Israeli personalities shine – and clash – in the US

Reporter's Notebook: Despite nearly visceral disagreement at times, they were all so wholeheartedly for Israel.

Jeruslam Post Conference stage 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jeruslam Post Conference stage 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
NEW YORK – On Sunday in New York City, where Israel has its most fervent and loyal following, The Jerusalem Post smoothly pulled off its first annual conference, focused on the Jewish state and the Diaspora.
“Fighting for the Zionist Dream” was the theme and every participant of whatever political stripe fulfilled this mandate in their addresses.
It started lightly enough, with former prime minister Ehud Olmert and Post Editor-in-Chief Steve Linde bantering about New York and Jerusalem: Which is the center of the universe, and which the center of the world? Wherever the political center was Sunday, provocatively, Olmert segued quickly in his keynote speech to a dramatic accusation that the Netanyahu government is not doing much, despite its claims, to forge peace with the Palestinians. Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan, a rising contender in Likud representing the government, said yes they were, but where is the love in return? The confab was full of serious and lively debate, exciting to anyone who cared about the issues. These would be familiar if you follow the modern Jewish- oriented press, or were even a little aware as a Jew of today’s issues impinging on your existence. You would know, too, of many of the personalities speaking and debating on the stage. But most New Yorkers had not seen them in the flesh before, which added to the vitality of the day.
All those fiery (or smoldering) influential personalities in one place was quite a show.
Israel visits New York! Seeing the issues and the positions expressed cheek by jowl on the dais, rather than second or third-hand on the Internet, was well worth the time and made them fresh, and thus new in that way.
Danny Ayalon, Gabi Ashkenazi, Meir Dagan, Gilad Erdan, Eliezer Shkedy, Ron Prosor and Olmert – all going at it right in front of us, talking out their issues, not giving quarter but also trying to be civil in front of an audience. One got the feeling that usually these discussions were held in private.
Did these men feel we, in America, should know them and the arguments more intimately? They were all passionate, in their own particular styles: Dagan very self contained, but looking always an inch from letting it all out; Ashkenazi in his professional though unbuttoned, relaxed Israeli-style military restraint, but at the same time bemused by the goings on, a smile just turning the corner of his lip; the true extent of Olmert’s impassioned persona and huge presence as a speaker is not really graspable on a computer or TV screen.
There were new things said, as well as things said newly.
Olmert said that, unbeknownst to him, his ministers told Abbas not to sign the agreement he offered the Palestinians in 2007. Little was made of this when he mentioned it Sunday. Should it have been? Was this old news to those on the dais? Other sample tidbits:
• Caroline Glick: We should annex Judea/Samaria; it’s Israel, and the great powers agreed it was ours in 1922. Demographics in our favor.
• Shkedy: [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei’s Koran-directed desire for Armageddon concerns me.
• David Breakstone: Take to heart Peter Beinart’s warning. We have to reframe the Zionist dream. Zionism is not just for a place for Jews to live. It is an ideal, a longing for ethical and spiritual fulfillment, as Herzl emphasized.
• Ashkenazi: Why did Cast Lead stop? We can destroy Hamas, but then what?
• Dagan: No red lines; the question is can the Mossad present an early enough warning for a last resort strike.  Answer: Yes.
• Ido Aharoni: We won’t win friends whining as victims anymore. New narrative looks at Israel as a success story, a bastion of creativity.
• Prosor: The great danger is the subtle, daily sophisticated spread of lies about Israel, the drip, drip, drip of untruths that become a truth serum believed. We must actively oppose each lie.
• Ashkenazi: The Iran leadership is clever and strategic; never to be underestimated.
• Erdan: Israel has always existed, and can and will, without peace.
And many, many more.
Despite nearly visceral disagreement at times, they were all so wholeheartedly for Israel.
In the press these Israeli politicians often seem like each other’s enemies, which is a shame. Because there was no doubt that what really mattered for them was fending off Israel’s enemies, not each other.
Maybe they do hate each other, some of them. Political competition can be very nasty.
But some of them did question, Sunday, whether this internecine warfare should be carried on outside of Israel.
The day seemed significant.
But was it? What did it accomplish? Was it just preaching to the choir? Well, this in itself is not a bad thing – rallying the troops, raising the flag. There may even have been a few skeptics in attendance. One fellow I encountered explained that he liked The New York Times views on Israel, preferring Tom Friedman to Caroline Glick. But most of the reactions from the audience were decidedly closer to her point of view.
The morning session was taken up by strongly voiced speeches about increasingly urgent issues pressing Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora on the existence of the State of Israel: Of first importance, Iran: Second, the nature of Israeli society: Third, Diaspora support for Israel and Israelis’ relations to the Diaspora.
And fourth – yes fourth, not first – the Palestinians. The afternoon sessions were highly animated panel discussions on these topics.
The day was full of piquant moments and details. One young questioner from the audience, a non-Jew who strongly supported Israel, was upset by the ignorant but vehement, organized anti-Israel sentiment on his college campus.
In agreement, a speaker on stage thought the seditious views of certain hard-Left Israeli academics ought to get them fired. But Alan Dershowitz stridently opposed any sort of censorship – perhaps to the dismay of our gentile ally – saying it would redound on Jews for the worse, and was morally and legally wrong as well. Naomi Ragen and Malcolm Hoenlein demurred from Alan a bit, supported the questioner, and said there has to be some way to counteract these people, at least by individual actions, or more. Alan said, yes, you get to speak out against them, be active.
It was surprising and disappointing not to see more of the “important” New York Jewish pundits in attendance, but it’s their loss. Maybe they didn’t want to mix with the hoi polloi.
Or, they have to be sure the event is truly fashionable before they’ll attend. What would they have made of it, as professionals? What would they have seen? What would they have learned, or contributed? We’ll never know.
Next year they’ll know better.
On the other hand, the particular cross section of American Jews that did attend was heartening.
They’ll be heard from.
The presence of all these Israeli movers and shakers – movers and shakers of Israeli and Jewish life now – together on the same dais in New York was a historic and unprecedented occasion. I’d never seen any of them in person. It was all very interesting.
It was a great conference, a terrific day!