Sacred texts, prayer books, centuries old archival documents and even a defunct electric bill have provided the inspiration for theater, film and museum exhibits in 2019, a veritable collective celebration of the written and printed word. While many examples might be added to this compendium, here are just a few highlights of innovative artworks, all of which take a fresh approach to the way Jewish culture and social life has impacted history and civilization.
Long-deceased members of a prominent Jewish family come to life onstage in Angela J. Davis’ award-winning new play, “The Spanish Prayer Book,” which premiered in September in California by North Hollywood’s Road Theatre. The time-traveling contemporary drama focuses on a cache of long-hidden religious manuscripts and deals with topics including the changing narrative of Jewish-Muslim relations through the centuries, the commodification of the spiritual—in this case, a collection of valuable prayer books—and our obligation to preserve and protect that which is most precious.
Lilach Dekel-Avneri, a participant in the Washington, D.C.-based Israel Institute Visiting Artist Program, gave an improvisatory, free-form take to her direction of Maya Arad Yasur’s “Amsterdam,” whose script encompasses both the Holocaust and today’s immigration issues, all catalyzed by an unpaid electric bill, mailed to its recipient in 1944 and discovered by the work’s protagonist, a violinist based in the Dutch city of the title. It premiered on Oct. 10 with a three-person cast of students from the University of Southern California’s School of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles, where Dekel-Avneri was based this fall. The director, who characterizes the work as a theater piece, rather than a work with a linear narrative, has noted that “It has no hesitation in combining storytelling, using personal facts about the artist, with the aid of imaginary images, and soundscape, in order to enable us to rise anarchistic and funny performative energies from the pseudo-documentary text.”
The Cairo Geniza—inscribed whole and fragmented pages and artifacts whose content, meaning and function include everything from account ledgers and religious tracts to love letters and music scores, never discarded, but preserved for hundreds of years in the storeroom (geniza) of an Egyptian synagogue and now dispersed among 70 institutions worldwide—takes center stage in “From Cairo to the Cloud,” Michelle Paymar’s award-winning documentary which has been screened at numerous Jewish film festivals this year. Translated into multiple languages and reconstituted as one linear entity through the “miracle” of the internet, the collection opens new insights into a myriad of topics, including the ways that Jews, Muslims and Christians interacted in the region. Those who see the film will be impressed by its superb cinematography, underscoring the stunning visual beauty of the documents. It’s now being shown at film festivals in Europe.
And finally, Washington’s Museum of the Bible, an institution which has hosted some terrific displays of rare Jewish books from Holland and elsewhere, unveiled on Nov. 7 the Washington Pentateuch, a torah dating to the 10th century and described as one of the oldest, intact Hebrew bible manuscripts in the United States. In addition to the torah itself, the exhibition features an introduction by Harvard professor David Stern and images of seven other Hebrew Bible manuscripts, with explanations of how they impact modern editions and translations.
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.
More than 100 countries are celebrating that the U.N. General Assembly voted for dictatorships to become members of the Human Rights Council (HRC) in the next two years. Democracies have been defeated again, and from now on, Venezuela, Mauritania and Sudan will join more dictatorships in the shameful HRC. All three countries are serial violators of human rights. Slavery is still alive in Mauritania. Sudan is experiencing a reign of terror. Both will judge human rights.
Though outrageous, it is unsurprising that Venezuela has secured a seat in the HRC. It will be an excellent shelter for Maduro to hide the ongoing violation of all human rights in Venezuela. Venezuela got its seat through lobbying by Russia and Cuba and the global support of the Non-Aligned countries - a very peculiar name these days, when at the end of the day they are only aligned to dictators.
Less than a month ago, the high commissioner for human rights, former Chilean President Michele Bachelet, denounced more than seven thousand killings in Venezuela and an ongoing violation of human rights against civilians. It looks like a contradiction that a month later, Venezuela is seated in the HRC.
Well, it is not. Hypocrisy usually is associated with these political movements. The high commissioner told the truth: Venezuela is a dictatorship that violates human rights. On the other hand, seats in U.N. agencies are the result of negotiations and bargaining. And Venezuela will be a safe vote for those powers that backed its seating in the HRC.
The high commissioner has asked for an investigation on the ground in Venezuela into killings, illegal imprisonments and hunger. Maduro insulted Mrs. Bachelet by not accepting any U.N. mission and now, a month after the request, he has received total impunity with Venezuela’s membership in the HRC.
The political alliances made by Venezuela in the last 20 years with Iran, Russia and the Arab League have brought these results: Venezuela is a dictatorship and there is no international system able to stop it. Venezuela’s alliances create a clear and present danger across Latin America; Hezbollah has free access to everywhere in the region that allows entry to Venezuelan passports. Argentina and Paraguay have established that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization, but no other country has yet dared to follow them. And when we watch hesitation from the vast majority of Latin American countries to condemn terrorism clearly, the danger becomes greater.
Social unrest is advancing these days in several South American countries. Chile is experiencing ongoing protests with thousands of people rallying in the streets. There has been destruction of public buildings and the Santiago metro. The unrest is not being calmed down either by the government or by the other political parties, and the future is uncertain. Bolivia has had elections, but the opposition does not accept the results and there is violence in the streets. Venezuela always supports unrest in other Latin American countries. Its government has publicly celebrated violence in the streets, no matter which country is going through that violence.
Each country has its own problems, and there is no doubt that many Latin American countries have a lot of unrest. The Venezuelan dictatorship always claims that it will not accept interference and that Venezuela will solve its problems. But Maduro and his ministers want to intervene in other countries. If any country and its government are weak enough to succumb to any sort of intervention, Iranian influence and the threat Hezbollah poses will spread more and more.
Latin American countries will be able to keep democracy in the countries where there are still serious democracies if the international community reacts and stops forgetting what is happening on a continent of 600 million people. If indifference prevails, as is happening now, regimes like the Venezuelan or Cuban governments will be replicated. And if this happens, it will be too late to go back.
Eduardo Kohn, Ph.D., has been the B’nai B’rith executive vice president in Uruguay since 1981 and the B’nai B’rith International Director of Latin American Affairs since 1984. Before joining B'nai B'rith, he worked for the Israeli embassy in Uruguay, the Israel-Uruguay Chamber of Commerce and Hebrew College in Montevideo. He is a published author of “Zionism, 100 years of Theodor Herzl,” and writes op-eds for publications throughout Latin America. He graduated from the State University of Uruguay with a doctorate in diplomacy and international affairs. To view some of his additional content, click here.
This month, something positive and unusual happened at the United Nations, a body that was a source of hope for many Jews after the Holocaust and helped give rise to the revival of the Jewish homeland, but has since often been passive about, and sometimes complicit in, hostility globally to the Jewish people and their only nation-state.
This month, a person of stature within the U.N. system -- and within the notoriously wayward human rights apparatus at that -- took the initiative to prepare and deliver a report to the General Assembly on the problem of anti-Semitism.
Moreover, he adopted an exclusive focus on that problem, and on the whole did so thoroughly, seriously and professionally. And that author originally hails from a majority-Muslim country, where he previously had served as foreign minister.
Ahmed Shaheed prepared his report -- under the rubric of the "promotion and protection of human rights," specifically the "elimination of all forms of religious intolerance" -- in his current capacity as special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. While the especially politicized Human Rights Council and its designated experts are typically better known for animus to Israel -- Michael Lynk, the latest partisan rapporteur on Palestinian rights, a position whose very mandate testifies to the overt one-sidedness of the U.N. on the conflict with Israel, just affirmed a call to single out Jewish civilian communities in Palestinian-claimed territory for economic warfare -- Shaheed also previously served as special rapporteur on Iran. His reputation in the Islamic Republic was such that Tehran dismissed Shaheed, a diplomat and politician from the Maldives, as an agent "for the Zionist regime and also the CIA."
Shaheed's report on anti-Semitism, though surely not without omission or flaw, is largely unprecedented at the U.N. -- and especially important at a time when anti-Jewish bigotry, discrimination and persecution have again surged in many parts of the world, uniting extreme rightists and leftists, and those motivated by ideologies rooted in politics, religion and racial theory alike.
In his report, to which B'nai B'rith made contributions and in which we joined in advance consultation, Shaheed referenced these realities in considerable detail. After a period of soliciting input from Jewish communities, U.N. member states and others, he described antisemitic tropes, domestic and regional trends in antisemitic rhetoric and violence, the broadcasting of anti-Semitism on online platforms, various government measures that curtail Jews' religious rights and current "best practices" in monitoring and combating anti-Jewish hate. He added some of his own recommendations to states, civil society, the media and the U.N. system.
Critically, he explicitly framed Jewish rights as human rights, established anti-Semitism as a concern worthy of U.N. action and signaled that unchecked anti-Semitism bodes ill for society as a whole.
As B'nai B'rith did in a recent private meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Shaheed urged the designation of a high-level U.N. point person on the scourge of anti-Jewish prejudice -- and, vitally, he urged adoption by yet more parties of the indispensable working definition of antiSemitism of the intergovernmental International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). That definition encompasses the virulent and defamatory anti-Zionism that is likely the most prevalent contemporary form of lethal anti-Semitism.
While Shaheed noted the disingenuous assertion of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that it is merely anti-Israel but not antisemitic, and he wrote that boycotts can be lawful, he "stresse[d] that expression which draws upon antisemitic tropes or stereotypes, rejects the right of Israel to exist, or advocates discrimination against Jewish individuals because of their religion should be condemned." BDS leaders routinely engage in all three, especially the latter two.
Regrettably, Shaheed did write at one point that claims that Israel's very existence is racist, requirements of Israel not applied to other democracies and the equating of Israeli policy with that of the Nazis are "not designate[d] as examples of speech that are ipso facto antisemitic" under the IHRA definition, when IHRA specifically does include those among examples that would be considered antisemitic under the working definition. This discrepancy, all the more so considering Shaheed's endorsement of the IHRA definition and his prior listing of the very examples mentioned, is confusing and might perhaps yet be remedied.
Additionally, Shaheed's not having called out by name various especially prominent international traffickers in crude anti-Semitism (merged frequently with anti-Israelism) is unfortunate. These might include Malaysia's self-described anti-Semitic Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, American-based Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, many ranking Iranian officials and their proxies in Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas and especially Lebanese Hezbollah, as well as Yemen's Houthis, whose very flag reads "Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam." Sadly, international surveys have found shockingly ubiquitous antisemitic attitudes in many predominantly Muslim societies -- not just animus to Israel but to Jews.
This said, such a reality makes Shaheed's nearly 20-page report, with meaningful and accurate information far outnumbering the errors, all the more significant. His sincere and comprehensive treatment of anti-Semitism, including unreserved discussion and condemnation of anti-Israel extremists, reflects a moderate and pluralistic component of the Muslim world, one with deep roots that deserve cultivation. It also resists the broader tendency to obscure the pandemic of modern anti-Semitism, especially as manifested in hate for Israel or "Zionists," in the face of so much intercommunal strife and social upheaval globally.
Finally, Shaheed builds upon the notably positive example set by current U.N. chief Guterres -- a former prime minister of Portugal, with its history of devastating Catholic anti-Semitism, who has repeatedly not just deplored anti-Semitism but recognized the delegitimization of Israel as antisemitic. Guterres also recently launched efforts to combat hate speech and protect places of worship. His initiatives, though requiring further development and additional actions -- including, but not limited to, existing U.N. Holocaust commemoration and a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) program for addressing anti-Semitism through education -- cannot be taken for granted.
Good next steps could include having the Alliance of Civilizations, referenced by Shaheed, not only build selective bridges between the "East" and "West" but not exclude Israeli Jews in the process. Israelis should finally be hired for senior positions in the world body and be given the chance to make the immense contributions of which they are capable. Now that, following the efforts of B'nai B'rith and our partners, the U.N. gave some recognition to one major Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur, on its staff calendar (beginning in 2015), it could do more to avoid important international meetings, particularly those related to the Middle East, on such holy days.
And especially -- despite any political pushback -- U.N. leaders must more vocally and persistently call out the anti-Israel discrimination that makes the Middle East's only democracy the beleaguered sole Jewish member of the family of nations. Palestinian political narratives and goals should not be favored over those of Israelis through: a rapporteur on Palestinian rights alone; an international day of solidarity with Palestinians; exceptional, standing bodies such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices, the Division for Palestinian Rights and the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People; an unparalleled would-be blacklist marginalizing only companies deemed associated with Israeli Jewish settlements; World Health Organization motions obscenely criticizing Israel (alone); a permanent agenda item at the Human Rights Council, Item 7, scrutinizing Israel (alone); and more condemnatory resolutions, "emergency" sessions, "fact-finding" missions and other measures targeting Israel than all other 192 U.N. member states combined. UNESCO resolutions should never again be allowed to whitewash or minimize Jews' eternal connection to their most sacred places in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Fanatic terrorists attacking Israelis should be, as others are at the U.N., described and combated as such.
In a word, the lives of Jews -- even when they are Israelis, even when they are Zionists -- should be valued like those of any other people. This alone can be the basis of any credible and effective effort to say no to anti-Semitism.
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B'nai B'rith International, where he began working in 2004 as Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and past winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University. Click here to view more of his content.
On Sunday, Mauricio Macri failed to win re-election in Argentina’s presidential elections. Opposition leader Alberto Fernández, who was joined by former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as his running mate, won with 48 percent of the votes (against 40 percent for Macri).
The poor state of the economy was a decisive factor for Fernández's victory, but Macri obtained more votes than expected, which shows that, for an important sector of the population, the economy is not the most important factor (or the only one) when deciding how to vote. Institutional quality, the fight against corruption and drug trafficking, and a foreign policy that seeks to integrate Argentina into the world (and to distance it from the Latin American dictatorships of the extreme left) were some of the issues important to those who supported Macri.
While Macri lost the election, the large number of votes he obtained clearly maded him emerge from this election as the leader of a [strong] opposition. This will force the Fernández government to govern with caution, since it will not have the necessary majorities in Congress to approve its projects without negotiating with the opposition (unlike what happened during Cristina Kirchner's government).
Naturally, the election has implications with regard to Argentina's relationship with the rest of the world. Fernandez will surely have a softer stance than his predecessor with respect to Venezuela (in fact, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was one of the leaders who most fervently celebrated Fernández's triumph, as did Bolivia’s President Evo Morales).
On the contrary, relations with Brazil (Argentina's first trading partner) could considerably deteriorate, given the notorious ideological differences between President Jair Bolsonaro and Fernández. And the fate of the historic agreement recently signed between Mercosur (the economic bloc formed by Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay) and the European Union is a question mark, since Fernández expressed on several ocassions his opposition to it.
Argentina's relations with the United States could also suffer considerable deterioration, since “Kirchnerism” has traditionally been hostile to American policies and interests.
With regard to relations with the Jewish community and the State of Israel, these were very tense during the last years of Cristina Kirchner's government, particularly because of the pact that her government decided to sign in 2013 with the Iranian regime to “jointly investigate” the AMIA attack, and the “mysterious" murder of prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was found dead in his apartment, a bullet to the head, a few days after denouncing the signing of that agreement. This is why an important part of the local Jewish community is concerned about this new political scenario.
It is still not clear how the new government will function, how much real power Cristina Kirchner will have in it, and what will be the profile that Alberto Fernández decides to have. We will have to wait until Dec. 10, when the new president takes office, to start answering these questions.
Las Recientes Elecciones Presidenciales en Argentina
El pasado domingo, Mauricio Macri perdió las elecciones presidenciales en Argentina. Alberto Fernández, quien tiene a la ex presidenta Cristina Fernández de Kirchner como compañera de fórmula, ganó con un 48% de los votos (contra 40% de Macri).
El mal estado de la economía fue un factor decisivo para la victoria de Fernández, pero Macri obtuvo más votos de lo que se esperaba, lo que demuestra que hay un importante sector de la población para el cual la economía no es el factor más importante (ni el único) a la hora de votar. La defensa de la calidad institucional, la lucha contra la corrupción y el narcotráfico, y una política internacional de mayor apertura al mundo (y alejada de las dictaduras latinoamericanas de izquierda) fueran algunas de las banderas enarboladas por quienes apoyaron a Macri.
Si bien Macri perdió las elecciones, el gran número de votos que obtuvo lo posicionan claramente como el líder de una oposición fuerte. Esto obligará al gobierno de Fernández a manejarse con cautela, ya que no tendrá las mayorías necesarias en el Congreso para aprobar sus proyectos sin necesidad de negociar con la oposición (a diferencia de lo que ocurrió durante el gobierno de Cristina Kirchner).
Naturalmente, la elección tiene implicancias en lo que hace a la relación de Argentina con el mundo. En este sentido, seguramente Fernández tendrá una postura mucho menos dura que su antecesor con respecto a Venezuela (de hecho, el presidente venezolano Nicolás Maduro fue uno de los líderes que celebro con mas fervor el triunfo de Fernández, al igual que el boliviano Evo Morales).
Por el contrario, las relaciones con Brasil (el primer socio comercial de la Argentina) podrían sufrir un deterioro considerable dadas las notorias diferencias ideológicas entre el Presidente Jair Bolsonaro y Fernández. Y es una incógnita lo que ocurrirá con el histórico acuerdo recientemente firmado entre el Mercosur (el bloque económico formado por Argentina, Brasil, Uruguay y Paraguay) y la Unión Europea, ya que Fernández manifestó en varias oportunidades su oposición al mismo.
Asimismo, también podrían sufrir un deterioro considerable las relaciones de Argentina con los Estados Unidos, ya que el Kirchnerismo ha sido tradicionalmente hostil a las políticas americanas.
Con respecto a las relaciones con la comunidad judía y el Estado de Israel, estas fueron muy tensas durante los últimos años del gobierno de Cristina Kirchner, particularmente debido al pacto que su gobierno decidió firmar en el año 2013 con el régimen Iraní para “investigar conjuntamente” el atentado a la AMIA, y al “misterioso” asesinato del fiscal Alberto Nisman, quien fue encontrado muerto pocos días después de haber denunciado la firma de ese acuerdo. Es por esto que a una parte importante de la comunidad judía local le preocupa este nuevo escenario político.
Lo cierto es que no está claro cómo funcionará el nuevo gobierno, cuánto poder real tendrá Cristina Kirchner en el mismo, y cuál será el perfil que Alberto Fernández eligirá tener. El 10 de diciembre comenzarán a develarse estos interrogantes cuando el nuevo presidente asuma el poder.
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.
The European Commission - the European Union’s powerful executive body, responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding E.U. treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the E.U. - is being confirmed this week by the European Parliament. Earlier in July, former German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen was appointed commission president. Over the summer, she assembled a team of 27 commissioners nominated by the E.U.’s member states to be put forward to Parliament for approval. The U.K., currently in the midst of Brexit, has opted not to nominate a commissioner.
The team is gender-balanced, has an average age of 55.9 years and is mostly derived from Europe’s three largest political families (conservatives, social democrats and classical liberals). However, the proposed commissioners are not without controversy: At least four candidates are facing corruption allegations, and two of them, the Hungarian and the Romanian candidates, have already been rejected by committee in the initial rounds of hearings.
With eye-catching figures, murmurs and rumors in every corner, the question to keep in mind is, what does this mean for the issues important to us?
In short, three takeaways stand out. Two are good news, while one is not:
But before jumping to the implications of the new makeup of the commission, let’s open a bracket and look at the inventory the outgoing commission leaves for the new team.
The E.U.’s feeble, reluctant and occasionally one-sided involvement in the Middle East Peace Process was an object of criticism in the last mandate. Outgoing High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini has been herself a strong supporter of the Iran Deal, has withstood calls to add Hezbollah in its entirety to the list of terrorist organizations and has, consequently, often been deemed by Jerusalem as anti-Israel.
Beyond E.U.-Israel relations, though, much work has been done on combating anti-Semitism at the domestic level. While one could justifiably argue that it’s hard to speak of one thing without the other, the outgoing commission does deserve props on this front. Under the auspices of its first vice president, Frans Timmermans, and overseen by Jourova, Coordinator for Combating Antisemitism Katharina von Schnurbein, was appointed in late 2015 and since then has moved from success to success. Among other things, she pushed for the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti--Semitism, brought about the second and largest-ever survey of perceptions and experiences of anti--Semitism among European Jews and the first-ever report of perceptions of anti-Semitism among young Jews and put in place a Commission Working Group on Anti-Semitism. The working group was mandated by a declaration forwarded unanimously by the 28 E.U. member states in December 2018.
Beyond these necessary and important structural advancements, which signaled a significant change of pace in relation to past efforts, a strong narrative about Europe’s Jewish heritage and the place of the Jewish community in Europe today anchored the work on anti-Semitism.
What to expect next?
As Jourova assumes her role as commission vice president for values and transparency, she will be in charge of dialogue with religious organizations and communities, among her other duties, and thus is likely to continue her work on Jewish issues. She will oversee the Commissioner-designate for justice, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders, a friend of the Belgian Jewish community who, by the way, on the day of his nomination attended a B’nai B’rith Rescuers Citation event. If the previous commission is any indication, the topic of antisemitism and the protection of Jewish life in Europe will fall under their purview.
Also of interest: Vice President-designate from Greece Margaritis Schinas, a former commission spokesman, was caught in a storm of criticism about the title of his portfolio, “Our European Way of Life”. While some appreciated the not-so-veiled concerns over migration, others - myself included - were left wondering what this even means, and whether this title included the Jewish way of life and that of all other minorities, or was just meant as reassurance for the right--wing Christian conservatives that form the political home of the new commission president. Vice President Schinas will oversee Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli, who is known in Malta for pushing through marriage equality in one of Europe’s most conservative countries. She will lead the fight against discrimination and thus may also be dealing with issues of antisemitism, although it remains unclear how responsibilities will be split between the equality and justice portfolios. Without much background of work either with the Jewish community or on matters relating to Israel, it seems a clean slate awaits us for both.
On foreign policy, those hoping they could finally sigh in relief over Mogherini’s concluded term ought to think again. Borrell, a former President of the European Parliament, comes in as high representative-designate with decades of experience as an outspoken and often polemic politician, with some troubling baggage regarding Israel and the region.
Although Borrell lived in Kibbutz Gal On shortly after graduating, where he met his first wife, he seemingly holds on to no positive feelings about Israel - at least as far as his foreign policy positions go.
He has spoken with some praise of the progress made by Iran since the Islamic revolution and Iran’s own state propaganda has described him as tough on Israel and fond of Iran, adding that “the Zionist entity is “wary” of the incoming E.U. foreign policy chief.” A keen supporter of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), he warmly welcomed Mahmoud Abbas to Strasbourg in 2006. We can only hope he will continue to hold the flimsy E.U. line on the conflict. It is worth noting that Borrell has met with B’nai B’rith leadership on the side of the U.N. General Assembly, which is hopefully indicative of his future receptiveness to our concerns.
So as the pieces of the puzzle start coming together and final confirmations of portfolios are announced, it’s sure that we’re entering a new chapter of Jewish and Israel advocacy here in Brussels. As the new B’nai B’rith Director of E.U. Affairs, I’m excited to tackle it all head-on.
Alina Bricman is the Director of E.U. 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.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the first primary/caucus for the Democratic nomination for president is still five months away. Politicos around the country have watched the candidates at debates, state fairs and on cable news. It’s not even Halloween and it can feel like we are in the bottom of the ninth inning of the 2020 election cycle, when in reality it’s probably the first inning. How many of us have heard the pundits give their opinion on the race, only to hear someone else give the exact opposite opinion! While it’s impossible to know who will win the Democratic primary, examining previous voting trends provides clues as to which type of candidates might fare better come next year.
As I mentioned in my previous blog “Seniors and Voter Participation,” older Americans can always be counted on to vote! For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 66 percent of seniors voted in the 2018 midterm election, compared to 36 percent of young people. However, voter participation amongst younger voters jumped 79 percent compared to the previous 2014 midterm election, (U.S. Census Bureau). In addition, in the previous two presidential elections voter participation hovered around 70 percent for seniors (U.S. Census Bureau) and 46 percent (U.S. Census Bureau) for young people. Clearly, older Americans are a more reliable voting block than younger voters. Still, young people have become more politically engaged.
Furthermore, what drives young and older voters to the polls to elect a Democrat presidential nominee? According to Yougov/HuffPost and Gallup polls, a person’s age can be an important factor in determining what traits they look for in a presidential nominee. For example, older voters are more likely to care about electability, while young voters want their party’s nominee to more closely share their ideological views.
State senator Dick Harpootlian from South Carolina told the Atlantic, “I think older voters would tend to be more pragmatic, and by that I mean simply the assessment going on is, What’s the goal of this election? The vast majority of Democrats, I think, are pragmatic about that. Who is our best choice to go toe to toe with Donald Trump in 2020?.” Conversely, Lauren Camera in US News and World Report wrote about young people, “They aren't party-ticket voters, they aren't impressed by electability, and candidates can't win their support by crafting specific policies on issues that matter to them. They respond instead to candidates they think share their values and vision for how the country should work and who it should work for…”
Who is more likely to vote in the 2020 Democratic primaries? Based on previous elections, I think it’s fair to say seniors will make up a good percentage of the primary voting electorate. How many young people vote remains to be seen. Young people are voting at higher rates, but will they vote in enough numbers to swing the race for one candidate? Voter turnout is generally lower in primaries compared to general elections. However, given how polarizing politics has become, it’s certainly possible that voter turnout throughout 2020 could hit record highs. At this point the only thing about the Democratic primaries I know for sure is that I am not sure who is going to be the party’s nominee.
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.
Another U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) General Debate session is in the books, and—as we have in years past—B’nai B’rith has been actively engaged throughout the week, meeting with presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and other diplomats from over 30 countries. The countries we met with this year spanned the Middle East, Europe, Latin America and Asia. B’nai B’rith not only meets with these leaders, but also has the special role of coordinating many of the meetings for a group of major American and international Jewish organizations. We are not the only Jewish organization that meets with world leaders during that week, but we are distinguished by having this role during this time of year at the U.N.
Usually one of the Jewish holidays (either Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur or Sukkot) will fall during UNGA week. However, this year the Chagim started late, which meant that for the first time in a few years, we had a full, uninterrupted week of meetings.
The broad issues that are on our advocacy agenda for the week—Iran, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, global anti-Semitism, and U.N. bias against Israel—are similar from year to year. However, within each issue area, the topics of discussion can change based on developments on the ground in the Middle East and around the world. The importance of the UNGA week is not due to a specific meeting that we may or may not have in a given year, but because it facilitates an ongoing dialogue with the leadership of an expanding list of countries, so that the specific concerns of the global Jewish community are understood. B’nai B’rith International’s reach, including our offices, units, members and supporters around the world, allows us to play this role.
Though marathon speechmaking of the General Debate has ended--as has our own diplomatic marathon--for the General Assembly (G.A.), the work is now just beginning. The G.A. is quickly moving to start its business for the year, as the G.A.’s committees convene and start negotiations on many resolutions that will be brought up to the floor of the G.A. for voting later this fall. B’nai B’rith will be monitoring the key resolutions that are annually voted upon each year at the G.A., including the resolutions that renew the mandate of the Palestinian propaganda bodies housed within the U.N. system (most notoriously, the Committee for the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People and the Division for Palestinian Rights) and the renewal of the mandate of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), among other important resolutions.
The start of the Jewish new year and the U.N.’s calendar year often intersect (and, as stated above, sometimes directly conflict). The start of a Jewish new year is a time for optimism and hope for good things to come; the start of a new year at the U.N., sadly, does not inspire the same feelings. At the U.N., we hope for slow progress towards having a world body that lives up to its own goals, and often prepare ourselves for a hard struggle to ensure that the U.N. does not backslide to even more absurd and dangerous positions.
Oren Drori is the Program Officer for United Nations Affairs at B’nai B’rith International where he supports advocacy and programming efforts that advance B’nai B’rith’s goals at the U.N., which include: defending Israel, combating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and promoting global human rights and humanitarian concerns. He received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota in 2004 and an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago in 2006. Click here to view more of his additional content.
My earliest recollection of hearing about the Holocaust came in the mid-1950s, as our family sat around the Passover Seder table. My parents had invited my mother’s best friend to join us that evening, and I remember listening intently to the discussion about families lost and the devastation wrought by Nazi rule throughout Europe.
That mental image reappeared when I read that Amazon UK had taken down a promotion by the company Harma Art for the sale of T-shirts and hoodies bearing a silkscreened reproduction of “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa,” one of the most widely circulated photos of Nazi brutality.
A lone Jewish victim sits on the edge of a ravine with his face to the camera, as a member of a Nazi Einsatzgruppe (the SS paramilitary death squad) is about to shoot him in the back of the head. Fourteen other Einsatzgruppen troops stand behind the one with the pistol, about to witness just one more brutal killing in a day that must have taken hundreds, if not thousands of innocent victims.
That photo always gets to me. It personalizes the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust to one terrified victim. For a brief moment, you can try to imagine the fear that each individual experienced just before death.
What did Harma Art intend when it had those T-shirts and hoodies manufactured? Was it looking to market that apparel to Neo-Nazis and anti-Semitic far-right operatives who might don the shirts at rallies and demonstrations?
It’s not readily apparent. The blurb that accompanied photos of the merchandise promoted it this way: “Choose from our great collection of authentic designs and stand out from the crowd!”
Shock value! Be the first in your neighborhood to wear a hoodie with a photo of a Jew about to be shot!
The ease with which this marketing pitch was made tells us volumes about the global trivialization and desecration of the Holocaust, even while there are still survivors with tattoos on their arms who witnessed the worst moral depravity in history.
We saw an early indication of what was to come in 1965, with the airing of the comedy series “Hogan’s Heroes” on CBS, with its bumbling Nazi characters. Later, in 1995, “Seinfeld” undermined the depravity of Nazis by introducing a mean shop proprietor, labeling him “the Soup Nazi.”
In the nearly 25 years since, we’ve seen dozens of examples of Holocaust-related terms, or the word “genocide” being applied to situations that are neither appropriate nor analogous.
Israel often is the target of such intentionally misplaced opprobrium. Its defensive barrier is compared to being akin to the Warsaw ghetto.
Editorial cartoonists have been engaged in this for some time, with depictions of Israeli soldiers as Nazis. One that I particularly recall was in the Danish newspaper Politiken. In a play on another famous photo from the Holocaust, in which Nazi soldiers, with guns pointed, are rounding up Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, and a young boy has his hands up, this cartoon substitutes Palestinians for Jews, and Israeli soldiers for Nazis.
And then there was the homework assignment in Oswego County, New York, that asked students to make arguments for or against the “Final Solution.”
Even members of Congress are not immune to the spread of this kind of trivialization. In the debate over health care reform, members from both parties traded barbs that contained Holocaust-era imagery, including references to Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, “the big lie,” and appeasement (as in the Munich Pact, which preceded the outbreak of war in Europe).
Comparisons of undocumented immigrant detention centers to Nazi concentration camps is the most recent example. Pro-BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) legislation introduced in Congress only weeks ago alluded to the need for imposing an economic boycott of Israel, just as we had done with Nazi Germany (and the Soviet Union and South Africa).
Notwithstanding efforts in many places to institute Holocaust education programs, the passage of time has presented Jewish educators and organizations with a tremendous challenge.
A poll commissioned by the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany (known as the Claims Conference) found that among American millennials, “22 percent have not heard of or are not sure if they have heard of the Holocaust.” Further, 41 percent in the poll “believe that 2 million Jews or less were killed in the Holocaust.” And 49 percent could not name one concentration camp or ghetto. An astounding 66 percent were not able to identify the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Research in Canada, Austria and Germany revealed somewhat similar findings. Millennials in the latter two countries felt overwhelmingly that Holocaust education was important (many had participated in such programs); yet in Austria, 17 percent of those polled believed that only “100,000 or fewer Jews were murdered” in the Holocaust.
And that brings us back to the Internet offering for clothing adorned with the searing photo from Vinnitsa. The passage of time, 24/7 coverage of civil wars, executions and a daily plethora of amateur videos of shootouts and shoot-ups that come to us as “Breaking News” have dulled the senses to genocides and violence of historic proportions.
And though there are dueling arguments about the effect of video games, can one really doubt that such fare at least makes young people inured to violence, past or present?
Four decades ago, when I began my career in community relations, I used to have a line in my speeches that said: “There’ll come a time when the last survivor, who was there and could tell us about what he or she experienced, will be gone. And then there will be no one here to answer, with first-person authority, the Holocaust minimizers and deniers.”
We’re close to that point. We need to redouble our efforts, at every level, to educate and remember. Media outlets cannot be flippant or careless when these images and comparisons are aired.
The mega-Internet community, already under fire for allowing “anything goes” content policies to prevail over common sense and good taste, needs to be far more vigilant than it claims it is. And officeholders, at every level, need to dial back completely the kind of harmful hyperbole which often gets a pass for being just good old political rhetoric.
The slippery slope of Holocaust trivialization is upon us. We owe it to the victims, and ourselves, to ensure now that it be reversed.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
In recent weeks, I found myself inundated with front page news headlines, opinion pieces and press releases on the Israeli government’s decision to bar entry to two American congresswomen to the country (it just so happened that these congresswomen also attempted to bring the unfathomable thought of boycotting Israel into the halls of Congress). The outpour of reactions, ranging from disagreement to outrage, from the American Jewish community was striking to me, because in real-time over in Israel, it appears the country could once again be on the verge of war, and this time on several fronts.
Last fall, I attended a briefing on a report by the Jewish Institute for National Security in America (JINSA) titled, “Israel’s Next Northern War: Operational and Legal Challenges.” A fundamental issue the report articulates is that because Hezbollah cannot defeat Israel by force, the Iranian proxy will exploit its next war with Israel in the court of public opinion, further delegitimizing the Jewish State in the international community, even if Israel decisively wins in battle.
Publicly lambasting the Israeli government on the issue of the congresswomen simply gave more fuel to the fire to a media and world community that takes any opportunity to criticize or condemn the one Jewish State. It doesn't seem wise to do so at a time when we should be advocating in the public sphere about the intensifying crisis on Israel’s borders. Perhaps we in the Diaspora need a refresher on Israel’s security concerns. It may not be public knowledge, but Israel cannot afford to lose one battle.
After decades of war, neighboring states in confrontation with Israel realized they could not conquer Israel through the conventional methods of military, air and intelligence warfare. Therefore, Israel’s enemies focused on long-range ballistic missiles and terrorism. In formulating Israel’s security doctrine, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion knew that military victory would always be limited and temporary at best due to the enormous size of the Arab world and geographic and population asymmetry in comparison with Israel. Israel’s single defense goal, therefore, is to ensure its preservation, and as such, it cannot afford to lose one single war. In the decades since Israel’s major conventional wars, and with the ongoing phenomenon of hybrid warfare (where a law-abiding army is confronted by non-state actors and guerilla militias that do not abide by the laws of war), and after the lessons of the 2006 Lebanon War, the IDF expanded the security doctrine and developed a new concept of preemptive warfare: the Campaign Between Wars (CBW). The strategy’s goals are to delay and deter war by weakening the enemy’s force buildup and capabilities, exposing the enemy’s clandestine military activities and creating optimal conditions for Israel if it should face war.
The CBW strategy has been successful thus far in delaying war as it continues to meet its objectives. However, the threats continue to grow, and with recent escalations, the region is arguably ripe for war. Here is a brief rundown on the challenges Israel currently faces on its five fronts in Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, the West Bank and the Sinai Peninsula: As most of us know, at the center of all Israel’s perils lies Iran’s desire for hegemonic control of the region and its desire to wipe Israel off the map. Through Iran’s militias supported by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, Iran’s presence is ever-growing in the region and preventing its military entrenchment (and its unrelenting desire for nuclear weapons) has been Israel’s top priority for years. Israel is currently engaged in a shadow war with Iran through its proxies and forces surrounding Israel’s borders and in Gaza. The risk of a multi-front war is very real.
To Israel’s border in the north with Lebanon sits Iranian--backed Hezbollah—arguably the most powerful non-state actor in the world--which has been stockpiling missiles since the last war in 2006. According to Israeli officials, Hezbollah is currently estimated to have as many as 150,000 missiles, many of which are now much more technologically advanced precision-based missiles, which have the capability to be guided to a specific site—like major Israeli cities. Therefore, in recent months, Israel has made its primary focus thwarting the Hezbollah/Iranian precision-guided missile program. According to the aforementioned report by JINSA, Hezbollah now possesses more firepower than 95 percent of the world’s conventional militaries, and more rockets and missiles than all European NATO members combined. Several serious tit-for-tats with Hezbollah over the last couple of weeks have put the country—and region—on edge, as any escalation can very quickly turn into full-scale war. With Iranian-backed Hezbollah in the north threatening to destroy Israel, this time with the capabilities to wage a damaging war, Israel (and the world community) is on high alert.
To Israel’s northeast, the vacuum for power in Syria has enabled Iran’s ascension. Iran has sought to establish offensive drone bases and military posts in Syria near the Israeli border, and it continues to be met with Israel’s zero tolerance policy. Iran has also attempted to build a land corridor linking Iraq to Syria in order to transfer weapons and move its militias, bringing Iraq into the fray. With the CBW strategy, Israel has been both clandestinely and openly destroying Iran’s encroachments.
It’s been five years since 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, the war with Hamas in Gaza, and though there has been relative quiet over the years, Israel has been tolerating missiles, incendiary balloons sparking dozens of fires, violent border riots, etc. Every so often, due to rocket attacks into Israel, there are skirmishes between the IDF and Hamas, which can very easily spiral into another war campaign. Other Islamist extremists have also found their way through Egypt to the Gaza strip and are now vying for power against Hamas. Believe it or not, Israel faces the threat of even more extreme groups if Hamas should fall.
In the West Bank, violence is mostly contained, though terror ensues on Israeli citizens always. The Palestinian Authority, led by the weakened Mahmoud Abbas and backed by the militant Fatah, could face off with Hamas (they are at war with each other as well) if Abbas should lose power or die in office. The risk of chaos in the West Bank with Iran looming large is a very real threat to the stability and safety of Israel. There is also a soon—to--be unveiled peace plan created by President Trump, which invariably comes with the prospect of unpredictable responses from the Palestinians. If history tells us anything, these responses are usually violent.
To Israel’s southern-most border with Egypt, in the Sinai Peninsula, there remains an ongoing jihadist insurgency due to Egypt’s weak control of the area after the Egyptian Revolution in 2011. This means groups like ISIS and other Islamist militant militias are active, vying for control and fighting Egypt’s security forces right on Israel’s border.
As you can see from this very brief synopsis of the security situation along Israel’s borders, the reality is forbidding. Through the IDF’s strategic “Campaign Between Wars,” they have been mostly successful keeping war at bay, but the reality is that when dealing with irrational actors, it is often very hard to predict tomorrow. So shouldn’t we be spending our time and energy with opinion pieces and press releases on Israel's serious security concerns until that becomes the front page of The New York Times, and not the outrage over two congresswomen? If we don’t spread the knowledge on what Israel’s enemies are up to, who else will? It is our job, as we sit in the safety of the Diaspora, to show the world just what Israel is up against. Without our advocacy, the world’s indifference is deafening.
Rebecca Rose is Associate Director of Young Leadership & Development at B’nai B’rith International. She holds an M.A. in Political Science in Security and Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University.
Recently, I received an early morning phone call from my parents in Europe. While I talk to my parents once a week when they are on vacation, I never receive calls first thing in the morning. I thought to myself that something must be wrong. Making things worse, trying to communicate with my parents was difficult since the phone connection on their cruise was terrible. However, I was able to understand them saying, “Grandpa is in the hospital.” Fortunately, my parents established a better connection and explained my grandfather’s medical situation and that the matter was not an emergency. While not an emergency, at ninety-four, anytime he is in the hospital it’s not small potatoes.
The next few days I was in constant communication with my grandfather, his doctors and my parents. I feel like I got a crash course in medicine, learning about different medications and procedures. Trying to talk with the professionals about the intricacies of his medical situation, and then communicating that information to my parents, often through email, proved to be a challenging, yet doable, task.
After a few days, with his condition still not improving, I decided the best course of action was for me to travel to New York and visit him in the hospital. While packing for my trip, my wife turned around to me and said, “You know, you should write a blog about children and grandchildren who are caregivers for their elderly parents or grandparents. Look at how much time you have spent on the phone over the past few days getting updates on your grandfather’s condition. Can you imagine being a caregiver for a family member day in and day out?”
Consequently, it got me thinking. Who are the millions of people that dedicate their lives to helping their family members in need? Often, caregivers are responsible for helping their family members with mobility issues, cooking meals, shopping, laundry, bathing, companionship and transportation.
Firstly, there about 44 million people who provide unpaid family care to a disabled child, spouse, sibling or parent. Secondly, according to the American Association of Caregiving Youth, there are 1.4 million children between 8 and 18 who are caregivers, and the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, reports that 10 percent of older Americans in their 60s and 12 percent of seniors in their 70s whose parents are living, serve as caregivers. The number of children and seniors who are caregivers was not a statistic I was expecting to discover. It’s hard to imagine someone who is 8 or 79 serving as a caregiver.
While people often are happy to be caregivers for loved ones, the devotion comes with a price. For instance, there is a financial burden placed upon caregivers who are performing unpaid labor. Sadly, the financial costs run deeper than simply not receiving a paycheck because often caregivers are forced to quit their paying job or reduce their hours. This is problematic because it causes people to have reduced pay, which can have lasting consequences on people’s pensions, Social Security earnings and 401k accounts. Furthermore, when adults serve as caregivers, it can lead to problems for their own health. Research discovered that caregivers, despite going to doctor’s visits with family members, are less likely to take preventive health care measures such regularly monitoring their blood pressure and having mammograms and colonoscopies. For children, the negative effects of being a caregiver can manifest themselves when they conflict with homework, socialization with peers and a student’s ability to concentrate in class.
So now that we know a problem exists for caregivers, how can we provide a fix? As I mentioned in a previous blog, “Paid Family Leave: It Impacts Seniors Too!,” Senator Kirstin Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) introduced legislation in Congress that would provide people paid leave in the event they have to look after a sick parent. While this would only help people who are temporary caregivers, at least it’s a start. Other ideas include a caregiver tax credit or allowing caregivers to earn a credit towards future Social Security earnings.
Upon reflection, my week of monitoring my grandfather’s medical condition was easy, compared to the countless tasks caregivers are required to perform every day. Fortunately, my grandfather got better and returned home! Unfortunately, all too often, countless children and seniors must assume a caregiver role that requires them to make sacrifices for a loved one. Hopefully, through public awareness and legislative fixes, we can make policy changes that ensure the financial, physical and emotional wellbeing of caregivers of all ages!
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.
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