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US Jewish groups packed their schedules during UN General Assembly

Iran, domestic antisemitism, Holocaust restitution and advancing the Abraham Accords were on the table in high-level meetings with world leaders.

The U.N. General Assembly. Credit: Loey Felipe/U.N. Photo.
The U.N. General Assembly. Credit: Loey Felipe/U.N. Photo.

The U.N. General Assembly is best known for its annual, high-level General Debate, during which world leaders do not debate but instead take the podium individually to broadcast largely promotional messages to the globe.

Much of the significant dialogue occurs on the UNGA sidelines, as presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, and other movers and shakers meet—largely behind closed doors—to hammer out policies, bridge differences, forge alliances and forward joint initiatives.

Leaders of U.S. Jewish organizations also participate in sideline meetings at the gathering, taking advantage of so many world leaders gathering in New York City at the same time.

Daniel S. Mariaschin, CEO of B’nai B’rith International, told JNS that he had “a certain comfort level” with some leaders he knew from past years.

“I’m not saying that everything we ask for and raise is going to be treated sympathetically and acted upon,” he told JNS. “But I think there was a certain comfort level in the process when the Jewish organizations come each year at this time to raise our agenda. It’s extremely important for our community, internationally.”

‘All of the continents’

Daniel Mariaschin. Credit: Courtesy.

Delegations from B’nai B’rith, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the World Jewish Congress, the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (formerly the National Council for Soviet Jewry) and the Anti-Defamation League met with leaders from around the globe.

They included Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg and Paraguayan President Santiago Peña, according to Mariaschin. (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also met with Erdoğan and Peña.)

“We had meetings covering almost all of the continents—Europe, Central America, Latin America, Asia—and the usual European countries we often see not only during the time of the General Assembly but during the course of the year,” Mariaschin told JNS.

The delegation of Jewish organizations also met with representatives from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, on the third anniversary of the signing of the Abraham Accords, which have normalized relationships between Israel and several Arab nations.

“Our message was that we are completely committed to being supportive in any way that we can as Jewish organizations,” Mariaschin said.

UN ‘continuing bias’

The Jewish organizations raised many of the same issues that Israel discusses regularly at the United Nations, including Iran’s nuclear program and its support for terror proxies.

The United Nations’ “continuing bias” against Israel was also a priority, according to Mariaschin.

Paraguay Netanyahu
Paraguayan President Santiago Peña greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 19, 2023. Credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO.

“We talked a lot about the referral from the General Assembly to the International Court of Justice and expressed our concern, first of all, that the ICJ has no jurisdiction in this case, and secondly, that it’s another example of this constant bias and harassment of Israel,” he told JNS.

At the behest of Palestinians, the General Assembly passed a resolution in late December seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legal consequences of what the resolution termed Israeli “occupation” of Palestinian territories. Israel takes the position that the court holds no jurisdiction in the matter.

The Jewish groups also discussed the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with world leaders. Dozens of nations, including some that aren’t typically sympathetic to Israel, have stated that the commission’s structure is inherently biased and noted that all three of its members have documented histories of harsh criticism of Israel, if not blatant antisemitic statements.

‘How serious are you?’

In some conversations, the Jewish organizations discussed domestic antisemitism with leaders of countries Jew-hatred is more of a concern.

“Every country has a different level of antisemitism. Every country is either taking or not taking action, and there are a couple of countries that now have national strategies on antisemitism,” Mariaschin told JNS. “The question is: How serious are you? How are you going to proceed to counter antisemitism?”

Ukraine also came up in some discussions, he told JNS.

Although the U.S. Jewish leaders expressed deep concern about a variety of issues, JNS asked Mariaschin if the countries also expressed “deep concern” on the matters, which can be diplomatic-speak for consequential actions that countries are unwilling to take even when they feel they have the political and moral capital to do so.

Mariaschin told JNS that his sense that world leaders understand the U.S. Jewish leaders’ concerns about Iran. “Most of these countries don’t necessarily need additional encouragement to convince them that Iran’s behavior is anything other than bad,” he said.

However, he noted that the international community does not tend to object publicly to the full scope of the Islamic Republic’s menacing activities in the Middle East and worldwide.

“Everybody agrees Iran shouldn’t have nuclear weapons, but then when we get into the proxies, and the missile development and the enrichment issue, and all the other things, we have to hope that it’s not just our lone voice crying in the wilderness and that these countries get it,” he said.

“The question is: What are they going to do about it?” he said. “I don’t know that we got an answer on that, but certainly, we had an opportunity to lay it out.”

There seems, finally, to be a “general understanding and appreciation of the fact that antisemitism is a problem that is global” and requires attention, Mariaschin said.

The Jewish delegation also discussed Holocaust restitution, including compensation and restitution to Holocaust survivors and their families, with several countries, in meetings in which the World Jewish Restitution Organization participated, according to Mariaschin.

Anti-overhaul activists protest against the judicial overhaul and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to New York City for the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 19, 2023. Photos by Luke Tress/Flash90.

One thing that didn’t come up? Domestic strife in Israel.

“There was maybe a passing reference here and there, but nobody raised the issue by asking what we thought,” Mariaschin said. “Frankly, I thought they might ask. But no. It wasn’t raised.”

The Jewish delegation did not meet with U.N. officials directly, but Mariaschin—who hasn’t heard anything directly from Miguel Moratinos, the U.N. point person on antisemitism—has heard that Moratinos’ office plans to convene a meeting with Jewish leaders to discuss his re-drafted plan to combat antisemitism at the United Nations.

Originally scheduled for June, the meeting was postponed due to stark disagreement over the direction and lack of substantive action in the plan addressing internal antisemitism at the global body.

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