New Orleans’ Other Lesson

Except for one unfortunate metaphor, it was a brilliant idea to host the annual meetings of the Jewish Federations of North America in New Orleans.

Here’s the metaphor: My cab driver from the airport told me how he will often pick up revelers in the French Quarter so drunk they can’t remember what hotel they’re staying at. One man, a doctor, gave the driver his driver’s license, then fell asleep. The license said Illinois.

Save that thought.

In New Orleans, you can witness firsthand the power of collective action merged to an ethic of giving. On the second day of the General Assembly (G.A.), as the conference is called, the organizers piled us journalists onto a bus and drove us to see the effects of the almost $30 million raised and distributed through the Federation system for Hurricane Katrina relief (Los Angeles accounted for $2 million of that). We stopped at the home of Thelma Lewis in St. Bernard Parish in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward. Federation dollars and waves of volunteers had rebuilt the place for the astonishingly tough 78-year-old and the four grandchildren in her care.

“We know that it’s a mitzvah what we do here,” said Sister Judith Zynda, the nun in charge of the St. Bernard Project, an ongoing rebuilding effort that still needs money and volunteers “But we can’t do it alone.”

Dollars and volunteers from the national Jewish community are continuing to provide post-traumatic psychological counseling, helping to rebuild both Jewish and non-Jewish lives and restoring a Jewish community infrastructure that is depleted but growing.

“When we first got involved,” Carol Smokler, the past chair of the national Federation Emergency Committee, said, “the experts told us, ‘A lot of groups are here in the days after, but very few are here for years after.’ We’re here for the long run.”

It is hard not to be moved.

Of course, the post-Katrina efforts weren’t what made headlines;  two other events grabbed those.

On Nov. 7, Vice President Joe Biden stood before the 3,000 G.A. delegates and declared — again — there is “no daylight” between the United States and Israel.

Just one day later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government announced that Israel would build 1,300 housing units in the hotly disputed East Jerusalem. President Barack Obama, Biden’s boss, greeted the news with a chilly public scolding, saying such moves are “unhelpful” to a peace process in which he has so much time and prestige invested.

While in New Orleans, Biden had spent an hour at the Roosevelt Hotel in conversation with Netanyahu, so it’s hard to imagine Israel’s plans were a surprise to him, or the rest of the Obama administration — so why the official public thumb in the eye, the real, or feigned, outrage, the fuel for a longer delay to negotiations?

It was hard to read that news and not be confounded, dispirited by the displays — on both sides — to not have a sense that all the speeches and posturing add up to what a former New Orleansian would have called a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The other news story was the heckling.

As Netanyahu addressed the same packed ballroom on Nov. 8, a protester started shouting, forcing the prime minister to stop talking. Security personnel quickly grabbed the protester and bum-rushed him out of the room.

If the protester had come to delegitimize Israel, Netanyahu said, he’d come to the wrong address. The crowd erupted in applause.

The heckling continued in well-coordinated waves. Netanyahu was stopped four more times in the course of his half-hour speech. Each time he returned to the rhythm of his annual address to North American Jewry, another single protester stood up and shouted. Security rushed each of the obstructionists out as the crowd clapped and chanted “Bibi, Bibi” in support of the leader.

Story continues after the jump.

These persistent interruptions followed the same tactic anti-Israel protesters used last February against Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren during a speech at the University of California, Irvine. There, constant shouts and catcalls eventually drove Oren’s remarks to a stop.

But there was a marked difference in the protesters at the General Assembly: In Irvine, the disruptions came largely from Muslim students. These protesters were young Jewish college students who see themselves as representing the best interests of Israel.

“What were they shouting against?” one Israeli journalist in the audience asked rhetorically. “The loyalty oath. The occupation. Gaza. Most Jews would agree with them.”

For many, the drama echoed the General Assembly that took place in Boston in 1969, when Jewish college students held a sit-in that actually shut down G.A. business. The New Orleans protest was just the second time the G.A. had faced that level of dissent.

In comments to the press, this week’s ejected protesters sounded like a new generation of Jewish activists, rather than the often anti-Semitic protesters who make up left-wing anti-Israel movement.

They had worked their way into the G.A. by virtue of being Jewish college students — the G.A.’s organizers have boasted of the 700 college students participating in what is usually a generally older-skewing conclave. Among them are students who are not so much questioning Israel’s legitimacy, but rather specific policies. They see a moral urgency in questions of Israeli policy that mainstream American Jewry is content to see worked out at a pace of the Israeli government’s own choosing.

“Hey, we talk about getting the younger generation involved in Israel,” one G.A. attendee said. “Here they are.”

At the G.A., the Federation system announced it would be spending $6 million to build an Israel Action Network to counter efforts to delegitimize Israel, and to confront the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which the protesters represented.

It’s probably money well-spent, though God knows St. Bernard Parish could use it more. It’s clear that American Jewry understands that we have to fight the network of delegitimizers, many of them funded and prompted by radical Islam. But we cannot continue to do so as if the occupation were not an issue.

What institutional Jewry seems resistant to grasping is that we must fight the occupation as if there is no delegitimization, and fight delegitimization as if there is no occupation.

Otherwise the thing we don’t talk about becomes the central topic. The problem we avoid is the problem that overtakes us.

To not do both is to engage in a willful moral blindness, and here’s where that metaphor comes in. We must not allow ourselves to get so drunk that we forget who we are, what we stand for, and where we, as a people, are headed.