Georgia on my mind

While Atlanta has long recovered from being burned in 1864, I’m not sure Israel would recover from burning its bridges there today.

By JONATHAN FELDSTEIN
January 16, 2018 21:39
4 minute read.
SkyView Atlanta

SkyView Atlanta, a 200-foot (61-meter) tall Ferris wheel with 42 gondolas, is seen on the South end of Centennial Park in downtown Atlanta, Georgia July 19, 2013.. (photo credit: CHRIS ALUKA BERRY/ REUTERS)

 
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Upon graduating from Emory University, my first job was as information officer at the Israeli consulate in Atlanta. Recent news of Israel’s Foreign Ministry intending to close the Atlanta consulate is personal and disappointing.

It was the late 1980s, the beginning of the First Intifada, and Israel had just appointed its first Arab Israeli head of a diplomatic mission. He was my boss, and embodied the word “mensch.”

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With the intifada heating up and garnering particularly bad press for Israel, the decision to post its first Arab as a head of a diplomatic mission overseas made sense as he was relatable among the large minority population. Since then, the Atlanta consulate has also hosted a Druse consul general, and other Israeli minorities.

While serving at the Israeli consulate, a round of closures of diplomatic missions was being planned, and word was that Atlanta was on the chopping block.

Possibly because of Atlanta hosting the 1988 Democratic Convention (at which I was almost arrested serving as driver for Israel’s ambassador to the US – but that’s another story), and being in the running for and ultimately selected as host of the 1996 summer Olympics (one of only five US cities to have this honor in the past century), the Atlanta consulate was saved and the Foreign Ministry made an investment, moving from a small office in an older building on Peachtree St. to a bigger, more modern office with room to expand in its current location.

Remaining in Atlanta was a wise choice then, as the city is the home of CNN and one of the world’s busiest airports, and was also a growing business hub for the southeast. Then there was the growth of Atlanta’s thriving Jewish community, and the fact that the city is a central point from which one was able to reach millions of ardently pro-Israel Christians, with most major cities in the region being located not more than a 4-5 hour drive away.

Since then, Atlanta’s significance has only grown. According to the Atlanta Jewish Federation, the population has increased four-fold to some 120,000, including an estimated 10,000 Israelis. All these and other reasons remain valid for not closing the consulate now.

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Despite the rise in public Christian support for Israel these past three decades, Israel should not only not take it for granted but invest to nurture that. Closing the Atlanta consulate will limit the ability to be actively present and make the impact needed.

It’s all the more relevant today in Atlanta as a foil to Jimmy Carter’s presidency in exile at the Carter Center, from which he’s often espoused virulently one-sided and anti-Israel lies and rhetoric, most notably being among the first people at this level to use the term “apartheid” in describing Israel. I had my share of interactions with Carter, both publicly and behind the scenes, and Atlanta is an important place to affirm that calling Israel “apartheid” could not be anything further from the truth.

Underscoring the importance of Atlanta as an influential place for Israel to maintain an active presence, in the fall of 1989 I was the driver for Israel’s ambassador to the UN, the up-and-coming political leader who now holds both the prime minister and foreign minister portfolios: Benjamin Netanyahu. He flew to Atlanta for one day, for a lengthy meeting at CNN to provide perspective for senior writers and reporters, specifically during the intifada but also on the Arab-Israeli conflict in general. I was his driver and attended the meeting, which he conducted masterfully.

I learned a lot and was proud to represent Israel in Atlanta then. It remains a highlight of my life and career. Having graduated from Emory with a degree in international studies, focusing on Israel and the Middle East, it was an incredible opportunity. I still reflect on that time often, and on other lessons learned while in Atlanta. Some of the most significant of these were in a non-academic setting.

One of these experiences that stays with me to this day took place the second semester of my freshman year when I was elected president of Hillel. I had a meeting with my Hillel rabbi, and almost as if in passing, but clearly to teach me an important lesson, he asked a profound question.

“Faced with a scenario of a choice between two alternatives both with bad consequences, what would you do?” “I’d choose the least bad alternative,” I answered confidently.

“No,” he said. “You look for a third alternative that has a good outcome.”

Closing the Atlanta consulate seems shortsighted, with much more to lose than to save. I’m not in the Foreign Ministry and cannot speak to the budgetary demands that lead Israel to consider closing any consulate, much less not investing in new ones. I can imagine other options, both as ways to build, and reconsider these decisions made. It’s not too late.

While Atlanta has long recovered from being burned in 1864, I’m not sure Israel would recover from burning its bridges there today. I hope that the Foreign Minister Netanyahu will reconsider, and that nobody will be charged with packing up dusty old materials from storage rooms like I did when we moved the consulate from Peachtree.

The author is a senior non-profit fund raising and marketing executive who began his career at the Israeli Consulate in Atlanta.

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