New Orleans — Vice President Joe Biden was the ideal Administration representative to address the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America at its opening plenary here on Sunday, and he handled the role with enthusiasm.
The speaker who followed him didn’t fit the Federation-cheerleader mold, offering a careful blend of support and critique in his presentation.
Biden knew his audience – he has had long and close ties with the Jewish community throughout his almost four decades in the Senate – and he hit all the right notes in describing his friendships with nine Israeli prime ministers (“none closer than Bibi,” he asserted), and the Administration’s support for Israel.
In response, the estimated 4,000 delegates to the annual conference of the Federation movement applauded on cue when the vice president said, for instance, “I feel absolutely certain our support for Israel must continue forever.”
But Biden seemed a bit defensive about his boss, punctuating a declaration that “we will not yield one single inch” when it comes to Israeli security by adding, “President Barack Obama feels exactly the same way I do.”
There were other indications in his talk that the vice president was well aware of ongoing misgivings in the Jewish community about the president’s sentiments toward Israel.
Biden broke no new ground in his speech, with its heavy emphasis on America’s support for Israel, and which also touched on the common fight against terrorism and the commitment to not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons.
Biden said the tougher sanctions on Iran that the U.S. was instrumental in enacting “have bite” and are having a major impact on Iran. But he acknowledged the sanctions could only go so far.
He did make reference to the nasty tensions between the Administration and Israel last March over Israel’s housing construction in Jerusalem, but said the disagreements were “tactical” and “have never been fundamental.”
“We worked our way through it,” he said of the administration and the Israeli prime minister. “We talked it out like friends and brothers.”
He made no mention of what will happen when the soon-approaching deadline on the Israeli-Palestinian talks comes around.
The most surprising presentation of the GA plenary, which tends to have a scripted feel to the various talks by Federation leaders and supporters, was the one given by David Simon, the former Baltimore crime reporter best known as the creator of several gritty television series, including “Homicide,” “The Wire,” and most recently “Treme,” about the music and people of a poor neighborhood in New Orleans, his adopted home, post-Katrina.
Unfortunately, Simon’s talk came just after the embarrassing mass exodus of the crowd following Biden’s speech. The lights of the room were dimmed, no doubt to downplay how many empty seats there suddenly were in the room.
But Simon, whose father Bernard Simon was the longtime public relations executive of Bnai Brith, spoke of his admiration for the generosity of the Jewish community while urging that more be done for others in need.
He said he had his differences with the Baltimore Federation about the disparity between funds spent on Jewish causes when there was so much poverty in the black community.
He said he realized there had been strong tensions between blacks and Jews after the civil rights movement of the 1960s, brought about when “black anti-Semitism and Jewish racism touched.”
“It doesn’t matter how it started,” he said, emphasizing the difference between communities in “need” and those in “desperation.”
“This is a Holocaust in slow motion,” Simon said of the poverty and lack of opportunity in many black neighborhoods in cities like Baltimore and New Orleans.
He praised the Federations for the work they have done “in the right direction” and seeking to “get past the past” in contributing beyond the needs of the Jewish community.
“You guys are on the right track,” he said. “Do more.”
He concluded by noting that he was donating his fee for speaking to a charity that pays for health care for New Orleans musicians.