‘Israelis are often not aware of the Diaspora,” says B’nai B’rith World Center chairman Haim Katz, before stressing the significance of what he describes as “a commonality of fate between us and the people living abroad.”

Explaining to The Jerusalem Post the importance of the organization’s journalism award, Katz emphasizes that the Diaspora “is out there rooting for them [the Israelis] and very much involved,” and affected by developments in Israel. “So we wanted to promote that.”

The intention of the prize, the B’nai B’rith World Center Award for Journalism in Recognition of Excellence in Diaspora Reportage in the Israel Media, is to encourage more journalists to cover the Diaspora and more editors to charge their journalists with reporting and providing content on this area, explains Alan Schneider, director of B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem. “As an international Jewish organization, we think it’s terribly important for Israelis to know more about the Jewish Diaspora,” he says. “This is the whole concept behind the award.”

Expanding on the matter, Katz explains that most Israelis have a monolithic view – if they have a view at all – of the Jewish community abroad. This does not reflect the reality, he says, of the rich and varied communal life that exists in the many different Jewish communities outside of Israel, and it is important to bring that out.

This year’s winners included Ma’ariv’s Zvika Klein, for a series of nine articles that appeared in Makor Rishon during 2012 covering various aspects of Jewish life in the Diaspora; and Moshe Alafi for his Communities in a New Light 2012 series – broadcast on Channel 1 – presenting scenes of life in the Jewish communities of Toronto, Buenos Aires, Odessa, Oslo, Turin, Toulouse and Boston. David Landau, former editor-in-chief of Haaretz and previously managing editor of the Post, received the Lifetime Achievement award for his extensive coverage of Israeli-Diaspora relations.

While the organization’s journalism award is relatively young, in its 11th year, Katz and Schneider are keen to point out that B’nai B’rith dates back to 1843, and was highly active in Israel’s pre-state period. “Almost 10 years before the establishment of the World Zionist Organization, B’nai B’rith was already engaged in Zionist activities,” Schneider notes. “Though it wasn’t called Zionist at the time,” Katz chimes in.

BY WAY of example, Schneider mentions the Committee of the Hebrew Language, which predated the Academy of Hebrew Language and was founded by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who was a member of B’nai B’rith’s Jerusalem Lodge and insisted that the lingua franca would be Hebrew. Schneider says that this was important to Ben-Yehuda not only because he wanted to promote Hebrew, but because it was the common language of the lodge’s Ashkenazi and Sephardi members. That there were Ashkenazim and Sephardim sitting and working together, and taking action on behalf of the whole community, was unique, the proud B’nai B’rith duo tells the Post, since at that time the two communities were very separate in Jerusalem.

But more influential was B’nai B’rith’s role in the establishment of the State of Israel. “If we look at the recognition of the State of Israel by the US, [president Harry S] Truman didn’t really want to recognize Israel,” Schneider recounts, likely for the umpteenth time, before relating how Truman’s friend and longtime B’nai B’rith member Eddie Jacobson influenced the course of events.

“This was a critical period and the Zionist leadership was trying to get access to Truman, to convince him not to rescind support for the Partition Plan that had already been passed by the UN.”

Schneider explains that then-president of the WZO Chaim Weizmann had traveled to New York to appeal personally to Truman, but had fallen ill and was unsuccessful in gaining access to the president. Truman had decided he would see neither Jews nor Arabs; the State Department was at that time advising him to retract support for the Partition Plan.

Meanwhile, in a chance encounter, then-president of B’nai B’rith Frank Goldman learned from Weizmann aide Maurice Bisgyer of Truman’s refusal to see Weizmann. Goldman subsequently called Jacobson, who had been Truman’s partner in a haberdashery in Kansas City after World War I. The two had remained friends and Jacobson had open access to the Oval Office, but according to Schneider, he had never abused the privilege until this moment; now, however, he agreed to visit Truman and see what he could do.

As B’nai B’rith’s version of this apparently charged meeting goes, Truman became tense after Jacobson broached the subject of Palestine, and said he was sick of the Zionists’ persistent badgering.

He allegedly stuck to his guns until Jacobson, upon departure from the Oval Office, spotted the bust of the president’s hero, former president Andrew Jackson, and said, “Harry, all your life you have had a hero. Well, I too have a hero, a man who is, I think, the greatest Jew who ever lived. I am talking about Chaim Weizmann.”

This comment allegedly clinched the deal, and Truman is quoted as having responded with the words: “You win, you bald-headed son-of-a-bitch.” The rest is history.

Schneider says this story is illustrative of the power of the huge network of members in the US and worldwide that B’nai B’rith had built up by that time: “Jacobson happened to be one of the members, and B’nai B’rith was able to call on him to make this kind of intervention.”

THIS MASSIVE network is alive and kicking today, and Katz references a recent meeting in London attended by 150 young leaders from across Europe – including his son. Back then, the movement helped ensure the State of Israel became a reality; now, Katz says, “it acts as a bridge between Israelis and the big world out there.” “It’s exciting to have young people taking the torch of B’nai B’rith,” he enthuses.

B’nai B’rith’s activities include humanitarian actions, Israel advocacy, working for Jewish unity and fighting anti-Semitism and intolerance globally. B’nai B’rith International founded the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem in 1980, following UN Resolution 478, which declared the Jerusalem Law – that formally united the two sides of the city – null and void. It called on nations with diplomatic missions in Jerusalem to relocate, which they did. B’nai B’rith subsequently established its center there to act as a kind of embassy for international membership.

For instance, Schneider says that Uruguay has a very active B’nai B’rith chapter and annually presents a “Fraternidad Award” for artists in different fields; the main part of the award is an all-expenses-paid 10-day trip to Israel that the Jerusalem center puts together.

In the last few years, the biannual “Light and Truth Award” had also been granted to people in hi-tech and the sciences. A few months ago, B’nai B’rith hosted this year’s winner – Prof. Virginia Echinope, head of the Electrical Energy Department in the National Directorate of Energy at Uruguay’s Ministry of Industry, Energy and Mining – who during her visit met with a range of Israeli academics, government officials, professionals and industry trendsetters.

The organization also reaches out beyond the Jewish community. This has included building interreligious relations, which has led to a particularly close relationship with the evangelical community in Latin America and Canada, and humanitarian activities around the world, particularly providing aid in response to disasters. This involves “making friends for the State of Israel and the Jewish community,” as Katz puts it.

B’NAI B’RITH has been conducting such activities since 1863, and in 2001 helped found IsraAID, the Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid. In 2010, a medical relief team partly funded by B’nai B’rith speedily headed to Haiti with emergency and development aid, following its catastrophic 7.0-magnitude earthquake.

Other B’nai B’rith-funded IsrAID missions have included the provision of lifesaving assistance in Chad, Georgia, Kenya, Myanmar, Peru and Sri Lanka. “The concept was to bring Jewish money to bear in international humanitarian aid... to give aid an Israeli identity,” Katz explains.

“When we send a mission abroad, they wear and raise the Israeli flag.”

Katz and Schneider further mention a current project in Montevideo, where they are running a workshop about the treatment of cancer in children in cooperation with Schneider Children’s Medical Center for Israel, which sends experts, doctors and nurses to Uruguay to share, with doctors from around the continent, the Jewish state’s success in treating children’s cancer.

Looking ahead to upcoming events, the pair tells the Post that B’nai B’rith will be hosting British novelist Howard Jacobson for their annual lecture, The Jerusalem Address. The Man Booker Prize winner will be speaking on the topic “When will the Jews be forgiven the Holocaust?” With his award in 2012, Jacobson brought the issue of anti-Semitism to public discourse – which according to Katz, people in the UK have tried to avoid.

Explaining the ethos of the organization, Katz mentions the Jewish citation “It’s not up to us to finish the job, but everyone must do their own bit. And the person who did his bit by speaking to Eddie Jacobson changed the course of history,” he says.

“Everyone is encouraged to do their share, to go to bat for the Jewish people. That’s what it’s all about – we’re here to serve the Jewish people and we do what we can,” he states.

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