So B’nai B’rith will meet with various ambassadors…
…Yes. There are 194 member states of the UN. Of course we’re not meeting all of them – some of them we don’t want to meet – but many of them have relations with Israel and should know better. In the UN system there’s a lot of “go along to get along.” Many countries will say, “Well, this country voted that way, so we’re going to vote the same way.” Independence of action is not the rule of the day. Bloc voting is, and that requires a lot of work because many countries hide behind the vote of the bloc. So there’s a lot of work to be done.
In August you wrote an op-ed column in The New York Times arguing that the UN should recognize Yom Kippur as an official holiday on its calendar. Why is that important?
Because there are Christian and Muslim holidays on the UN calendar and there should be at least one Jewish one.
When the UN started back in the ‘40s, the first two days of Pesach were actually on the UN calendar, but then they disappeared. So we don’t think it’s asking too much for there to be a Jewish holiday. We’ve contributed so much to the betterment of the world in so many ways.
When you meet with world leaders and ambassadors, what’s your sense of their feelings toward Israel? To many Jews, anti-Israel bias in Europe and elsewhere seems so obvious that it’s hard to believe others don’t see it. Are these leaders just playing along for political reasons or do they truly believe that Israel deserves, for example, to be repeatedly singled out in the UN as the world’s worst violator of human rights?
There are some who rationalize their behavior to kind of cover what they know is the right thing, and then there’s a large category of countries that are simply out to do Israel wrong – starting with Iran. So it’s mixed. But the most disappointing thing are the folks in the first category – people who know that Israel is being targeted all the time, who know that the line between criticizing Israel and anti-Semitism is very thin – sometimes non-existent – but who act against Israel anyways because politics trumps the right thing. That’s the most frustrating.
Which ambassador or world leader is B’nai Brith scheduled to meet next?
We have a diplomatic luncheon series, so this week we’re having the ambassador of Latvia. Until June 30, Latvia holds the presidency of the European Union, so when the ambassador comes here we’ll have questions for him about European Union policy vis-à-vis Israel. If you remember, the European Court of Justice dropped Hamas from the terrorism list, and now the European Union has to reapply to get Hamas back on it. So that will be a question for him. This is something we do constantly.
B’nai B’rith spends millions of dollars helping victims of natural disasters. While doing so is obviously an enormous chesed, some people argue that Jewish organizations should spend all their resources on Jewish causes. What’s your response?
These funds are spurred by the natural disasters; they’re not coming out of our general budget. In other words, when there’s a tsunami or a hurricane, B’nai B’rith members want to help. So that’s the reason for it, and we’ve been doing this kind of relief since the 1860s. We’re very proud of what we do.
Why not just direct your members to the Red Cross?
Look, we’re a Jewish organization and much of what we do is work inside our own community obviously. But tikkun olam as a value of Jewish life is extremely important to who we are as a people. To help others and to feel that rachmanut for others has been a hallmark of our community, so if we can make life better for those in need, we should do that.