B’nai B’rith Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin has spent nearly 40 years in Jewish Advocacy, including 27 with B’nai B’rith International.
He recently discussed his career and the path of the organization with Elliot Resnick of the Jewish Press.
Read an excerpt from the interview, below, including the Q&A in its entirety after the jump:
The Jewish Press: Broadly speaking, how would you describe B’nai B’rith’s activities and what distinguishes B’nai B’rith from other Jewish organizations?
We concentrate on three main areas: One is pro-Israel advocacy and fighting global anti-Semitism. We’ve had credentials at the United Nations since 1947, and we spend a good deal of our time there fighting bias against Israel.
The second area is senior housing and advocacy. The Jewish community has probably the largest proportion of senior citizens of any ethnic group in this country, so for more than 40 years now we have been sponsoring affordable housing for seniors in conjunction with the Department of Housing and Urban Development – we have more than 40 properties around the United States. We’re also involved in senior advocacy – issues like Social Security, Medicare, etc.
The third area is disaster relief. We help victims of hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis – all kinds of natural disasters around the world.
You were recently involved in fighting HarperCollins after a Catholic news website reported that the publisher had omitted Israel in atlases it was selling in the Middle East. What’s your take on the story?
This is only the latest in a long series of these kinds of omissions. We’ve seen it particularly with airlines omitting Israel on route maps, for example. But HarperCollins’s omission was especially egregious because it is a major general and educational publisher. You know, if we’re going to talk about peace and a peace process, it’s not only for diplomats – it’s for everybody. When a major publisher leaves Israel off a map, what kind of message does that send to schoolchildren in the Arab world?
This incident ended well for a change.
Yes, HarperCollins decided to call the atlases back and pulp the rest, as they say. Hopefully it will serve as a lesson for others because this was just a microcosm of the larger issue of the delegitimization of Israel. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a speech at the United Nations; it can be a decision made in an editorial office somewhere to say, “Look, we don’t want to offend our readers so we think we’ll just leave Israel off.” Hopefully the firestorm around this story will send a message to others that a) it’s unacceptable and b) there are people out there watching who will raise the red flag when they do this kind of thing.
What kind of work does B’nai B’rith do at the UN?
We were actually present in 1945 when the UN was founded in San Francisco, and we received our first credentials as an NGO in 1947.
What has happened over the last 25 years, unfortunately, is that much of our UN activity relates to the demonization and delegitimization of Israel. We feel very strongly about trying to keep the UN honest on this issue. So, for example, in March every year we go for a week to Geneva where the UN Human Rights Council is based and meet with ambassadors. We’re also in Paris at UNESCO.
So B’nai B’rith will meet with various ambassadors…
…Yes. There are 194 member states of the UN. Of course we’re not meeting all of them – some of them we don’t want to meet – but many of them have relations with Israel and should know better. In the UN system there’s a lot of “go along to get along.” Many countries will say, “Well, this country voted that way, so we’re going to vote the same way.” Independence of action is not the rule of the day. Bloc voting is, and that requires a lot of work because many countries hide behind the vote of the bloc. So there’s a lot of work to be done.
In August you wrote an op-ed column in The New York Times arguing that the UN should recognize Yom Kippur as an official holiday on its calendar. Why is that important?
Because there are Christian and Muslim holidays on the UN calendar and there should be at least one Jewish one.
When the UN started back in the ‘40s, the first two days of Pesach were actually on the UN calendar, but then they disappeared. So we don’t think it’s asking too much for there to be a Jewish holiday. We’ve contributed so much to the betterment of the world in so many ways.
When you meet with world leaders and ambassadors, what’s your sense of their feelings toward Israel? To many Jews, anti-Israel bias in Europe and elsewhere seems so obvious that it’s hard to believe others don’t see it. Are these leaders just playing along for political reasons or do they truly believe that Israel deserves, for example, to be repeatedly singled out in the UN as the world’s worst violator of human rights?
There are some who rationalize their behavior to kind of cover what they know is the right thing, and then there’s a large category of countries that are simply out to do Israel wrong – starting with Iran. So it’s mixed. But the most disappointing thing are the folks in the first category – people who know that Israel is being targeted all the time, who know that the line between criticizing Israel and anti-Semitism is very thin – sometimes non-existent – but who act against Israel anyways because politics trumps the right thing. That’s the most frustrating.
Which ambassador or world leader is B’nai Brith scheduled to meet next?
We have a diplomatic luncheon series, so this week we’re having the ambassador of Latvia. Until June 30, Latvia holds the presidency of the European Union, so when the ambassador comes here we’ll have questions for him about European Union policy vis-à-vis Israel. If you remember, the European Court of Justice dropped Hamas from the terrorism list, and now the European Union has to reapply to get Hamas back on it. So that will be a question for him. This is something we do constantly.
B’nai B’rith spends millions of dollars helping victims of natural disasters. While doing so is obviously an enormouschesed, some people argue that Jewish organizations should spend all their resources on Jewish causes. What’s your response?
These funds are spurred by the natural disasters; they’re not coming out of our general budget. In other words, when there’s a tsunami or a hurricane, B’nai B’rith members want to help. So that’s the reason for it, and we’ve been doing this kind of relief since the 1860s. We’re very proud of what we do.
Why not just direct your members to the Red Cross?
Look, we’re a Jewish organization and much of what we do is work inside our own community obviously. But tikkun olam as a value of Jewish life is extremely important to who we are as a people. To help others and to feel that rachmanut for others has been a hallmark of our community, so if we can make life better for those in need, we should do that.
You’ve been active in Jewish organizational life for over 40 years now. The one blip on your radar screen is the time you spent working for Alexander Haig when he ran for president in 1987-88. How did you get involved in his campaign and what was that experience like?