The law recently approved by the Israeli Knesset, reaffirming that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, sparked a heated controversy not only inside Israel but also throughout the world. Some of the things that have been said about this law though, are inaccurate and, therefore, it is necessary to carefully analyze what the law is really about as well as the reasons behind its approval.
First of all, it is important to understand that, unlike the United States, Israel does not have a written Constitution. But it does have a number of “basic” laws, which have been given a “quasi-Constitutional” status over the years. The recently approved Nation-State Law is one of them.
Until this law was enacted, there was no legislation in Israel referring to Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. But what exactly does this means?
Actually, this is nothing but the basic principle of Zionism and the very foundation of the creation of the state of Israel. It means that Israel is the realization of the right of self-determination of the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland. It also means that it is the place that every Jew in the world can call home, and where any Jew can go to in case of persecution.
This concept is also the basis of the almost universally supported two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When the United Nations General Assembly recommended, back in 1947, the partition of Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish, this is exactly what it had in mind. Israel was always meant to be the nation-state of the Jewish people.
So what is it that bothers some about this law? Many believe that the inclusion of the "Jewish" character of the state in a basic law could have a detrimental effect on the rights of Israel’s non-Jewish minorities, particularly the Arab minority, which today constitutes 20 percent of the population. But the truth is that Israel has always defined itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and this has never affected the individual rights of its non-Jewish citizens. This is so because Israel is not only a Jewish state but also a democratic one and, therefore, all Israeli citizens have the same individual rights, regardless of race or religion.
What is also important to understand is that when we refer to Israel as a Jewish state, the word “Jewish” does not refer so much to religion but to a much broader concept: the concept of Jewish “nation.” In this regard, to say that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people is no different than saying that Spain is the nation-state of the Spanish people or France the nation-state of the French. And in fact, unlike many other states, Israel does not have an official religion.
But why is it that the Israelis felt the need to translate this concept into a law? The answer probably lies in the fact that today, more than ever, many Israelis feel that the Jewish identity of the state is under attack. There is a movement, led by the Palestinians but supported by many around the world, which seeks to delegitimize Israel’s existence. They say they are in favor of a two-state solution but categorically refuse to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. In other words, they seek to establish a Palestinian state but want Israel to stop being a Jewish one.
This is so because they promote the so-called "right of return" of the Palestinian refugees to what is now the state of Israel. And by Palestinian refugees they not only mean the surviving refugees of Israel’s 1948 war of independence but also their paternal-line descendants, numbering today more than five million people.
Naturally, the “right of return” is something that no Israeli government would ever accept, as it would mean the end of Israel as a majority Jewish state. The Palestinian refugee problem (a problem that started because the Arab countries decided to fight a war against the newly created state, Israel, with the intention of annihilating it) has to be resolved inside the future Palestinian state, in the same way the problem of the Jewish refugees (who were expelled from the Arab countries where they had lived for generations when Israel was born) was resolved mostly inside Israel. (It is estimated that the original Palestinian refugees were about 700,000 while the Jewish refugees were approximately 800,000).
But the right of return of the Palestinian refugees to Israel is fully supported by the United Nations, as the current debate on UNRWA (the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency) underscored. While UNHCR, the U.N. agency that deals with all the other refugees of the world, strives to reduce the number of refugees by resettling them in the countries that received them (when repatriation is not possible), UNRWA does not try to resettle the Palestinian refugees. It maintains that, until a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is reached, their refugee “status” should not only continue indefinitely but also pass from generation to generation. It is for this reason that today, the children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of the original refugees are still considered “refugees” by UNRWA, and the U.N. continues to promote their return to Israel.
The recent decision of the Trump Administration to stop the funding of UNRWA was, in this regard, a step in the right direction. The "right of return" that this entity promotes (a “right” that has no real basis in international law) constitutes today the single most important obstacle to the achievement of a two-state solution.
But UNRWA is not the only problematic U.N. entity when it comes to this issue. The Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (which was created by the U.N. General Assembly in 1975, together with the infamous resolution that declared that Zionism was equal to racism), and the Division for Palestinian Rights (which was established within the U.N. Secretariat in 1977 to assist the Committee) are two entities that actively promote the right of return while engaging in the most radical anti-Israel propaganda activity throughout the year, in the name of the U.N. The funding for these entities is renewed – year after year – by the U.N. General Assembly and is something that should be disrupted.
All of these clearly explain why so many Israelis felt the need to secure the Jewish character of the state through the enactment of a basic law. It was clearly a reaction to the increasing attempts to transform Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, into another Arab state. It was also a reaction to some of the decisions of the Israeli Supreme Court, which have been perceived by many as not safeguarding the Jewish character of the state.
Many well-intentioned critics though, feel that the law is missing two important words, which, in their view, would not detract from all that is right about it. After a thorough analysis of the text, I agree that perhaps the words democracy and equality should have been mentioned, even when these concepts are already enshrined in Israel’s brilliant declaration of independence and also embodied in other basic laws. Because this is a law that defines Israel’s identity, it might have been advisable to mention not only its Jewish character but also its democratic nature. This would have made the Druze minority, for example, feel less uneasy, and the law would have probably gathered wider support at the Knesset.
Having said that, the international criticism of the law was absolutely out of proportion, as is often the case with every piece of news that involves Israel. Israel has been accused of racism and apartheid, and there were outrageous comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany. All of these characterizations of Israel are nothing but vicious manifestations of anti-Semitism. Israel, with all of its flaws and imperfections, is an extraordinary democracy, the only true democracy in the Middle East, and this will not change with the enactment of this law.
Adriana Camisar is B’nai B’rith International's Special Advisor on Latin American Affairs. A native of Argentina, Camisar is an attorney by training and holds a Master’s degree in international affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.
A few weeks ago, several media outlets in Argentina reported about a recent meeting between an Argentine journalist and a man named “Ibrahim Yassin” in Israel.
Yassin is well-known in Israel, but almost nobody knew about him in Argentina. Originally a Shiite Muslim from Lebanon, this man told the Argentine reporter the amazing story of how he became an Israeli citizen and an Orthodox Jew, changing his name to Abraham Sinai.
The story of his transformation began during the civil war in Lebanon, in the 1970s and 80s, when he witnessed the atrocities committed by the Syrian army and also by Hezbollah combatants. When the Israeli army entered Lebanon, Yassin was able to confirm that they operated under a different set of values, especially when an Israeli army patrol, putting his own life at risk, rescued Yassin's pregnant wife and arranged for her to be taken to Haifa, where she was able to give birth safely. According to Yassin, she would have died if left in Lebanon.
Yassin’s closeness to the Israelis generated the suspicion of members of Hezbollah, who kidnapped and tortured him for months. According to Yasmin, a man named Imad Mughniyeh, tired of not getting the information he was expecting to get from him, burned Yassin’s 8-month old son alive in front of his eyes.
After a while, and convinced that Yassin was innocent, they decided to release him. According to reports, it was then that Yassin decided to infiltrate Hezbollah and spy for Israel. He did so for 10 years, and the valuable information he provided to the Israelis saved the lives of many Israeli soldiers.
In 1997, when the Israelis felt that Yassin was in serious danger, they took him and his family to Israel, where they have lived since then.
Yassin’s story is relevant in Argentina, not only because it is not very common to find stories in the local media where the Israeli army is portrayed in a positive way, but also — and most importantly — because of the connection between Yassin’s testimony and the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish Center in Buenos Aires.
According to Yassin, Mughniyeh, the same man who tortured him and murdered his son, was the person that ordered the AMIA attack, as Hezbollah’s global operations chief. Yassin in fact states that he was there when the attack was ordered.
Even though this is probably not news for many Israelis, in Argentina his testimony is very important. In fact, Alberto Nisman (the federal prosecutor that conducted the AMIA case investigation for over ten years before being murdered in 2015) had accused Mughniyeh of being one of the masterminds of the bombing, and had even secured an Interpol red alert against him.
Mughniyeh, who is widely believed to have also participated in the planning of the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and a number of other terrorist attacks around the world, died in a car blast in Syria in 2008, so he will never be interrogated for his crimes. But Yassin’s testimony should serve as both a vindication of Nisman’s courageous work and a reminder of the dangers of Iran’s global terror activities.
Adriana Camisar is an attorney by training who holds a graduate degree in international law and diplomacy from The Fletcher School (Tufts University). She has been B'nai B'rith International Assistant Director for Latin American Affairs since late 2008, and Special Advisor on Latin American Affairs since 2013, when she relocated to Argentina, her native country. Prior to joining B'nai B'rith International, she worked as a research assistant to visiting Professor Luis Moreno Ocampo (former Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court), at Harvard University; interned at the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs; worked at a children's rights organization in San Diego, CA; and worked briefly as a research assistant to the Secretary for Legal Affairs at the Organization of American States (OAS). To view some of her additional content, click here.
This article by B'nai B'rith International's Special Advisor on Latin American Affairs Adriana Camisar originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.
U.S. President Donald Trump did the right thing when he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Jerusalem has been central to the Jewish people for 3,000 years and the capital of the State of Israel since 1949. And it will remain the capital of Israel under any peace agreement, even if the definitive boundaries of the city are subject to negotiation.
Trump was also complying with US law, as the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 called for the relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In addition, last June, the US Senate unanimously passed a resolution commemorating the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem that called upon the president and all US officials to abide by the provisions of the Jerusalem Embassy Act. Therefore, this was a legitimate, sovereign decision by an American president. In this regard, the UN General Assembly resolution adopted on December 21 that opposed this decision was presumptuous, to say the least.
An analysis of Latin American and Caribbean votes, though, shows an important number of countries did not oppose the US decision.
In fact, of 19 Latin American countries, nine did not support the resolution: Guatemala and Honduras voted against; Argentina, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama and Paraguay abstained; and El Salvador was suspiciously absent.
With regard to the 15 members of the Caribbean community, also known as CARICOM, seven did not support the resolution: Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Jamaica, Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago abstained; and St. Kitts and Nevis and St. Lucia were absent.
Before the General Assembly vote, both Trump and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said the US would cut off financial aid to any countries that voted in favor of the resolution. This message was heavily criticized by the press and in diplomatic circles.
After the vote, many commentators said the strategy did not work. When it comes to Latin America and the Caribbean, this is not quite true. Let’s analyze each case: Guatemala and Honduras, which voted against the UN resolution, both have long-standing relationships with the State of Israel that have become even stronger in the last few years. Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales, it is worth noting, recently announced his decision – which could be followed by other countries in the region – to follow the US example and move the Guatemalan Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The abstentions of Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Paraguay, on the other hand, can be mainly explained by the general worldview of these governments and their fairly good relations with Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to strengthen ties with Latin America and his recent historic trip to the region – in which he visited Argentina, Colombia and Mexico and met with Paraguay’s president while in Argentina – could have had an impact, too.
But there is no doubt the administration’s message had an impact on the Dominican Republic and El Salvador, two countries that have consistently voted for every anti-Israel resolution at the UN CARICOM members that did not to support the resolution against Trump’s Jerusalem decision – with the exception of Haiti – usually vote at the UN against the US position on Israel. The fact that they were either absent or abstained from this resolution is striking and shows the administration’s message had a strong effect on this group of countries.
Adriana Camisar, is an attorney by training who holds a graduate degree in international law and diplomacy from The Fletcher School (Tufts University). She has been B'nai B'rith International Assistant Director for Latin American Affairs since late 2008, and Special Advisor on Latin American Affairs since 2013, when she relocated to Argentina, her native country. Prior to joining B'nai B'rith International, she worked as a research assistant to visiting Professor Luis Moreno Ocampo (former Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court), at Harvard University; interned at the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs; worked at a children's rights organization in San Diego, CA; and worked briefly as a research assistant to the Secretary for Legal Affairs at the Organization of American States (OAS). To view some of her additional content, click here.
Since President Mauricio Macri took over the government of Argentina, in December 2015, several judicial investigations against officials from the previous administration acquired considerably more speed. This could be explained by the fact that some judges might have felt frightened to advance with these investigations before. But, undoubtedly, there were also judges who for years deliberately delayed investigations, and who could now be trying to get themselves rid of any responsibility (as the current government is trying to strengthen the constitutional mechanisms aimed at guarantying the transparency of the judiciary).
Hopefully, the change that Argentines are witnessing today is not a temporary fix, but a real step towards a more independent and effective justice system.
There has been, in this regard, considerable progress in a number of important corruption cases, and several former officials — including former Vice President Amado Boudou and former Minister of Public Works Julio de Vido — have been arrested.
There have also been advances in two cases that are particularly important. One of them is the investigation into the mysterious death of Alberto Nisman (the federal prosecutor who had been investigating the 1994 terrorist attack against the AMIA Jewish center for over 10 years). Nisman was found dead in his apartment, in January 2015, a few days after accusing former Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and some of her officials of negotiating a pact with Iran (known as Memorandum of Understanding or MOU) in order to get impunity for the Iranians accused in the AMIA case. After almost three years of shameful irregularities and delays, a report by the border police —signed by a large number of judicial experts — ruled out the hypothesis of suicide (that had initially been sustained by the former government) and established that the prosecutor was indeed murdered.
The other extremely important case is the one that investigates the complaint itself that Nisman made prior to his death. The judge of this case has already summoned most of the people accused by Nisman (including Kirchner and former Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman) to testify. And there is a testimony that has particular relevance. Allan Bogado, who had been accused by Nisman of being a member of the "parallel diplomacy" that negotiated the agreement with Iran, said that he had actually been an undercover intelligence agent, whose mission was to investigate what both governments were plotting. According to Bogado, what the governments of Iran and Argentina had secretly agreed upon by signing the MOU, was the transfer of Argentine nuclear technology and know-how to the Iranians.
In his complaint, Nisman had said that the MOU had been signed to give impunity to the Iranians in exchange of some kind of commercial arrangement that included oil. But, if what Bogado testified proves to be right, Nisman could have underestimated the importance of the MOU since its main goal would have been to boost the Iranian nuclear program, in clear violation of the international sanctions in force at the time.
Kirchner, who has just been elected senator, portrays herself as the victim of political persecution. But she (and her supporters) are obviously worried about the many judicial investigations against her, particularly those related to Nisman. And perhaps this is why, in recent days, there were a number of anti-Semitic incidents, aimed at making the public believe that there is a "Zionist conspiracy” against her.
A congressman from the governing party, for example, who is also a former leader of DAIA (the Jewish umbrella organization in Argentina) was accused of being an agent of the Mossad and of defending "foreign interests" by another congressman close to Kirchner. Shortly after, a famous Jewish journalist was insulted in a public event, and a well-known Jewish writer received death threats.
It is not the first time that officials from the previous administration make use of anti-Semitic language to try to distract attention from the accusations against them. Shortly after Nisman's death, Kirchner openly supported an opinion piece that suggested that Nisman had participated in a Jewish conspiracy against her government.
Fortunately, Argentina today seems to have the necessary legal and institutional tools for these people (who were so unfairly targeted) to confront these vicious attacks in an effective way. And, hopefully, the proper functioning of the country’s democratic institutions will ensure that the truth is reached once and for all.
Adriana Camisar, is an attorney by training who holds a graduate degree in international law and diplomacy from The Fletcher School (Tufts University). She has been B'nai B'rith International Special Advisor on Latin American Affairs since late 2008. In 2013 she relocated to Argentina, her native country. Prior to joining B'nai B'rith International, she worked as a research assistant to visiting Professor Luis Moreno Ocampo (former Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court), at Harvard University; interned at the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs; worked at a children's rights organization in San Diego, Calif.; and worked briefly as a research assistant to the Secretary for Legal Affairs at the Organization of American States (OAS). To view some of her additional content, Click Here.
By Adriana Camisar
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left Argentina yesterday after a very successful visit.
The visit was historical because it was the first time a sitting Israeli prime minister visited the country. The trip also showed the great shift of Argentina’s foreign policy since President Mauricio Macri’s inauguration.
During the previous government, the bilateral relationship with the State of Israel had deteriorated considerably, given the close relationship between the government of former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the Iranian regime. Indeed, the Argentine government and Iran signed the shameful Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which sought to withdraw the investigation of the 1994 Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building bombing from Argentina's jurisdiction, and to grant "investigative" powers to the Iranians.
In fact, Alberto Nisman, the prosecutor who had conducted the AMIA investigation for 10 years, was found dead, under very suspicious circumstances, after denouncing that the president and her officials had negotiated the agreement with Iran in order to get impunity for the accused Iranians. Today, Kirchner is being tried for treason by virtue of Nisman’s complaint.
The rapprochement with Israel is the clearest evidence of the desire of the current Argentine government to distance itself from dictatorial regimes like Iran, Syria and Venezuela and to get closer to Western democracies and the free world.
The Jewish community in Argentina is the largest in South America and the 6th largest in the world, and, undoubtedly, for the majority of Argentine Jews it is a source of great joy to witness the warm reception that Netanyahu received in the country and to see the flags of the two nations displayed together, after so long.
The opportunities for cooperation between the two countries are enormous in the areas of innovation and technology, cybersecurity, counter-terrorism, health and education. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a very fruitful relationship.
In addition to Argentina, Netanyahu is also visiting Mexico and Colombia, before heading to New York to attend the opening of the U.N. General Assembly.
In addition to strengthening ties with these Latin American countries, Israel is certainly seeking to confront Iran’s infiltration in the region, which took place in the last few years, particularly with the help of Venezuela, and to gain greater support from Latin American countries at the United Nations, where Israel has historically been unfairly treated. Hopefully, this renewed friendship with the nations of the region will indeed be reflected at the U.N. and other multilateral forums.
Jan. 18 will mark the second anniversary of the “mysterious” death of Argentine Federal Prosecutor Alberto Nisman. For more than ten years, Nisman had been in charge of the investigation of the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires.
He was found dead in his apartment four days after making extremely serious allegations against then President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, her Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman and other people close to the government. Nisman stated he had extensive evidence that the government had secretly negotiated a pact with Iran in order to get impunity for the Iranians accused of plotting and executing the AMIA attack.
The pact the prosecutor was referring to—known as the Memorandum of Understanding—was signed in January 2013. Through this agreement, both governments pledged to create a "truth commission" to jointly investigate the AMIA bombing, something as absurd as creating a Nazi commission to investigate the Holocaust. At the time, the government justified the signing of this pact on the need to discover the truth. However, it seemed clear to most people who knew the case, that the signing of this pact represented a major shift in Argentina’s foreign policy, as it attempted to improve relations with Teheran at the expense of the bombing’s many victims.
The pact never came into force because the Iranian Parliament did not ratify it, and also because it was ultimately declared unconstitutional by an Argentine Federal Court. But it would have given the Iranians access to all the documentation of the case, and made it easier for them to get rid of the Interpol red alerts that Nisman had secured against the accused.
Nisman’s death left the country in shock and there are still no clear answers as to what exactly happened to him. However, there is now some hope that his complaint will finally be investigated.
However, several things changed since then. On Dec. 10, 2016, Mauricio Macri took office as the new president of Argentina, and one of the first things he did was to let the pact with Iran die. He did this by not appealing the ruling that had declared it unconstitutional. Macri also said that he expected the judiciary to act with independence and to get to the truth.
Several months ago, the Delegation of Argentine Israelite Associations (DAIA), which is the Jewish umbrella organization in Argentina, made a new presentation alleging that the case should be re-opened because of “newly found evidence,” and requested to be admitted as a plaintiff. The new pieces of evidence submitted were a recording that was found in which Timerman—in a conversation with the former head of the AMIA—conceded that he was negotiating with the ones that “placed the bomb,” and the ruling that declared that the pact with Iran was unconstitutional.
Rafecas, the original judge of the case dismissed the request and so did the Federal Court, but when the issue got to the Court of Cassation once again, they finally decided to re-open the investigation. The Court of Cassation accepted the DAIA as a plaintiff and ordered Rafecas and the other judges that had intervened to withdraw from the case.
For the first time in two years the possibility to get to the truth seems real. And, of course, this case could shed light on what really happened to Nisman, as his death is undoubtedly linked to his complaint.
It is still too early to know if the investigation will go as far as it needs to go, but the re-opening of the case is certainly a promising sign.
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.
Promoting Education And Anti-Discrimination Legislation: Two Important Ways To Combat Anti-Semitism And Other Forms Of Bigotry Globally
The Case of a Small City in Argentina
A few weeks ago, there was an anti-Semitic incident in the city of Bariloche, a major tourist destination in the southwestern part of Argentina. It is common for Argentine students to travel there when they graduate from high school.
A group of Jewish students from the ORT School in Buenos Aires were at a disco when they started to receive insults from another group of students, from a German School, who were wearing swastikas and Hitler costumes. The students from ORT alerted the managers of the disco but nobody took the appropriate measures and, therefore, there was apparently a fight between the two groups.
Officials from the city apologized later on and the German school took appropriate disciplinary measures. But the incident sparked a number of other of anti-Semitic incidents throughout the country.
One of them happened in my hometown, Salta, a relatively small city in the northwestern part of the country. Carlos Paz, the ombudsman of a district called Cerrillos, allegedly posted an outrageous anti-Semitic message on his Facebook page, stating:
"Sh***y Jews, I am tired of them, always appearing as the victim. They are the ones that segregate millions of Palestinians, build walls, have racist laws, murder and advise terrorist organizations and murderous States, like they did with Apartheid South Africa. Now they are judging young people for wearing German clothes from WWII. And we cannot even say ‘sh***y Jew’ because we are labeled as racists and human garbage…”
The post went on to imply that the 1994 terrorist attack against the AMIA Jewish center was a self-inflicted attack and that the Jews want people to believe Iran was responsible. The message ended again with the phrase "sh***y Jews, I am tired of them," and was accompanied by several articles, one of them stating that the Holocaust was a lie.
Paz is not only the ombudsman of the district but also teaches philosophy at several local high schools.
Fortunately, INADI, the country’s agency that combats discrimination, xenophobia and racism (created after the AMIA bombing) acted immediately and joined the local Jewish community in its denunciation of the incident. Several government officials strongly condemn the incident as well.
As a result, the ombudsman is now suspended from his position and will apparently face an impeachment process through the local legislature. He was also suspended from his teaching positions and is facing criminal charges (because of an existing anti-discrimination law).
Independently of what ends up happening with this particular person (who is now orchestrating a pretty clever defense by stating that his Facebook account was hacked), it is important to note the swift and positive measures that the local government, the judiciary and the nation’s anti-discrimination agency took. Some years ago, an incident like this would have not generated such a strong response, particularly in a city like Salta, a small and traditional place where anti-Semitic manifestations were not at all uncommon.
There are three factors that, in my opinion, contributed to these very positive developments. The first one is the anti-discrimination law that the Argentine Parliament passed back in 1988, which has gradually become more widely known and used. The second one is the creation of INADI, in 1995, which has not only played a key role at creating awareness among the general population about the need to combat all forms of discrimination and intolerance, but also expanded the use of the existing anti-discrimination law in a considerable way. And the last factor is Argentina’s decision to join the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2002. Until then, the Holocaust was either absent in the curricula of most schools or studied in a very tangential way.
As this case shows, anti-discrimination laws can play a very important role in the fight against anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination and intolerance. Anti-Semites and bigots of all kinds will continue to exist but these laws can certainly force them to watch what they do and limit the negative effects that their hateful acts can have in society.
In this regard, it is worth noting that B’nai B’rith International has long advocated for the approval of anti-discrimination legislation in many countries throughout the region, working in conjunction with other minorities and vulnerable groups. And—at the hemispheric level—B’nai B’rith has worked for many years at the Organization of American States to make the approval of two major Inter-American anti-discrimination conventions a reality.
The other—and perhaps most important—tool in the fight against bigotry is, of course, education. And B’nai B’rith can be proud of its work in this field as well. Our districts and units across Latin America have not only advocated for the passing of legislation that makes Holocaust education mandatory in schools but also played a very active role in promoting educational programs that teach respect for diversity and human rights. As the case of Salta demonstrates, this is definitely something worth continuing.
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