John Legend Says Israel Needs to Be Held to a “Higher Standard”: “What They’re Doing to the Palestinian People Is Not Fair”
The Jewish Journal included our criticism of singer John Legend's anti-Israel, anti-Semitic remarks in its coverage of Legend's appearance of “The Mehdi Hasan Show" on MSNBC.
Singer John Legend called for Israel to be held to a “higher standard” in a September 20 appearance on MSNBC, arguing that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is “not fair,” The Algemeiner reported.
Mehdi Hasan, host of “The Mehdi Hasan Show,” pointed out that Legend had tweeted “Palestinian Lives Matter” in May during the Israel-Hamas conflict and asked Legend how he became an advocate for Palestinian rights. Legend responded that he learned “what justice meant” through reading the works of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and writer James Baldwin.
“When I see what’s happening in Palestine, to the Palestinian people, where they’re clearly not being able to experience [the] full rights that they deserve, it’s an extremely unfair and difficult life they’re forced to live,” Legend said. “I had to say something. It’s not fair, it’s not just, and given that Israel is the recipient of so much American aid and support and named as one of our strongest allies, we should hold them to a higher standard, and what they’re doing with the Palestinian people is not fair and it shouldn’t be done in our name and with our resources contributing to it.”
Some Jewish groups criticized Legend for his remark. Stop Antisemitism tweeted to Legend that “Egypt is the recipient of nearly the same amount of aid as Israel and controls Gaza’s southern border. Why are you speaking only of Israel and ignoring Egypt??”
They added in a follow-up tweet: “Why did @johnlegend make no mention of the 4500 terror rockets blast into Israel in 11 days from Gaza? Those rockets were also made ‘in your name’ and with your tax dollars. Again why is your grievance only with Israel?”
B’nai Brith International similarly tweeted that they were “disappointed” with Legend’s remarks.
“Legend falsely accuses #Israel of ‘unjust’ treatment of Palestinians, while failing to mention the Hamas terror threats Israelis face every day,” they wrote. “We urge Legend to apologize for his anti-Semitic remarks.”
On the other hand, Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, tweeted in support of Legend. They argued that he was “speaking out for Palestinian rights and the need for the US to finally hold Israel accountable.”
Hanan Ashrawi, former member of the Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee, similarly tweeted that Legend’s comments took “courage, empathy, & moral clarity.”
JNS, Israel Hayom and Cleveland Jewish News included B'nai B'rith International's condemnation of the resolution adopted by the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) that commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Program of Action (DDPA) in its coverage of Durban IV (during UNGA).
A number of American Jewish organizations slammed a resolution adopted on Wednesday at a high-level meeting at the UN General Assembly that commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Program of Action (DDPA) stemming from a notoriously anti-Semitic World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.
"The resolution predictably claimed that the DDPA offered 'a comprehensive United Nations framework and solid foundation for combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance,' and reaffirmed commitment to its 'full and effective implementation,' " stated B'nai B'rith International in a news release on Friday.
The original Durban declaration was censured by Jewish groups and nations such as the United States for allowing the presence of overt anti-Semitic and anti-Israel hate, as well as including Palestinians as the only group named as victims of racism.
B'nai B'rith wrote that it has worked over the past few weeks in partnership with the Jewish Broadcasting Service on Durban, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. The organization featured luminaries such as Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévi, former US National Security Advisor John Bolton and others, culminating in an hour-long interview with B'nai B'rith honorary president Richard Heideman, who led the Jewish delegation at the Durban conference and his wife, Phyllis Heideman, president of the International March of the Living.
In the past year, B'nai B'rith also lobbied other nations to join the United States and Israel in boycotting the anniversary conference, also known as Durban IV, leading to a total of 35 countries that declined to participate in the commemoration.
"This public disassociation by a substantial moral minority at the UN represents a meaningful victory against efforts to hijack the world body and the critical fight against racism – specifically, racism against people of African descent – for the purposes of delegitimizing Israel by obscenely equating only it and Jews' national liberation movement, Zionism, with racism," B'nai B'rith wrote in the statement.
Countries that boycotted the proceedings included Albania, Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Moldova, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the United States and Uruguay.
'A vicious slander against the Jewish state'
AIPAC also strongly condemned Durban IV on its Twitter account, while individually tweeting appreciation for countries that joined the boycott.
"The UN #DurbanIV conference is a cesspool of discriminatory, anti-Israel propaganda," AIPAC tweeted on Tuesday. "'Zionism=Racism' is a vicious slander against the Jewish state and its supporters. America and many allies stand proudly with Israel in boycotting this despicable conference."
Alex Safian, associate director at CAMERA, which monitors bias in reporting on Israel and the Middle East, noted that there was no improvement in Durban IV and the passed resolution than in the previous three conferences.
"The original Durban Conference in 2001 created the firestorm of renewed and growing anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and the statements yesterday from Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and her radical colleagues are just an example of this in our own Congress," he said in an email. "The United Nations was founded as a reaction to Nazism and the Holocaust, but the Durban process proves that fascists and bigots are still much more comfortable in the UN than Jews."
Anti-Israel members of the Democratic Party also motivated Zionist Organization of America national president Mort Klein to make a few phone calls to UN offices he had connections with to urge them not to attend Durban IV. His organization put out a news release lauding nations that announced they would not participate, though after that acknowledged following the proceedings only a little bit.
Klein said during one of his calls, one official him that "anti-Semites" in Congress had inspired a number of countries that were thinking of not participating in Durban IV to join.
"This one guy told me, you should know that inadvertently or directly, they've had an impact on several countries that participated, figuring they have to cover it because there are a dozen anti-Semites in Congress," said Klein, adding that the official also told him that he believed Jew-hatred will continue to grow in the United Nations.
The Jerusalem Post quoted B'nai B'rith International CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin concerning the fall of Afghanistan and the strategic, regional uncertainty that it has unleashed – particularly with regard to Iran, the Palestinians and the future of the Abraham Accords.
WASHINGTON — US Jewish organizations were following closely as the drama was unfolding. Even before Thursday’s terror attack, it was already clear that the Afghanistan withdrawal will overshadow the meeting between US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. But the deadly attack near the Kabul airport made it clear that the administration’s attention is currently elsewhere, as the President and his close staff monitored the developments from the situation room, postponing the meeting to a later timing.
William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, told The Jerusalem Post that “as we watch the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the alliance and partnership between the United States and the State of Israel is more critical than ever.”
Speaking about the meeting, Daroff said that he expected the two new administrations “to make significant progress on issues of mutual and fundamental importance to all Americans and Israelis during Prime Minister Bennett’s first US trip to Washington since assuming office — the first opportunity for the two leaders to meet face-to-face during their many years in public service.”
“These priorities include sharing knowledge and resources to counter the COVID-19 virus and its variants, how best to deter Iranian aggression and hold its nuclear program accountable and in check, and defending and promoting Israel’s security, peace, and stability,” he said.
Dan Mariaschin, CEO of B’nai B’rith International, told the Post that with the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban and all of the strategic uncertainty that it has unleashed, “events would hopefully dictate a further closing of the ranks between Washington and Jerusalem on Iran and the Palestinian issue.”
“This is clearly no time for risk-taking with Iran, including sanctions relief, especially given the election of Ebrahim Raisi, Tehran’s ratcheting up enrichment and other aspects of its nuclear program, and its malign behavior throughout the region,” said Mariaschin.
“With regard to the Palestinian issue, the PA’s pay-for-slay program and its incessant efforts at the UN and elsewhere to demonize Israel suggests more business-as-usual in Ramallah,” he continued. “There should be no rush to proffer additional incentives to the PA —such as re-opening of the PLO office in Washington and certainly not re-opening of the consulate in Jerusalem — in the face of its zero-sum recalcitrance.”
“Finally, we hope that the success of the Abraham Accords will move the administration to proactively seek out, together with Israel, new partners for peace and cooperation in the region, to join those already committed to this camp,” Mariaschin said.
Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA) CEO Halie Soifer released a statement on Thursday morning, saying that the meeting between President Biden and Prime Minister Bennett is the first meeting between a new US president and new Israeli Prime Minister in more than a decade. “It ushers in a new chapter for the United States and Israel, and reaffirms the strength of our historic and mutually beneficial bilateral relationship,” she said.
“President Biden entered office with a longer and stronger record of support for Israel than any of his predecessors, and has been steadfast in his support for Israel’s security and right to self-defense,” she said.
She went on to say that The United States and Israel “share a common goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. With the future of a renewed Iran nuclear agreement remaining, at best, uncertain, we welcome close collaboration between the US and Israel in ensuring that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon.”
Jeremy Ben Ami, President of the progressive group, J Street, said in a statement on Thursday that “while the US builds common ground with the new Israeli government in a number of areas, we also must make clear that the “status quo” is too dangerous to accept.”
“J Street is urging President Biden to make clear in [the] meeting that a strong, enduring, bipartisan US-Israel relationship demands fidelity to our shared values of democracy, peace and respect for human rights,” said Ben Ami. “That means pushing for an end to harmful settlement expansion; an end to discriminatory evictions in East Jerusalem and demolitions in the West Bank; an end to the policy of perpetual occupation; an end to the twin erosion of Israeli democracy and Palestinian hopes for self-determination,” he said in a statement.
The Algemeiner, Israel Hayom and the European Jewish Press noted our statement applauding the U.S. administration's nominee for U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, in its coverage of the nomination.
The Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt will be nominated as the Biden administration’s antisemitism envoy, the White House said Friday, in a choice praised by American Jewish groups.
A professor of Jewish history at Emory University in Atlanta, Lipstadt was the founding director of its Institute for Jewish Studies, and has penned works on the American press during the Holocaust, the trial of Adolf Eichmann, and her own successful court battle against British Holocaust denier David Irving.
For the first time, the State Department role of Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism will hold the rank of ambassador, thus requiring Senate confirmation, thanks to bipartisan legislation passed in January.
“Having spent her career fighting antisemitism and Holocaust denial, Deborah Lipstadt will ensure the US remains a leader in combating antisemitism globally,” commented US Senator Jacky Rosen (D-NV). “Her nomination has my full support, and I look forward to working alongside her in our shared mission of protecting Jewish communities and combating antisemitism across the globe.”
Leading US Jewish organizations also applauded the pick, with B’nai B’rith International President Charles O. Kaufman and CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin calling her “eminently qualified” for the job.
“B’nai B’rith looks forward to working with Lipstadt as antisemitism has spiked exponentially in the United States and around the world, manifesting itself in many forms and variants, oftentimes fueled by social media,” they said in a statement. “It is vitally important that the US government, through the person of the special envoy, continue to assume a leadership position in the battle against this alarmingly growing challenge.”
Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s Executive Director for Public Policy, noted that the announcement “comes at a time we are witnessing a terrible surge in attacks and threats committed against the global Jewish community,” including violent assaults on individuals.
“While it’s unfortunate we need to have such a position at the State Department, Prof. Lipstadt is certainly the best person to fill this job,” he said.
American Jewish Committee (AJC) head David Harris called Liptstadt “one of this country’s, indeed the world’s, foremost experts on modern antisemitism, its constant morphing and multiple sources, and the current challenges to confronting it.”
Lipstadt would succeed former Los Angeles prosecutor Elan Carr, who was appointed by President Donald Trump in 2019.
She serves on the boards of the Jewish Forward Advisory Committee and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and has previously held several roles at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. She is also a former member of the US Department of State’s Advisory Committee on Religious Persecution Abroad and was a Board Member of Hillel International.
The White House also announced on Friday its intended nominations for three other religious affairs roles, including Rashad Hussain as Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, a choice praised by AJC for his “extensive engagement with the Muslim world” and his efforts to strengthen Muslim-Jewish relations.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum will be tapped as Commissioner of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Khizr Khan — a religious freedom advocate and Gold Star parent of US Army Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed while serving in Iraq — will be appointed Commissioner of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
B’nai B’rith International is honored to have co-sponsored a visit to Israel by ambassadors to the United Nations and the United States, led by Ambassador Gilad Erdan, along with the American Zionist Movement and March of the Living.
See how media outlets covered the visit:
Enlace Judio (Spanish)
Erdan Guía a Embajadores Internacionales en Gira Por Israel
i24 News (French)
L'ambassadeur d'Israël à l'ONU Organise un Voyage Pour Ses Homologues du Monde Entier en Terre Sainte
Ambassadors Tour Israel to Better Comprehend Its Multifaceted Security Challenges
(Also in Israel Hayom)
The Jerusalem Post (English)
Erdan: We’ll Defend our Right to Jerusalem Against Hamas Lies
The Jerusalem Post (English)
Ambassadors to U.S. and U.N. Meeting with Herzog
The Jerusalem Post (English)
Texas Looking Into Divestment From Unilever Over Ben & Jerry’s Boycott
The Jerusalem Post (English)
Bennett on Ben & Jerry’s: Boycotting Israel Will Be Bad Business Decision
The Times of Israel (English)
Erdan leads international ambassadors to US and UN on tour of Israel
The Times of Israel (English)
Lapid Meets with Delegation of International Ambassadors to U.S. and U.N.
The Times of Israel (French)
Gilad Erdan Accompagne 26 Ambassadeurs en Israël
Major American Jewish Organizations Urge Biden to Send More COVID Vaccines to India Before Third Wave
The Algemeiner noted B'nai B'rith International as one of the major American Jewish organizations urging the U.S. administration (in a letter sent by the Conference of Presidents) to immediately provide surplus vaccine doses to India ahead of a third wave.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations transmitted an open letter to the White House on Tuesday calling on the Biden administration to immediately provide surplus vaccine doses to India.
The letter, sent to White House chief of staff Ron Klain and Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients, was signed by 22 Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, Hadassah, and the Zionist Organization of America.
Citing the devastation India has recently experienced due to the “Delta variant” of COVID-19, the letter asserted, “As India emerges from this latest wave, there is a crucial window of time available. It is imperative that India be given the opportunity to vaccinate as much of its population as possible in order to avoid future and further catastrophe.”
The letter noted that the US has a stockpile of the Astra Zeneca vaccine that will likely not be distributed and could easily be transferred to India.
“We urge the administration to rapidly allocate an additional and greatly increased share of doses of COVID-19 vaccine to India,” the signatories said. “It is essential that the world’s largest democracy be provided the opportunity to stave off another disaster.”
“The Indian government came to the aid of the United States in its time of need during the first wave of Spring 2020 and has been a stalwart ally and friend,” the letter pointed out. “So too, the four million strong Indian expatriate community plays an integral role through United States society.”
“We believe that an enhanced US allocation of valuable COVID-19 vaccines to India would be an enormous boon to a democracy that has been ravaged by disease and is in danger of facing another wave,” it concluded.
JNS quoted B'nai B'rith International Director of Legislative Affairs Eric Fusfield as part of its reporting on Jewish organizations pushing the U.S. administration to swiftly appoint a White House Jewish liaison and nominate a Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating anti-Semitism at the State Department.
(June 22, 2021 / JNS) For months, Jewish organizations in the United States have been lobbying to appoint a White House Jewish liaison. And after numerous meetings between Jewish organizational leaders and administration officials when violence erupted last month between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip—followed by a wave of anti-Semitic attacks—that role and that of the State Department Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating anti-Semitism have yet to be filled.
Most who spoke to JNS said that it was a matter of days or weeks before appointments are made, although they declined to speculate on particular nominees.
Jewish issues have gained a new urgency after first taking a back seat to other concerns—namely, the coronavirus pandemic and the distribution of vaccines in the five months since the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden.
Eric Fusfield, director of legislative affairs for B’nai B’rith International, said in addition to the Mideast conflict in May, concerns include the Iranian nuclear threat and ongoing discussions towards U.S. re-entry into a deal, Israel’s new leadership and, just this week, new Iranian leadership in the form of President-elect Ebrahim Raisi. American Jewish organizations want to make the White House aware of its opinions to make sure the U.S.-Israel relationship remains strong, as well as address how Jews are being treated in the United States.
“Our community is feeling some urgency right now about several things in particular, like combating anti-Semitism, because anti-Semitism in this country has taken a very disturbing turn lately, with more violence against Jewish individuals and institutions,” said Fusfield.
The liaison’s position, he said, serves as a focal point for Jewish organizations to contact the White House to make sure their message is heard by those who have the power to augment change.
While he said that every administration has a settling-in period where it works to nominate individuals for key positions, the six-month window is approaching, and the Jewish community is experiencing urgent needs.
“We need a mailing address for voicing our concerns, and the liaison fills that need for us,” he said. “We’re feeling a great deal of anxiety about certain issues right now, and having a conduit in the administration would help further communication and help us get our point across.”
Read the full article on JNS.org.
The Algemeiner included B'nai B'rith International's response to the U.S. administration's decision of continuing not to attend any events celebrating the 20th anniversary of the infamous Durban Declaration in its roundup of responses from Jewish and pro-Israel organizations.
Leading Jewish organizations welcomed the Biden administration’s decision to stick to the US policy of not attending any events to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Durban Declaration in September due to their “anti-Israel sentiment.”
A US State Department spokesperson told The Jerusalem Post Monday that the US would not take part in planned Durban anniversary events, saying that it “remains deeply committed to combating antisemitism at home and abroad. Furthermore, the United States stands with Israel and has always shared its concerns over the Durban process’s anti-Israel sentiment — used as a forum for antisemitism and freedom of expression issues.”
Commenting on the decision, B’nai B’rith International said it “salutes the US administration for taking a principled decision, like its predecessors, to deny legitimacy to a UN framework that purports to fight prejudice but is fundamentally marred by it.”
“The 2001 conference was poisoned by manifestations of virulent anti-Zionism and open antisemitism. We urge all countries of goodwill to do similarly — and we will continue to insist that all forms of hate, including those targeting Jews, not be given a platform by foremost international institutions,” B’nai B’rith stated.
The UN is scheduled to hold a special “Durban IV” event on Sept. 22 to mark the 20th anniversary of the World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, from which the US and Israel previously withdrew over objections of anti-Zionism. Israel was singled out from the Durban conference declaration and was depicted as being racist and as committing “crimes against humanity,” “ethnic cleansing,” “apartheid” and “genocide” against the Palestinians.
“Kudos for rejecting hate. The 2001 Durban Conference was an orgy of hate so vile that the US and Israel pulled out in disgust,” Avi Mayer, Managing Director of Global Communications at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), tweeted in response to the US decision. “It was so bad that even the UN’s Mary Robinson, who chaired it, said there was ‘horrible antisemitism present.'”
New York, NY, May 5th, 2021 . . . Dianne Lob, Chair, William Daroff, CEO, and Malcolm Hoenlein, Vice Chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, issued the following statement:
“We applaud the Biden Administration’s decision to refuse to participate in commemorations of the 20th anniversary of the UN World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, which openly embraced antisemitism and anti-Israel extremism.
Michal Cotler-Wunsh, a former member of Knesset for Israel’s Blue and White Party, said: “Durban was the ecosystem for declared escalation in the war waged on Israel, weaponizing international law and it’s institutions. The orchestrated, systematic implementation of this strategy threatens not only Israel, but shared values and foundations of democracy and human rights.”
“In declining to participate in celebratory events, the United States is rightfully rejecting the despicable hatred that was leveled against the Jewish State and the Jewish people twenty years ago. We encourage other nations to join the US in continuing to fight racism, bigotry, and antisemitism, while rejecting and not participating in such odious proceedings,” said Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Chair Dianne Lob, CEO William Daroff, and Vice Chair Malcolm Hoenlein, in a statement.
Israel Hayom referenced former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman's first speech as ambassador in 2017, which he made at a ceremony hosted by B'nai B'rith International.
(January 26, 2021 / Israel Hayom) One winter morning in 2017, a young man arrived at the Kesher Israel synagogue in the heart of Washington. He prayed fervently, as if his heart was filled with a special request. His tallit bag bore the name “Friedman,” and it was the only time he had come to the famous synagogue. That same day, his father, David M. Friedman, was undergoing Senate confirmation for his appointment as U.S. ambassador to Israel.
In the best tradition of Jewish divisiveness, powerful forces were aligned against Friedman Sr., led by the J Street lobby. But a few weeks later, in a ceremony organized by B’nai B’rith International, Friedman made his first speech as ambassador.
“If you were wondering about my middle name, Melech, it’s not because my parents expected great things of me, but because my grandmother was named Malka [the feminine version of the name],” he began, causing the audience to double over with laughter.
His son’s prayers were answered—not only was the appointment approved, but David Melech Friedman became the most influential U.S. ambassador in the history of U.S.-Israeli relations. And not only through the steps known to everyone—stamping down Iran, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, relocating the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli and shaping the Trump peace plan—but also through endless moves that never made headlines in the dramatic Trump era. For example visits to the Golan Heights, to Ariel in Samaria and the City of David in Jerusalem—all of which would have been inconceivable prior to Freidman’s arrival.
For decades, the American consulate on Jerusalem’s Agron Street served as a conduit through which the Palestinian Authority would spread its lies and incitement into Washington. Friedman shut down the consulate and turned it into the official residence of the American ambassador in Jerusalem.
After four intense years, Friedman sat down with Israel Hayom for an “exit interview.”
Q: Now that this journey is coming to an end, what are your feelings? Your thoughts?
A: I haven’t looked backwards yet, but it’s starting to sink in, especially after being at the Knesset and being with the Cabinet [last week] and people saying nice things about me. It’s been the honor of my life, and I wish I could keep this job forever. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished, I feel good about the last four years. It’s not just me, it includes the entire team both in Washington [and here,] from the president on down.
Read the rest of Ambassador Friedman's interview in JNS here.
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.”
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