By Gary P. Saltzman
President, B’nai B’rith International
As a nation, we seem to have lost our collective sense of civility. Whether it’s the language of our politicians, online conversations, hateful postings on social media or nasty comments left online at the end of news stories, too often too many of us no longer speak with kindness, tolerance, respect and patience. Us vs. Them is the order of the day. Respect for neighbors, for fellow citizens, for institutions, for leaders: all gone.
But tolerance has proven to be an important bedrock in this nation. Some of America’s greatest accomplishments can be credited to acceptance and camaraderie.
As an organization founded by immigrants in 1843, B’nai B’rith has long recognized that compassion is a key component to a functioning, successful society.
Prejudice and hate have led to too many horrific events.
At B’nai B’rith, we have long tried to spread a different message.
B’nai B’rith’s record of advocacy and work for the civil rights of all Americans dates back to the early decades of the 20th century. During the late 1940s, our leaders stood firmly behind President Harry Truman’s plans to end segregation, and later fully supported the Supreme Court’s order on school integration, declaring “We are determined to make every effort to secure complete equality of education throughout the nation. Lodges are encouraged to create city and state commissions for human relations in their own communities.”
B’nai B’rith’s 10,000 member Bowling League boycotted the American Bowling Congress until it dropped its whites-only rule.
On his election as president of B’nai B’rith, Philip Klutznick underscored and upheld the religious and moral imperative of B’nai B’rith’s members in the struggle to attain equality, even in the face of Ku Klux Klan violence in the South.
Responding to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s telegram, sent to B’nai B’rith after the 1956 Montgomery Bus boycott, Klutznick transmitted the following message: “B’nai B’rith is firm in its conviction that only through respect for the law and maintenance of civil order can justice be obtained. We endorse anyone who carries on in the interest of justice.”
Our global commitment to tolerance and acceptance is unwavering. As an organization with members and supporters all over the world, we seek cross-cultural understanding. We are dedicated to interfaith relations, meeting with leaders from other religions to form a united front in fighting religious discrimination and persecution. I have joined other B’nai B’rith leaders in meetings with Pope Francis to discuss points of agreement, as well as disagreement, between our religions, but always to demonstrate mutual respect for each other’s worship and beliefs.
B’nai B’rith has been active at the United Nations since its founding. Indeed, it was the global body that partitioned pre-state Israel, leading to the creation of the modern state. In recent years, however, the U.N. has become a vehicle for almost daily discrimination against Israel, reflecting a lack of tolerance for Jews and the Jewish state. We fight every day for the respect Israel’s democracy deserves. We also recognize that the U.N., if it lives up to its own founding principles, can be a force for universal human rights. We attend meetings of the U.N. Human Rights Council to ensure the least tolerant of the world body’s member states do not set the agenda on rights.
We have created programs to respond to and counter intolerance. In 2000, B’nai B’rith launched Enlighten America. Our program materials note that it “provides a voice to speak out against prejudice and bigotry, hatred and violence, and on behalf of tolerance and understanding in our communities.”
At the center of the program is a pledge individuals make to “refrain from using slang expressions or telling jokes based on race, sexual orientation, gender, nationality or physical or mental challenges that would serve to demean another, and to act with civility even if one strongly disagrees with the position taken by others on political issues.”
Imagine if we all took that pledge.
That program led us to develop the Diverse Minds Writing Challenge. Since 2006, this program has offered high school students the chance to think about the impact of tolerance and acceptance and diversity on our world. These students then create stories and illustrations to demonstrate how a diverse and tolerant society can improve our world.
Contestants amaze us year after year with their insightful views of how accepting others can lead to a better world. Through their thoughtful words and impressive illustrations, the high school students who have entered the contest over the last decade give me hope that tolerance and diversity are not just concepts. They are traits to live by.
The winning books each year are professionally published and donated to schools, libraries and Boys and Girls clubs of America across the country to teach younger children these vital lessons. Books are also available online. In the 10 years of the contest, we have donated 33 different titles and more than 39,000 printed books about tolerance and acceptance. That’s a lot of children getting the message. This contest has shown us that so many teens are leading by example.
Continually, we have spoken against religious intolerance that has led to name calling and accusations against the Muslim community. We have condemned the hateful targeting of the LGBT community. We have spoken out against the religious persecution of Christians in the Middle East. We advocate for seniors to ensure ageism does not affect an older person’s ability to get jobs or housing.
At every level, we must aim to bring out the best in people, rather than succumb to rhetoric and suspicion. We should aspire. Not sink.
Mutual respect. It’s not a concept. It’s a way of life we need to embrace. We hope to continue to play a role as we impact humankind. Note the end of that word. Kind.
Wishing you and your family a happy and sweet new year.