The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) hold an annual convention so that its members and leaders can meet to discuss the issues that confront the North American Jewish Community, share ideas and information, network and fundraise. Every five years the convention, called the General Assembly (GA), is held in Jerusalem. This year was the fourth time that the JFNA met here in Israel at Jerusalem’s Binyanei Hauma (Buildings of the people – the plural is used even though it is only one building) Convention center.
Located opposite Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station and right at the main entrance to the city (yes Jerusalem has a “main entrance” where the highway from Tel Aviv comes to an end), Binyanei Hauma is both a convention center and a large theatre. It holds many rooms for meetings and exhibitions. The main theatre has various plays and concerts all year round. The theatre also holds the main events for conventions.
The GA was held this year from Sunday November tenth to Tuesday November twelfth. Only the first two days were for the actual convention, the last day was reserved for tours of Jerusalem. The participants stayed at hotels around the city. Several invitation only events were held at hotels such as the David’s Citadel and the Crowne Plaza. I was not invited to any of these. The theme this year was “The Shuk.” Shuk means market, and so this was the market place of ideas.
I had never attended an event such as this before. I went on behalf of Jewlicious.
The Prime Minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, addressed the participants on the first night of the convention. Whatever one may think or feel about the man and his politics, he is undeniably a great public speaker. Netanyahu mainly spoke about the Iranian nuclear threat. The other Israeli politicians who addressed the GA also mentioned the Iranian issue.
There was a greater security presence the night that the Prime Minister spoke. Only the main wide and grand stairway was open for people to make their way upstairs to the auditorium. A large crowd waited below as the security only allowed a small group of people to ascend the stairs at one time. Half way up there was a security check. Then there were metal detectors at the top of the stairs; even though, everyone had already passed through such a check upon entering the convention center. Cameras and computers needed to be turned on to show that they actually worked before being passed through an X ray machine. No such extra precautions were taken on the second night when a cabinet minister and the leader of the opposition spoke.
Binyamin Netanyahu began by saying, “the most important thing is to assure the security and the future of the Jewish state, the one and only Jewish State of Israel.” He continued with a brief history of the Iranian regime’s plans and desire to destroy Israel. Netanyahu also made it clear that Iran’s nuclear program is not intended for any purpose other than to make nuclear weapons. He pointed out that Iran is also making intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and is a nuclear threat not just to Israel, but to the whole world.
The United States is currently negotiating with Iran to end the international sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made himself the international spokesman of the opposition to any deal that would allow Iran to keep its capacity to make nuclear weapons. He pointed out that Iran came to the table only because the sanctions have worked. But he claims that the current deal being discussed would not take away Iran’s nuclear abilities. “Not one centrifuge is dismantled. Not one. … They can rush within a few weeks, maybe a couple of months, that’s all, and create at the time of their choosing, the fissile material for a bomb.”
The Prime Minister proceeded to give the attendees a brief history of the Arab Israeli conflict. He spoke of what happened in 1921, the year that his grandfather first came to Israel. He emphasized all of the attacks and attempts by the Arab states to stop the creation of a Jewish state, or to destroy it, which took place before Israel ever captured the West Bank in 1967. In other words, the Arab nations are not motivated by a desire to help the Palestinians, but by a desire to destroy Israel entirely.
“In any case, you know that the idea of the Jewish state and the purpose of the Jewish state is to enable Jews to defend themselves. This is something that we could not do before we had the Jewish state. But we can do it now and we shall always, always defend ourselves and defend our state,” said the Prime Minister.
Binyamin Netanyahu spoke of what it will take for a final peace. He acknowledged his acceptance of a two state solution: One Jewish State of Israel and one separate Palestinian state. But as he continued, “That principle is: two nation-states, two states for two peoples. Not one state for one people, the Palestinians, and then another state for two peoples. No. Two states for two peoples, which means that if the Palestinians expect us to recognize the Palestinian state for the Palestinian people, they must recognize the Jewish state for the Jewish people.”
The last line received one of the largest sets of applause of the speech. Each time there was a pause for applause, the lights in the hall above the seats were partially lit. I am not sure if this was intended to encourage more applause or so that the video cameras could get a good shot of the audience applauding.
The bulk of Netanyahu’s speech, unfortunately, was about protecting Israel’s security. I understand that he felt the need to promote that message to a group of North American Jewish leaders, but he seemed to be preaching to the converted. At some points it felt like a pep rally.
Netanyahu did refer to other issues of concern to the majority of North American Jews. One issue is that of freedom of worship at the Kotel. Netanyahu mentioned the compromise which was reached to allow women and non-orthodox groups to pray as they wish there. A separate prayer section has been erected, but this compromise has not been met with universal applause as the new section is not considered adequate to accommodate the groups who wish to pray there.
Netanyahu concluded by referring to programs that the Israeli government undertakes to maintain the bonds between Israel and the Jewish communities of the Diaspora. One such program is Birthright, which brings thousands of Jewish youths in the early twenties to Israel each year. Birthright was first established during Binyamin Netanyahu’s first term of office in the 1990’s.
The second night saw a bizarre change of format. David Horowitz, former editor of the Jerusalem Post and current editor of The Times of Israel, hosted a talk show style interview session with various guests. Several chairs were placed in the middle of the large stage. The large theater was not a good location for this format and echoes could be heard.
David Horowitz’s first guest was Israel’s Minister of Finance, Yair Lapid. Lapid, an actor turned political commentator, shocked Israel this year when his new party, Yesh Atid (there is a future), won nineteen seats in the Knesset elections. That is more than %15 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Yesh Atid is a secular party and Yair Lapid refused to join Binyamin Netanyahu’s government if it included any of Israel’s Ultra Orthodox parties. As a result, those parties were left out of the coalition for only the second time in their history.
Yair Lapid followed in his father’s footsteps. Yosef Lapid was also a secular Israeli politician. In 2003 Yosef Lapid’s Shinui Pary won fifteen seats in the Knesset and he forced Ariel Sharon to leave the Ultra Orthodox out of his government.
Lapid, a veteran of television news programs, was quite comfortable with the talk show format. He also mentioned the Iranian nuclear threat and agreed with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position on the issue.
As the leader of a secular party, Yair Lapid has been working for changes in Israel’s religious establishment’s controls on marriage. He also is working for the equal draft of the Ultra Orthodox who currently spend there lives studying in Yeshivas so that they can avoid military service.
“Israel is the only Western Country where Jews do not have freedom of religion,” said Lapid. This was a reference to the Orthodox control over the Rabannut and issues dealing with marriage and conversion in Israel. Lapid called for the formal recognition in Israel of Reform and Conservative Judaism. Minister Lapid concluded by expressing his support for the Women at the Wall Movement which has worked towards gaining women the right to hold women’s and egalitarian services at the Kotel.
After the “talk show” was concluded, the leader of Israel’s Labor Party, as well as the opposition in the Knesset, Shelly Yacimovich spoke. Yacimovich is a former journalist who worked as a reporter for Israel’s television Channel Two before she joined the Knesset as a member of the Labor Party in 2006. Unfortunately, she does not speak well in English and does not appear conformable speaking in front of a teleprompter. Shelly Yacimovich is currently facing a serious challenge for the leadership of the Labor party.
Yacimovich began by echoing previous speakers’ positions on Iran. She agreed with the Prime Minister that Iran must not be allowed to keep its nuclear capabilities. The Labor leader then attempted to explain why her party chose not to join Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition government.
Shelly Yacimovich explained her support for a two state solution to the conflict. She believes that Zionism is not just about a Jewish state but a democratic Jewish state. In order to ensure that Israel remains a democracy it must, in her opinion, separate from the Palestinians and allow them to have their own country.
She did not, however, explain how this differs from the government’s policies. Prime Minister Netanyahu has also said that he now accepts the principle of a two state solution.
Perhaps because it was already the end, or because of the difficulty in listening to her speak, about half the people in the auditorium had left before Shelly Yacimovich finished. There were only about half as many people there as when Netanyahu spoke to begin with.
The evening finished with a party for the participants of the Birthright program who were in the country and were invited to attend. They had a DJ playing very loud dance music in the lobby of the auditorium. There was also a buffet dinner of small hamburgers with small buns, Humous and ground beef with slices of pita as well as hot dogs.
Joe Berkofsky is the public relations director of the JFNA. He said that over 3,500 people came to Israel from North America for the general assembly. The costs of the event were covered by the fees charged to participants, fees charged to different groups who rented booths during the event and from corporate sponsorship from El Al, The Jerusalem Post and various non profit organizations.
Joe said that it took more than a year to prepare the event. “As a team, we started even before the last [GA] in Baltimore even opened.” Unfortunately, he would not allow any of his staffers to speak with me. Perhaps it was because he had not heard of Jewlicious. Maybe if I had been with the Jerusalem Post or the Huffington Post he would have allowed it. I just wanted to be able to get some personal stories of what it was like working at the event.
I spent my time during the day taking with the people who came to the GA to promote various causes. I will write about that in a separate post.