CEO Op-ed in The Portuguese News: Working Together to Face Challenges to the Portuguese and European Jewish Communities
Over 40 years ago, on a visit to Israel, I learned from my cousin Chaya that our forebears may have originated in Portugal.
My mother was born in Lithuania, as was Chaya, her first cousin. They came from a small shtetl not far from Vilna, and frankly, most of our relatives had probably not given too much thought as to where our family might have originated. After all, the first Jews are believed to have arrived in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the late 14th century. That was pretty far back in time.
Many in my mother’s family came to America decades before the Holocaust. Chaya made her way to pre-state Israel in 1934. We know of only one relative who survived the Shoah, who later made his way to Israel after the war. All of our other family in Lithuania was killed.
I was excited to hear that Chaya had done some research at one of Israel’s universities and was convinced that our origins were in Portugal. Her maiden name, and my mother’s, was “Berzak.” Chaya concluded that a Portuguese rabbi, Elkanah Bar Zera Kodesh, had been among those who left Portugal in the expulsion of the Jews at the end of the 15th century. The acronym for the rabbi’s name became “Berzak.” It is likely he or his descendants made their way to Hamburg, which was a jumping off point for many who arrived in Lithuania in the late Middle Ages.
I tell you all of this because I take a special pride both in the rich history of the Jews in Portugal, and today, in the rebirth of the Portuguese Jewish community. In Porto, which I had the opportunity to visit some months ago, the beautifully maintained Kedoorie Synagogue, the establishment of two excellent museums, a kosher restaurant and an active local community are all to be admired at a time when Jewish communities everywhere are debating the best way to ensure Jewish continuity and communal life in the still-new century.
But that is not the only challenge Portuguese, and by extension European Jewry, is facing. We have seen, over the past two decades, a tremendous spike in anti-Semitism—some of it emanating from the populist right or ultra-nationalist quarters, and some from the left and Islamic extremists. This perfect storm of Jew hatred has spread throughout Europe at viral speed, energized by social media and its “influencers.”
That anti-Semitism is present in Europe comes as no surprise to anyone. That it remains ensconced in country after country within the living memory of those who were victims of and witnessed Hitler’s barbarity, and with it the worst crimes ever perpetrated on the Jewish people, is reprehensible.
B’nai B’rith, founded in the United States in 1843, but which has been present on the European continent since the last quarter of the 19th century, knows of this hatred firsthand. We confronted and battled anti-Semitism wherever it manifested itself here in the United States and in those places where we established a presence abroad.
In 1933, on the eve of Hitler’s coming to power, our organization had more than 100 branches in Germany alone, and in many other countries throughout the continent. At the war’s end, and as a result of the Holocaust, we had to re-build on the ashes of the devastation that befell European Jewry in Germany, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, former Yugoslavia and so many other places.
Anti-Semitism is the world’s oldest, most persistent and resistant form of hatred. It sprouts and flourishes where there are substantial Jewish populations—or no Jewish communities at all. It thrives on lies and distortions, on envy and a perverse taste for inflicting harm—mental and physical. And it often operates with the approbation of public figures and some in the media, who use it for political gain or to attract new followers, readers or viewers.
B’nai B’rith itself has been on the receiving end of this malicious, hateful behavior. In days past, it might be like that which used to appear in the Soviet press, when we were called “the first violin in the Zionist orchestra.” Today, you’ll see it on websites, even those which claim to be legitimate press outlets. Some continue to ply old, shopworn and outrageous tropes about us, and Jews generally, suggesting “secretive” powers of manipulation and control over the media, banks and everyone else.
Clearly, when it comes to anti-Semitism in Europe, the more things change, the more they stay in the same.
What can we do about all of this? Years ago, B’nai B’rith opened an EU Affairs office in Brussels, to create awareness of anti-Semitism on the continent at the European Commission, the European Parliament and other bodies (including the Council of Europe in Strasbourg). We work closely with the very able Katharina von Schnurbein, the European Commission Coordinator on Combating Anti-Semitism and Fostering Jewish Life, and with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions (ODIHR) to create new approaches to confronting Jew hatred Europe-wide.
In recent years, in several countries in Europe, there has been an assault--in the name of animal rights-- on the right of Jews to engage in the practice of shechita, or kosher slaughter, abrogating our right to freely exercise our religion. Bans and restrictions have been imposed in a number of countries in Europe, most recently in the Belgian regions of Wallonia and Flanders, and in Greece. Other initiatives have been afoot to ban circumcision, or brit milah. B’nai B’rith has been in the forefront of those speaking out loudly against attempts to roll back freedom of religion in a democratic Europe.
B’nai B’rith was among the earliest advocates for a standard working definition of anti-Semitism that could be used to clearly identify its manifestations, and not allow political leaders, the media, judges and others to either deny it or to nuance it away. That definition was adopted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), a consortium of 35 countries committed to Holocaust research and remembrance. Portugal is a member of IHRA and in 2019 adopted the working definition. A growing number of countries, provinces, municipalities, universities, sports federations and others are joining the list of those who endorse it.
Additionally, we have pressed various governments in Europe to facilitate Holocaust-era restitution to survivors and their families, and promoted Holocaust remembrance and education initiatives.
With all of this, so much more remains to be done. Much contemporary anti-Semitism emanates from various bodies of the United Nations, especially, but not only at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Israel is singled out continuously in resolution after resolution for carrying out the worst possible human rights violations. The lopsided votes against Israel often include many countries—some of them in Europe—who should know better. They often “go along to get along,” signing on to the annual festival of calumnies against the Jewish State. Recently, this activity has spilled over to agencies like the World Health Organization.
Which brings me back to Portugal. Our history there came to such an abrupt stop at the end of the 15th century. The thought has often crossed my mind, what if there had been no disputations, no expulsion, no Inquisition, no auto da fès and no burnings at the stake? Unfortunately, “what if’s” have no answers, just speculation. What we can imagine, with some certainty, is that the community would be one of the world’s largest and its contributions to Portuguese and Jewish life immense.
For the Jewish people, numbers don’t really speak to what we have contributed to civilization writ large, and to European culture, science, education and commerce over the centuries. That continues today. What we lack in size, we have been able to compensate by our solidarity, based on shared history, values, traditions, a common ancient—and modern—language and so many other intangibles that make us a justifiably proud and creative people.
B’nai B’rith is proud to be a partner in the renaissance of Jewish life in Portugal and an ally in the fight against anti-Semitism, one of the seminal challenges of the day. We’ll work together to find friends and allies who can join us in confronting it. We’ll continue to speak out in those fora in Europe to advance the message that anti-Semitism, in the 21st century, is totally unacceptable anywhere, anyhow. And we’ll be there together with you in support of Israel, our ancient homeland.
As we begin the new calendar year, let’s all pray that the year ahead is one of new accomplishments for your community, and for peace and security for Israel, and for each of us, wherever we call home—always in good health.
Read the op-ed in The Portuguese News.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
(June 27, 2021 / JNS) Young adults fresh out of school understand the anxiety associated with taking a test. The amount of preparation can be daunting. But when it comes to taking a test about anti-Semitism, Judaism or Israel, how much do young adults really know these days? I framed this question at the first B’nai B’rith Portugal European Young Leaders Program on June 21 at the new Oporto Holocaust Museum, the first such institution in the country.
The adults in the audience, young and older, certainly could relate to the universal pressures of taking an important test, whether their subjects were marketing, management or dentistry. But in a time when young adults generally are far less knowledgeable or savvy about such matters as Judaism and the Jewish state, one wonders more broadly how prepared the next generation is to handle the challenges facing them on college campuses or in the workplace, where Jews have felt pressures heaped on them recently by antagonizing and attacking anti-Israel/anti-Semitic forces.
Sadly, most students are woefully ill-prepared or ill-informed about such matters, leaving them vulnerable to believing whatever they are told by peers, and fearful as to what attacker may lurk around the corner. Perhaps students, armed with the truth, would be able to defend themselves.
Clearly the Jewish people have been tested through time. They have survived adversity through great civilizations, tyrants, impossible circumstances, expulsions, pogroms and gas chambers. Amid all of their wondrous achievements and successes, they have faced inexorable pain. Portugal witnessed 20 percent of its population evaporate in 1497 from the Inquisition and expulsion of Jews, and Europe lost at least 33 percent of its Jews from 1933 to 1945.
For thousands of years, Jews have absorbed being demonized, persecuted and subjected to blood libels that stripped them of their humanity. The defense in common libel matters of American jurisprudence is the truth.
So, the young adults in Porto’s Holocaust museum this day were advised that the truth is readily available, and that they must pursue it to counter—and hopefully reduce—damaging falsehoods. The test for which they must prepare will require time and commitment for study. They must have the mentorship and guidance of an older generation, thus making this process something that is delivered from generation to generation.
The Porto conference taught them about the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism from Ambassador Luis Barreiros, Portugal’s delegation head to the IHRA committee. The definition has been adopted by more than 30 countries, universities, organizations, large businesses, even premier sports leagues.
However, some groups, even Jewish groups, have considered it “not perfect,” as it is “misunderstood and misused” because of its support for the existence and defense of the State of Israel. “But it is the best tool,” Barreiros said, “to fight the scourges of anti-Semitism, so let’s use it.”
He added that the definition helps identify warning lights and signs against Jew-hatred. “Half-truths are more dangerous than a full lie,” he said.
Daniel S. Mariaschin, CEO of B’nai B’rith International, whose organization endorses and promotes the IHRA definition, praised the measure and actually participated in the earliest meetings in Stockholm during the late 1990s.
“Israel’s enemies and those who seek to undermine it consistently hide behind the “free speech” argument,” Mariaschin said. “Theirs is surely not critical opinion; it is the equivalent of shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded movie theater. Their language is that of incitement. When one says that Israel is an ‘apartheid state,’ that it engages in ‘state terror’ and that its security fence is akin to the Warsaw Ghetto, they are deliberately engaging in what amounts to anti-Semitic smear tactics.”
Other red lines crossed, Mariaschin said, included a U.N. resolution in 1975 equating Zionism with racism, suggesting that if you are a Zionist—someone who identifies Israel as the eternal homeland for the Jewish people—then you are a racist. The effects of that resolution are very much with us today. He said that Jews need to re-double efforts at educating ourselves about Jewish and Israeli history to counter the verbal assaults.
“We live in a time when historical context is deemed expendable,” Mariaschin said. “We mustn’t allow those who seek to delegitimize and demonize Israel to selectively put forth wildly biased narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That’s why it is vitally important to know our own history, if we are to push back effectively in a time when Israel is demeaned daily, especially on social media.”
Raphael Gamzou, Israel’s ambassador to Portugal, reminded the audience that Israel was bombarded mercilessly with “moral equivalency arguments” in assessing responses to thousands of missiles raining down on Israel from Gaza.
“I never claim Israel is a flawless country, but the missile attacks were such a flagrant violation, and to follow up with comments about moral equivalency is outrageous,” he said. “There is no more moral army in the world than the IDF. Our enemies are going to complain that we have a weapon that not only keeps rockets from falling on its own people, but keeps rockets from falling on Palestinians. We wish we didn’t have to protect ourselves from missile attacks, but we do. This is war.”
Asked about the prospects of another Holocaust against the Jews and the rise of anti-Semitism, he said, “With Israel as a thriving nation, I see no option for another Holocaust against the Jewish people,” he said. “We will have to continue developing Israel as a moral and democratic country to encourage additional agreements, such as the Abraham Accords. And we will need to continue building bridges between the Diaspora and a healthy Israel. As for anti-Semitism, we’ve faced it for thousands of years, and I’m afraid it is here for the long haul … unfortunately.”
Jews will continue to be tested, so you are urged to study Jewish and Israel history very diligently. Only with such preparation will today’s and tomorrow’s generations be able to survive.
The conference concluded the next day with roundtable discussions and congratulatory messages from Porto community benefactors Michael Kadoorie and Jacob Safra.
Read President Kaufman's analysis on JNS.org.
Charles O. Kaufman is president of B'nai B'rith International.
CEO Op-ed in the Algemeiner: Why the IHRA Handbook on Anti-Semitism — Not Just Its Definition — Is Needed
The year 2020 will be marked as, among other distinctions, a time of unbridled global antisemitism. The phenomenon is growing from three sources — the radical Left, the extreme Right, and Islamists — but while that doesn’t tell the full story, it does provide a spectrum that indicates how widely this particular virus has spread.
This unbridled antisemitism demonstrates why a new handbook of definitions is so important. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), in conjunction with the European Commission and with the support of the recent German presidency of the EU, has published this new guide.
Based on extensive research conducted by RIAS, the German Federal Association of Departments for Research and Information on antisemitism, the handbook is a first-of-its-kind best-practices guide for use in such fields as law enforcement, the judiciary, education, international bodies, funding institutions, and civil society.
The handbook connects the IHRA document to real life examples — which helps to make it a real “working” definition.
Making the battle against antisemitism relevant to individual branches of government, or to educators, will help to monitor, identify, respond to, and counteract antisemitism in the open or in dark corners of society across the European continent and beyond.
In 2016, the IHRA, a consortium of countries committed to Holocaust education and remembrance, adopted a working definition of antisemitism. It was not intended to be a detailed, deep dive into the causes and manifestations of this millennia-old hatred. It was meant, rather, to speak to categories of Jew-hatred, both classic and contemporary.
Its recognition of how the existence of Israel has worked its way into the repertoire of antisemites has been vitally important in helping those fighting antisemitism to pull the veil off “legitimate criticism of Israel” from those who advocate the elimination of the Jewish state.
In this regard, the working definition states, for example, that antisemitism includes “accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.” Antisemitism is also “accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interest of their own nations.” Or, as we see almost every day somewhere in the world, “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
To date, 28 countries have adopted the IHRA working definition, and the number continues to grow. Provincial, state, and local governments are doing the same, as are organizations as diverse as the Argentine Football Federation and the Global Imams Council.
More countries, state and local governments, agencies, and non-governmental organizations need to add their support and buy in.
But equally important is how the definition will be applied, and by whom. That is where the handbook comes in.
Expressions of antisemitism know no borders. The hierarchy of leadership in Iran regularly spews antisemitism, often using Nazi imagery; Israel is frequently referred to as a “cancer” that needs to be excised. Genocidal calls for Israel’s destruction are daily features in Iranian media. And Tehran is known for its “leadership” in the Holocaust denial arena.
Over the past 12 months in Europe, we witnessed a concerted campaign by the neo-Fascist Nordic Resistance Movement to intimidate Jews in their places of worship and in communal spaces. A kosher restaurant in France, the scene of countless acts of antisemitism, was vandalized with tags of “Hitler was right,” “Jews get out,” and “Free Palestine.”
In Greece, multiple cemeteries were vandalized; rabbis were attacked on the street in Berlin and Vienna; and in Germany, on the holiday of Sukkot, a synagogue was attacked in Hamburg, just days before the one-year commemoration of the Yom Kippur attack on a synagogue in Halle.
And already this year, the European Court of Justice ruled that individual European Union member states can legislate against kosher ritual slaughter, or shechita. Already some countries place restrictions tantamount to a ban on the practice, including Sweden, Denmark, Finland, regions of Belgium, and non-EU member Switzerland. Efforts to ban circumcision, or brit milah, have been similarly underway in Europe for some time — though without much success at this point.
Denying Jews the right to these essential acts of religious freedom, especially on European soil, where the greatest crimes against the Jewish people were perpetrated, is not just “discriminatory.” All of this places Jews in an “other” or outcast category, which is unacceptable, and can only be read as antisemitic.
And, lest some think antisemites cannot bring back classic blood libel charges against Jews from the Middle Ages, the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University reported last summer that there were widespread assertions that Israel or Jews as a whole were responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early stages of the pandemic, websites charged Israel with creating the virus in order to manufacture vaccines for it, from which it would profit.
With reports indicating a continuing rise in antisemitic incidents on college campuses, an arsonist set fire to the University of Delaware’s Chabad Center just as the school year opened in the fall. Earlier this month, among those demonstrators storming the US Capitol were those wearing clothing adorned with Nazi imagery, including a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie.
Much antisemitism from the far-left focuses on Israel and Zionism, with comparisons to apartheid South Africa and condemnations of “the occupation.” From the extreme right, classic charges of control of the media and banks are rolled out in new 21st century wrappers, but their message of hate remains the same. And notwithstanding the much-welcomed rapprochement between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors, many in the Arab and Islamist media — particularly, but not limited to, the Palestinian media — spin webs of antisemitic rhetoric on a daily basis. The common denominator to all of this is hatred of Jews.
In our community, there are many whose innate antennae can identify antisemitism from the proverbial 36,000 feet. But others are less likely to recognize the nuances of it when it appears. The IHRA handbook will be a vital resource for them.
The working definition and the new IHRA handbook are not a cure for history’s oldest social virus. Much more needs to be done. Holocaust denial continues to grow, as the dwindling number of survivors reach the end of their lives. Recent studies reveal an astonishing lack of knowledge about the Holocaust among millennials and Generation Z’ers, which obligates us to grow Holocaust education programs in our schools and universities.
And then there is the Internet, which has had a multiplier effect, as antisemitic conspiracy theories and outright rants run rampant on our laptops and tablets. The major social media platforms must confront the role they are playing as enablers of such combustible language.
In the 21st century, combating antisemitism requires new tools and means to join the battle. The IHRA handbook is a welcome addition to the resources we need to get the job done. If it sits on the shelf, it will have been a noble, but wasted effort. We need to encourage its wide distribution, and especially advocate for its recommendations and practices to be put to good use.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis in the Algemeiner.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
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