Interview'All we want from the UN is that they reform'

‘Zionism has become a bad word,’ warns incoming B’nai B’rith president

Newly elected Charles O. Kaufman tells The Times of Israel about the importance of his organization’s work with controversial UN bodies, teaching youth Zionist ideals, and refugees

At the B’nai B’rith International Leadership Forum in Washington, DC in 2015, Charles O. Kaufman introduces a session with producer Nancy Spielberg, who screened her film 'Above and Beyond' for attendees. (Courtesy)
At the B’nai B’rith International Leadership Forum in Washington, DC in 2015, Charles O. Kaufman introduces a session with producer Nancy Spielberg, who screened her film 'Above and Beyond' for attendees. (Courtesy)

NEW YORK — Just back from New York City, where he was elected to serve at the helm of B’nai B’rith, Charles O. Kaufman eagerly chats about the future of the 175-year-old organization and why if there is to be peace in the Middle East “the Palestinians need to do more with less.”

His road to the presidency began under the hot, dry Texan sun where he spent many a boyhood summer searching for fossils and arrowheads in tiny Texas villages while his parents attended B’nai B’rith events. He often accompanied his father to meetings. There was never a time when B’nai B’rith wasn’t part of his life.

Now, as the newly elected president of B’nai B’rith International, the Dallas native relishes the chance to keep the world’s oldest Jewish humanitarian organization relevant and fresh. After all, he says, there are no points for being the oldest.

“To stay successful you have to be nimble and you have to adapt to the times,” says an upbeat Kaufman in a telephone interview from his current hometown of Austin, Texas.

In Texas he testified at the state legislature on behalf of anti-BDS legislation, which overwhelmingly passed both houses and was signed into law. During that period Kaufman said he was dismayed, but not surprised, that opposition to the legislation primarily included Jewish Voice for Peace and other progressive Jewish groups.

“It shows some of the challenges we have facing us and it’s disconcerting to see this disconnect over support for Israel,” he said.

Aside from working with organizations such as Maccabi USA/Sports for Israel, AIPAC and the Levi Hospital of Hot Springs, Arkansas, Kaufman has held a variety of posts within B’nai B’rith.

Newly elected president Charles O. Kaufman addresses the 2018 B’nai B’rith International Leadership Forum (Courtesy)

Before assuming the presidency, Kaufman served as the chairman of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy and as a senior vice president. In fact, he’s been a leader in the organization since 1980.

He’s represented the organization at the United Nations in New York, at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and at UNESCO in Paris. He felt strongly about his work in these positions, even as many of peers considered it a waste of time.

“When I was doing that work I had a lot of people ask me, ‘Why do you waste your time?’ I used to see it that way, too. Then I came to realize that if we were not there it would be even worse,” he said.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

B’nai B’rith is 175 years old. What is the key to staying relevant while adhering to the organization’s traditions?

You have to be innovative. We started out working with widows and orphans in 1843. Then in the late 1800s and early 1900s when Jews were scrambling from pogroms and violence in Europe we were there. So you continue to innovate and add programs to what you’re already doing.

More specifically we are creating several new things. Anti-Semitism is growing rapidly, here and in Europe. We’re creating an anti-Semitism action group. We’re going to be more vocal, more proactive in answering anti-Semitism. We have eyes and ears throughout the country and so we are uniquely set up to handle this.

We’re also creating a mental health action group. It will dovetail nicely with our senior housing; seniors are a big deal to us but this will fill a very important niche that is not unique for seniors. We want to create awareness about everything from anxiety to Alzheimer’s.

We’re also creating B’nai B’rith Barristers. It will allow for international networking in a multinational, global world. It will also allow professionals to mentor young Jewish attorneys coming up in the system.

B’nai B’rith leaders, including Charles O. Kaufman (left) meet with then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the United Nations in New York. (Courtesy)

In 1992 you initiated and promoted a petition that generated more than 10,000 signatures calling for the freedom of Syrian Jews under the rule of Hafez Assad. You also worked through its office at the United Nations and with other groups to secure the emigration of thousands of Syrian Jews. In the United States the Trump administration has slashed the number of refugees it will accept and European countries are also struggling with the refugee crisis. Talk about the challenges facing B’nai B’rith in this climate.

First, we are a nonpartisan organization and we take our nonprofit status very seriously. When it comes to immigrants and refugees we take that very seriously.

We are doing many things about the Syrian situation. We helped set up IsraAid and partner with them. We also helped Syrian refugees at a medical center in Safed get care, get back on their feet and go home.

Because we’ve been involved with [refugees and immigration] from our beginning we can give some history and context to the situation. I like to think this country is facing an immigration situation that is far different than any we’ve faced before. I like to think that what we ought to do is give any administration, no matter the party, the benefit of the doubt that they are trying to do the best they can. Sometimes it’s not pretty.

It’s not just the US. European countries are also having a difficult time. Germany is struggling with 1.2 million refugees, many of whom don’t want to assimilate. Britain is facing this too.

Most Americans want us to manage this situation in as humanitarian a way as possible and we are working to do that.

Talk about the challenges B’nai B’rith is facing in its global advocacy work as politicians and ordinary citizens, both here and abroad, are embracing xenophobia and anti-Semitism while also rejecting Zionism. Do you see anti-Zionism leading to anti-Semitism?

Having just met with members from the United Kingdom, I can tell you this is an important question. Many are asking what will happen in the UK if [Labour leader Jeremy] Corbyn is elected. What will happen in Britain is what happened in France — many Jews will leave.

As far as the US is concerned we have some real challenges ahead of us. There is a great divide among the rabbinates and among congregants about Zionism. Zionism has become a bad word. It’s been politicized and I’m not sure when this happened, [but] Zionism isn’t taught. So many young people don’t even know who David Ben-Gurion was or who Theodor Herzl was. They don’t know anything about the partition of 1948, the wars of 1967 or 1973. It’s very harmful.

Illustrative: UCLA students at an April 16, 2018 celebration for ‘Israel at 70 Independence Week.’ (Courtesy ACF)

I speak to young people often and I find them very passionate. However, they don’t know anything about Zionism, they don’t have the background, the context. All they have is this live in the moment attitude and talking points.

It’s disconcerting and we are speaking to younger audiences on college campuses. Where we really need help, though, is within our congregations. Rabbis can play a vital role.

Human rights and Israel advocacy are another area B’nai B’rith International is involved in. Across the US anti-Semitism is rising among progressives. For example, the Women’s March founders openly support Louis Farrakhan and on college campuses some left-leaning groups have made it clear American Jews who support Israel are not welcome. How does this impact the work you do in attracting young people to join?

It’s very troubling. We have people in B’nai B’rith from [across the] political spectrum. We are centrist. However, we are not doing enough to challenge some of the verbiage used on either side of the aisle. We do have problems when we have people use “occupation” and “apartheid” when Israel is building a wall for security. Having been to Soweto and other places in South Africa during Apartheid I can tell you what an insult this is to millions of Africans who lost their lives in that struggle.

You’ve represented B’nai B’rith before UNESCO and the UN Human Rights Council. Both bodies routinely single out Israel, as does the UN General Assembly. Why does B’nai B’rith continue to advocate before these institutions?

When I was doing that work I had a lot of people ask me, “Why do you waste your time?” I used to see it that way, too. Then I came to realize that if we were not there it would be even worse. The revisionist history is just horrific — the idea that Jews don’t have any connection to the land of Israel. This is the newest blood libel.

The revisionist history is just horrific — the idea that Jews don’t have any connection to the land of Israel. This is the newest blood libel

All we want from them is to reform. All we want from the Human Rights Council is to reform. All we want from UNGA is to reform. UNESCO should be non-political. It’s supposed to only care about science, technology and culture.

It’s been particularly rewarding to visit with some countries in Africa that don’t know much about Israel and are eager to develop economic ties and want to learn more about the country. So it’s very important we maintain a presence there.

Charles O. Kaufman, left, greets UN Secretary-General António Guterres during a B’nai B’rith leadership delegation that met privately at United Nations headquarters in New York with the new secretary-general, who had assumed office only three weeks earlier. (Courtesy)

Speaking of strengthening ties, President Reuven Rivlin of Israel has talked about the need to strengthen ties between Israel and the Diaspora. How can B’nai B’rith increase the connectivity between the Diaspora and young Israelis?

This was a huge issue during my campaign and I talked about it in my acceptance speech. We need to connect our communities. I am really pushing this because of what’s going on in Europe and what’s going on in Latin America. I think it’s really important to work in a more integrated, collaborative way. Few people do the Diaspora the way we do.

What prospects do you see for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian authority?

There could have been a two state solution in 1948 but the Palestinians squandered that — but you can’t turn back the clock, and it’s clear they never have missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Israel learned to do the most we can with what we have and the Palestinians need to do that to. They need to say “take the best deal we can get,” and go from there.

They need to stop chaining themselves to the BDS movement, to terror and to using education to poison children. They need to promote their economy; they could put a consular office in Jerusalem and quit the missile launching and tunnel building.

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