NEW YORK – Although the room was stuffed to the gills with practically every influential Jewish philanthropist and political donor in the US (read: the Adelsons), New Jersey Governor Chris Christie failed to deliver what was promised to be a “major speech on Israel and the Middle East” on Sunday night at Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s second annual “Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala” in Manhattan. In fact, Christie did not mention Israel by name once.
A rumored contender for a 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Christie’s speech was thought by many to be a chance to declare his support for Israel — as US presidential candidates are practically required to do — and apologize for a comment he made involving the words “occupied” and “territories” at an address to the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas about two months ago.
Instead, Christie’s speech focused on how America’s place in world leadership has fallen from the revered position it once held, indirectly calling US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy weak, especially in relation to Syria.
“There was a time in this world where America’s government was something to emulate,” Christie said. “No one can believe today that we are the model for the world. The failure of domestic governance has lead to the diminishment of America’s role in the world.”
He continued: “America is no longer sending clear signals to the world as to who our friends are and that we will stand with them without doubt and to who our enemies are, who we will oppose regardless of the cost... We see the mischief that’s being played because America will not long stand up for the things that they say they will stand up for.”
That was as close as Christie got to mentioning the Jewish state in his 20-minute address, angering many guests, including Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.
“Christie’s always been a friend of Israel, but he understands, this is what you’re supposed to say,” Klein told The Jerusalem Post. “For Christie not to mention Israel, is not only surprising and disappointing, it’s actually shocking. I thought for sure he was going to come here tonight to make amends [for his occupied territories comment] and say some nice things about Israel. He has some of the most important supporters of Israel sitting in the room right here.”
Another noted guest at the dinner, who wished not to be named for fear of stirring controversy, agreed with Klein’s assessment. “I thought it was too political,” he said. “This wasn’t the right crowd,” and expressed a similar view to Klein’s in that Christie’s speech was inappropriate; a simple stump speech that was the exact same as speeches he’d given at other gatherings; not at all tailored to his audience.
“Why is he so uncomfortable saying something nice about Israel?” Klein wondered.
Despite this gaff that quickly had the many reporters in the room murmuring amongst themselves, the rest of the evening contained several plugs for Rabbi Boteach’s new book, “Kosher Lust,” and a panel discussion of the future of the Jewish people with Sheldon Adelson, Israel’s ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, and Birthright co-founder Michael Steinhardt.
But the pinnacle of the dinner was when Jacob Ostreicher, the man who spent three years in a Bolivian prison, took the podium and gave the most detailed account yet of what befell him in those years and how he first met the man who rescued him, Sean Penn, while in prison.
Ostreicher was being transferred to a particularly dangerous area of the prison when Penn walked in, shook his hand, and asked him when the last time was that he saw a doctor.
Ostreicher said that at the time he weighed less than 50 kg.
Penn told him he had met with the president of Bolivia, and everyone was aware he was innocent. Within 48 hours, Penn got him a doctor, and over the next six months, “made a series of miracles happen,” which resulted in not only Ostreicher’s freedom, but the arrest of 28 high government officials.
Ostreicher and Penn were spare on the details of how, exactly, Penn managed to make all this happen — Penn thanked the government of Venezuela in his remarks but wouldn’t say why – but Ostreicher lauded Penn for “dropping everything for a fellow American across the planet.”
Penn referred to Ostreicher as his friend, and said that “Jacob was railroaded by a corrupt Bolivian judiciary.”
Penn acknowledged that in the past he had been accused of anti-Semitism, an accusation that he said he had become “comfortably numb.”
“I’m often asked why I decided to help Jacob,” Penn said. “I’d like to say it’s because my father’s family is Jewish and I feel committed to an insular tribal protection. But I can’t tell you that... My little part in his freedom was not simply due to his being my American brother. He is among those political pawns among human brotherhood, trapped where I had some regional access.”
“I saved Jacob Ostreicher because it’s our job to do so,” Penn said definitively, speaking to the theme of the evening: Universal values. Addressing the speculation swirling in the media before the dinner about how strange the line up of star guests was, he said: “I’ve been told that many in the press and in the blogosphere are suspicious of the strange bedfellows some of us appear to be tonight... If we ignore the generosity of those with whom we part ways on various issues, or shun debate or conciliation, we are complicit in the same spirit that perpetuates violence, conflict and false imprisonments.”
Boteach, in his address at the beginning of the night, said he hoped the night would transcend the various political views present in the room.
“This is a night of unity,” he said. “I am tired of religion that divides.”
Other recipients of the evening included Judy and Michael Steinhardt, the Adelsons, Dermer, New Jersey senator Cory Booker, whose brothers Cary and John accepted the award for him, and humanitarian John Prendergast.
Other attendees included Harvard law professor Alan Dershowtiz, Texas governor Rick Perry, who also spoke briefly and mentioned Israel’s friendship with the US many times, Nobel Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel, Hawaii Senator Tulsi Gabbard, Israel’s representative at the UN Ron Prosor and Israel’s Consul-General in New York Ido Aharoni.