More than 70 leaders from Jewish communities in Latin America, Spain and Portugal, joined by AJC leaders and Latino Jews living in the United States, gathered in Colombia, from November 30 to December 3, for the annual strategic forum of AJC’s Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs (BILLA).

This signature event was cohosted by AJC’s institutional partner, the Confederación de Comunidades Judías de Colombia, and commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and 70 years since UN General Assembly resolution 181, which recommended a two-state solution in British-governed Palestine.

A highlight of the weekend gathering was the presentation of the AJC Gesher Award to Colombian President and 2016 Nobel Peace Laureate, H.E. Juan Manuel Santos, during a private reception at Casa Nariño, Colombia’s governmental palace, on December 1. The award, which means “bridge” in Hebrew, was presented by AJC CEO David Harris, in recognition of the president’s tireless efforts to build bridges among his country, the United States, and Israel, and between Colombia and its long-time enemies.

“You are truly deserving of our Gesher Award, President Santos,” said Harris. “You are a courageous peace-maker, a powerful advocate of our shared causes, and a true and steadfast friend.” In 2016, Santos signed a peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas, putting an end to an armed conflict that lasted more than five decades and resulted in hundreds of thousands of victims.

In his address, Santos spoke about his admiration of the Jewish people and for Israel: “I express my gratitude to the Jewish community and the American Jewish Committee for their support of the peace process in Colombia and their contribution to the Colombia-U.S. link. We value our strong relationship with Israel, and we want to learn how to create more opportunities for our people from Israel.”

On Saturday evening, diplomats from the United States, Israel, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Guatemala, as well as representatives from Colombia’s Ministry of Interior, the Municipality of Bogota and the armed forces, attended a reception celebrating Latin America’s vital support for the establishment of the State of Israel.

In an emotional moment, Araceli Garcia Granados paid tribute to her grandfather, Jorge Garcia Granados, who was the Guatemalan Ambassador to the UN in 1947 and persuaded several countries to support the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. Pedro Correa do Lago also remembered his grandfather, Osvaldo Aranha, the late Brazilian Ambassador to the UN and President of the General Assembly in 1947, for his crucial role in the historic vote.

During the four-day event, Forum attendees discussed the opportunities and challenges facing Latin America, as well as strategies to advance the well-being of their Jewish communities. Israeli ambassadors to Colombia, Marco Sermoneta, and Mexico, Jonathan Peled, addressed the significantly improved relations between Latin America and Israel, and the new opportunities created following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the region earlier this year.

One of the programmatic highlights was a session with Tal Becker, senior member of the Israeli peace negotiation team, and Frank Pearl, former Colombian High Commissioner for Peace and an AJC Project Interchange alumnus, about the similarities and differences between pursuing a peace process in the Middle East and Colombia.

Another noteworthy session involved a discussion among several Latin American political leaders and media personalities, all of whom participated in AJC Project Interchange seminars in Israel, about the image of Israel in the continent.

For decades, AJC, the premier global Jewish advocacy organization, has engaged with the governments and Jewish communities of Latin America, Spain and Portugal, as well as with Latino leaders in the United States. Since its establishment in 2005, BILLA has strengthened AJC’s active role in promoting Latino-Jewish alliances in the U.S. and strengthening the relationship among the United States, Israel, and each of the Ibero-American countries.

BILLA is chaired by Mario Fleck of São Paulo, Brazil, and directed by Dina Siegel Vann, a native of Mexico, in Washington, D.C.

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