With protesters outside, JNF-USA conference in Denver focuses on reconstruction and combating antisemitism

Colorado governor says need for Israel self-evident post-Oct. 7; organization unveils $54 million program to rebuild Gaza border towns

DENVER — Surrounded by hundreds of police officers, some in riot gear, and an equal number of anti-Israel protesters pounding on the windows of the Colorado Convention Center here and shouting slogans and slurs, some 2,500 supporters packed the center’s Bellco Theatre for this year’s Jewish National Fund-USA Global Conference for Israel — more than double the 2022 crowd. Inside, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ impassioned plea for Israel and the need to combat antisemitism offered a sharp contrast to the intense protests outside the convention center. 

Polis, who wore a “Bring Them Home Now” dog tag necklace, referring to the hostages still held by Hamas in Gaza, told attendees during the opening session on Thursday that the world’s response to the Oct. 7 attacks made the need for the State of Israel eminently apparent. 

“There’s a lot of pain and it’s made worse by the fact that we’re seeing the rise of antisemitism and hate in America and across the world,” Polis, who is Jewish, continued. “The antisemitic demons of old that we hoped had been vanquished [are] now fueled by social media and dangerous rhetoric. My great-grandparents came to this country in the early 20th century to escape the persecution in Eastern Europe for who they were and what they believed. It’s that same persecution and violence that’s taken so many lives throughout history in these heinous attacks. If anyone asks why the world needs a Jewish state of Israel, the evidence is now more self-evident than ever before.”

The four-day event, which concluded on Sunday, had a marked somber tone in the wake of Hamas’ massacres in southern Israel and the ongoing war. This year’s conference focused on reconstruction of communities impacted by the attacks and continued rocket fire. Since Oct. 7, JNF-USA has supported the delivery of 150 bomb shelters in Israel’s north and south. Another 250 bomb shelters are planned, according to the spokesperson.  

JNF-USA unveiled a joint $50 million project with Jerusalem-based Keren Kayemet Le’Yisrael-JNF at the conference on Sunday. The project will go toward rehabilitation of the Gaza border communities devastated by the Oct. 7 attacks, JNF said. The collaboration also appears to signal a reinstated cooperative relationship between the two organizations after almost two decades of complete separation.

The event kicked off on Thursday night with an opening plenary in the Bellco Theatre, where attendees heard from several keynote speakers including Polis, JNF-USA President Sol Lizerbram and Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan.    

“What power does the U.N. have to harm Israel?” Erdan said. “What happens at the U.N. doesn’t stay at the U.N. because we live in the internet era. Lies travel around the world before the truth can even get its shoes on.”

In a meeting with reporters at the conference, Erdan reiterated his call for Washington to defund the U.N. and said that public funding should cease for American universities that allow antisemitic attacks to occur on campus.

JNF-USA CEO Russell Robinson told eJP ahead of the conference that the “tone has changed [in the aftermath of Oct. 7], but our goal hasn’t.” 

 “Our goal has always been to bring people together, Zionists together, to talk about the beauty and representation, the work we all can do as a collective people for Israel, which is a uniter of the Jewish people. The tone has changed, from one of celebrating what we’ve achieved, to understanding what we’ve achieved but dealing with the reality of today,” Robinson continued.

The conference welcomed 500 college students and 250 high schoolers, who discussed the rise of antisemitism on campus and at high schools. Multiple panels were geared towards students, including “Countering Anti-Zionism Campaigns on Campus,” led by Jacob Baime, CEO of the Israel on Campus Coalition Coalition alongside two college students, and “Dispatches From The Front Lines: A Conversation with Jewish Campus Professionals,” led by Alyza Lewin, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law

Other panels, several of which had overflow crowds, included “Israel and the Media: Tools for Effective Communication,” “Guaranteeing Israel’s Future: A Discussion of Legacy Planning,” and “Israel, A Nation of Start-Up People” featuring panelists Erel Margalit, founder and executive chairman of Jerusalem Venture Partners, and Gidi Grinstein, the president and founder of the Reut Institute think tank. 

Margalit, a former member of Knesset, spoke about the need for a “paradigm shift, security-wise, diplomacy-wise and economic-wise,” post-Oct. 7. 

“The paradigm in which you can live next to a terrorist organization and make sure that they will be quiet by helping them make money and pray that they won’t shoot you is gone,” he said. 

Grinstein said the Reut Institute is striving to deliver 1,000 weighted blankets that assist with anxiety to terror victims and hostages as they return to Israel.  

The event featured a Global Expo with interactive exhibits and groundbreaking technology. Among presenters at the expo was Nimrod Rogel, CEO of Wadi Attir, a project that helps Bedouin Arabs cultivate the land in Israel’s Negev Desert. 

“We take the tradition and knowledge of Bedouin people in the desert and bring it to the front with new technologies and new approaches,” Rogel told eJP at the conference. “Basically to make the Bedouin people proud of their heritage because proud people do good stuff and want to be part of the community.”

The project “brings people from all over the world, Jewish and non-Jewish, to do shared activities like vegetable growing,” Rogel continued. “This is the time to make the Bedouin people part of Israel,” he continued noting that immediately after the Oct. 7 attacks, he was “a bit scared to go into the Bedouin area because I didn’t know what the atmosphere would be, but once I got there I understood they felt exactly like me. They were frightened, missiles were over their heads, families were killed and Bedouin people got kidnapped. They feel more Israeli than ever right now, they feel we are in this together.”

Rogel noted that Wadi Attir “doesn’t get into land issues,” referring to a recent dispute between KKL-JNF and Bedouin communities in southern Israel over a forestation project by the former on land claimed by the latter.

“JNF helps us to promote the project as a joint innovation for bringing together Jewish people and Bedouin people in the Negev,” he said. 

Throughout the weekend, demonstrations outside the conference appeared to feature supporters of Hamas — displaying photos of the terror organization’s attacks on Israeli civilians accompanied by the text “Resistance by any means possible.” Protesters also defaced public property, according to a JNF spokesperson, and etched into the sidewalk the slogan “River to the Sea,” referring to the desire for a Palestinian state from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean Sea, which would necessarily mean the end of the State of Israel.

Attendees, including college students and conference organizers, condemned the protests outside the Convention Center in addition to calling on universities to take a tougher stand against hate.

Jake Stone, a JNF-USA College Summit chair and student at University of Colorado, said in a statement, “Jewish students continue to be intimidated by anti-Israel activists on college campuses. We thank our many allies on campus who have stood up for us, and we call on all fair-minded students who support our mainstream American values to rally around their Jewish friends at this difficult time. We say: ‘Enough is enough,’ and urge college administrations in Denver and around the nation to take resolute action against hate and antisemitism.”

In a statement, Robinson said, “Our people know all too well what happens when you let hate and antisemitism go unchecked. When you see people chanting for your homeland’s destruction and praising terrorists, this isn’t just a Jewish problem, it’s a problem for everyone who values life and co-existence. We will continue to fight ignorance through our initiatives that show campus leaders and faculty members the real Israel along with our programming across college campuses and high schools.”