This Jan. 5 (27 Kislev in the Hebrew calendar) marked the 163rd birthday of Eliezer ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, and the ninth iteration of Hebrew Language Day, established by the Knesset legislation in 2010 to promote the Hebrew language in Israel and around the world.
In past years, the day was the centerpiece of a week-long celebration of the Hebrew language in its modern form. Major events took place around the country and in the media, anchored by a conference in Rishon LeZion—where the Haviv elementary school (est. 1886) has the distinction of being the first exclusively Hebrew-speaking school founded in the modern era—with the participation of thousands. This year’s celebrations were muted due to the COVID-19 crisis and migrated exclusively to the internet where the only live event was a visually boring interchange between four linguists in a sterile, corona-appropriate room.
The revival of Hebrew into the vibrant, contemporary and adaptable language that it is today was no easy task and is viewed as one of the modern miracles of the State of Israel, if not the most remarkable of them. Many of the early initiatives that ensured that miracle was undertaken directly or indirectly by the B’nai B’rith Jerusalem Lodge.
A small band of determined men led by Ben Yehuda were Hebrew’s very first chief protagonists, and they were all members of the B’nai B’rith Jerusalem Lodge, established in 1888. The lodge was called “a center of visions” by Ben Yehuda, who served as its first secretary, and it indeed became the unofficial cultural center in the turn-of-the-century New Yeshuv of Jerusalem, with the role of Hebrew being only one of a number of fundamental goals promoted by the lodge.
Believing that a Jewish national renaissance was conceivable only if it was consciously rooted in the Hebrew language and culture, the Jerusalem Lodge was the first public body in pre-state Israel to set Hebrew as its official language—the language in which Ben Yehuda penned the lodge’s first minutes (although each member had the right to speak in the language of his choice).
In 1889—just a year after the lodge’s founding—a number of young members established “Safa Berurah” (Clear Language Society) as the first organization aimed at “spreading the Hebrew language and speech among people in all walks of life.” The lodge pledged to “strive its utmost to revive the language and support the organization at all times according to our ability.” A year later this group founded the Va’ad Ha-Lashon ha-Ivrit (The Hebrew Language Committee), which published books, dictionaries, bulletins and periodicals, inventing thousands of new words. The Committee also created a uniform pronunciation of Hebrew speech out of the Babel-like variations reflected in the accents of Jews immigrating into Ottoman-era Eretz Israel from different parts of the Empire and Europe.
In 1903, the Jerusalem Lodge took another bold step to bridge the cultural and ethnic differences in the Yishuv and encourage the use of Hebrew by founding the first Hebrew-
speaking kindergarten in Jerusalem (the two first Hebrew-speaking kindergartens were established in Rishon LeZion in 1898 and in Jaffa in 1902).
Despite opposition by the ultra-Orthodox, the kindergarten was quickly filled to capacity and two additional kindergartens were founded by the lodge in other parts of the city, together educating hundreds of children from all walks of life to use Hebrew as their main language and infusing it into their homes. B’nai B’rith subsequently established a seminary for kindergarten teachers in Jerusalem, and the lodges in Jaffa, Safed, Tiberias, Rehovot, Haifa and Beirut also established Hebrew-language kindergartens.
The predominance of Hebrew in pre-state Israel was not assured without a war—albeit non-violent: the 1913 War of the Languages—in which Hebrew emerged victorious against German as the language of instruction in higher education. But by the time the war was fought, the predominance of Hebrew was being won with the new generation as scores of youngsters learned to speak what was destined to become the national tongue, thanks in part to B’nai B’rith.
When the War of Languages erupted, the Jerusalem Lodge was the only framework in which both principal protagonists—Efraim Cohen, who supported German-language instruction, and David Yellin, who supported Hebrew—were members. In response to a petition from the B’nai B’rith lodge in Constantinople, the Jerusalem lodge made efforts to reach a negotiated settlement to the conflict that had repercussions beyond the borders of Israel.
All of this was important to the Jerusalem Lodge because it fashioned itself as the only institution at the time that opened its doors to Jews of all ethnicities and from its inception set out to meld the fragmented Jewish sects in the city into a single Israelite community. Hebrew, though not yet the lingua franca of the New Yishuv, was the only common language of its Ashkenazi and Sephardi members, and the importance of maintaining its use at lodge meetings was constantly stressed.
The Committee of the Hebrew Language officially morphed into the Academy of the Hebrew Language under law in 1953, but already in 1929 the Jerusalem Lodge had drafted a declaration inspired by Israel’s national poet, Haim Nachman Bialik, to establish the Academy. The declaration, signed by some of the original members of Hebrew Language Committee—among them David Yellin and Professor Yosef Klausner—stated B’nai B’rith’s “special right to approach this large and daring task because it was the first pioneer as an organized civic body to revive the Hebrew language in the Land of Israel.”
Together with the establishment of the precursor to the National Library, which also played an important role in revising the Hebrew language and literature, B’nai B’rith can be proud in this celebratory week of the role it played in one of the great chapters of the renaissance of the Jewish people in Israel over the last 130 years—the revival of the Hebrew language.
It is therefore only appropriate that B'nai B'rith will soon initiate a conference at the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)—where it holds consultative NGO status—showcasing the unique ways in which Hebrew survived 2,000 years of detachment from its indigenous land to be revived as Jews began to return in significant numbers to the Land of Israel at the end of the 19th century. We will do this with pride, in recognition of the monumental contribution of our organizational antecedents to this process.
At the turn of the 21st century, much of the world feared computers around the world would crash, setting off all kinds of millennial chaos. It didn’t happen. Clocks continued to tick; computers continued to run.
For the United Nations, perhaps the time was right for another chance to rid the world of racism, end slavery, and sex trafficking of women and children. Perhaps it was time to conquer famine and disease. In 2001, planning for the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance took shape. The site for this noble, if not symbolic event, was Durban, a location on the southern coast of Africa, a continent racked by all of the above problems.
As often happens with the United Nations, a space built on visions of peace, the event aimed at fighting humanity’s millennia-old maladies would devolve into a hatefest. Durban, instead, would become a battleground against an ancient people who’d build an identity from receiving a divine code of human behavior and entering a sliver of real estate bordering the Mediterranean. Four days into the event, the United States and Israel withdrew their delegations in protest.
Twenty years after Durban, the very United Nations that organized and promoted the original Durban Conference announced another round of fighting human rights and racism. Fast-forward 20 years into the 21st century. Something called the “Durban Declaration and Programme of Action” (DDPA) is planned to offer “discussions” that will become a report to be presented to the U.N. General Assembly at its 76th session in 2021 and the Human Rights Council’s 45th session. Can’t wait. And neither can Iran.
The representative of Iran requested that on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the DDPA, the Intergovernmental Working Group would “address the wide range of issues addressed in the DDPA, as well as the new manifestations of discrimination,” in particular issues of “xenophobia and Islamophobia.” So full of irony is this request from one of the chief violators of human rights in the world that one can only wonder if such a request from this member-nation makes the entire event a nonstarter, at least for the United States and Israel.
Other nations have requested that the 20th anniversary of Durban be celebrated with “one thematic event” in Geneva and one “high-level political event” in New York. Other groups requested producing promotional materials and “high visibility” from such countries as South Africa and Cuba, among others. Much, if not all, of the free world must wonder if the phrase “well-intentioned” has a chance to be relevant here. What’s more, the plans call for member states, intergovernmental organizations and non-governmental organizations, of which B’nai B’rith International is so credentialed, to organize and participate in the Durban 20th anniversary programs.
The framework for this meeting is beginning to sound awfully like something the world has already witnessed in the first Durban Conference. Are we headed for Durban déjà vu—another hatefest?
When the governments of Iran, Cuba and South Africa figure prominently in the planning, it’s reasonable to feel skepticism. Will the funds budgeted for this conference perpetuate United Nations bias against Israel? This funding could surely be better spent on reducing famine and sickness.
What else would make such a conference fruitful? Dream about these developments: the U.N. conference opens with a salute to Gulf States and other countries seeking peace and normalized relations with Israel. The Palestinian Authority declares the end of its covenant to destroy the State of Israel. Gone is the drumbeat of language declaring Israel an “apartheid state.” A new Palestinian government replaces its covenant and ceases uttering the refrain about how Israel targets innocent children and stops claiming the Temple Mount and the Western Wall have no attachment to the Jewish people. Imagine the progress in such a world. Nice dream. (Snap) Wake up.
Twenty years ago, while people from the free world were packing for Durban, pre-conference documents assailed Israel for “the racist practices of Zionism.” In 2021, contrary to popular belief, many in the world understand and appreciate positive contributions of Muslims and their faith in God. At the same time, no one can honestly deny Islamophobia or xenophobia of any kind, particularly when significant parts of the world live with extremist threats to kill other people, destroy other faiths or cultures and “annihilate” Israel.
Twenty years ago, delegations condemned Israel for her “treatment of Palestinians” in defending her borders. Never mind the relentless terror directed at Israel, the tunneling, kidnappings, stabbings of civilians, the firing missiles at Israeli towns from Gaza homes, schools, hospitals, even mosques.
The DDPA should try again to promote racial reconciliation, to construct a message of peace and harmony and do what the United Nations was designed to do since 1945 — “to prevent conflict, to help parties in conflict to make peace or to create conditions to allow peace to hold and flourish.” Avoid Durban Déjà vu.
Read President Kaufman's expert analysis in Inside Sources.
Charles O. Kaufman is president of B'nai B'rith International.
More than two months have passed since Dick (as we called him) Schifter left us, at age 97. And even though it would be impossible to express in just a few lines what it meant to our organization, and to me personally, to work with him, I felt the need to write about how blessed we were to be able to meet him, and learn from him.
About 10 years ago, he came to B’nai B’rith as Chairman of AJIRI (the American Jewish International Relations Institute), an organization he had founded some years earlier, to combat anti-Israel bias at the United Nations.
His profound knowledge of the United Nations system, a product of his years representing the United States at the U.N. in different capacities, was truly impressive. He was interested in working with B’nai B’rith, among other things, because of our name recognition and presence in so many countries around the world. But there was also, from the very beginning, a great personal connection between him and our CEO Dan Mariaschin, whom he often described as a “Mensch” (Yiddish for “gentleman”). For us, it was truly an honor to work with someone of his caliber, integrity and knowledge.
I was at the time B’nai B’rith’s assistant director for Latin American Affairs, and he was interested in working with me to try to change the way several Latin American countries voted at the U.N. General Assembly, on Israel-related resolutions.
Dick was a person who cared deeply about justice. His opposition to the grotesque mistreatment of Israel at the United Nations had to do not only with his desire to support Israel and the Jewish people, but also, and most importantly, with his deep conviction about the intrinsic justice of this cause.
He was also a deeply humble human being. He never spoke about his life achievements, which were too many to count. And every time I would tell him that he was too humble, he would tell me: “you know that I do not promote myself. Our cause is what really matters."
His preoccupation with the U.N. had to do with his strong belief that the powerful anti-Israel propaganda apparatus that operates out of the U.N. building in New York hindered the prospects of a peaceful, negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He focused particularly on two U.N. entities, whose funding is yearly renewed by the U.N. General Assembly: The Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP), and the Division for Palestinian Rights (DPR). He firmly believed that, by endorsing the most extreme Palestinian narrative, these two entities placed a serious obstacle to the achievement of a two-state solution.
Dick was absolutely right. CEIRPP and DPR work all year long to promote the so-called “right of return” of the more than 5 million Palestinians who are still considered “refugees” by the U.N., to what is now the State of Israel. In fact, only one percent of these people are original refugees from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. The other 99 percent are the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original refugees, something that has no precedent in international law. The Palestinians are the only people in the world whose refugee status passes from generation to generation, indefinitely, along the paternal line.
The mass migration of more than 5 million Palestinians to Israel is something that no Israeli government—left, right or center—could ever accept as it would mean the end of Israel as a majority Jewish state, and the creation of yet another Arab state, “from the river to the sea.” This is why the insistence on the “right of return” is in fact a weapon to destroy Israel, and the single most important obstacle to the achievement of a peaceful solution to the conflict.
As Dick used to put it, as long as U.N. member states continue to endorse the right of return by re-authorizing the operations of CEIRPP and DPR, the Palestinians will continue to believe that the U.N. will help them destroy Israel through demographic means, and will have no incentives to enter into meaningful peace negotiations.
The many other anti-Israel resolutions that proliferate at the U.N. were of little interest to Dick, as he knew that they were mostly declaratory. But CEIRPP and DPR were at the heart of the U.N. anti-Israel propaganda apparatus, and conducted a yearlong anti-Israel campaign, paid with U.N. funds. They were also responsible for most other anti-Israel resolutions and initiatives within the U.N. system and beyond.
An expert on vote counting (something he had learned from his years in Maryland politics), and in possession of an extraordinary legal mind, he carefully studied the U.N. Charter and realized that, as these resolutions required funding, a two-thirds majority was needed to get them approved. Therefore, defeating them was not an impossible task. He decided to devote himself to this cause the last years of his life. And we at B’nai B’rith had the privilege of joining him in this effort. Over the years, we had several achievements in our diplomatic efforts, but a lot remains to be done.
The Abraham Accords completely reshaped the landscape of the Middle East, and we are witnessing how several Arab and Muslim countries leave their hostility behind to come closer to Israel. However, we don’t see this trend within the current Palestinian leadership. Dick was convinced that the U.N. was the last stronghold of support for the most extreme positions of the Palestinian Authority. And that only when the U.N. abandons this position will peace be possible.
Just a few days prior to Dick’s passing, B’nai B’rith and AJIRI formally partnered, and a new institute named AJIRI-BBI was formed. His son Rick has now kindly assumed the chairmanship and, together with Gil Kapen, a member of the board who has also been a great collaborator of Dick for over a decade, we will continue to work to make sure his legacy is preserved. But Dick's inspiration and wisdom will be forever missed.
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.
In this last month of the year, the United Nations General Assembly established that “Israel must renounce to have nuclear weapons” in a vote of 153 for, 6 against and 25 abstentions.
Israel was asked not “to develop, produce, test or buy nuclear weapons.” Israel was also asked to “renounce possession of nuclear weapons and to submit all its nuclear facilities without safeguards to the U.N. requested safeguards as a step forward toward trust among the States in the region and as a step forward to improve peace and security.”
The U.N. presumes that Israel is one of the nine nuclear powers of the world, but Israel has never admitted any possession of nuclear weapons and nobody has ever demonstrated that the U.N.’s presumption is true. There are eight countries which are recognized as nuclear powers; five of them – China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States – have signed the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. India, North Korea and Pakistan have not signed the Treaty but have admitted having, and testing, nuclear weapons.
Those 153 countries voting “for” decided to make an exclusive call to Israel, asking Israel to sign the treaty under the accusation of “the risk of nuclear proliferation in Middle East.” The resolution is part of two U.N. packages. One, asking all the world globally and generally for a nuclear dismantling, but singling out by name only Israel. The other package is the endless litany of more then 20 resolutions per year singling out only one country: Israel. Meanwhile, chemical weapons can be used in Syria, millions of civilians are displaced by the Venezuelan dictatorship creating a hunger crisis in the region, the extent of which has never been known before; and except for useless reports which nobody pays attention, the U.N. agencies are not interested in such tragedies.
There were some more-than-disconcerting votes on these resolutions. While Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE (which have peace treaties with Israel) were among the sponsors of the resolutions, there are differing interpretations as to why — not the least of which is the need to play to a broader Arab constituency.
Perhaps more alarming were the abstentions of 15 European countries, Australia and some African countries. It is unacceptable that all Latin America voted for the resolution, with only Panama abstaining. It is a very serious mistake that Latin America, hidden under the alleged umbrella called GRULAC (Latin American Group) voted almost unanimously against Israel in such a sensitive question as nuclear weapons. It is indeed odd that Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Costa Rica, Paraguay or Uruguay voted together with Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia. No U.N. resolution supported by Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia should ever be shared by democracies.
But the U.N. obsession with Israel is not new. The language about nuclear weapons, and presuming that Israel has those weapons, is the same for more than 30 years. Such a resolution was voted in 2019, and in 2018, and so on. Meanwhile the countries with nuclear weapons have increased their capabilities. North Korea has openly shown it is increasing its arsenal, and no resolution has come to the table. The United Nations General Assembly wants to show by these votes that the only danger in the Middle East and beyond is Israel.
Iran signed an agreement about the nuclear weapons that the Ayatollah´s regime wants and does not have yet. Iran regularly lies to the U.N. and to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran uses the U.N. stages to threaten Israel and to “promise” the destruction of Israel. The U.N. GA has never discussed the behavior and threats of Iran when once a year the almost 200 countries “discuss” the “dangers” in the Middle East.
The changes in the resolution about nuclear weapons in the last three decades have been ideological, but no country has even tried to show real concern for the main issue: nuclear advances put all the planet in danger. The resolution was not obsessed with Israel 30 years ago. And at that time, all of Latin America, without exception, abstained. But today Venezuela, as a Latin America host of Iran and Hezbollah, opens the windows of danger everyday.
Early Dec. 2nd, in one of the sessions with five votes against Israel, Latin America showed how its votes have changed in the last decade or so. And it happened almost all this year and will likely repeat in the next year.
How is Latin America divided today vis a vis Israel in U.N. agencies? Brazil, Colombia, Honduras and Guatemala are with Israel. Their governments do not believe in the litany of charges against Israel or in the harassment of Israel. Panama, Peru, Paraguay and Uruguay are abstaining in most of the resolutions and mainly in those that support the Palestinian offices which get a great amount of funds and use them to incite hatred instead of solving the problems of the Palestinian people. And the rest: Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Costa Rica? Some time they could abstain but in general, sadly, they vote together with Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran and North Korea.
Maybe these Latin American democracies voting together with dictatorships against Israel believe that they may have sometimes some political or economic benefit. But these votes, irrelevant and noisy as they usually are, stay on the record and are well registered. And there are stains that can't be cleaned. As simple as that.
Who says the pandemic has killed theater in New York? It thrives at one of the world’s largest stages – the United Nations. In no other place in the world does comedy and tragedy mix with such demonic fanfare. While the ever-popular Lion King is scheduled to resume in June 2021 at the Minskoff Theatre, the Lying King continued its notorious run last week at the UN General Assembly.
What began with “Palestinian Solidarity Day” weeks ago ended with nothing more than another round of votes to appease Palestinians and allow them to perpetuate their victim-for-profit campaign. As the dust settles from the latest round of UN voting, we find nothing has changed, albeit the number of “Yes” votes is declining. The “All The World’s a Stage Theater” allows Palestinians merely to add to the list of anti-Israel resolutions and build on anti-Israel bias. Beyond screaming headlines, not much else is reality.
This year, my fellow theater-goers, the plot thickens. In the 2020 version of The Lying King, the early acts are the same as the days of Partition on November 29, 1947, a day celebrated by Jews and condemned by Arabs. The story line is summarized this way: Out of disgust with Israel’s existence, Arab nations wage war on their enemy, hoping to push the Jews into the sea. Military defeats to Israelis fuel the Arab world to wage future conflict, all the while using the UN as a platform for demeaning the Jewish state with a series of resolutions and a fruitless boycott movement.
With every subsequent scene to this play, maps get redrawn to reflect conquests of 1948, 1967 and 1973. The West Bank, once part of Jordan, changed title to Israel in 1967. Land once belonging to Jordan suddenly became “occupied” by Israel. The Six Day War that year delivered Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. In the Yom Kippur War, the Golan Heights, once used by Syria to attack the north of Israel, would become prized territory. A couple of parcels would become bargaining chips for treaties. The Sinai returned to Egypt and, as agreed, the Jordanian Wakf would govern the Islamic holy site on the Temple Mount. The peace holds with Egypt and Jordan. Accords in Oslo reimagined the West Bank into Areas A, B and C. These accords were violated as the Palestinians ushered in an era of intifadas, replete with suicide bombings and other terrorism. Who did the UN condemn? Israel, of course, in a landslide.
Act III begins with failed negotiations and a rise in terrorism, including stabbings and kidnappings facilitated through tunneling, which prompt disputed Jewish settlements in Area C. A hopeful turn of events in Gaza led to Israel withdrawing Jewish settlers from the slice of land along the Mediterranean. Enter Hamas.
As the play moves along, Gaza becomes a launching pad for more terrorism and retaliation by Israel, which leads to heightened and increased drama in the UN with more resolutions condemning Israel. From 1967 to 1989, the UN Security Council adopted 131 resolutions addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict. Each year, 20 pro-Palestinian resolutions are passed by the General Assembly. At the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the notorious “Item 7” is the only permanent agenda item, and it is designated for criticism of Israel. The rest of the world is collectively submitted under “Item 4.”
OH, AND the story gets better. The Palestinians get a boost from Iran and Syria as their leadership uses the United Nations to gain nonmember observer status (2012). Economic relations among nations on all continents with Israel, leading to a warming of relations, have been doused with cold water in the UN by yet the next round of resolutions and false narratives, including resolutions that argue Israel has no historical claim to the Western Wall or the Temple Mount. The “State of Palestine” argues it is exclusively a Muslim site. Of course, this is simply false.
The Palestinians, still floating rounds of rhetoric and propaganda – invoking such inflammatory verbiage as Nazis, apartheid and worse – reject recent normalization treaties with Israel by Arab states, the UAE and Bahrain. While these Arab states embrace a two-state solution, they also see the great short-term benefits building enterprise with Israel.
The normalization narrative weakens Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas as it is a departure from the PLO mantra, much less the PLO charter, which denies the legitimacy of Israel, the existence of a historical or religious ties to “Palestine” and labels Zionism a racist, imperialist, fascist and colonialist political movement. At the very least, archaeological finds have given the Lying King a long run at the United Nations. As for colonization, Israel is slightly larger than New Jersey.
Palestinian and Arab rhetoric seeks to revert to the 1967 borders and designate east Jerusalem (the Old City) as a capital. Turning back the clock 54 years is unlikely, if not impossible. Truly, it is mere staging for Israel’s destruction.
Meanwhile, the rhetoric by Afghanistan, Iran and other outliers make glorifying speeches at perennial Palestinian pep rallies. They cry out against “denying the historical and legal rights of the Palestinian people... It is time to stand for justice.” These lines get delivered with perfection and even a straight face. The story of lies and deception is flawless.
At the United Nations, art does not imitate life. The refrain to the Palestinians simply falls on deaf ears. Come to the negotiating table and negotiate face-to-face with Israel. You will get less than what you want but more than what you have today.
Read President Kaufman's expert analysis in the Jerusalem Post.
Charles O. Kaufman is president of B'nai B'rith International.
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