New Bnai Brith head warns of need for vigilance

With his honeyed voice and casual bonhomie, incoming B’nai B’rith International President Moishe Smith resembles another recent president.

Indeed, like Bill Clinton, Smith has perfected the art of being present. When talking, he never averts his eyes from the listener, and often punctuates his points by gently touching the arm of the person he’s addressing. He laughs easily, and uses anecdotes and personal narratives to communicate his thoughts.

The Ottawa resident (the first truly international president of the organization) will need to harness all of his skills in order to counter what he sees as the resurgence of one of the oldest scourges in the world — anti-Semitism. Smith, interviewed last week at San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Israel-Judea, where he attended a Dec. 10 forum on combating anti-Semitism on campus, contends that one of the best antidotes to that scourge is equally steeped in history.

“Before the Red Cross, before the Sons and Daughters of Italy, before the Rotary Club, and before any of the mainstream Jewish organizations, there was B’nai B’rith,” Smith said. And just as his listener was going to gently suggest that there might still be some members who were “present at the creation,” Smith artfully deflected the insinuation.

“I have no problem with our core membership being elderly,” Smith said, tapping his listener on the shoulder. “None whatsoever. In fact, I think it’s a source of strength. We have some members who have dedicated over a half-century of volunteering to our cause, and they understand the problems our community faces.

“The problem is reaching the younger generations, who have been … um … how shall I say this?”

Smith leaned forward as if confiding a secret.

“Forgive me for saying this, but I think that younger generations may have been a little pampered. They didn’t grow up facing the levels of anti-Semitism that other generations did, and I think that’s reflected in their levels of activism.”

Smith ticks off a list of current events that he feels warrant increased vigilance: Iran holding a conference on the Holocaust, anti-Jewish violence in Europe, Jimmy Carter’s new book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” and the recent findings by the Iraq Study Group.

“The policy of appeasement has never worked in finding solutions to huge problems,” Smith said, invoking the specter of Neville Chamberlain when talking about the ISG and its policy toward Iran.

“There is a phenomenon right now where unhappiness with Israel translates directly into anti-Semitism, and we can’t ignore that. Israel bashing, in fact, has almost become like a sport.”

The 56-year-old hotelier thinks the solution to the sanguine attitude on the part of some American Jewry may lie in reaching out to the hinterlands.

“I was in Bisbee, Ariz., recently, just stopping off on my way back from Tucson,” Smith recalled. “The town’s information center must’ve been about eight square feet. But right on the wall was a plaque commemorating the birth of the Bisbee B’nai B’rith Lodge in 1863.

“How many times in how many places across this great country has that story taken place? That’s the spirit that we need to tap into.”