The hidden cost of abandonment

Personal reflections on why Jerusalem should not abandon Philadelphia.

By LOU BALCHER
November 18, 2013 21:30
Philadelphia skyline

Philadelphia skyline 370. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Jewish and Israel support community in Philadelphia is in shock over news of plans to close the local Israeli consulate in order to open a new consulate in China.

Ambassador Michael Oren, and every Israeli diplomat, speaks of the shared values of the US and Israel, and of the US being Israel’s most critical ally.

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You can almost hear the Liberty Bell pealing the words of Leviticus, both the original Bell, proudly standing in Philadelphia, and its exact copy in Jerusalem: “Proclaim Liberty throughout the Land, and all the inhabitants thereof.”

The Philadelphia consulate has been a lifeline to Jewish leaders in six key mid-Atlantic states, and central to the growth of relationships and strengthened support from America’s Christian community.

Fourteen mid-Atlantic region interfaith leaders responded to the 2007 request of then foreign minister Tzipi Livni to meet under her “Succat Shalom” in New York City. The “Shelter of Peace” was arranged prior to her opening address to the UN.

The relationships with those interfaith leaders have grown.

Continuity and friendships expand with Friends of Israel Ministries’ Bill Sutter, director emeritus, and new exec. Jim Showers.

Israel My Glory, the FOI magazine, broadcasts its support of Israel to more than a half-million Christian readers around the world. Pennsylvania Christians United For Israel leaders Pastors Liz and Steve DeFrain were honored in an annual interfaith program in which Eleanor Hall, a 104 year old grandmother, was later given a “send-off” for her Church group going to the Holy Land.

An outstanding Philadelphia program called “Word From Jerusalem” showcases briefings from Israel’s political, academic, military leadership to executive directors of Jewish and Israel support organizations.

Jewish execs meet on “neutral ground” at Israel’s consulate, conducting other community building connections with their colleagues. Federation directors Tammy Mitgang from Reading, Pennsylvania, and Steve Schimmel from Vineland, New Jersey, drive the 90 minutes to learn the latest from Israel.

Schimmel, youngest Jewish Federation director in the US, went to Israel on Jerusalem’s Summer MFA Young Leadership Conference. The “life line” to outlying areas would be completely lost and forgotten if the portfolio was given to New York or Washington.

In Israel advocacy, Philadelphia has been a center of Israel support activities. At one “Word from Jerusalem” briefing, Prof.

Ed Beck, founder of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), announced from the consulate board room the reversal of the British Teacher’s Union Boycott of Israeli professors and universities.

SPME organized academics around the world who successfully lobbied for that reversal.

National anti-Israel BDS leaders decided to twist American values of freedom and liberty for PR purposes by bringing their 2012 BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) national conference to the prestigious University of Pennsylvania.

They suffered a national embarrassment when their conference was overshadowed by a Jewish and campus community that came together 1,000 strong to hear Alan Dershowitz. Campus Hillel used the experience as a “teachable moment” to connect students to Israel.BDS leaders were ignored and disgraced in excluding the local Jewish exponent from covering their event.

Later that Fall, Israel’s Philadelphia diplomat helped Penn’s Wharton Business School launch its on-line IsraelKnowledge@ Wharton web magazine reaching millions of viewers, all within the upper echelons of the business and academic community.

Israeli experts are regularly provided for Wharton’s web magazine.

300 campuses in the region are listed as “best colleges” by US News and World Report. Two of the largest US campuses are Penn State (nearly 100,000) and Ohio State (nearly 60,000), both with student bodies – and future leadership – with close connections to the Philadelphia consulate.

Penn State is known for the loyalty of its alumni, and regular visits of consulate staff and programs.

OSU’s state-wide student Israel advocacy conference has had critical support from Philadelphia.

Co-op directors of the University of Cincinnati and Drexel University are planning an Israel mission to expand international co-op opportunities in Israel, and to share their expertise on cooperative education as a model for Israeli academic, business, and government leadership to explore.

Drexel’s visionary president, John Fry, just returned from Israel to promote Philadelphia as an international entrepreneurial hub, as the site for new development between Washington and New York markets. As the future of Philadelphia expands, Israel should be taking advantage of its “start-up nation” status to partner, not retrench.

Values of leadership and sacrifice for Israel are evident in the Israel-US-Philadelphia narrative.

With the 2006 Second Lebanon War raging, Consulates around the US were arranging support Israel rallies. Brigadier-General (Ret.) Ephraim Lapid spoke to a Support Israel Rally in suburban Philadelphia, Bucks County, to more than 1000 Israel supporters.

Shir Ami Rabbi Elliot Strom recognized Mark and Harriet Levine, parents of son Michael, for their personal example of love of Israel, to a standing ovation.

Tragically, the next day, the parents were informed by Philadelphia’s Deputy Consul of their son’s sacrifice, and exactly one week after the first rally of support, Shir Ami hosted a memorial, in which Brig.- Gen. Lapid offered a salute to Michael before more than 2,000 who came to honor his memory.

On Yom Hazikaron in Israel, there is an annual remembrance to Michael as the American Lone Soldier who fell defending the Jewish state in Lebanon.

One of Michael’s heroes was Yonatan Netanyahu, leader of the IDF mission to Entebbe, who died saving more than 100 Jewish hostages on July 4, 1976, America’s bicentennial celebration.

On Sunday, November 3, a group of 90 Israeli and American high school students made a stop in Philadelphia, on their way from Washington, DC, to New York City.

Like most tourists they were to see the Liberty Bell and Constitution Hall. I had the honor to enhance their visit, sharing the Jewish story of US-Israel values of freedom and democracy in front of the B’nai B’rith “Statue of Religious Freedom” – a gift to the American people on the celebration the US centennial. The statue sits at the entrance of the National Museum of American Jewish History, in sight of the Liberty Bell and Constitution Hall.

We walked to the entrance of historic congregation Mikveh Israel. I recounted how the Jewish world held its collective breath for the week leading up to the American bicentennial, fearing tragedy but praying for a miracle. IDF mission leader and former Philadelphian Yoni Netanyahu performed that miracle, and we gazed at his memorial in Philadelphia. As Israeli diplomacy looks to efforts of expanding its message and gaining support for Israel, it would be short-sighted to abandon Philadelphia.

The author is former director of academic affairs of the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia, and co-founder of Young Jewish Leadership Concepts, a non-profit young professionals network creating community and leadership opportunities for Jewish young adults since 1986.


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