Jewish Insider quoted B'nai B'rith International CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin in a roundup of Jewish leaders raising preliminary concerns about President Joe Biden's United Nations policies.
Earlier this month, the United Nations agency tasked with working with Palestinians said it mistakenly issued textbooks that call for jihad, or holy war, against Israel. The agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), said it was “taking steps” to address their glorification of “martyrs” and calls for “jihad.”
UNRWA issued the apology after the Jerusalem-based Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education – IMPACT-se released a report analyzing Palestinian textbooks that are used by hundreds of thousands of students in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Biden administration is expected to move to restore funding to the Palestinians, aid the Trump administration withdrew in September 2018. The move would be consistent with Biden’s pledge to “repair our alliances and engage the world once more,” but Jewish leaders and others are looking on with caution, hoping the new administration does not repeat what some believe were mistakes of the past.
Among their concerns is President Joe Biden’s explicit pledge to rejoin the U.N. Human Rights Council and “work to ensure that body truly lives up to its values,” as the president said in a December 2019 statement commemorating the United Nations’ Human Rights Day.
Daniel Mariaschin, CEO of B’nai B’rith International, told Jewish Insider that his organization hopes that the Biden administration “will work assiduously to eliminate bias against Israel in New York and in the various U.N. agencies, particularly the U.N. Human Rights Council.”
The Geneva-based council routinely “devotes a separate agenda item, number seven, to Israel alone while all other countries, including the worst tyrannies, are lumped together in a different agenda item,” observed David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee.
Harris said that when it comes to U.N. agencies, “the Biden administration can be expected to take a more collegial, less adversarial approach than the Trump team. That said, it needs to be done with issues of fairness and equal treatment in mind, which is certainly not the case, say, when it comes to our ally, Israel, and its treatment.”
The council was created in 2006 to replace the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which had come under international criticism for including member nations that were themselves human rights abusers. The administration of President George W. Bush did not support its creation and kept its U.N. ambassador off the council because of concerns the U.S. might not get elected. (In 2001, the U.S. was defeated in its bid to join the old commission.) Countries with lesser human rights records were elected to the body and helped to set the standards in the council’s early years.
That changed in 2009, when President Barack Obama chose to participate in the council, maintaining that states should “uphold the highest standards” of human rights. The U.S. was the first elected to the council that year. Nine years later, President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the council. Nikki Haley, then the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., cited its “chronic bias against Israel,” and noted that the U.S. had repeatedly threatened to leave the 47-member body unless it made reforms. She said it had failed to make necessary changes and called it a “cesspool of political bias” that “makes a mockery of human rights.”
With the Biden administration set on rejoining the council — whose membership has included dictatorial regimes and some of the world’s worst human rights violators — the question is whether it “will it be able to enact reforms,” said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of politics at Bar Ilan University and founder and president of NGO Monitor, a policy analysis think tank focusing on non-governmental organizations.
“A huge part of [the council’s] budget is used for bogus investigations of Israel,” he said. “It’s not realistic to expect the administration and a Democratic Congress will meet the hopes of Israelis on these points, but if they are sensitive to them, it will put down some markers in terms of the use of these institutions to demonize Israel.”
Similar concerns were voiced by Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a human rights NGO and U.N. watchdog based in Geneva.
“It will require an enormous amount of effort to get them to do good things,” he said of the council. “But its anti-Israel agenda, its commissions of inquiry against Israel and its blacklist against Israel were unstoppable by both Democrats and Republicans. It is anti-Israel. UN Watch does not object to the U.S. entering the council.”
“We think it could be a force for good,” Neuer continued, “but it has to fight and call out the abuses and double standards and antisemitism. I’m concerned because the Obama administration did try to do good things at the council, but unfortunately became a cheerleader for the council. We hope the Biden administration does not make the same mistakes.”
Regarding UNRWA, the AJC’s Harris said it too has had a “persistent problem of incitement and hatred in their schools and other facilities. American re-engagement [with UNRWA] must also focus determinedly on ending these practices, which, let’s be clear, undermine the integrity of the world body.”
Some 5 million Palestinian refugees are said to rely on UNRWA to provide funding for their schools, healthcare and social services. The U.S. had long been the largest funder of UNRWA, pledging about one-third of the agency’s $1.1 billion annual budget. At the time Trump withdrew funding (which included cutting $200 million from UNRWA’s main development agency, USAID), the former president said he did not want the U.S. to continue to “shoulder the disproportionate cost” of the organization and called upon the Palestinians to return to peace talks with Israel. The move was also seen by some as an attempt to delegitimize the refugee status of some Palestinians and their descendants.
Although UNRWA has looked to other nations to fund its operations, it announced two months ago that its funding has largely dried up and that it would soon be unable to pay its 28,000 staffers and contractors who work in Gaza, the West Bank and elsewhere. Elizabeth Campbell, director of UNRWA’s Washington office, has been quoted as saying she believes the Biden administration will come to her organization’s rescue, noting that Vice President Kamala Harris has said the Biden administration would restore economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians.
Neuer said his organization is also concerned that the Biden administration “might consider restoring funding to UNRWA despite the fact the organization is fundamentally hostile to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. It’s fine to send money to Palestinians, but the U.S. should not be funding an agenda” that promotes the idea that 2 million Palestinians living in Jordan “should have Israeli citizenship… I hope it does not fund it.”
Mariaschin of B’nai B’rith noted that the 71-year-old agency “has for decades raised three generations of Palestinian children on hatred of Israel and hatred of Jews. It is an organization that promises the Palestinians that all refugees and their descendants will be able to return to what is now the State of Israel.”
“If we are going to move the meter on any kind of peaceful arrangement in the region,” Mariaschin cautioned, “UNRWA cannot continue business as usual — engaging in this kind of education of hate, the promotion of hatred and the insistent demand that Palestinians be able to return in the millions to the State of Israel. That is a non-starter.”
“People in the administration and in Congress want to undo everything and signal to the Palestinians that their support network is being restored under the Democratic administration,” said NGO Monitor’s Steinberg. “The question is whether enough lessons have been learned. Just last week a detailed report was released that found that UNRWA’s education system was used for incitement. They found in a new textbook support for jihad. When asked about it, they said they had made a mistake.”
Questions have also been raised about how UNRWA spends its money, Steinberg said, noting that a few years ago the head of UNRWA was found to have “hired his girlfriend at a big salary.”
He suggested that the Biden administration consider “using a different vehicle to send funds to Palestinians.”
Although he said there is concern in Israel that Biden will bring back some of the policies Israel did not like from the Obama administration, Steinberg added that there is “optimism that people like Tony Blinken [Biden’s nominee for secretary of state] who were in the Obama administration and saw the mistakes that were made will be more careful.”
Groups in Europe are focused on additional areas of concern. Adam Thomson, director of the European Leadership Network, a pan-European think tank, said in an email that what his members “hope for — and indeed expect — from the Biden administration [is] a resumption of U.S. leadership on the pressing requirements for arms control, risk reduction and military-to-military dialogue across the Euro-Atlantic area, and especially across the NATO-Russia divide.”
Jewish Insider quoted B'nai B'rith International CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin in an article centered on Austrian Ambassador to the U.S. Martin Weiss and Weiss' career as an Austrian diplomat.
Ambassador Martin Weiss is a familiar face in both Washington and Tel Aviv.
Fresh off a posting as Austria’s top diplomat to Israel, Weiss was installed as the country’s ambassador to the U.S. early this year. And he is equally comfortable sitting at a Passover seder in Washington or working out with his Tel Aviv triathlon club. His Twitter presence includes photos from meetings in Washington, commentary on travel and retweets of Israeli journalists and Jewish communal leaders.
To the surprise of some, Weiss is not Jewish — but Catholic. “I’m still looking for my Jewish great-great grandmother,” he joked. “I haven’t found her yet.”
Weiss, 57, has spent his adult life representing Austria around the world. But early in his career, after a junior-level posting in New York, he leveraged a connection with Austria’s ambassador in Washington for an Embassy position as a science counselor. In Washington, he worked closely with the Jewish community and befriended staffers working for a range of organizations including the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International and AIPAC. It was during a stint in Washington in the ’90s that he attended his first Passover seder, at the home of Rabbi Andrew Baker, then AJC’s European director.
“This is what happens in all of our lives, whether you know it or don’t,” Weiss told Jewish Insider during a three-hour conversation at the Austrian ambassadorial residence. “Little seeds are planted in your brain, and it might come to something or not. But at the time, I thought it would be interesting one day to be posted to Israel.”
Weiss’s career path is deeply rooted in his family’s story. His maternal grandfather, born into an aristocratic Nuremberg family in Germany, spoke Chinese, Dutch and Malay, among other languages. He worked overseas for a Dutch trading company and married Weiss’s grandmother in China, where the ambassador’s mother was born.
Weiss and his two older siblings grew up on their grandfather’s stories about being a soldier, then 17 years old, during World War I in Ukraine. The stories fascinated Weiss and embedded in him a desire to see more of the world.
Under pressure to be closer to home, Weiss’s grandfather relocated the family from China to Germany just before the start of World War II. (His mother, then a child, would later tell Weiss of oranges being brought aboard at port to mitigate scurvy during the two-month journey by ship.)
In his early 40s at the outset of the war, Weiss’s grandfather was drafted in the Germany army but given administrative rather than front-line work due to his age. He was close to those in the orbit of Claus von Stauffenberg, one of the leading members of a 1944 plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. After the plot failed, Weiss’s grandfather burned relevant papers, evading detection and potential arrest, Weiss said. At the Nuremberg trials held after the war, Weiss’s grandfather interpreted documents as part of a research team. Weiss’s mother would recount to him the shock that her father, who died in 1994 at age 97, expressed after seeing the evidence. “To us kids, he never spoke about this,” Weiss said.
Weiss’s parents met and lived in Germany until his father — a professor of modern German literature — received a job offer, which came with Austrian citizenship, from the University of Salzburg. Weiss and his siblings grew up there, and he recalled regularly getting lost in deep conversations over lunch when their father came home from work.
None of the kids competed with their father on literary matters. “He was too big for that,” Weiss said. “My father was a very critical thinker, so any topic of discussion was fair game. He loved the give-and-take.”
Weiss and his siblings followed the faith of their father — an open-minded “good Catholic” — who was hurt if they skipped Sunday mass. Weiss’s maternal grandfather was a Protestant, who “knew his Bible inside out,” but would attend mass in Salzburg during which Mozart, who was born in the city, was performed. “He would say, ‘You know, this is actually quite beautiful,’” Weiss recounted.
For his part, Weiss keeps a Bible, which he knows well, on his bed stand. “It talks to me,” he said. “For my children, it’s already a bit removed, but for me it’s something I think that’s still important.”
Given the role religion plays in his own life, Weiss appreciates the Jewish practices he observed in Israel. In its divergence from Catholic tradition, the idea of shiva fascinated him in the way so many come for a week to share stories with mourners. “You need more time than just one evening,” he said. He was also touched by other Jewish mourning rituals, including the act of shoveling dirt onto a simple casket, and of kriyah, when mourners tear their garments.
Weiss arrived in Israel in October 2015, fresh off three years as the ambassador to Cyprus. His four years in Tel Aviv were enjoyable, he told JI, and he often tried to break out of the “diplomatic bubble” to experience the country outside of meetings and formal events.
One Yom Kippur, when Israel’s normally busy roads were silent, save for the occasional car, he and his wife set out at 6 a.m. to bike from their home outside Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, some 40 miles away. They saw little jackals on the deserted highway; nature reclaims urban spaces both amid pandemic and on High Holidays.
Upon approaching Jerusalem, they found a hotel — with its bar closed due to the holiday — and used the bathroom tap to refill their water bottles before setting off back to Tel Aviv. Luckily, the return was downhill; roundtrip took six hours. “It was a day to remember,” Weiss said.
Weiss now bikes in Washington’s Rock Creek Park. An avid triathloner, he awaits post-coronavirus races, recalling proudly his third-place finish in his last Israeli triathlon at Gan Shmuel, a kibbutz with such stunning views of the Mediterranean that he says he wished he’d grown up there. (The fellow runner he knocked to fourth wasn’t thrilled to meet at the finish line, though.) The triathlon club that he joined during his posting to Israel provided a refreshing change of pace that gave him the opportunity to meet “a complete Israeli society from all kinds of life.”
Weiss’s unorthodox social media presence provides a peek into both his professional life and his off hours. His conversational Twitter and Instagram feeds reflect nationwide travel and interactions with different facets of Israeli society. In one caption, he noted how yeshiva boys hang their black hats on hooks pre-study; another offers the insider tip to “drop everything and go” when invited to a Jewish wedding. On Twitter, he responds to critics who are quick to pounce on everything from event invitations to the language used on a controversial subject.
When he arrived in Israel, many advised him to avoid Twitter, a platform where the likelihood to offend is high. But Weiss wanted to be relevant, which meant responsive. “You cannot just throw out messages and never answer if someone criticizes you,” he said. When people ask, “What the hell do you actually do as an ambassador?” he refers them to Twitter. “It allows me to tell a story in a way I couldn’t have before if I only write secret cables to Vienna. Then I have an audience of 50.”
During his tenure in Israel, Weiss represented “everything one might look for in a senior diplomat,” said Avi Mayer, AJC’s managing director of global communications, who met regularly with Weiss over lunches in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. “In addition to maintaining close working relationships with top Israeli officials, Martin went out of his way to get to know regular Israelis of all backgrounds, giving him a better-rounded view of Israel than many diplomats have of their host countries.”
Weiss proved deeply curious about all aspects of Israeli life. “I can think of few foreign ambassadors who left as profound an impression on so many Israelis as Martin did,” Mayer said.
Weiss’s peers agreed. “Martin Weiss made a supremely positive impression on Israelis as Austria’s ambassador to Israel,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. “Warm, empathetic, committed to engage with Israelis of every background, mindful of history, and devoted to strengthening Austrian-Israel ties in multiple fields, he was seen as a true friend whose indefatigable efforts benefitted both countries,” added Shapiro, now a distinguished visiting fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies.
Daniel Mariaschin, CEO of B’nai B’rith International, first met Weiss to discuss the Middle East and Holocaust-related issues during the diplomat’s initial D.C. posting. “I always found him to not only have an interest in these subjects, but a keen sensitivity to our concerns, as well,” Mariaschin said. “He was always mindful of the fate of Austrian Jewry, a community that had contributed so much to Austrian cultural life before its near-total destruction during the Holocaust.” The two have remained in touch, and Mariaschin said it’s good to have Weiss back in D.C., “not only because of his knowledge of our community here and in Europe, but also because of our mutual interest in maintaining a strong trans-Atlantic relationship.”
Baker, now director of international Jewish affairs at AJC, and the one who hosted Weiss — then a young diplomat — for a Passover seder more than two decades ago, counts the ambassador as a friend. “He represents personally the kind of changes that have taken place politically in Austria,” he said.
Until 1995, Austria hadn’t formally accepted its role in the Holocaust, and continued to perpetuate the “myth” of being Hitler’s first victim, Baker said. The young Weiss displayed a then-rare interest in Jews and Judaism, and a different way of thinking about Austria’s past. While some diplomats feel put on the spot in meetings with Jewish communities, or place those connections in the rearview mirror after their postings ended, it was different for Weiss.
“For some, I think, it was transformative,” Baker said. “Martin was one of those people who genuinely wanted to understand and connect with the Jewish community.”
When Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz formed a government in 2017 with Austria’s Freedom Party — which if not antisemitic at least has a number of antisemites in the foreground, Baker said — many Jews were concerned. But Kurz said he would double down on the Austrian-Israeli relationship — and he did, Baker said, with Weiss at the forefront.
“He really did have a feeling for Jews, Judaism and Israel,” Baker said of Weiss’s posting in Israel. “He was able to do that in a way that someone else couldn’t. People were understanding of his sincerity.”
In 2018, Kurz addressed AJC’s Global Forum in Jerusalem. “He declared Israel’s security to be part of his country’s Staatsräson, or highest national interest,” AJC’s Mayer said. “He made history, becoming the first Austrian leader to make such a profound commitment to the Jewish state.” Backstage, Weiss was “beaming with the knowledge that he had played a meaningful part in making it happen,” Mayer said. (Weiss said he didn’t want to overstate his role in a collaborative effort, but he was glad to see the Austrian chancellor on the stage in Israel with David Harris, AJC’s executive director. “I’m sure it was a very happy day,” he said.)
During a trip to Yad Vashem on that same visit, a guide told Kurz that Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party — of which Kurz is not a member — has politicians “that need to be explained what the Holocaust was,” The Times of Israel reported at the time. Yad Vashem later apologized to Weiss, who declined to comment publicly at the time. But to Jewish Insider, Weiss reflected on the impossible position in which the guide — whom he knows and respects — put the chancellor.
“A chancellor has to be ready for anything. Even if they throw a cake in his face, he has to be able to say something about this. This is who he is. He chose the public office,” Weiss said. But, echoing Ecclesiastes, he said everything has a time and place.
“You cannot have a political discussion with a foreign chancellor in front of 100 people and the media, cameras running,” he said. “What is he supposed to say? Whatever he says is wrong. He can either ignore you; that’s wrong. He can engage in an argument; that’s awkward. You’re at a place of commemoration, not a university seminar.”
Talking to journalists is something Weiss enjoys. Whereas some of his colleagues avoid it emphatically, he has volunteered for communications roles throughout his career. In more than three hours of conversation, he only flagged a single sentence — about the leader of a country — as off-the-record.
The interview setting provides some insight into Weiss’s personality and worldview. The three-story mansion with a Mediterranean-revival façade — designed by noted Washington architect Appleton P. Clarke in 1926 — in the district’s posh Kalorama neighborhood projects an air of gravitas. The mansion belonged to a former U.S. diplomat before Austria purchased it in 1959 for its ambassadorial residence.
Inside the home, which he shares with his wife, the design is anything but severe. Pastel-colored, semi-abstract Israeli landscapes painted by friends of Weiss flank a grand staircase, and wood paneling in the dining room frames nine fruit-themed, pop-styled paintings by Weiss’s daughter, a Vienna-based designer. (Weiss’s son, a computer scientist, also lives in Vienna.) In a sitting room, colorful glass jellyfish, designed by Weiss’s sister-in-law, dangle from an ornate chandelier.
At one point, Weiss went downstairs and returned with a small glass case with a six-branched candelabrum, twisting above a circular base on a blue-purple velvet ground. The mini sculpture was an award from Yad Vashem based on a work on its grounds (forming its logo) by late artist Zohara Schatz; the branches symbolize the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
Weiss set the award — gifted to him at the end of his posting in Israel — on a credenza beside a Baroque clock and a sculpture of a man on horseback, a gift from his grandfather’s days in China. “Presented to H.E. Ambassador Martin Weiss with gratitude and appreciation for your commitment and dedication to Holocaust remembrance and Yad Vashem,” an inscription noted.
At Yad Vashem, his first official visit after being appointed, Weiss learned the museum was having difficulty securing Austrian archival materials due to data-protection concerns. “It took me almost three years,” he said, but by the end of his tenure, the museum had obtained the materials.
Weiss is encouraged by the recently announced peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and is hopeful that Israel will be able to come to similar agreements with other countries in the region. He recalled “huge upheaval” and hours spent waiting in Lebanon — which typically does not allow entry to individuals who have been to Israel — after customs officials saw an Israeli stamp in his son’s passport.
“Look at the food. Look at the people. There is so much,” he said. “It’s such bullshit. It’s so good that now there can be a UAE ambassador in Israel. It’s historic.” Weiss also thinks President Donald Trump deserves credit for a Middle East peace vision many dismissed as pipe dream. “You have to give him that, like him or hate him,” he said.
Weiss has had nearly a year to acclimate to his new surroundings in Washington. But he still closely follows the news in Israel. His time there exposed Weiss to “throwback stories” about medieval pogroms one would read in the Israeli dailies, which, he said, suggest to Jewish readers that the world — and the European Union in particular — is out to get them. His experience, alternatively, has been that Europe is eager to partner with Israel.
“To paint us constantly as these schmucks, these left-wing antisemites,” he said. “Our discussion is so different. This is something where I would say, ‘Just exhale.’”
Weiss hopes the tourist exchanges between Austria and Israel, which proliferated pre-pandemic, will pick up where they left off, along with academic and other partnerships. Given the proximity, he suggested, Austrians and Israelis should experience more of each other’s cultures. “If you think of August in Israel, it’s hot, hot, hot. Wouldn’t it be perfect to go to the mountains in Austria?” Weiss said. “I think in both directions, there’s a lot of impetus, history and food. It’s so funny that schnitzel is the favorite food in Israel!”
Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin represented B'nai B'rith International at the home of Israel's Ambassador Ron Dermer during his annual Rosh Hashanah reception.
Mariaschin's presence was noted by Jewish Insider, which also offered the context of the gathering and a transcription of Dermer's toast to the New Year. Read excerpts from the article below:
Approximately 150 guests, including Jewish leaders, diplomats, journalists and members of Congress, gathered last night at the home of Israel's Ambassador Ron Dermer and his wife Rhoda in Chevy Chase to toast the upcoming Jewish New Year.
Dermer began by joking: "I hope you all had a more uneventful summer than I (laughter)... I could do boring for while. It'd be fine for me. But we are obviously meeting at a time when everyone is discussing the deal with Iran, a few of you raised it with me tonight not surprisingly, and I want to take this opportunity to let you know that Israel is opposed to the deal (laughter). I know that comment is going to set the entire twitter-sphere ablaze.
"The right of Israel to convey its views about a deal with an Iranian regime that actively works and openly calls for our annihilation... should not be the subject of controversy. It should be self-evident. But to some, it’s not. Because while no one questions the right of the Ambassadors of the other P5+1 countries to meet with members of Congress and explain why they believe this is a good deal, some have questioned whether it is appropriate for Israel to make its case to those same members of Congress. That’s pretty disturbing. Because there is no country in the world that has a greater right than Israel to weigh in on this issue because there is no country in the world that has more at stake than Israel.
"But regardless of where you stand on the nuclear deal with Iran, on this Rosh Hashana, let us all raise a glass and toast the fact that the Jewish people are voiceless no more. Israel has provided us with a shofar, with a sovereign voice among the nations. Israel will continue to blow that shofar with pride. And on this Rosh Hashana, let us also toast a privilege we all have – the privilege to live at a time when the Jewish people not only have a voice but when we also have the power and will to defend ourselves – a will that no deal and no force on earth will ever break." [Transcript; Audio]
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