It was just your average 15-hour day in Washington.
Not all of those 15 hours were spent on the security line just to enter the Washington Convention Center, though it seemed it might take that long as we gathered at 6:45 am to make our way to breakfast for rabbis with Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, who shared a brilliant take on the Book of Esther. Did you ever think that maybe Ahashverosh was a bigger villain that Haman? One day, I’ll share his teaching.
Then we made our way into the morning’s general session, which would be headlined by Prime Minister Netanyahu. But that wasn’t all. David Horovitz, editor of the online newspaper The Times of Israel, was in conversation with two former statesmen whose support for Israel continues to be unwavering: Jose Maria Aznar, former prime minister of Spain, and John Baird, past foreign minister of Canada. Mr. Aznar, who called Israel the only western-style democracy between Morocco and Asia, warned of the dangers of appeasement when it came to Iran. Then, we welcomed President Milos Zeman of the Czech Republic, who delighted the audience by saying “Ani Yehudi–I am a Jew.” He said he told the Mossad that they aren’t the most effective intelligence agency in the world. They’re the only effective one! He reminded us that it was Czech fighter planes that seeded the Israeli Air Force, and Czech support in diplomacy continues to this day.
Prior to Bibi, we heard a learned and comprehensive speech from Samantha Power, the American Ambassador to the United Nations. She spoke with conviction about the unfair treatment Israel receives at the UN, but assured us that American support for Israel will never cease. The last appetizer before the Prime Minister was a display by Yaron Bob, an artist who transforms the metal from rockets fired from Gaza into magnificent sculptures (for more, go to http://www.rocketsintoroses.com/
Prime Minister Netanyahu was in fine campaigning form. He didn’t speak long, but he packed a punch. He began by insisting that his decision to accept the invitation to speak in Congress tomorrow was in no way meant to insult the President. He compared this disagreement with the US to other past conflicts (declaration of statehood, the 1967 preemptive strike, the attack on the Osirak nuclear reactor), all of which were followed by even stronger bonds between Israel and America. But he noted this key difference. “The United States is concerned for the security of her country. Israel is concerned for the survival of her country.”
Next, we went to lobbying caucus sessions, and our team prepared for tomorrow’s meeting with Congresswoman Grace Meng. AIPAC’s true mission is fostering the relationship between America and Israel, and it does so with a well-coordinated advocacy plan. To make their work more effective, they began the Synagogue Initiative 10 years ago; that’s one of the reasons for the growth in attendance of the Policy Conference. So they hosted a special lunch for the 600 rabbis, cantors and rabbinical students who came to DC. We heard from Mark Waldman, who directs the initiative, from Howard Kohr, the executive VP of AIPAC, and then from two bipartisan supporters of Israel: Representative Elliot Engel (D-NY), and Senator James Lankford (R-OK). Senator Lankford was particularly impressive, speaking to a room of faith leaders having turned to politics after serving as a Baptist minister. He noted that 37 of the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible are either written by, for, or to a political leader. So to him, clergy must be politically engaged!
We in the Rabbinical Assembly next learned from a dedicated Conservative Jew, Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat. As a diplomat, he laid out his concerns about rising European anti-Semitism, his thoughts on the Iran nuclear energy deal, and his thoughts on the Israel-US relationship. He truly believes that there’s no way to get Iran to agree to dismantle their nuclear program entirely, so the deal we’ve been hearing about is the best way to keep Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capabilities. He does worry about the current tension between the President and the Prime Minister, but doesn’t believe that will destroy the relationship between allies.
My afternoon breakout session was called Advancing Coexistence: People-to-People Efforts in Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Danny Hakim uses budo, a form of martial arts, to bring Israeli Jews and Arab Palestinian Israelis together. Shalom Dichter runs the Hand-in-Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel. It was one of his schools that was a victim of arson in late November, but the school is alive and thriving. If you remember seeing images of Jews and Arabs holding hands by the road during Operation Protective Shield, that was another of their projects. And Joel Braunold, who directs the Alliance for Middle East Peace, talked about the challenges of funding all these worthy projects to build peace from the ground up.
The evening general session featured National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who outlined in great detail the parameters that guide the administration’s negotiations on Iran. While she said “No deal is better than a bad deal,” she insisted that the US–and Israel–“can’t let an unachievable deal stand in the way of a good deal.” Noting her awareness of AIPAC’s lobbying strategy in Congress tomorrow, she was critical of those plans. And the assembled crowd reacted ingeniously. Instead of greeting her comments rudely, the audience gave her mention of the strategies she critiqued standing ovations.
The most moving part of the day followed, as we welcomed Ofir and Bat Galim Shaer, Avi Fraenkel, and Uri Yifrach, parents of the three boys whose kidnapping galvanized the entire Jewish world last summer. “Your warm embrace is not taken for granted,” said Gilad Shaer’s mother.
The last political element of the day was Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who pulled no punches in criticizing the Obama administration’s handling of the Iran nuclear issue. “The mullahs will not call us in Washington when they plan to breach the agreement,” he said. If published reports on the deal are true, he said, then it’s a bad deal. But he’s reserving official comment until after the deadline passes later this month. Needless to say, he was the most enthusiastically received (American) speaker of the day.
But the most enthusiastic reaction was saved for the evening’s musical performances, given by Rita, David Broza, and Matisyahu. It was especially exciting to see many of the 3,000 college and high school students rush the stage and dance in the front. I’m not only so impressed by the power of this Policy Conference; I’m invigorated to see the engagement of so many students in support of Israel.
In less that 8 hours, I’ll be back for the final general session. So for now, I will say Layla tov from DC!
Rabbi David Wise