Big embrace in the Big Easy
by David Breakstone
Participants in this week’s General Assembly in New Orleans were greeted upon their arrival by a gigantic banner declaring, “Our Big Embrace in the Big Easy.” It made me a little nervous. I wasn’t sure who was supposed to be hugging whom, and if anyone had been assigned to hug me.
I didn’t have to wait long to find out. The opening plenary featured US Vice President Joe Biden, who delivered a carefully crafted and effusively sympathetic message of support on behalf of the Obama administration for the only democracy in the Middle East. He pledged the United State’s steadfast and unwavering commitment to Israel’s security, purposely defining it as a Jewish state.
Predictably, he also spoke passionately about America’s determination to prevent Iran from going nuclear and our joint obligation to counter the campaign of delegitimization. “These aren’t just words,” he told an audience that might have been just a little bit skeptical, and then went on to prove it – not with another pronouncement that in any case we couldn’t take to the bank, but with a completely unscripted, off-the-cuff remark:
“When I met with Bibi…,” he said, and then caught himself. “I’m sorry, the prime minister of Israel. I shouldn’t call him Bibi. But then again, he calls me Joe, so I suppose it’s all right.”
Not the stuff of headlines, but a rare expression of familiarity and intimacy that was perhaps more revealing than the prepared speech of the true nature of the friendship between our two nations and their leaders – despite all the disagreements between them as how best to pursue the course of peace.
The applause of the crowd throughout the evening left no room for doubt as to the steadfast support that Israel also enjoys among those assembled. The truth is, we have been so battered at home by dire warnings of disillusionment with Israel on the part of American Jewry that I had arrived at the conference somewhat wary. But any misgivings I may have harbored dissipated entirely during the three days of the gathering.
Bibi – it’s all right, he can call me David – was exceptionally well received, hecklers notwithstanding. His discourse on the proceedings of the peace negotiations was met with solid approval, and his declaration of determination to ensure that Israel would remain a country “that each and every one of you can call home” was greeted with enthusiastic applause.
When Kadima leader Tzipi Livni addressed the conference at its closing plenary, she, too, was welcomed enthusiastically. She pointedly began her talk by saying that she stood before us not as the head of the opposition, as she had been introduced, but as a Jew and as an Israeli – “and in that order,” she added, “for that is how I see myself.”
She spoke movingly and inspiringly about the need to make certain that our values as a Jewish and democratic state define us, and not our enemies. She went on to elaborate her understanding of these terms, saying that the Israel she dreams of will exist not merely as a shelter but also as a source of inspiration.
Livni explained that her opposition to the conversion bill brought before the Knesset was that it would divide world Jewry rather than unite it, and called for dialog between the Jews of the Diaspora and of Israel to ensure that we would forever remain one people. “That is how I see you when I stand here today,” she said, “not as Reform Jews or Orthodox or Conservative.”
The Law of Return would need to be the first article of Israel’s future constitution, she proclaimed, and stressed the importance of working to ensure that the Jews of Israel feel connected to the Jews of the Diaspora no less than that the Jews of the Diaspora feel connected to Israel. And until such time as we are all these things, she declared, “we need to be strong enough to accept criticism that comes from love, from within the family.”
Ultimately, she said, “we must see ourselves united not only by fate but also by destiny, and we must work together to create the next chapter of Jewish history.” Needless to say, she received a sustained standing ovation.
This profound expression of support for Israel, furthermore, was by no means apparent only during these speeches delivered by “outsiders.” The many sessions dealing with such topics as online advocacy, partnering with Israel, and countering the campaign assailing the right of a Jewish state to exist were among the best attended throughout the conference.
The organization’s leaders all conveyed their own deep and personal connections to Israel, as well. When Jerry Silverman, President and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America spoke prior to Tzipi (yes, she can also call me David), he outlined a number of major challenges facing JFNA: engaging the younger generation, legitimizing Israel in the eyes of the world, and increasing the number of participants partaking of an Israel experience. Kathy Manning, Chair of the JFNA Board of Trustees, echoed these sentiments when she challenged those present to look into the future, and to have the courage and resolve necessary to make the decisions that are required to turn dreams into reality.
Finally, Charles Bronfman brought the GA to a close with a plea to those assembled to ensure that every young person who wished to do so, would have an opportunity to participate in birthright Israel, the wildly popular program he co-founded a decade ago While 32,000 will do so this year, he announced, another 38,000 applicants will not, simply because the funds are not available to bring them, a situation he declared intolerable.
In fact, all-in-all, there was so much talk of Israel, that I might have thought I was attending a gathering of the Zionist Congress.
Then, as I was leaving, I caught sight of that huge billboard again: “Our Big Embrace in the Big Easy.” When I had seen it upon arrival, I assumed it was an expression of the local Jewish community’s pleasure with our convening in their home town, or perhaps of JFNA’s pleasure in welcoming the 3500 participants attending the conference.
By the time I left, I had the feeling that the sign had been hung just for me – well, for all of us Israelis who were there. The huge hug we received was far warmer than anything we could have expected. In times like these, when we have so many known enemies, it’s good to know that we also have friends like these.
David Breakstone is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive; published courtesy of the author.
image: courtesy JFNA