By Daniel S. Mariaschin
Executive Vice President, B’nai B’rith International
This past August, I had the opportunity to travel to Australia and once again to connect with its vibrant, active Jewish community.
I was invited by the Gandel Foundation, in cooperation with Australia’s B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission (ADC), to deliver its annual oration in both Melbourne and Sydney. My topic: “The Evil of Modern Anti-Semitism and the Forces Behind It,” a subject very much on our minds, as we’ve seen over the past decade a tremendous rise in anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activity on a global scale.
I was warmly welcomed in both cities by leaders of the Jewish community, including our own B’nai B’rith leadership. Sincere thanks go to my colleague, Dvir Abramovich, chair of the ADC, who organized my entire visit. A special tip of the hat goes to Janice Huppert, James Altman and Anna Marks of B’nai B’rith Australia, who hosted events, and to Morris Tobias, the District 21 president, who, though on vacation at the time, kept in touch with me during the duration of my stay Down Under.
I’m especially grateful to the benefactors of the Gandel Foundation, John and Pauline Gandel, for both their hospitality and their devotion to the community and to the State of Israel. When we speak about international Jewish leadership, the Gandels are indeed among its pillars.
The Australian Jewish community numbers about 150,000. In Melbourne, we stayed in the St. Kilda neighborhood, the center of the city’s Jewish life, with synagogues, as well as kosher bakeries, cafes and butchers, all within walking distance. Sydney’s Jewish population is slightly larger than Melbourne’s and has the same intensity and variety of community activity.
In Melbourne, I addressed students at two Jewish day schools, Mt. Scopus Memorial College and Bialik College. I found a close identification with Israel among the young people I met. We also toured the Holocaust Museum and Research Center, accompanied by both the director and a Holocaust survivor. It is an impressive institution, highlighting not only the tragic events of the Shoah, but also the relatively large community of survivors who located in the city after the war.
Abramovich also arranged a series of meetings with a number of Australian political figures. The country has been a stalwart friend of Israel under a succession of governments. I was privileged to meet with two former prime ministers—Bob Hawke and John Howard—who both vocally supported free emigration for Soviet Jews and maintained excellent relations with Israel.
Indeed, in 2006, B’nai B’rith International presented Howard with its Presidential Gold Medallion at a ceremony at the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
I was especially fortunate to have spent time with Michael Danby, a member of the national parliament, and with David Southwick, who sits in the Victoria (the state that includes Melbourne) parliament, and colleagues of theirs, with whom we discussed a wide range of issues. I also had the chance to tour the magnificent Victoria Parliament House, whose initial construction dates to the 1850s.
The ADC does tremendously important work fighting anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination and works to advance interreligious relations. It enjoys tremendous respect both inside and outside the community, evident to me by the high level and varied meetings and programs in which I participated.
So, too, for our local B’nai B’rith, which is deeply involved in programs that touch so many, including seniors and Holocaust survivors. We’re proud that they are a vital part of our B’nai B’rith family.
Australia is a beautiful country that, perhaps, is reflected in the exceedingly warm hospitality we experienced and in the friendship of so many to Israel and the Jewish people. I was reminded once again, as well, of the Hebrew phrase Kol Yisrael Chaverim, “All of Israel are friends” as I went from meeting to meeting. Thousands of miles may separate us, but being Jewish and supporting Israel are a state of mind that transcends borders.
I left the country thinking of the young people at the day schools in Melbourne. When I asked how many had already been to Israel, most hands shot up. They are the future of Australian Jewry—and ours. We returned hopeful—and encouraged.
By Gary P. Saltzman
President, B’nai B’rith International
The United Nations was established on a grand and admirable foundation. The founding charter notes that the U.N. is, among other things, determined “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.” The charter also reads that to achieve its goals it will aim “to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours.”
Sadly, when it comes to Israel, that foundation has crumbled.
Just a few months ago, I, along with B’nai B’rith International Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin, led a B’nai B’rith International delegation to the United Nations for intense meetings with presidents, foreign ministers and other government leaders gathered in New York for the opening of the 71st General Assembly. For decades, B’nai B’rith has hosted meetings on the sidelines of the opening, to talk about issues important to Israel and the Jewish people and to promote global human rights.
Our dozens of meetings evoke a wide array of responses. We leave some with a positive feeling that we got our point across. And from others, we leave dismayed at the continuing clinging to a different and separate standard for Israel. We argue the points of the obvious lack of fairness toward Israel across the U.N. system, and we talk about the peace process, instilling the fact that it takes two parties to move forward, how both need to come without preconditions and how there needs to be an acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state. We remind leaders that the Palestinian leadership has refused, for years, to do this bare minimum.
The varied outcomes of the meetings are often head-spinning and head-scratching. We have met with leaders who talk in positive and colorful terms about their country’s relationship with Israel and with deep respect for Israel’s business and agricultural acumen and its important and groundbreaking advances in medicine and technology.
After leaving that meeting, our next one might include a leader who will say outright that Israel is a success, yes, but as such, it should be held to a higher standard.
These reactions we know long and well. B’nai B’rith has been active at the U.N. from its very founding at the San Francisco conference and accredited as a non-government organization since 1947.
During our meetings, you won’t be surprised to know that Iran is always on the agenda. We caution leaders that while the latest agreement may be putting only a temporary lid on Tehran’s development of nuclear capacity, which is concerning enough, it has diminished neither the country's global terror interests and activities, nor its leadership’s continual call for the destruction of Israel. These issues need to be acknowledged and addressed by the United Nations.
Global anti-Semitism is growing, particularly in Europe. About 10,000 Jews immigrated to Israel last year from Western Europe, an all-time high. Additionally, more and more European Jews say they do not feel safe openly practicing their religion. It is well within the U.N.’s portfolio to serve as a watchdog and to call for the elimination of the unacceptable scourge of anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism is a crucial component of Israel’s treatment at the United Nations.
B’nai B’rith has long called for a common, globally accepted definition of anti-Semitism. In September, at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw, Poland, we urged the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to adopt a working definition of anti-Semitism that would then be disseminated globally, to educate world leaders, journalists and students about the impact of the incessant demonization of Jews and Israel.
With a great sense of gravity and humility, we pursue as an organizational mission universal human rights, as well as fair treatment, recognition and respect for Israel. The U.N. should ensure a fair opportunity for each nation to have security and safety, no matter where it is.
Our role is to help monitor the U.N. and educate and encourage the world body to carry out its mission fairly across the community of nations.
Our presence provides a vital counterpoint to what now seems like systemic anti-Israel bias. At a minimum, B’nai B’rith adds a voice too often missing from the conversation.
Our presence is truly needed. Not just at U.N. headquarters in New York, but at numerous U.N. offices around the world, such as in Geneva, the home of the astoundingly anti-Israel U.N. Human Rights Council, and in Paris, the home of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
We work tirelessly and globally on U.N. issues. We reach out to countries across Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa on their votes at the U.N. in New York, Geneva, Paris and elsewhere regarding Israel-related voting matters.
I would argue we need to become even more engaged at the U.N. as the world is becoming ever more difficult and polarized. So, we encourage you to join us, speaking out against the inconsistencies at the U.N. and to move the U.N. back to the principles that we witnessed from the start. With your support, we can continue to lead the way in our advocacy role, being as effective as we can be.
Visit us at https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/bbi-donate or call our development office at 800-573-9057.
By Rachel Goldberg
No matter what we call it, we all monitor our cost of living, from rent to transportation, from health care to home heating oil. While some prices may go down, the trend is generally up. If we are lucky, our jobs have built-in cost-of-living adjustments, or regular raises to maintain our buying power. We all hope to be doing at least as well this year as last, and that means, one way or another, we want our income adjusted for inflation in the cost of living.
This is particularly important for the elderly, one third of whom rely almost exclusively on Social Security for their income. Social Security replaces a portion of pre-retirement earnings, so we already know that retiring solely or primarily on these benefits can mean a drop not only in income but in standard of living.
Someone making an average annual middle income salary of $46,000 would receive a yearly Social Security benefit of about $18,000, or about 40 percent of former income. For a high-wage worker with average lifetime wages of $112,000, the annual benefit is around $29,000, replacing 26 percent of prior income. In order to prevent further erosion in the buying power and standard of living for people who heavily rely on Social Security Congress instituted automatic cost of living adjustments, or COLA in 1973.
But how the COLA is determined is imperfect and controversial. You see, the U.S. Department of Labor uses the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which uses several different ways to measure the cost of living. Are consumers paying more for the same items this year as last? Which expenses are rising the most? The least? All those questions and answers are built into the different indices developed at the Department of Labor, and how they are weighted matters a great deal. Currently, Social Security, Veterans benefits and most other federal programs for low income people and the elderly that rely on the CPI use what’s called the CPI-W. This is a catchy little nickname for the CPI for “Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers.” There would be no problem if spending by retired older adults and people collecting Social Security Disability Insurance (SSI) payments, along with those very low-income people collecting SSI and veterans collecting VA benefits, matched those of urban and clerical workers. But they don’t.
The urban wage earners and clerical workers said to be represented by the CPI-W make up only about 23 percent of the U.S. population. Social Security beneficiaries are generally not among them. Urban wage earners spend more on things like daily transportation and work clothes. Most retirees have lower incomes and spend a higher percentage on things like health care, housing and utilities. So, the CPI-W inaccurately estimates and usually underestimates the cost of living for older people, and how it varies from year to year.
The Missing COLA
Last year, while health care costs (including Medicare deductibles) continued to rise for older adults, there was no Social Security COLA increase. For 2017, it will be .3 percent, boosting the average monthly payment by about $4. Thus, because the COLA formula is inappropriate for older people, the buying power of someone relying on Social Security can decline over time. This is particularly troubling because many other retirement accounts, like 401ks, can eventually run out of funds. So, the older you are, the more you rely on Social Security, and the actual value of your benefit has declined based on how the COLA is measured.
Unfortunately, over the last decade the only serious discussion of changing the Social Security COLA calculation has revolved around producing a lower percentage adjustment and another less accurate measurement of what Social Security recipients actually spend. Advocates for the elderly have so far successfully fought this so-called “chained CPI” formula. But future success is not guaranteed, because reducing COLAs not only erodes benefits, it also saves the government money. So, pressure will continue to go this route, despite its assumptions about the flexibility of an urban consumer’s spending that don’t apply to retirees who must pay for non-negotiable items like housing and medical care, rather than clothing, leisure and even transportation.
So, the bipartisan but misguided attempts to make the COLA formulation worse have failed.
But there is another option. Since 1987, the Labor Department has calculated an “experimental” CPI based on the spending patterns of older adults. It’s called CPI-E, for Consumer Price Index for the Elderly-Experimental. For years, advocates have supported this approach without success. But the tide may be turning. There are currently several bills in the U.S. House of Representatives that would switch Social Security (and other programs for low-income and/or elderly people) to the CPI-E or to another measure focused on actual cost patterns. One bill would simply tie the COLA automatically to measures of medical inflation, which is one of the main drivers in the actual cost of living for elderly and disabled people.
Linking Solvency and Adequacy
A decade ago, the talk was all about how we could cut benefits to keep Social Security “solvent,” from running out of funds. But, in the last few years politicians have begun to understand that solvency and adequacy of benefits are inextricably linked—and that making the program solvent by cutting benefits and thereby impoverishing our elders would be no victory. So, as we tackle long-term solvency and adequacy together, tying benefits to beneficiaries’ actual cost of living is just one piece. There are other ways to improve the adequacy of Social Security benefits that are becoming integral parts of conversations on solvency, and that is as it should be.
Had we been using the CPI-E since its conception nearly 30 years ago, an individual collecting benefits the entire time, perhaps an elderly single person or widow with few other resources, would be receiving about 15 percent more each month. For low or moderate-income retirees, that could mean the difference between just making rent and paying rent while also buying groceries and prescription drugs and while keeping up with utility bills.
Because of their complexity, these issues don’t lend themselves to quick sound bites. But the COLA matters. It’s important to make sure Social Security benefits maintain their value for the people who have earned them through a lifetime of hard work and economic contributions.
Rachel Goldberg, who holds a doctorate in political science, is the B’nai B’rith director of aging policy.
We are sad to say this is Rachel Goldberg’s last column for B’nai B’rith Magazine. She has contributed to the magazine for 13 years as the B’nai B’rith International director of aging policy but is leaving for a wonderful opportunity at AARP. Her must-read columns have offered vital insights into all manner of aging issues. We wish her well. This column will continue. Please watch this space in your spring issue.
By Rachel Chasin
“Jewish women entered politics in the United States even before they were allowed to vote, [and] they have made their mark fighting for many causes, among them equality for all,” an American University professor and historian of the American Jewish experience told B’nai B’rith’s annual Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C.
Pamela Nadell, history department chair and director of the Jewish Studies Program at American University, cited the histories of Hannah Greeenebaum Solomon, orchestrator of the Jewish Women’s Congress, labor activist Bessie Abramowitz Hillman and U.S. Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.).
“If we define politics as activities undertaken to influence a community or a nation, activities that naturally lead to struggles for power and authority, then from the get-go [women in] American Jewish organizations were involved in politics,” Nadell said.
Nadell spoke on the opening night of the Leadership Forum, an annual event that also covered such topics as the rise of global anti-Semitism, immigration, Israel-Spain relations and social security.
She thanked B’nai B’rith for preserving and archiving our historic records: “When B’nai B’rith is 200 years old, and when it is 250 years old, the scholars who followed me will be reading your words and writing your accomplishments because of this effort to preserve your records. That’s an extraordinary historical legacy, that you, the leaders of B’nai B’rith take credit for that. As a historian, I am deeply grateful.”
Nadell said that the pivotal point for Jewish women in politics came during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair) held to mark the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ expedition to the New World. The exposition included more than 400 “congresses” on various subjects, including religion. The Fair’s Board of Lady Managers wanted to make certain that women from every religious denomination were represented throughout the congresses.
Nadell spoke of Hannah Greenebaum Solomon, who took charge of reaching out to different congregations all across the United States, asking for women to participate in the fair. Solomon and her delegation were invited to join the men who were organizing the Jewish Denominational Congress. Solomon agreed only if she and the other women could actively engage in the congress’ sessions.
According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, Solomon said, “The only part of the program they wished us to fill was the chairs.”
After realizing that the men wouldn’t allow her to fully participate in the Jewish Denominational Congress, Solomon decided to create her own congress, and about two dozen Jewish women, over the course of four days, spoke at the exposition. “These women showed that they were experts on Judaism. They were special experts on the history of Jewish women, but they were also discussing contemporary Jewish affairs,” said Nadell. They also “talked about the influx of immigrants,” because of the pogroms in Europe of the early 1880s and “the worldwide specter of anti-Semitism.”
Solomon and the delegation’s involvement with the exposition led to the creation of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), which advocates for social justice and other rights pertaining to women.
In 1910, 20-year-old Bessie Abramowitz worked for nearly 60 hours a week sewing on buttons during the day and threading needles at night. She made about $3 a week. Her bosses at Hart Schaffner & Marx cut workers’ wages a quarter of a cent per garment. She led a walkout of 16 workers, and her small protest soon turned into a strike that lasted for four months, with 8,000 workers joining her. Her future husband, Sidney Hillman, worked in that same factory and joined the strike three weeks after it began. Sidney Hillman later led the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America labor union. Political and women’s rights activist Jane Addams supported Bessie Hillman (then Abramowitz) and her strike and hired her as an organizer for the Women’s Trade Union League. These events were a turning point for Hillman, and they began her lifelong fight for union worker rights in the United States.
“Exercised their political voice by banding together to take care of their own, and also for other causes … like Zionism,” said Nadell.
“Part of the reason I think Jewish women have done that … is because Jews and Jewish women among them have a strong commitment to improving the world that we live in, and one venue for doing that is through political activism,” she added.
While Bella Abzug wasn’t the first Jewish woman in Congress—Florence Prag Kahn was elected to a seat in Congress after her husband’s death in 1924 and held that position until 1937—she was, perhaps, the most outspoken.
“Women have been trained to speak softly and carry a lipstick. Those days are over,” Abzug once said.
Abzug obtained a law degree from Columbia University in 1947 and served on its law review as an editor. She practiced law for the next 20 years, and some of her clients were accused by U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) of supporting the Communist Party.
She was 50 years old, when, in 1970, she decided to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Her campaign slogan was “This woman’s place is in the House … the House of Representatives!” She began her first term in 1971 and was elected two more times, representing Manhattan’s Upper West Side until 1977. Since the days of Hannah Greenebaum Solomon and the Jewish Women’s Congress, the number of Jewish women involved in political or activist organizations has steadily increased.
There are a number of Jewish women’s organizations like Hadassah, Jewish Women International, the NCJW and, of course, B’nai B’rith Women that have joined to make sure that Jewish women are represented in politics. During the 114th Congress there were two Jewish women in the senate, Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Five Jewish women served in the House of Representatives: Susan Davis (D-Calif.), Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).
Nadell is currently writing a book on the history of Jewish women, starting with their arrival in America to present day.
Captions by Sam Seifman
(From left to right) B’nai B’rith International Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin moderated a panel discussion on international issues with Director of Legislative Affairs Eric Fusfield, Director of Latin America Affairs Eduardo Kohn, Director of U.N. and Intercommunal Affairs David Michaels. They discussed the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s adoption of a working definition of anti-Semitism, Iran’s relationship with Latin American countries and the dangers it poses, the United Nations’ “High Level Forum on Global Antisemitism” and the heroism of Jews who rescued fellow Jews during the Holocaust.
B’nai B’rith International Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin opened the second panel. He discussed global anti-Semitism and conveyed his concerns over the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, the United Nations and expressions of anti-Semitism originating in the Middle East and Europe.
After the international discussion, another panel focused on domestic issues. Once again, it featured B’nai B’rith International Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin and Director of Legislative Affairs Eric Fusfield—this time with the addition of Director of Aging and Health Policy Rachel Goldberg. They addressed gun control issues and immigration reform, and discussed how the presidential election could affect Social Security.
Lila Zorn, co-chair of membership for B’nai B’rith, tells attendees about “Unto Every Person There Is a Name,” of which B’nai B’rith is the North American sponsor. Each year on Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), on the 27th day of the month of Nissan, participants around the world read the names of victims who died in the Holocaust, and where and when they were born and died.
Nikki Usher, assistant professor at The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, and Neil Potts public policy manager of Facebook, led a discussion on the benefits and dangers of social media. Through the lens of freedom of speech, they examined how people use social media platforms to spread postivity and information, as well as hate and fear.
The forum ended with a special edition of the B’nai B’rith Diplomatic Encounter Series, featuring (from left to right) Spanish Ambassador Ramón Gil-Casares, B’nai B’rith International Senior Vice President Sheila Mostyn, B’nai B’rith International Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and B’nai B’rith International President Gary P. Saltzman. The ambassadors discussed the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Israel and Spain and the much longer relationship between Spain and the Jewish people. In their hands, Gil-Casares and Dermer held “Lincoln and the Jews,” by Jonathan Sarna and Benjamin Shapell—a gift from B’nai B’rith.
By Sam Seifman
At this year’s Leadership Forum, B’nai B’rith Vice President of Programming Rhonda Love moderated a panel titled “Presenting B’nai B’rith: Bring Something Back to Your Community.”
“We need to be able to explain ourselves,” Love advised the audience. “We need to be able to tell people what we do.” At the Forum, B’nai B’rith leaders did just that.
William Berger, president of B’nai B’rith Denver, discussed his lodge and the 20th anniversary of its Leadville Cemetery cleanup program. Those attending also heard from B’nai B’rith Europe Senior Vice President Eric Engelmayer on increased involvement across the continent, with B’nai B’rith events in 315 cities across 35 different countries.
In the United States, B’nai B’rith International lodges are working to strengthen their local communities.
The Harvest Lodge in New York City, meeting three to four times a year, sponsors an annual golf outing. With help from grocery distributor Krasdale Foods, the lodge sells tickets and raises money for B’nai B’rith’s Project H.O.P.E. (Help Our People Everywhere). Lodge President Neil Gewelb, also a vice president at Krasdale, helped facilitate the connection between the two organizations.
Every Passover, as a part of the Project H.O.P.E. program, Harvest Lodge (with aid from Krasdale) provides 800 households with about $50 worth of food for the holiday.
“There are a lot of people who do a lot of work to make this all happen, especially Neil Gewelb,” said Harold Mitchell, president of B’nai B’rith’s MetroNorth region and Harvest Lodge board member.
B’nai B’rith of Monroe Township in New Jersey, incorporated five years ago, was the result of a merger of three other lodges (Clearbrook, Concordia and The Ponds). Today, the lodge is thriving with more than 200 members. It supports local groups, such as the Jewish Federation, Community FoodBank and The First Aid and Rescue Squad. It also raises funds for an emergency medical alert system, five separate college scholarships and lodge retreats. Its biggest fundraiser is an annual fall gala. In June, members went to the Pearlstone Center, near Baltimore and heard lectures such as “Pioneers of Comedy” by Ira Epstein, a former professor at Brooklyn College and current lecturer, and “Goldberg’s Believe It! Incredible Facts About History” by M. Hirsh Goldberg, author of “The Book of Lies” and former press secretary to former Maryland Gov. Harry R. Hughes.
“We are dedicated in supporting B’nai B’rith International and their global activities worldwide,” said lodge President Marshall Klein. “Locally, we are happy to be part of the Jewish community in Monroe Township.”
Members of the B’nai B’rith Tucker, Grant, Zager Stone Lodge in the Great Lakes Region are mostly couples. Social events include screenings of vintage films, at the Redford Theatre, such as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and speakers, including Karen Tintori, author of “Unto the Daughters: The Legacy of an Honor Killing in a Sicilian-American Family.”
The lodge is also involved in community service. Twice a year, it holds bingo games at the local Veterans Administration hospital, supplying prizes and volunteers. Annually, it joins with the Great Lakes Region to provide a scholarship to a local student. It also supports local food banks and special needs schools. Its main event every year is a Chanukah party, to which 75 local special needs children are invited, treated to latkes and other traditional Chanukah fare and given gifts from the lodge and community. To raise money, the lodge holds auctions and a “games evening,” when guests pay to play board games, card games and mahjong, and socialize.
“My goal is to make a place where people can feel comfortable and at home,” said lodge co-President Lana Jacobs (the other co-president is Harvey Olson). “You can belong to an organization and not be involved. But our members are personally involved.”
By Michele Chabin
The stench was at first overpowering at the Shafdan water treatment and reclamation plant located in Israel’s heavily populated and centrally located Dan region. “Don’t worry. In a minute or two you won’t even notice the smell,” Gal Shoham, a water engineer at the plant, assured a visiting delegation of water experts from South Africa, as he took them on a guided tour of the sprawling center.
Ten minutes later, the South Africans were still struggling with the unpleasant odor in this plant, south of Tel Aviv, as they watched used sink water and toilet effluents from homes in the heart of Israel wend their way through a series of pools and channels where filters had already removed feces, supposedly flushable tampons and baby wipes. The sticks floating in the water were the flushed remains of an Israeli brand of cotton swabs.
Standing next to one of the smellier water reclamation pools, Mthokozisi Pius Duze, chief executive officer of a South African regional water board, explained why he and his team, coping with historic droughts, had flown to Israel for an intensive tour of wastewater centers and desalination plants, as well as conservation and reuse projects. “Right now we are experiencing the worst drought ever in our country,” Duze said. “Israel has found a way to replenish its scant water resources and we want to learn from it. We’ve looked at our topography and climatic conditions and at Israel’s water technology, and we believe Israel is the nation that can help us best.”
Israel’s ability to transform itself from a nation with a severe, chronic water shortage to one with ample drinking water and a surplus of reclaimed wastewater has made it a model for states like California and nations like South Africa. San Diego’s new desalination plant was built by an Israeli company, and Israeli water technology is helping farmers the world over. Israeli innovation has also opened the door for cross-border cooperation in a region riven by conflict.
The transformation in Israel has been nothing less than miraculous. Less than a decade ago, the country, experiencing what Middle East water experts were calling the worst regional drought in 900 years, was seriously considering importing drinking water from Turkey. Today, thanks to water technology and conservation, “there is generally no water shortage in Israel,” said Yossi Yaacoby, director of the WaTech division of Mekorot, Israel’s national water company.
Yaacoby emphasized that Israel, which pioneered water-saving methods decades ago, was well on its way to water self-sufficiency before the drought, but said it “added new urgency” to the goal of self-reliance.
Yossi Schreiber, director of the Jewish National Fund’s development and engineering division, noted that the scarcity of water in the region has preoccupied its residents for millennia. “Since the time of Abraham, you see biblical accounts of arguments over water,” Schreiber said. “And look at the prayers of the Jewish people. We pray that rain will come at the right time of year because the land of the Jewish people has never had enough water.”
From Ancient Times:
A Parched Land, and Little Rain
In biblical times, farmers made the most of limited rainfall by terracing and contouring the land to catch rainwater, a method of farming still employed in hilly parts of Israel and the West Bank. The crops they grew were indigenous to the region and required relatively little water; the rest would wither.
When Israel was established in 1948, Schreiber said, the country’s leaders “already understood that if they wanted a green country, they would have to do two things: look for underground water supplies and take the water from the north of the country and deliver it to the south.”
The government rushed to build water pipes to various municipalities, but it took almost two decades to build the national water carrier, which conveys fresh water from the relatively water-rich north to the desert in the south.
The carrier helped satisfy the demands of Israel’s fast-growing population and made it possible for people and farmers to thrive in the arid Negev.
Although piping water to the south enabled farmers to make the desert bloom, and tapping into fresh water aquifers provided much-needed fresh water for drinking and irrigation, “there was the realization, already 20 to 30 years ago, that we would need to find additional water sources,” Schreiber said.
As much as they wished they could, like Moses, get water from a stone, Israel’s water scientists took inspiration instead from the biblical passage in which Moses and the Israelites come upon the bitter waters of Marah and God turns the brackish water sweet.
Israel, blessed with a long coastline along the Mediterranean and a port on the Red Sea, opened its first sea water desalination plant in 1997 in Eilat. Today five such plants supply more than 600 million cubic meters of drinking water per year. Depending on the time of year, that represents 60 to 80 percent of Israel’s drinking water.
Even that would not have been enough, Shoham said, without the government’s decision to greatly expand Israel’s waste water reclamation facilities. Thanks to the 47-year-old Shafdan, the largest such plant in Israel, and several smaller ones, Israel now reclaims a whopping 85 percent of its wastewater. That number is expected to jump to 90 percent within five years.
Once cleaned to a high international standard, this water is used by nearly every farmer in the country.
A Cultural Shift
“At first, the farmers were reluctant to use the reclaimed wastewater,” Yuval Sela, chief engineer of Shafdan, acknowledged. “There was a psychological barrier until they realized just how clean the water is. Now the fruits and vegetables they grow with reclaimed water are exported to Europe.”
Because farmers no longer need to use fresh water to grow crops, there is more drinking water available for people, Sela said.
In the sweltering Negev in southern Israel, where orchards and green fields of growing crops stand in sharp contrast to the parched brown land that surrounds them, farmers said it is a relief to no longer compete with municipalities for fresh water.
Although most of the water used in the south arrives there from the Shafdan in purple pipes that are distinguishable from fresh-water pipes, some farming communities now run their own small wastewater reclamation centers.
Moshvei HaNegev, a farming conglomerate representing 34 moshavim (communal farms) in the Negev, runs one such facility. The water it cleans and later stores in a reservoir largely funded—like the country’s other reservoirs—by the Jewish National Fund, is used to grow much of the potatoes, peanuts, wheat, chickpeas, almonds, pomegranates, citrus fruit and cotton in the region.
Standing at the edge of the reservoir at the Tifrach Water Reclamation Facility and gazing out at the dry land interspersed with human-engineered greenery, Oz Ben-David, the consortium’s research and development manager, said that “before the moshavim arrived here, it was all desert. The water from the Shafdan, and now our own plant, has made it possible for us to grow produce here. We’ve changed the entire landscape of the Negev.”
A short drive away, Ben-David provided a tour of one of the consortium’s orchards, where ruby-red pomegranates hung from row upon row of mature trees.
“This fruit is grown with the highest quality of reclaimed waste water,” the agronomist said as he picked up a pomegranate from a plastic cart overflowing with produce picked that morning.
“We’re shipping these to Europe, which has very high standards for wastewater reuse.”
Kneeling down at the base of one of the trees, Ben-David lifted up a piece of tarp that covered the tree’s roots and drip irrigation hoses.
In drip irrigation, carefully placed holes in hoses deliver water precisely to the roots of the plant, a process that vastly reduces water wastage and evaporation.
Ben-David said the region receives less than 10 inches of annual rainfall on average, and it is concentrated between October and March.
Seated on a small tractor in the orchard was Ibrahim Ziyadneh, the orchard’s Bedouin field manager, took in the fields around him. It was sizzling hot and the other workers were taking a break.
“I especially like the fact that water that’s been used and flushed down a drain can be used to grow crops,” said Ziyadneh, who comes from a community of shepherds and farmers. “It’s good for farmers, but it’s also good for the environment.”
Water and War…Or Peace
Noam Weisbrod, who directs the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at Ben Gurion University in the Negev, believes Israel’s continued water innovation is based on the understanding—shared by the government, the private sector and academia—that water resources are fundamental to peace and security.
“When regions lack water, people flee and become refugees. Countries battle each other over water usage. It can lead to war. They’re all related and Israel recognizes this more than many other countries,” Weisbrod said.
Not surprisingly, he said, Israel invests a great deal in water research and “recruits the best people” to water engineers and scientists.
Some of the most intriguing water-related research is being carried out by the experts at the Zuckerberg Institute.
Some of that work aims to improve the process of reverse osmosis, the technology employed by Israel’s desalination plants. Other researchers are examining the impact of climate change on evaporation and the process of increasing the salt content in soil.
One of Weisbrod’s teams has developed what he called “unique tools” to monitor the “unsaturated zone,” the area between the land’s surface and the water table.
“It’s important because everything we dump on the ground—from industrial waste, pesticides and fertilizers for agriculture—go into this zone,” Weisbrod said. “Let’s say there’s radioactive waste going toward an aquifer. How long will it take to get there? What percentage of it will move? What will go into the soil and what is the rate of decay? This is one of our largest projects, and it’s funded by the Israel Water Authority,” a government agency with broad responsibilities for the county’s water economy.
On a more user-friendly level, Weisbrod and his team have developed a kind of backyard waste water reclamation system that treats a household’s sink and shower water so it can be safely used in a garden.
Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of EcoPeace-Middle East, which brings together Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian environmentalists, said his country’s success in water management will remain incomplete unless that success—and more water—is shared with its Palestinian neighbors.
While Israel signed water-sharing treaties with the Palestinians and Jordanians years ago, Bromberg said, Israel can afford to be more generous now that its water shortfall has been addressed.
The 1995 Israeli-Palestinian water agreement the two sides signed as part of the interim Oslo Peace Plan “gave the bulk of the shared water sources to Israel,” Bromberg said. “Now, technology provides Israel with the opportunity to move forward with an agreement with the Palestinians that would provide them with more water while not depriving a single Israeli.”
While Israelis don’t have to think twice about taking a shower, Bromberg said, “every summer we see Palestinian shortages. In West Bank cities including Bethlehem, the municipality delivers water once a month and water is rationed. The situation in Gaza is worse,” he said.
Ninety-five percent of Gaza’s water isn’t drinkable, according to Bromberg. “They’re consuming the coastal aquifer at three times its renewable rate,” he said. “Sewage water is going into the groundwater and the Mediterranean, and that affects Israel.”
While the Israeli government blames Hamas for the squalid conditions in Gaza, that won’t protect Israel’s water supply, Bromberg asserted.
“The Ashkelon desalination plant [on Israel’s southern coast] was forced to close twice this year because of Gaza sewage water” pouring into the Mediterranean, said Bromberg. A Water Authority spokeswoman confirmed the plant closing “because of the quality of the raw water,” according to an Associated Press report.
Unless Israel, which this year cut a substantial amount of electricity to Gaza after the Palestinians failed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars worth of electricity bills, abides by a September agreement with the Palestinians to ensure power keeps flowing there, Gaza’s small desalination plants and the large waste water reclamation plant funded by the World Bank will not be able to function, Bromberg said.
“Gaza is a ticking time bomb of disease. There’s the risk of cholera and typhus breaking out and being carried through the sea or groundwater into Israel.”
Israel, Bromberg said, “has an urgent interest in preventing this from happening.” The Israel Water Authority did not respond to a request for comment.
In a sign that regional players actually want to cooperate in the water sphere, Israel and Jordan signed an agreement in August to build a canal that will link the Red Sea with the Dead Sea, which has been shrinking for decades because the Jordan River’s water is being diverted for other use.
Under that agreement, Jordan will desalinate the sea water and send 30 million to 50 million cubic meters of it to southern Israel while Jordan and the Palestinian Authority will each receive 30 million cubic meters.
According to The Times of Israel, 100 million cubic meters of the highly saline byproduct of the process will be piped north to the Dead Sea, (which could become a dry lake bed by 2050, because of the diversion of Jordan River waters), which would flow into it, elsewhere, according to water experts. The erosion of the Dead Sea is causing dangerous sinkholes to develop around the lake and is hurting tourism.
Back at the Shaftan plant, water engineer Shoham had lined up five glass bottles in the conference room. The first bottle contained mucky brown water fresh from the enormous pipe that delivers wastewater to the plant. The last contained sparklingly clear water that, Sela said, could be used to irrigate crops. The South Africans were impressed. Mthokozisi Pius Duze from the South African water board took one final look at the sprawling reclamation pools before heading to one of Israel’s water desalination plants.
“We’ve set up a lot of different meetings at a lot of different water sites,” Duze said. “We need to be able to provide water to our citizens.”
By Cheryl Kempler
Escaping pogroms, denied their civil rights and starving from famine in the late 19th century, millions of Russian and Romanian Jews immigrated to America, only to endure more suffering in the squalid tenements and sweatshops of New York City. Searching for alternatives to the situation, B’nai B’rith embraced agriculture as an alternative to the bleak life of overcrowded urban ghettos.
To further what became known as the Jewish Agricultural Movement, B’nai B’rith developed relationships with several educational institutions that specialized in preparing young Jews for careers in farming and related fields. Among these were the Ahlem Agricultural School, in Germany, and the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural and Industrial School, in Woodbine, Cape May County, New Jersey.
Supporters believed that the problems of European and American Jews could be solved by relocating them to self-sustaining agrarian communities, which they would create and cultivate. Escaping poverty-wage jobs as peddlers and factory workers, Jews would live off the land, applying the latest scientific and practical methods to growing food and raising animals. Men, women and children would thrive in an environment where they would be empowered by their autonomy, having little need to interact with a hostile society. One of the movement’s other goals was the restoration of spirituality—debased as a result of exposure to the urban environment—that would alter priorities and inculcate the need to selflessly serve the needs of the community.
Financier and industrialist Baron Maurice de Hirsch was one of the colonization movement’s most powerful advocates and donated countless millions to Jewish and immigrant causes. His generosity extended to several American and European B’nai B’rith institutions. In 1891, his foundation, the de Hirsch Fund, put up the money to purchase 5,300 acres of untrammeled land 56 miles from Philadelphia in Woodbine. Unique among the de Hirsch settlements, the Woodbine Colony was destined to become what Circle Magazine in 1907 called “the first self-governed Jewish community since the fall of Jerusalem.” The pioneers who built the first houses and prepared the ground for crops were off to a challenging start; further tribulations down the road ended in the expulsion of financially unstable families. Better times came. By 1900, Woodbine was home to 750 Jews and 123 Christians, 52 productive farms, four factories, a few stores and a synagogue.
Founded in 1893 and run by the de Hirsch Fund, the Woodbine Agricultural School attracted talented boys and girls, 14 or older, who paid neither tuition nor room and board. They were required to work, gaining experience at the school’s expansive model farm, boasting orchards, greenhouses, an apiary, dairy processing barns and equipment, and gardens. Expanded from a three to a four-year program in 1900, its course of study allowed students to acquire practical skills as farmers, gardeners and florists, while securing a very good high school education. They could also apply to an advanced program offering intensive instruction in animal husbandry, botany, horticulture, floriculture and agriculture. Many of the 100 or so in each class were the children of Woodbine residents. Most went on to college and pursued successful careers in garden and landscape design, animal husbandry, farm management and teaching. Many purchased their own farms and raised chickens.
When a lengthy article about the school, illustrated with photos, appeared in B’nai B’rith’s magazine, The Menorah, in 1900, its District leaders were summoned to the colony to inaugurate the Maurice de Hirsch Lodge. Arriving by train, the men were hailed with great fanfare by townspeople and greeted by welcoming placards in store windows and a buffet meal prepared from ingredients produced on the school farm. Meanwhile, all these students had taken their places at the synagogue, adorned with patriotic bunting. There, they and the lodge candidates were treated to a concert of patriotic music by a fife and drum corps. Initiated into the Maurice de Hirsch Lodge were 30 members of the Agricultural School staff who had elected as president their dean of faculty, Dr. Hirsh Sabsovich, a social worker and Russian immigrant.
The B’nai B’rith officers praised the academics for “rescuing the persecuted,” after which Sabsovich delivered his first speech as president, observing that in Woodbine, the Jewish people had found Zion’s milk and honey literally flowing from the dairy and hives tended at the school. Indeed, the honey had been awarded the Grand Medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition.
The agricultural school closed in 1917. What happened to the colony? For the Jewish farmers and their children who gradually left, the school was a stepping stone to success in less physically demanding but more lucrative endeavors. Over the years, Christians came to outnumber the dwindling Jewish populace. In 1979, the area was designated as part of the Pinelands National Reserve. The large synagogue still stands. It serves also as a community center and a local museum that includes an exhibit on Baron de Hirsch and the fascinating narrative of Woodbine history.
Lawrence Levy, the grandson of original Woodbine settlers, volunteers at the museum. He vividly recalls the predominantly Jewish culture in Woodbine through the 1950s, when shops closed on Shabbat but did a thriving business on Sundays. He remembers a self-contained town, where even the bricks for the synagogue were manufactured.
Jane Stark, executive director of the Sam Azeez Museum of Woodbine Heritage at the synagogue, said that Jewish services are conducted by a female Reconstructionist rabbi and attended by dozens of retirees from the Philadelphia area and Cape May County. Woodbine descendants, some in their 90s, maintain a national network and continually write, support and send artifacts to the museum. A 1993 centennial event drew some 600 with Woodbine settlement connections to the community, far surpassing the expected number of 150.
The German Parallel
Supporting an extensive number of charities in their country and in the Near East, Germany’s District 8 lodges became involved with the Jewish agricultural movement through a member who initiated his own school, which would train hundreds of young people over the course of nearly half a century.
When Germany’s first Jewish farming academy, the Ahlem Agricultural School, opened in 1893, the same year as Woodbine it was the culmination of a dream envisioned by a B’nai B’rith lodge member, diplomat and philanthropist. Moritz Alexander Simon invested his own fortune, 250,000 marks (about $1 million at the time, worth over $24 million today) to found the institution. Situated on an estate close to the spas and resorts in the town of Ahlem outside Hannover, the school admitted high school-aged boys, and later girls, who participated in a three-year curriculum that included classes in handicrafts and domestic science, but also offered apprenticeships in horticulture and the study of fruit.
The students worked in Ahlem’s abundant orchard groves, enlarged at least once with money from the German government, and were allowed access to fruit trees and vineyards growing on other local properties. Included in the first class of about 50 or 60 young men were 15 from Russia and Galicia whose passages to Germany had been paid for by Baron de Hirsch.
Simon asked B’nai B’rith for more funds. He and the German lodges formed a partnership that received the blessings of American Grand Lodge President Julius Bien, after he toured the campus during his travels to Europe and the Orient. He said that District 8 “appropriated large sums for its [Ahlem’s] support … if we only had this one institution to point to, as having inspired it and given the impulse for its existence, it would justify all the labor and energy expended by the noble brethren.” Additional donations from the Hannover and Frankfurt Lodge members were made for the purchase of tools and machinery.
Incorporated in 1895, Ahlem was “a creation of the Order” whose directors included several B’nai B’rith officers. In The Menorah of January 1898, Ahlem was considered the catalyst for a transformative future: “We feel confident that the institution will become a nursery for bringing out the greatest benefactors of the Jewish race and society at large, and will be the means of turning masses of Jewish muscle to the employment which is the noblest which can be followed.”
In 1900, Simon wrote in The Menorah that his educational philosophy was based on the love of nature: “I consider the imparting of instruction in handicrafts and garden culture necessary to children, as young as kindergarten age,” he wrote. The school’s policies, however, went beyond that. Teachers adopted, according to the Simon article, “a strict military directness, united with kind, benevolent treatment … There should be instilled into the young the sentiment of homelike feeling for the institution leaving an impression lasting through life.”
Fostering civic responsibility between class and work time, pupils learned first aid and rescue techniques, while “a fire engine has been acquired and a voluntary corps has been organized [by the pupils] which has already done good service in the neighborhood.” Attracting an international coterie of applicants, the school was highly regarded; a letter written by famed novelist Franz Kafka expresses his longing to turn back the clock and to enroll and undergo the Ahlem experience. Of its 400 alums, a number assumed managerial positions in farm settlements in countries, including the United States, South America, England, and in Merchavia, one of Palestine’s earliest Jewish colonies. In the 1930s, three Ahlem alumni who immigrated to Palestine—Meier Bickel, Yechiel Segall and Haim Latte—became important landscape and garden designers in that land. Another, Salomon Weinberg, created the Ramat Hanadiv Park located south of the Zichron Yaakov Colony.
Assuring the school’s continuance, Simon left all his money to Ahlem when he died in 1905. It was renamed the Jewish Horticulture School in 1919. As the Nazis gained power and denied professional careers to Germany’s young Jewish people, applications to Ahlem steadily increased.
The Gestapo took possession of the site in 1941, when it became a collection point for Jews rounded up for deportation to death camps. It later housed slave laborers and then served as a concentration camp prison, where Jews, Gypsies and political dissidents were tortured and killed. The American troops who liberated the prison in April 1945 found few survivors.
In the early postwar years, the site housed a Jewish-sponsored training farm; participants were death camp survivors. In 1958, an agricultural research institute operated there. In 1987, the director’s house on the school grounds reopened as a museum, but the construction of a full scale memorial museum—comprising both the original 19th century buildings—began in 2011. It officially opened in 2014. Inside the buildings are documents and artifacts connected with the school and its subsequent use as prison and deportation site.
The surrounding public park functions as a large scale memorial. Fusing past and present, the grounds are dotted with glass structures, containing exhibits, through which can be seen what remains of the school’s period architecture. Grown on the property are the fruit trees, flowers and plants that were raised at the school in the early 20th century. As they traverse the gardens and fields, visitors can read the Ahlem students’ biographies, reports and testimonials incorporated into markers posted along the walkways.
By Uriel Heilman
There’s little to distinguish the Palestinian refugee camp of Al-Wihdat, in the southeast corner of the Jordanian capital of Amman, from the urban neighborhoods around it.
Established in 1955 to house Arabs who fled or were exiled from pre-state Israel during the 1948 War of Independence, Wihdat—officially known as Amman New Camp—is no tent city. It’s a dense urban environment of cinderblock houses, bustling shopping districts and satellite dishes. Gleaming, glass-front stores offer the latest in Western and Islamic fashions, from skimpy lingerie to traditional Islamic hijabs, and customers from all over Amman shop there. There are no walls or barbed wire surrounding Wihdat.
Perhaps most notably, the vast majority of the camp’s residents were born in Jordan. Most are Jordanian citizens.
Nevertheless, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the agency that runs this camp and dozens of other Palestinian refugee camps around the region, the residents are Palestinian refugees.
Created by the United Nations in the wake of the 1948 war, UNRWA originally was founded to carry out direct relief and works programs for the 750,000 or so Palestinian refugees of the first Arab-Israeli war. It began its operations in May 1950. (Following the founding of Israel, some 850,000 Jews were uprooted from Arab countries, an issue the U.N. has not addressed).
But fast forward 65 years and UNRWA, rather than shrink as refugees from ’48 obtained citizenship in other countries or died out, has ballooned into a behemoth of an institution. Today, UNRWA has a budget of about $1.25 billion, employs some 30,000 Palestinians spread out over five countries and territories, and serves 5 million Palestinians—not just the refugees remaining from the ’48 war but their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, too.
UNRWA continues to register thousands of new refugees each year. Today, there are about 2.1 million registered refugees in Gaza and the West Bank, 2.1 million in Jordan (where the vast majority have Jordanian citizenship and don’t rely on UNRWA for services), about half a million in Lebanon and half a million in Syria (where most have been displaced by the civil war, and many have fled to neighboring countries).
For critics, this is the core problem of UNRWA. While the U.N.’s main refugee agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, aims to reduce the number of refugees from other areas—in large part by helping resettle them elsewhere if it becomes clear they cannot return to their homes—UNRWA does just the opposite. It continually expands the number of refugees, thereby perpetuating and exacerbating the Palestinian refugee problem—and, by extension, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“There are core problems with UNRWA that are severe, and there are many other peripheral problems. The core problem is the existence of the agency,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a pro-Israel watchdog organization. “The whole point of UNRWA’s existence has no rational explanation other than to serve a political cause driven by the Arab states but supported by others to cast Israel as a cruel aggressor and to preserve the Palestinians in a state of grievance.”
By UNRWA’s accounting, the reason the Palestinian refugee problem persists 68 years after Israel’s founding isn’t because UNRWA confers refugee status upon new generations, but because Israel refuses to allow those whom UNRWA calls refugees to return to their ancestral homes. “UNRWA is a witness to their historic injustice and has a responsibility to sound the alarm on behalf of a refugee community that is sinking into the abyss,” the agency’s commissioner-general, Pierre Krähenbühl, told a meeting of the Arab League’s foreign ministers on Sept. 8.
Unlike typical refugee agencies, UNRWA doesn’t merely provide emergency relief and resettlement services. It also runs schools that educate half a million children per year and medical clinics that provide healthcare to 3.7 million people, offering everything from radiology services to dental check-ups. UNRWA has 58 refugee camps for Palestinians but also builds apartment buildings, lends money to small businesses and offers vocational training.
It also trains Palestinians in “human rights advocacy”—part of a curriculum focused on nursing Palestinian grievances against Israel, according to critics.
At its worst, critics say, UNRWA encourages Palestinian victimhood and radicalism, teaches Palestinian schoolchildren to hate Israel and the Jews, and has allowed its schools and facilities in Gaza to be used as staging grounds for terrorists firing rockets at Israel—most notably in several widely publicized incidents during the 2014 Gaza conflict between Israel and Hamas.
“For the last 66 years, since UNRWA was created, it hasn’t really been trying to solve the problem of the Palestinian refugees; it is the opposite,” said Bassem Eid, a Palestinian critic and human rights advocate from the West Bank who grew up in an UNRWA camp but now says the agency is in desperate need of reform. “UNRWA, especially since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, has become a part of the conflict rather than a part of the solution.”
UNRWA says the opposite is true, that its programs serve as a stabilizing force without which Palestinians would fall into destitution and desperation and would turn to radicalism and violence.
“The conditions facing the 5.3 million refugees are now worse than at any time since 1948,” Krähenbühl, the UNRWA commissioner-general, told the meeting of the Arab League.
“The risks of radicalization of isolated and desperate young people are huge. Extremists are on the constant lookout for new recruits. To date, few young Palestinians have answered their calls. But if nothing is done, that may well change,” Krähenbühl said. “I am convinced that renewed attention to Palestine refugees and Palestine refugee youth is urgent. It is a matter of humanity. But it is also a real investment in the stability of many areas of the Middle East.”
UNRWA in Gaza
The last time UNRWA captured the world’s attention was during the 2014 Gaza war, when its facilities in Gaza got caught up in the conflict between Israel and Hamas.
Palestinian rocket crews in Gaza were using civilian areas to fire missiles at Israel, including launching, storing and hiding rockets at UNRWA facilities. In returning fire to those areas, Israel struck UNRWA facilities several times, leaving more than three dozen people, including 11 UNRWA staffers, dead.
After the war, U.N. investigative committees charged with probing these and other reported violations of U.N. neutrality found that, in several instances that July, Palestinian armed groups indeed likely fired mortars from UNRWA schools.
There were also several documented cases of weapons components found at schools. In one, this disturbing sequence of events occurred at the UNRWA Gaza Beach Elementary Co-educational “B” School: Security measures at the school were weak. Armaments subsequently were discovered on school premises. UNRWA senior management notified local authorities and asked that the weapons be removed.
In other words, poor UNRWA oversight allowed militants to use the school as a base for operations against Israel, and once UNRWA discovered this, the weapons were recovered by the militants. The fact that the classroom door was locked after the militants retrieved their weapons suggests that they had the cooperation of UNRWA staff with keys to the classroom—or worse, that the militants were themselves UNRWA staffers.
Einat Wilf, a former Israeli Knesset member who is now writing a book on UNRWA, says it’s no surprise that there is collusion between Hamas and the U.N. agency.
“UNRWA operates in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, so of course UNRWA facilities there will be staffed by Hamasniks, and of course they will turn a blind eye to weapons in schools,” Wilf said.
UNRWA says it requires its employees to sign a statement pledging that they have no affiliations that would violate U.N. neutrality.
“Staff must be, and be seen to be, neutral at all times,” UNRWA chief spokesman Christopher Gunness says. “The agency routinely checks its staff members and personnel against relevant U.N. lists … and shares its staff lists with host and other authorities.” But, he noted, “The U.N. does not vet against national or regional counterterrorism lists.”
While the use of UNRWA facilities by militants during the 2014 Gaza war marked a particularly flagrant violation of UNRWA neutrality, it is symptomatic of the larger structural problem of the agency.
At its heart, critics point out, UNRWA is a Palestinian entity. It’s staffed almost entirely by Palestinians. It provides services more consistent with a government than a refugee agency, such as trash collection, education, healthcare and small-business loans.
Though UNRWA carries a mandate from the U.N. General Assembly, the only funding it receives from the United Nations is to cover the costs of the 140 or so international staffers at the organization, amounting to about $30 million of the $1.25 billion annual budget. The remainder of UNRWA’s money comes from voluntary contributions from foreign governments and individual donors—mostly in the West. UNRWA’s largest single donor is the United States, which makes an annual allocation to the agency that varies from year to year. Last year the U.S. allocation was $380 million.
Perhaps most egregiously, UNRWA is not neutral in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, charge critics ranging from pro-Israel Jews to Israeli and U.S. politicians. UNRWA’s schools, in everything from textbooks to school plays to art projects, promote the message that Israel is the reason for Palestinian misery and that Palestinian “return” to ancestral homes inside Israel is a right and an achievable goal.
In one textbook, for example, Israel is referred to as a “Zionist terror organization,” Palestinian resistance to Israel is extolled as “sacrifice” and “martyrdom,” and militant Palestinian groups are referred to as “self-sacrificing warriors,” according to a March 2016 study of Palestinian textbooks by the German Mideast Freedom Forum. Second graders in UNRWA schools are urged to visit the families of “martyrs”—Palestinians killed fighting Israel. Maps of the region label all of Israel’s territory as “Palestine.”
UNRWA says its curricula are those of the host countries—in the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian Authority—which enable refugee children to take state exams; creation of parallel UNRWA curricula wouldn’t make sense. As for UNRWA’s human rights program, agency spokesman Gunness said it focuses on “promotion of the universal values of the United Nations,” including “the teaching of and learning about human rights, non-violent conflict resolution, gender equality, disability rights and tolerance.”
Eid, the Palestinian human rights activist, says UNRWA textbooks and teachers train students to hate Israel, according to interviews he conducted last year with Palestinian students from UNRWA schools in Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan.
“These pupils, from 8 to 12 years old, are talking about suicide bombing, about stabbing, about military resistance against the Israeli occupation,” Eid said. “When I ask who is teaching you these things, they said, ‘Our teachers at school.’ I interviewed several UNRWA teachers in Jordan and asked them, ‘Are you teaching these young kids about suicide bombing and military resistance against the occupation?’ They said very clearly on camera: ‘Yes, because without the military resistance these people are never going to be able to liberate their lands from the Israeli occupation.’”
A direct line can be traced between Palestinian violence and UNRWA, Neuer says.
“The UNRWA educational system teaches millions of Palestinian that they’re going to go back to their homeland, which is Israel,” Neuer said. “It’s not surprising in Gaza that when they receive cement from the international community to build homes, schools and hospitals, they instead build terror tunnels into Israel—because they are told one day they will go back and they have to fight the occupier. That is the message of UNRWA.” It’s not just UNRWA’s Palestinian staffers that promote a political agenda. Its top international officials, too, take overtly political positions.
“I stand before you with an urgent and simple message: the necessity to keep alive hope and dignity for Palestine refugees,” Krähenbühl told the Arab League in September. “UNRWA is a witness to their historic injustice.”
During the 2014 Gaza war, UNRWA’s Gunness said during an interview with Al Jazeera, “The rights of Palestinians—even their children—are wholesale denied. And it’s appalling.” Then he broke down sobbing.
In 2015, an UNRWA school outside Damascus was called out by UN Watch for using its Facebook page to post images celebrating Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israelis—for example, a cartoon featuring a Palestinian child ramming a hook-nosed Jew with a remote-control car. The postings came amid a spate of car ramming and other deadly attacks by Palestinians against Israelis.
UNRWA’s spokesman responded by taking to Twitter to ask for help in digging up dirt on UN Watch.
“This is typical for UNRWA,” UN Watch’s Neuer said. “They insist time and again that they’re neutral and impartial, but a quick look at their Twitter feed shows they never condemn Hamas. They only condemn Israel.”
In March, the spokeswoman for the U.S. fundraising branch of UNRWA, Laila Mokhiber, shut down her Twitter account amid widespread criticism for publicly endorsing “Israel Apartheid Week,” a campus-focused initiative meant to highlight the plight of the Palestinians and Israel’s alleged sins against them.
“This is politicization gone wild,” said Daniel S. Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International. “UNRWA is another arrow in the quiver of the Palestinians to achieve their narrative in the U.N. at the expense of Israel. It is long overdue for this agency to be reformed and depoliticized.”
The Least Bad Option?
For Israel, the continued existence of UNWRA presents a conundrum. For all its faults, neither the Israeli government nor pro-Israel groups in the United States have yet called for UNRWA to be dismantled.
On the contrary, the Israeli military coordinates with UNRWA, working with it when allowing cement, aid and other materials into Gaza. And the United States, Israel’s most stalwart ally, is also UNRWA’s biggest funder.
The reason is that the Israeli government and many of its supporters view UNRWA as the least bad option. “Deeply flawed as the agency is, Israel depends on UNRWA as an element promoting stability in the West Bank and Gaza, a vital strategic objective for the Jewish state,” wrote Steven J. Rosen, who worked for 23 years as director of foreign policy issues at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), in 2015 in the Middle East Forum.
If UNRWA didn’t exist, the 245 schools the agency runs for 233,000 Palestinian students in Gaza would probably be run by Hamas, a terrorist organization, and there would be even worse incitement. If UNRWA didn’t provide health services in the West Bank, the burden for caring for them probably would fall on the Palestinian Authority or Israel. If the Palestinians didn’t have the welfare and vocational services UNRWA provides, they surely would be much worse off, and Israel likely would get the blame.
“Eliminating UNRWA would serve only to deprive Palestine refugees of the basic public services and human development opportunities offered by the Agency,” Karen AbuZayd, UNRWA’s commissioner-general from 2005 to 2009, wrote in 2014 in the Middle East Monitor. “Such services would then have to be provided by another body; in the case of West Bank and Gaza that would be the occupying power, Israel. This explains the official Israeli government support for the role of UNRWA, and the reason there is a modicum of cooperation in allowing basic provision of goods and services by UNRWA in the occupied Palestinian territory.”
The consensus in the Israeli intelligence community is that if UNRWA were to disappear, there would be another Palestinian wave of violence, and possibly regional destabilization, according to Wilf, who while a Knesset member raised the issue numerous times with Israeli defense and intelligence officials.
So, Israel does work with UNWRA. It has been equivocal on UNWRA’s behalf when U.S. funding for the refugee agency is questioned, according to insiders. Rosen says he witnessed this firsthand while at AIPAC. According to Rosen, whenever constituents pushed a member of Congress to challenge funding for UNRWA—as some have—or tried to get AIPAC involved in the campaign to challenge UNRWA, the Israeli government was hesitant.
The Israeli Defense Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces unit that deals with UNRWA, Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), declined to comment for this article. Over the decades, numerous UNRWA reform proposals have been introduced in Congress —including in 2006, 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014—but none even came close to enactment, except for a 1961 amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act that requires UNRWA “to take all possible measures” to assure that no U.S. funding goes to refugees involved with terrorist groups.
In Wilf’s view, this short-term advantage for Israel of leaving UNRWA alone—regional stability—carries a heavy long-term price: the perpetuation of the conflict by sustaining the Palestinian refugee problem—and the belief among Palestinians that they will one day return to Israel. Israel needs to have an open debate about whether it’s worth the price, she argues.
“Maybe it’s better to support the Palestinians through the Palestinian Authority or Jordan than through UNRWA,” Wilf said. Even if having UNRWA around is worth the price, she added, “We have to make sure that UNRWA reduces the conflict, not creates more obstacles to peace. As long as they hold onto the right of return, there’s no concession from the Palestinian maximalist position. UNRWA is the only reason the problem still exists today.”
UNRWA won’t disclose the precise number of original refugees remaining from the ’48 war, but it’s probably minuscule. Even by UNRWA’s own accounting, fully half the Palestinian refugee population is under age 25.
In fact, a child born in Amman today to a father who is a native Jordanian and a mother who, while also born in Jordan and a Jordanian citizen, had a paternal grandfather who fled pre-state Israel in 1948, would be considered a refugee.
“The U.N. has created a special status for the Palestinians as refugees that has not been applied to any other group,” Mariaschin said. “And through continued funding without serious reform, the United States is enabling an agency that perpetuates the conflict instead of seeking an end to the conflict. It’s time for change.”
By Sam Seifman
But, in the 1970s, programming work was drying up. Richard worked for a defense contractor, hired by the U.S. government, but its contract wasn’t renewed. So, instead, the couple returned to Amherst to pursue postgraduate education.
This time, Emily obtained a doctorate in economics, and Richard completed all but his doctoral dissertation in agricultural engineering. After moving around over the next few years, the couple eventually settled in Kalamazoo, Mich., her hometown, in 1981.
Emily got a job at Western Michigan University teaching economics. When they moved to Kalamazoo, Richard left his position at the Education Testing Service in Princeton, N.J. to become a part time physics professor, at the same school. In 1983, Richard had to retire at age 45 as a result of deteriorating health. Emily lovingly served as Richard’s caretaker until he passed away in 2008.
Before his death, the couple was very involved in the Kalamazoo Jewish community. They were especially active in a local conservative synagogue, the Congregation of Moses, in which Emily continues to be active today.
Emily has always been strongly connected to her Jewish heritage. Her mother was active in the Jewish community and involved with a number of Jewish organizations at the time. She had even taught at the Hebrew school Emily attended.
Her father owned his own business, creating customized furniture for interior designers and, later, individual customers.
“I thought my mother didn’t work,” Hoffman said. “It turns out she really did, as the bookkeeper for my father’s business.”
Hoffman credits her mother with instilling in her a love of numbers and economics, which would set the course for her professional life.
Ever since they met that Friday night all those years ago, Hoffman and her husband have supported B’nai B’rith International. They cared deeply about the Jewish identity of the organization and B’nai B’rith’s focus on assisting and educating Jewish students across the country. Hoffman is still active today, and attends annual B’nai B’rith Scholarship dinners in Kalamazoo.
“We liked B’nai B’rith because they took care of students and provided scholarships,” Hoffman said. “Both Richard and I received scholarships, and academia and education were very important to us.”
Every year, B’nai B’rith’s Great Lakes Region helps pay the college tuition of 22 of the area’s top student athletes.
Last year, Hoffman contacted Marna Schoen at B’nai B’rith, to inform her that she and Mr. Hoffman had named the organization as beneficiary of a bequest in their will.
“I was thrilled to receive Mrs. Hoffman’s call,” said Schoen. “It’s always a pleasure to be able to connect with these special donors, who are making a commitment to a Jewish future, and supporting our important programs for years to come. Mrs. Hoffman immediately became a member of our esteemed 1843 Society, a group of friends and supporters who believe in B'nai B'rith and its mission. It has been so nice to get to know her, and to hear about the values she shared with her husband, of blessed memory.”
Hoffman had since remarried to David Rosenberg, a Holocaust survivor, who unfortunately passed away in October.