It was fitting that some of the biggest players in the United Nations – including the new Secretary General and Donald Trump’s popular ambassador – dominated the headlines at the World Jewish Congress’ plenary in New York.
Held just 20 blocks from the headquarters of the UN body, the gathering of leaders from ninety communities around the globe was the Jewish community’s own version of the UN.
From Aruba to Zambia and Japan to Jamaica, the event saw delegates pass policies to tackle cyber hate and support Syrian refugees, while sharing best practise – and indulging in the odd game of international Jewish geography (do you know my dad’s second cousin’s friend is an inevitable question when you have a 600 Jews from five continents in one hotel for three days).
They are separated by continents, language and the size – from communities whose members can be counted on one hand to those in their hundreds of thousands – yet there was a palpable sense of unity (even the Russian and Ukrainians were part of same delegation).
Taking their seats for the first time as WJC members were two communities whose total numbers barely reach 100 but whose presence generated huge interest: the Kingdom of Bahrain and Albania.
Bahrain’s representative Nancy Khedouri, who serves as a member of the country’s Upper House and foreign affairs committee, said: “Jewish settlers first came to Bahrain in the 1880s – all of these years not being affiliated with the WJC was a glaring omission. I’m overwhelmed to be part of this conference, people were shocked when I announced where I was from but have been coming up to me asking questions about Bahrain and are keen to visit.”
Thanking WJC President Ronald Lauder for inviting the country to join, she said she was hoping “to get to know delegates, to see where we can be support for each other”.
Pointing out that it’s the only Gulf state with a synagogue, Khedouri also relished the opportunity to spread the word about the Kingdom’s warmth towards its Jews.
“Recognition of our community by the World Jewish Congress is a great honour,” Artur Dojaka, vice-president of the Jewish community of Albania, where thousands of Jews found refuge during the Shoah.
The 60-strong community is now focused on an ambitious project to build a community hub with cultural centre, shul and kindergarten – and hopes that involvement with WJC may help in this effort. Sitting alongside the representative for the 400-000-strong Argentine Jewish community, he said: “There are so many differences but everyone comes into this as an equal.”
For Erica Lyons, from Hong Kong, previous gatherings have proved invaluable in establishing contacts with leaders in neighbouring countries – with tangible benefits. “The conversation start here,” she said.
“Most people flying to Israel from Australia stopover in Hong Kong so we’ve started sharing speakers. This enables people to take advantage of educational opportunities that on our own we wouldn’t be able to support financially.
“There was also the time at the last plenary when the Kenyan community raised problems they were having with creating a digital archive. Collectively we were able to introduce them to people and I believe it’s progressing. That’s the sort of thing that can only happen if you get people together face to face.”
It was a message echoed by first-time attendee Gillian Merron, chief executive of the Board of Deputies, one of the biggest delegations at the plenary, who suggested that “as with all conferences the best bit is the opportunity to meet and learn from each other”. The event provided an opportunity for members of the Jewish Diplomatic Corps – the young leadership arm of the WJC – to further plans to disseminate the Board’s guide for tackling boycotts worldwide though that network. Other world leaders have also shown interest in replicating the organisation’s manifesto for elections in their own countries, she added.
Merron said: “It’s all too easy to be critical at home so to hear about the strengths of our community when a mirror is held up to it by colleagues from around the world is something which everyone can take pride in.” The former Labour minister chaired a session on what it’s like to be a Jewish parliamentarian while Board President Jonathan Arkush, who headed the UK group, headed a session with three Jewish nobel laureates. The plenary, which takes place every four years, saw the re-election of Lauder for a third term as president and Moshe Kantor as co-chair of the WJC’s policy council.
There was unanimous support for a no-platform policy towards extremist parties and for another resolution urged internet companies to implement mechanisms to remove hate speech. The World Union of Jewish Students, which was elected as a vice-president, successfully proposed a motion encouraging WJC to help establish national student unions in countries where they don’t exist and to provide further financial support for campus activism. Yos Tarshish, the British president of WUJS, said: “The inter-generational contact is vital. Quite often it feels like we are not listened to but these forums enable us to have our voices heard.”