B’nai B’rith International Director of Latin American Affairs Eduardo Kohn spoke with Iton Gadol about our important work combating the demonization of Israel, fighting anti-Semitism, our efforts supporting the Israel-Latin America relationship and the history of our organization. This interview has been translated from Spanish to English.
Eduardo Kohn, director of Bnai Brith for Latin America, gave an interview with Iton Gadol in which he highlighted the work carried out by the institution, which has “the same objectives since it was born in 1843.”
“Within what Zionism is, being a totally out-partisan institution, we do all the work that needs to be done to defend the rights of Israel and fight against anti-Semitism. That is why we have representation in the OAS and in all UN offices,” he said.
In addition, Kohn analyzed the situation of communities in Latin America and the challenges regarding the position of some countries on Israel: “In Mexico, for example, the government is very hostile in policies with the State of Israel and demonstrates it in the United Nations, which generates incitement that is noticeable on social networks. Chile has had an involution in its relationship with the Jewish community. We always said that it was because there is the largest Palestinian community in Latin America and one of the largest in the world. But the Chilean governments themselves did not help this involution in the relationship and that generated violence of all kinds and not only on social networks obviously.”
What is your role in the organization?
I am the director of Bnai Brith for Latin America. Although I started many years ago, in 1981 as executive director for Uruguay, which later spread to Paraguay, I quickly moved from 83 to 85 to all of South America. It was a very complex constitution of Bnai Brith at that time. 40 years ago there was no media today. Then that was subdivided and I stayed with Uruguay again, until in 1998, in addition to Uruguay, I already joined work as Bnai Brith Latin America, but already with other communication facilities. From Montevideo we did it at the beginning with trips. I traveled regularly to different places, there are 22 countries in Latin America that have local branches of Bnai Brith. And already in recent years, when technology has advanced a lot, all contacts have been easier.
What is the specific role Bnai Brith is doing in Latin America?
Bnai Brith basically has the same objectives, not only in Latin America, but around the world. Bnai Brith was founded in the United States and exists in North America, Central America, Europe and Israel. It has the same objectives since it was born in 1843 and that it is a work in the area of human rights and social action. When we talk about human rights, we talk fundamentally about anti-Semitism, but obviously we do not rule out any. And in the area of social action, depending on the country we are in and social needs. In the case of Argentina, Uruguay or Chile, they may sound similar, but obviously each one has their own times, their needs, and Bnai Brith takes care of the Jewish community a lot, but he takes care of the community in general. Both in the field of health and in social action with the most dispossessed.
Another objective, which is very close to the political, the Bnai Brith is part of the World Zionist Organization (WSO). Bnai Brith is a Zionist and existed in Israel before the state existed, since 1888. And within what Zionism is, being a totally out-partisan institution, it does all the work that needs to be done to defend the rights of Israel and fight against anti-Semitism. That’s why we have representation in the OAS, in all UN offices, we even have an office in New York in front of the UN.
Those are the two axes with which we move in general. And in particular, the actions of each country are decided by each country, but we try to coordinate and not repeat ourselves, and for that sometimes we do joint actions. In the pandemic we did different but similar actions, for example in terms of the needs that were scarce supplies in Latin America. We managed to arrive with health supplies and food in many Latin American countries: Uruguay, Chile, Panama.
In Argentina, what we did within the community was very important, because we made a plan in AMIA society to provide food trays for many months. From the social point of view, we try to go to what is most needed. From a political point of view, coordination is total. We are not going to an OAS or UN meeting without being all coordinated, what are the objectives of what we have to talk about, discuss or raise to ministers, presidents or whoever. If we are going to talk to the Foreign Minister of Argentina in the field of the UN tomorrow, we are first going to talk to our members of Bnai Brith Argentina about what they consider to be the most essential thing to raise, and then Bnai Brith has its central agenda with the State of Israel as its axis. But we coordinate with each country because there are specific issues that have to do with Israel, Judaism, anti-Semitism, which we also raise.
Is your parent company in Washington?
Yes. The institution was founded in New York but quickly moved to Washington and we have been there since the end of the 19th century.
How do you see Latin America from the community?
From the community point of view, the strengths of the communities occur in the large communities. Small communities are suffering a lot, because it is very difficult today, in such a dynamic world, where the news arrives on your phone in 10 seconds, to be able to develop intense activity. In Central America, most of them are very small and there are only a few slightly larger communities left in Panama and Costa Rica. The fortresses are in the largest, such as Argentina, Mexico and Brazil. In a lower degree, being communities with much fewer Jewish numbers and institutions, are Chile and Uruguay. Communities react according to the realities of Latin America. After the largest period of the pandemic, from 2020 to 2022, the community suffers the general consequences. Latin America has a quality of democracy that is falling rapidly. It must be understood that elections are very important in any country and there must be elections, but that is not the definition of democracy. If the powers are not each in place and are independent, and the political power of the Executive absorbs the Judiciary, it lowers the quality of democracy and creates problems. Jewish communities do not feel and are not well when the country is not totally democratic.
At the moment in Latin America there are very serious problems, not necessarily talking about smooth and plain dictatorships such as Venezuela, Nicaragua or Cuba, or the permanent activity of an autocracy like Bolivia, where the Jewish community is scarce, but obviously when democracy falters the Jewish community tends to defend itself and cannot always do so successfully. With regard to whether anti-Semitism is greater in Latin America than in Europe, I would not make that differentiation, but I can say that there is a growing anti-Semitism around the world, being violent in Europe and the United States, they in fact caused victims, and in Latin America there is increasing violence on social networks that can lead to fatal outcomes. Unfortunately, we cannot forget that in Uruguay that violence led to a fatal outcome just six years ago, when a merchant was murdered in Paysandú for the fact of being Jewish. Anti-Semitism is currently a problem around the world and occurs in the vast majority of Latin American countries.
In a panel for the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress, they expressed concern about the increase in anti-Semitism, something you mentioned.
-With regard to that, it is very worrying that the signals do not decrease, it is not an isolated issue, on the contrary. I do not want to put Latin America as a global because there are 35 countries, but if we go to the largest countries, in Mexico for example, the government is very hostile in policies with the State of Israel and demonstrates it at the United Nations, which generates incitement that is noticed on social networks, which are a formidable tool, like a hammer, but if instead of being used to nail something The same thing happens with social networks, if they are continually demonizing the State of Israel, what happens a lot in most Latin American countries, Mexico is one of them, like Argentina or Brazil, inevitably generates a latent feeling that another type of violence may come. And that is worrying and should be one of the topics that generates the most debate.
In Chile it’s not about social networks, something different happens. What do you think about it?
Chile has had an involution in its relationship with the Jewish community. After recovering democracy, he maintained a constitution that came from the period when he had no democracy and in general all the governments of Chile, always democratic, almost without exception, attacked Israel. We always said that it was because there is the largest Palestinian community in Latin America and one of the largest in the world, which makes a very strong lobby and the Jewish community in comparison is very small. But the Chilean governments themselves did not help that involution in the relationship and that generated violence of all kinds and not only on social networks obviously.
It is too early to know if it worsened with the new government, but obviously there are very clear announcements from the new administration to continue or aggravate the anti-Israeli policy and not only in international forums. In fact, it was seen when Israel had to defend itself against Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and it was a clear example of what is happening in Latin America and especially in Chile. The situation is difficult but what I see is that the possibility of democratic strength that Chile has always allows a line of dialogue, both for what Israel is, through its embassy, and on the part of the Chilean Jewish community. Is dialogue going to be difficult in these times? Yes, it will probably be difficult because if the party responsible for being able to live in peace and not attacking any community are dogmatic and consider that they should transfer the conflict from the Middle East to Chile and not vary it with measures that correspond to a democracy, more problems will be generated than there already exist. What is clear is that you live in a climate of tension, a tension that you do not live with in other countries of the region.
What do you think of the Iranian plane stranded in Argentina?
-Regardless of what can be known and what is mostly not known, we institutionally believe that it is a new demonstration of the absolute impunity that Iran and its Hezbollah agents have to pass through different Latin American countries without any problems and all this is due to the relationship and axis pointed out by Iran with Venezuela, in which passports fly and are all viable on very weak and porous borders.
It should be a very strong alert for countries that are aware of what it means to have terrorism at the door, because it is not only a matter of suspected crew members, but in a continent where after 30 years Argentina could not say clearly, or at least could not solve before justice, neither Argentina nor the rest of the world, the attacks that Iran made in the Israeli Embassy and the AMIA And to the extent that the most democratic countries in the region do not stand firm, they will be violated as the border was violated in this case in Paraguay, where they will be able to investigate whatever they want, but it was violated.
The reaction in Argentina is very poor, but it has been for 30 years, since they attacked AMIA. In the case of Uruguay, the reaction was good but we had many doubts as to whether it had been strong, firm and clear in any other circumstance. It has now come up with this government and I am not going to speculate with any government, but in Uruguay there are also political sectors that continue to think that Cuba is a democracy and that Venezuela is a persecuted country, so in that sense I also do not feel that Uruguay, which is a strong democracy, is so strong, compact, harmonious and united as to defend itself
What objectives do you have set from the new year in the Jewish calendar?
There is an immediate plan that has to do with Latin America. Together with Hatzad Hasheni we organized a trip in which a delegation of 12 journalists from Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Costa Rica and Panama will be in Israel from October 22 to 29. This trip has the support of B’na B’rith Israel. The idea is for them to see, know, discuss and ask about Israel. It’s something we’ve been doing on a regular basis, but it slowed down due to the pandemic. It’s something that seems important to us and it’s not just about hasbará, it’s much more than that. We see that when it was the confrontation with Jihad, it is not the case in Argentina, where there are correspondents, but we do see in other countries, including large countries such as Mexico, Brazil or Peru, where all they do is read cables from agencies that in general have no idea what they are writing, because they are not in Israel. That makes the explanation of the conflict and much more of terrorism very bad, so we think this activity is very important.
From another point of view, the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress was recently held in Switzerland and a delegation of B’nai B’rith International from all continents, of more than 25 members, was present, honoring our participation in the OSM. The delegation was headed by the world president, who is from the United States, and our executive director Daniel S. Mariaschin. In addition, we are going to do our annual meeting at the end of the year and we are going to do it again virtually, because unfortunately the issue of travel is still very complex, and when we do a meeting of this type we want to bring together people from all continents and today it is still very difficult to do it. At that meeting we hope to have authorities from different countries of the world, since Zoom allows it, to discuss the issues of anti-Semitism and how to confront them.
The last thing I would like to mention is that in a Latin American work we do with Adriana Camisar, we have interviewed many Israeli ambassadors, we have shared it on social networks, and last week we were sobering about the interview we did with Fernando Lottenberg, because we have verified the work he is doing in monitoring anti-Semitism together with his colleague from Europe and the United Knowing that we are not alone, that there are many who see this from politics, from social organizations. There are people who see this scourge as something that is directed first to the Jews, but in the long run it destroys the whole of society.