Jerusalem — Shared worries and crises have a way of bringing people closer together.
That’s a positive way of assessing this year’s General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, held here this week at a time of critical transition for America and Israel.
The annual conference of the 155 Jewish federations of North America was dominated by discussions about the world economic crisis (which accounted for the smaller number of attendees from overseas), the global impact of the election of Barack Obama as president-elect of the United States, Israel’s uncertain political future as it prepares for its own national elections and the looming threat of a nuclear Iran pledged to destroy the Jewish state.
And with it all, the delegates — estimated variously between 3,000
and 4,000 — were offered several upbeat plenary sessions designed to emphasize the close cooperation between concerned Jews in North America and Israel.
A plenary on Monday, devoted to the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), tugged at the heartstrings, with individual soldiers taking center stage to tell their personal stories of accomplishment, with the help of federation-related agencies, or of heroism and bravery under fire.
The opening event Sunday night was entitled “a celebration of partnership” and showcased musical performances by youngsters, including 10 Ethiopian girls under the age of 12, who sang and danced, and violinists, ages 8 and 9, who stole the show.
The evening’s opening act was a brief address by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who sought to emphasize how happy he was to be at the GA, putting on an upbeat performance in light of the fact that he would soon be stepping down from his post because of multiple investigations and accusations of accepting bribes from an American Jewish businessman.
Olmert, who seems to have aged considerably in the last several months, alluded to the fact that this would be his “last appearance” at a GA as prime minister but said this is “by no means goodbye” as he would be meeting with diaspora lay leaders at future gatherings focused on Jewish concerns.
He received a polite reception when he came to the podium and the onstage musicians began an upbeat tune almost immediately, sparking rhythmic clapping from the audience to couch what would have been an embarrassingly low-key greeting. And there was only a smattering of applause when he pledged to “spare no effort” to move the peace process forward until his last day in office, presumably early next year, following the Feb. 10 elections.
Some criticize the lame-duck leader for pushing hard for a breakthrough with Mahmoud Abbas, despite rocket attacks from militants that the Palestinian Authority president is unable or unwilling to contain, and for pursuing talks with Syria at the end of his tenure.
Olmert was on more solid ground with the audience when he noted that his administration sought to strengthen a Jewish diaspora weakened by an aging population and youth less identified with Jewish rituals and causes. “There was a time,” he said, “when Israel was the project of the Jewish people. Now the Jewish people have become the project of the State of Israel,” noting the funds spent by his government on various educational and service programs for Jews around the world.
This year’s attendees at the GA, now held every five years in Jerusalem, consisted primarily of North American lay leaders (though an estimated 30 percent of registrants canceled since the economic meltdown in the U.S.). About 900 North American college students and post-college young people living in Israel for the year were invited to swell the ranks and give the GA an infusion of youthful fervor. Billed as Next Generation, most of the young people were invited through MASA, a Jewish Agency-funded project for a semester or year of study or service in Israel.
In addition, 600 of the 1,100 women who attended a successful Lion of Judah conference a few days earlier in Tel Aviv for major federation donors stayed on for the GA. The women Lions raised $16 million, a 13 percent increase over last year. (There is no fundraising at the GA.)
Every GA takes on its own personality, and this one emphasized the interdependency of diaspora and Israeli Jewry. Though most Israelis were unaware of the GA’s presence or purpose, those who attended seemed impressed with the seriousness and commitment of North American Jewish leadership. One full day was devoted to exploring Israel, with the thousands of delegates fanning out across the country on one of 50 bus trips described as a “seminar on wheels” to explore the country’s cultural, historical, business and other accomplishments. And a two-hour dialogue session on Monday explored the multiple identities that bind and separate diaspora and Israeli Jews.
Battle Front At Home
Federation leaders acknowledged that the economic crisis will have an impact on their efforts to serve Jews in need wherever they may be, but Howard Rieger, president and CEO of UJC, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about raising funds in this difficult climate, noting that major funders in key areas like Chicago and New York have kept pace with last year’s campaign.
Rieger will step down from his post next summer after five years, and there is a sense among many Jewish leaders that UJC, which has struggled to find a clear identity since it was formed a decade ago, will have an even more difficult time in the years ahead as charitable dollars become more scarce.
UJC’s top official in Israel, Nachman Shai, has announced that he will leave his post after the GA to run for the Knesset, and Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Ze’ev Bielski is expected to do the same. Some say he is motivated in part by the knowledge that 2009 will be a year of further cuts for the Jewish Agency, which recently announced a $45 million reduction in its budget because of reduced fundraising revenues.
Recent years saw an emphasis on funding for Jews in the former Soviet Union and relocating the last remnants of Jewish life in Ethiopia to Israel. But several American Jewish officials have noted that for all of Israel’s legitimate financial concerns, the greater need may well be on their own turf in the next few years.
“I used to feel when I came to Israel that I was coming to the front lines,” said John Ruskay, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York. “This time I felt like I was leaving the front lines behind.”
But aside from the economic concerns that dominated the convention, there was a sense of urgency about preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. And Israeli officials, from the prime minister on down, emphasized that this was not essentially an Israel issue but rather a crisis for the region and the Western world.
They asserted that everything possible must be done to stop Iran, with an emphasis on sanctions but including the military option if all else fails.
At an overflow session on “Iran’s Ticking Bomb,” Lt. Gen. (Res.) Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon asserted that Iran will have “nuclear capability” in “one to two years, not more than that.” (Experts have been saying that for more than 17 years, but the session did not deal with what is taking Iran so long to develop the bomb.)
The former military chief, who later in the day announced that he would run for the Knesset with the hawkish Likud Party, blamed the West for “lack of unification and determination” during unsuccessful negotiations over the last five years.
What’s needed, he said, is diplomatic isolation, like preventing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from appearing at the United Nations or visiting Western countries; further and tougher economic sanctions; and keeping the military option viable.
Such an effort will not convince Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions, Ya’alon said, but it could get them to engage in serious negotiations.
When I asked, later in the session, what carrots the U.S. or Israel might offer Iran to change its position, the former military chief replied with a smile: “the main carrot regarding Iran is avoiding the sticks.”
The other panelist questioned by moderator David Horvitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, was Emily Landau, a senior research associate at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
She noted that Iran has acted pragmatically, not irrationally, in stringing along the Europeans and others while stepping up efforts to complete the ability to build nuclear weapons. And while Israeli officials maintain that Israel will not allow Iran to complete the job, she said Jerusalem may have to reconcile itself to the reality of a nuclear Iran. Even a military attack may not be enough to stop Iran, she said. “The trick is to deal with Iran and make them want to stop,” Landau said. She predicted that the new administration in Washington will soon open talks, and stressed that they should take place when Iran is under economic pressure, with the reduced price of oil.
Learn From Obama
A session on the recent U.S. and upcoming Israeli elections offered a wide range of viewpoints, but while many officials here are intrigued and worried by the prospect of an Obama administration, fearing pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians, even hawks insisted that relations between the U.S. and Israel will remain rock solid.
Former Defense Minister Moshe Arens said the relationship has been strong for more than five decades, citing the last serious confrontation as taking place in 1956 when President Eisenhower coerced Israel into pulling back at the end of the Sinai war. Since then, “it has been smooth sailing and will continue,” he said.
Arens is not eager for Obama to make the Israel-Palestinian negotiations a priority, insisting that PA President Abbas cannot control the militants. He said the Palestinians “are in total anarchy,” so peace talks at this point are “totally meaningless.”
Colette Avital, a member of Knesset from Labor and former consul general to New York, insisted that peace talks are necessary because Israel suffers in a diplomatic vacuum. She said delays in talks would lead to a one-state solution, with Palestinians becoming a majority and undoing the Jewish state.
Avital expressed enthusiasm over the Obama election and said Israelis are buoyed by America’s “sense of hope and renewal.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, called the recent U.S. contest “the first global election,” and said the Jewish community needs to learn how to reach and mobilize young people from the “brilliant campaign” Obama ran.
“We’re in the 18th century when it comes to technology,” he said of the American Jewish community.
Hoenlein said “it is time to give Obama a chance,” asserting that “a strong America is a strong Israel, and a strong Israel is a strong America.”
The election of Nir Barkat, a 49-year-old secular businessman who defeated an ultra-Orthodox candidate last week as mayor of Jerusalem, was heralded by many here as an Obama-like success story. Barkat spoke at the GA and pledged to revitalize Jerusalem and make it a city where people can find “good jobs, affordable housing and top-notch education.”
His supporters hope he will be able to stem the tide of non-Orthodox residents leaving the city. Israelis will soon be focusing on their national elections, mercifully limited to six weeks of official campaigning. Whoever the next prime minister is will be determined to establish a positive relationship with Obama and his administration. And GA delegates left Jerusalem this week charged with the task of making their government leaders aware of Israel’s needs and concerns.
“The key is it’s up to you when you get back home,” said Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, who moderated the elections session. “Americans are pro-Israel, but it’s not high on their agenda. It’s up to you to make Congress and the White House hear it loudly.”