series of resolutions and a fruitless boycott movement.
With every subsequent scene to this play, maps get redrawn to reflect conquests of 1948, 1967 and 1973. The West Bank, once part of Jordan, changed title to Israel in 1967. Land once belonging to Jordan suddenly became “occupied” by Israel. The Six Day War that year delivered Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. In the Yom Kippur War, the Golan Heights, once used by Syria to attack the north of Israel, would become prized territory. A couple of parcels would become bargaining chips for treaties. The Sinai returned to Egypt and, as agreed, the Jordanian Wakf would govern the Islamic holy site on the Temple Mount. The peace holds with Egypt and Jordan. Accords in Oslo reimagined the West Bank into Areas A, B and C. These accords were violated as the Palestinians ushered in an era of intifadas, replete with suicide bombings and other terrorism. Who did the UN condemn? Israel, of course, in a landslide.
Act III begins with failed negotiations and a rise in terrorism, including stabbings and kidnappings facilitated through tunneling, which prompt disputed Jewish settlements in Area C. A hopeful turn of events in Gaza led to Israel withdrawing Jewish settlers from the slice of land along the Mediterranean. Enter Hamas.
As the play moves along, Gaza becomes a launching pad for more terrorism and retaliation by Israel, which leads to heightened and increased drama in the UN with more resolutions condemning Israel. From 1967 to 1989, the UN Security Council adopted 131 resolutions addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict. Each year, 20 pro-Palestinian resolutions are passed by the General Assembly. At the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the notorious “Item 7” is the only permanent agenda item, and it is designated for criticism of Israel. The rest of the world is collectively submitted under “Item 4.”
OH, AND the story gets better. The Palestinians get a boost from Iran and Syria as their leadership uses the United Nations to gain nonmember observer status (2012). Economic relations among nations on all continents with Israel, leading to a warming of relations, have been doused with cold water in the UN by yet the next round of resolutions and false narratives, including resolutions that argue Israel has no historical claim to the Western Wall or the Temple Mount. The “State of Palestine” argues it is exclusively a Muslim site. Of course, this is simply false.
The Palestinians, still floating rounds of rhetoric and propaganda – invoking such inflammatory verbiage as Nazis, apartheid and worse – reject recent normalization treaties with Israel by Arab states, the UAE and Bahrain. While these Arab states embrace a two-state solution, they also see the great short-term benefits building enterprise with Israel.
The normalization narrative weakens Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas as it is a departure from the PLO mantra, much less the PLO charter, which denies the legitimacy of Israel, the existence of a historical or religious ties to “Palestine” and labels Zionism a racist, imperialist, fascist and colonialist political movement. At the very least, archaeological finds have given the Lying King a long run at the United Nations. As for colonization, Israel is slightly larger than New Jersey.
Palestinian and Arab rhetoric seeks to revert to the 1967 borders and designate east Jerusalem (the Old City) as a capital. Turning back the clock 54 years is unlikely, if not impossible. Truly, it is mere staging for Israel’s destruction.
Meanwhile, the rhetoric by Afghanistan, Iran and other outliers make glorifying speeches at perennial Palestinian pep rallies. They cry out against “denying the historical and legal rights of the Palestinian people... It is time to stand for justice.” These lines get delivered with perfection and even a straight face. The story of lies and deception is flawless.
At the United Nations, art does not imitate life. The refrain to the Palestinians simply falls on deaf ears. Come to the negotiating table and negotiate face-to-face with Israel. You will get less than what you want but more than what you have today.
Read President Kaufman's expert analysis in the Jerusalem Post.
Charles O. Kaufman is president of B'nai B'rith International.
As we are approaching the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, it is clear that businesses have struggled to manage the effects, including the disparate policies used with their workers. As referenced in my blog "Social Security: 85 Years of Lifting Seniors out of Poverty," the pandemic has caused less payroll tax to be collected, thereby decreasing revenue to Social Security and consequently decreasing the life of the Trust Fund. Furthermore, President Donald Trump over the summer signed an executive order impacting the solvency of the Trust Fund by deferring payroll taxes for the rest of the year and advocated for the cuts to be permanent. B’nai B’rith International expressed disappointment with the executive order because the payroll tax is a significant source of revenue for Social Security and any potential cuts will erode one of our nation’s most important programs for seniors.
With the White House transitioning from a Trump to Biden administration, it’s important to examine how President-elect Biden’s proposed policies could impact Social Security. First, over the summer Biden campaigned against cuts to the payroll tax. Despite the pandemic, at least Social Security shouldn’t see any further decreases to revenue by a payroll tax cut.
Secondly, Biden proposed important changes to Social Security that could impact revenue and expenses, however, according to the Urban Institute does not solve Social Security’s long-term problem of being able to pay all of its obligations. Biden campaigned on increasing Social Security benefits for widows, people 78 to 82 years old and for certain low-income workers such as people who have worked more than 30 years. Former Senator Tom Harkin and Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, said in the Des Moines Register, "The nonpartisan Social Security Administration has projected that a single provision of the Biden plan — increasing the minimum beneﬁt for low-income, lifetime workers — would lift more than one-half million seniors out of poverty by 2030."
Regarding the revenue to pay for these proposals, according to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center Biden proposed a payroll tax increase for income above $400,000 a year that could generate $740 billion in revenue over ten years. It’s important to remember that people are only taxed on wages up to $137,700 for the purposes of Social Security.
Another component of Biden’s plan would potentially allow people that serve as caregivers for family members who are young or have a disability to earn Social Security credits. This would reward family caregivers who are being unfairly punished for the purposes of earning Social Security at retirement. Similar to Biden’s other proposal referenced above, the plan would be funded by raising taxes on real estate investors whose incomes exceed $400,000 a year and, according to the campaign by, "taking steps to increase tax compliance for high-income earners."
The original purpose of Social Security was to lift seniors out of poverty. By providing needed increases to Social Security benefits, and not raising taxes on middle and low-income individuals, Biden’s proposals should be given consideration by Congress. Unfortunately, we know that life in politics is never that simple. While I expect some possible bi-partisan cooperation in Congress around COVID-19 stimulus legislation, it remains unclear what other legislation can be signed into law. However, here is to hoping a bi-partisan agreement can be reached in Congress that benefits seniors throughout the country.
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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