Our Work with Ambassador Richard Schifter

Ambassador Richard Schifter addressing the United Nations.

By Adriana Camisar, B’nai B’rith International special advisor on Latin American affairs

More than two months have passed since Dick (as we called him) Schifter left us, at age 97. And even though it would be impossible to express in just a few lines what it meant to our organization, and to me personally, to work with him, I felt the need to write about how blessed we were to be able to meet him, and learn from him.

About 10 years ago, he came to B’nai B’rith as Chairman of AJIRI (the American Jewish International Relations Institute), an organization he had founded some years earlier, to combat anti-Israel bias at the United Nations.

His profound knowledge of the United Nations system, a product of his years representing the United States at the U.N. in different capacities, was truly impressive. He was interested in working with B’nai B’rith, among other things, because of our name recognition and presence in so many countries around the world. But there was also, from the very beginning, a great personal connection between him and our CEO Dan Mariaschin, whom he often described as a “Mensch” (Yiddish for “gentleman”). For us, it was truly an honor to work with someone of his caliber, integrity and knowledge.

I was at the time B’nai B’rith’s assistant director for Latin American Affairs, and he was interested in working with me to try to change the way several Latin American countries voted at the U.N. General Assembly, on Israel-related resolutions.

Dick was a person who cared deeply about justice. His opposition to the grotesque mistreatment of Israel at the United Nations had to do not only with his desire to support Israel and the Jewish people, but also, and most importantly, with his deep conviction about the intrinsic justice of this cause.

He was also a deeply humble human being. He never spoke about his life achievements, which were too many to count. And every time I would tell him that he was too humble, he would tell me: “you know that I do not promote myself. Our cause is what really matters.”

His preoccupation with the U.N. had to do with his strong belief that the powerful anti-Israel propaganda apparatus that operates out of the U.N. building in New York hindered the prospects of a peaceful, negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He focused particularly on two U.N. entities, whose funding is yearly renewed by the U.N. General Assembly: The Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP), and the Division for Palestinian Rights (DPR). He firmly believed that, by endorsing the most extreme Palestinian narrative, these two entities placed a serious obstacle to the achievement of a two-state solution.

Dick was absolutely right. CEIRPP and DPR work all year long to promote the so-called “right of return” of the more than 5 million Palestinians who are still considered “refugees” by the U.N., to what is now the State of Israel. In fact, only one percent of these people are original refugees from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. The other 99 percent are the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original refugees, something that has no precedent in international law. The Palestinians are the only people in the world whose refugee status passes from generation to generation, indefinitely, along the paternal line.

The mass migration of more than 5 million Palestinians to Israel is something that no Israeli government—left, right or center—could ever accept as it would mean the end of Israel as a majority Jewish state, and the creation of yet another Arab state, “from the river to the sea.” This is why the insistence on the “right of return” is in fact a weapon to destroy Israel, and the single most important obstacle to the achievement of a peaceful solution to the conflict.

As Dick used to put it, as long as U.N. member states continue to endorse the right of return by re-authorizing the operations of CEIRPP and DPR, the Palestinians will continue to believe that the U.N. will help them destroy Israel through demographic means, and will have no incentives to enter into meaningful peace negotiations.

The many other anti-Israel resolutions that proliferate at the U.N. were of little interest to Dick, as he knew that they were mostly declaratory. But CEIRPP and DPR were at the heart of the U.N. anti-Israel propaganda apparatus, and conducted a yearlong anti-Israel campaign, paid with U.N. funds. They were also responsible for most other anti-Israel resolutions and initiatives within the U.N. system and beyond.

An expert on vote counting (something he had learned from his years in Maryland politics), and in possession of an extraordinary legal mind, he carefully studied the U.N. Charter and realized that, as these resolutions required funding, a two-thirds majority was needed to get them approved. Therefore, defeating them was not an impossible task. He decided to devote himself to this cause the last years of his life. And we at B’nai B’rith had the privilege of joining him in this effort. Over the years, we had several achievements in our diplomatic efforts, but a lot remains to be done.

The Abraham Accords completely reshaped the landscape of the Middle East, and we are witnessing how several Arab and Muslim countries leave their hostility behind to come closer to Israel. However, we don’t see this trend within the current Palestinian leadership. Dick was convinced that the U.N. was the last stronghold of support for the most extreme positions of the Palestinian Authority. And that only when the U.N. abandons this position will peace be possible.

Just a few days prior to Dick’s passing, B’nai B’rith and AJIRI formally partnered, and a new institute named AJIRI-BBI was formed. His son Rick has now kindly assumed the chairmanship and, together with Gil Kapen, a member of the board who has also been a great collaborator of Dick for over a decade, we will continue to work to make sure his legacy is preserved. But Dick’s inspiration and wisdom will be forever missed.