B’nai B’rith members and supporters from across the United States and the world gathered in Washington, D.C., Nov. 16 to 18 to celebrate and reflect on 170 years as an organization, as well as to examine pressing issues facing the global Jewish community, Israel and the United States.
B’nai B’rith hosted speakers E.J. Dionne, Jr., journalist and political commentator; Ira Forman, U.S. State Department special envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism; and David Cohen, U.S. Treasury Department under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, among other speakers.
“How Do We Govern in an Era of Shutdown Politics”
E.J. Dionne, Jr., a political commentator and a columnist for the Washington Post, was the Policy Forum’s keynote speaker, addressing attendees over lunch on the gridlock on Capitol Hill. Dionne said we’re seeing a period of asymmetric polarization in the United States, with Americans torn between beliefs of individualism versus community building. Though, he noted, whichever side of the fence you’re on, people don’t like the government shutting down.
“It’s dangerous we can’t resolve issues without shutting down or defaulting,” Dionne said.
Dionne also discussed problems facing both political parties and the talk of “American decline,” to which he said the only way to ensure American decline is to continue conducting politics as we are at the moment.
“The United States and the Fight Against Global Anti-Semitism”
Ira Forman, the State Department special envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, expressed alarm at the growing levels of anti-Semitism around the world, while stressing the need to understand the particulars and uniqueness of anti-Semitism in each region.
Forman said that some Jewish leaders around the world have compared anti-Semitism today to the 1930s, noting, for instance, the rise of openly anti-Semitic European parliamentary parties with street militias.
Forman also pointed to the increasing secularization of Europe as a key factor in the ascent of anti-Semitism, highlighting the growing movement to ban ritual circumcision as one particular manifestation. He fears that if current trends continue, vulnerable Jewish communities could be lost.
“The Prospects for Immigration Reform in a Divided Washington”
A group of immigration experts joined the B’nai B’rith Policy Forum for a panel discussion on the key aspects, intricacies and history of comprehensive immigration reform. The panel consisted of Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, Esther Olavarria, director of immigration reform for the National Security Staff, Jennifer Rejeske, health policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center, and Rachel Goldberg, B’nai B’rith International director of aging policy. Eric Fusfield, B’nai B’rith International director of legislative affairs, moderated the panel.
Olavarria started the discussion off by outlining the four legs of comprehensive immigration reform and insisting there is muscle behind it, even in the House of Representatives, saying “It’s there, it could be done, but for the gridlock.”
Hetfield spoke at the 2006 B’nai B’rith Policy Conference and since then he said, “Everything more or less remains eerily the same.” Hetfield agreed with Olavarria that a House of Representatives immigration bill is very close to being passed and described what the immigration bill passed in the Senate would accomplish.
Rejeske discussed her issues with the current immigration system, the plight of low income immigrant workers and what policy changes should be made to integrate this marginalized population into American society.
“We cannot be detaining and deporting 1,100 immigrants a day,” Rejeske said. “It’s absolutely terrorizing immigrant communities.”
U.S. Treasury’s Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence
David S. Cohen, the U.S. Treasury Department’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, gave the Policy Forum’s final address.
Cohen, who oversees U.S. sanctions against Iran, spoke about ongoing multilateral efforts to stop the Iran’s nuclear weapons program. He also talked about Iran’s financing of its terrorist proxy Hezbollah.
B’nai B’rith Honorary Presidents Roundtable
B’nai B’rith was honored to have six honorary B’nai B’rith International presidents speak to the Policy Forum in a roundtable discussion on their times overseeing the organization. All of them shared anecdotes, reflected on their important work and brought up the most moving episodes of their tenures. The former presidents taking part were Seymour D. Reich, Kent E. Schiner, Tommy P. Baer, Richard D. Heideman, Joel S. Kaplan and Moishe Smith. Current President Allan J. Jacobs sat in on the discussion and Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin was the moderator.
B’nai B’rith at 170: “Making and Witnessing 17 Decades of History”
Pamela Nadell, chair of the department of history and director of the Jewish studies program at American University, spoke about the history and founding of B’nai B’rith. She linked the commemoration of B’nai B’rith’s 170th anniversary year to the 150th anniversary of many pivotal events during the Civil War.
Nadell noted two war-time cases in particular where B’nai B’rith played an active role “that advanced Jewish rights in America.”
“State of the Organization”
To kick off the 2013 B’nai B’rith Policy Forum, President Allan J. Jacobs delivered the annual “State of the Organization” address. Jacobs reflected on the longevity of the organization, citing The New York Times, Major League Baseball and the Red Cross as B’nai B’rith’s juniors.
Jacobs also listed some of B’nai B’rith’s highlights for 2013, including a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, attending the first interfaith meeting with Pope Francis and the organization’s ongoing disaster relief work, among other things.
“The Five Major Challenges Facing the Global Jewish Community”
B’nai B’rith International Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin addressed policy forum attendees by outlining five of the most pressing issues confronting the global Jewish community as well as the continuing Iranian nuclear threat.
The five issues include improving Jewish literacy and Zionist education, addressing the boycotts, divestment and sanctions and the demonization and delegitimization groups that threaten the peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and supporting international Jewish communities, Holocaust-era assets restitution efforts and aging Jewish populations. “These issues are going to get more and more pronounced, and B’nai B’rith is well positioned to deal with [them].”
B’nai B’rith Israel: “Pre-State and Post-State Independence”
B’nai B’rith World Center Director Alan Schneider traveled from Jerusalem to give Policy Forum attendees a history of B’nai B’rith in Israel and noted the 125th anniversary of the organization in the Jewish State as an equally as significant a milestone to the 170th anniversary.
Schneider spoke about the amazing people who led B’nai B’rith and Israel in the early days, highlighting their remarkable “daring, commitment and dedication” to creating Israel. He said the early B’nai B’rith leaders in Israel were laying a social and economic foundation for the Jewish state and that B’nai B’rith members wished to “popularize the notion of Jewish nationalism.”
Presentation of the Sidney H. Closter Outstanding New Professional Award
The Sidney H. Closter Outstanding New Professional Award was presented during lunch by Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin to United Nations Affairs Program Officer Oren Drori. The award is given to an outstanding young professional within the ranks of B’nai B’rith and is in remembrance of Closter, a B’nai B’rith fundraising staffer for 50 years.
Closter’s widow, Rose, was in attendance and spoke about Sidney’s legacy, saying, “In addition to Sidney’s demanding work, he derived much pleasure from nurturing young people to develop careers in non-profit organizations and expanding the goals of B’nai B’rith.”