As about 1,300 Israeli Americans convened from Oct. 17-19 in Washington, D.C., for the Israeli-American Council’s (IAC) second annual national conference, anxiety and anger over the recent wave of Palestinian stabbings in Israel was a much-discussed topic during a weekend that was otherwise less flashy, less political and more formal than the group’s flashy inaugural conference a year ago.
Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, gave the opening remarks on Saturday evening, with a message that Israeli officials have consistently sent over the past few weeks — that the torrent of stabbings of Israeli Jews is a result of incitement in Palestinian culture, and not something that would change even if Israeli policy toward the Palestinians changes. This was in sharp contrast with Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks at a Harvard event, where he blamed the stalled peace process and “a massive increase in settlements” for “this violence, because there’s a frustration that is growing.”
Dermer told the receptive crowd, “If the international community would focus on Palestinian incitement one-tenth as much as they focus on building apartments for Jews in Jerusalem, the situation might be very different.” And on Sunday evening, Israeli cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz offered a similar message, saying, “This violence is only about incitement.”
Dermer, like many in attendance, was born in the United States to an Israeli parent. Receiving numerous rounds of applause and a standing ovation from much of the crowd in a packed ballroom at the Washington Hilton, Dermer said, “What my ima [mother] passed on to me, you can pass on to your children,” encapsulating one of the IAC’s primary goals — to foster a strong connection to Israel among first- and second-generation Israeli Americans.
At last year’s conference, which drew 500 fewer people and was held in a much smaller ballroom at the Hilton, headlines in major media outlets focused on big political names who addressed the IAC crowd, among them 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and billionaire rival political kingmakers Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban, who participated in a lively and entertaining onstage discussion during which they talked (or joked) about teaming up to purchase The New York Times and Washington Post, in order to ensure that those two outlets would cover Israel more favorably, Saban said at the time.
At this year’s conference, the IAC’s VIP list and topics of discussion were much tamer — no presidential candidates, no senators, and an even split of Democrats and Republicans, all strong supporters of Israel and all opponents of President Barack Obama’s signature diplomatic nuclear agreement with Iran. They included California Congressmen Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Ed Royce (R-Fullerton).
Sherman, who spoke Saturday evening after Dermer, sharply criticized, to loud applause, the idea that Israeli settlements factor into the recent stabbings.
“They did not die because there were protesters who were concerned about settlements,” Sherman said. “[They] died at the hands of terrorists who are motivated by a racist ideology that calls upon its adherents to expel all Jews from the Middle East.”
Notably missing from this year’s conference was Saban, who recently ended his support of the IAC and of Campus Maccabees, a new task force he helped create last summer with Adelson to fight the growing on-campus Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which has successfully passed dozens of resolutions in student governments targeting boycotts of Israeli goods and companies that do business with the Israeli government. Although it was rumored that Saban’s withdrawal of support from the two groups stemmed from differences he has with Adelson, his team has said he left in order to focus on other philanthropic efforts for the time being. Adelson has given millions of dollars to the IAC and is the group’s largest donor, having given $12 million to the group at its March gala and fueling its national expansion in 2013.
Adelson was notably lower key when he spoke Monday than he often is when in front of friendly audiences and reporters, mostly using the opportunity to praise one of his biggest philanthropic benefactors, Birthright Israel, for its impact on young American Jews. In his discussion with Barry Shrage, who heads the Boston Combined Jewish Philanthropies, among the largest Jewish Federations in the country, political observers in the room were closely watching Adelson for hints as to which Republican presidential candidate he’ll support for the 2016 election, but Adelson didn’t touch at all on politics. In fact, the most notable comments from the discussion, the last event of the conference, came from Shrage, who called on Jewish Federations across the country to work closely with the IAC and help integrate it into local Jewish communities.
“We insist that IAC become an integral [part] of every community,” Shrage said. In Los Angeles, home to the IAC’s national office and to the largest number of Israelis and Israeli Americans in the United States, the IAC and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles have shared a cool relationship since the IAC’s inception in 2007, working together on very few initiatives. Shrage also criticized leading Jewish-American figures on the left, such as author and commentator Peter Beinart, “who would love us to believe that the best way to alienate our next generation is to engage on Israel issues.”
“That would be a horrible self-fulfilling prophecy, which is what I think some of those people actually want,” Shrage said.
The structure of the breakout sessions, offered in English and Hebrew, included topics such as “From the Frontlines: How to Defeat BDS,” “The Israeli Entrepreneur: What’s the Secret Sauce” and “Israel on Campus: Perception vs. Reality.” The conference felt similar in topics and structure to annual national conventions held by groups such as AIPAC and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), albeit with more emphasis on issues relevant to Israeli Americans.
And between breakout sessions, hundreds of people, ranging from college students and young professionals to veterans of the Jewish and Israeli professional world, chatted and networked over coffee, Bamba and Bissli, schmoozing and taking advantage of face time with pro-Israel and Israeli-American professionals who they more often communicate with via email and phone during the rest of the year.
The content of the major speeches and the groups represented during the breakout sessions indicated that the IAC, although currently active in seven cities nationwide, has quickly joined the professional mainstream Jewish-American pro-Israel community, which includes much larger groups such as AIPAC, the JFNA, and Birthright. And although Jewish groups such as the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” JStreet were absent from the conference, Israel’s center-left opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, who lost handily to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the March elections, was received warmly by the crowd when he spoke onstage with Udi Segal, a journalist for Israel Channel 2.
As Adelson, who supported Netanyahu in the Israeli elections, sat only feet away, Herzog joked, “Unfortunately Sheldon and [wife] Miriam did not support me.”
“To say that it’s hopeless and therefore we should stay forever, wherever we are with no answer, leads us directly to the fact that we’ll be a one-state solution,” Herzog said to moderate applause.
Throughout the conference, people were constantly checking their phones for updates from Israel. News of several stabbings and attacks by Palestinians occurred over the weekend, and the grim news on the other side of the world was never far from the surface at the largest gathering of Israeli-Americans in the country.
“It makes me feel guilty that I am here talking about Israel and not actually supporting my family and friends who are in Israel,” said Niran Avni, an Israeli from suburban Tel Aviv who currently lives in Los Angeles. “But I like that we get to talk, and talk how we can influence from here what’s happening over there.”
One of the ways the IAC hopes to support Israel from the United States is by mobilizing teams of social media professionals to “defend Israel online” when conflicts break out. There were social media workshops and, in an area called “The Situation Room,” tables were set up with about two-dozen laptops where anyone could peruse the various ways that pro-Israel groups are using social media to advocate for and defend Israel online. The IAC also revealed a new partnership with IDC-Herzliya, in which the two groups will share resources and knowledge to assist Israel on social media.
Adam Milstein, an IAC co-founder who recently was named the group’s chairman of the board, said he believes the IAC offers Israeli-Americans a vehicle through which to support Israel from abroad. “Now that we have this organization, we have this identity, we have this movement. Part of it is to be advocates for the State of Israel.”
In addition to supporting cultural and Hebrew-language programs, and supporting Israel through social media and grants to pro-Israel groups, the IAC is also set to launch a lobbying arm that will be aimed at state and local governments, and maybe even the federal government. The group recently hired Dillon Hosier, former political adviser to Israel’s consulate in Los Angeles, to head the IAC’s statewide lobbying efforts, which Milstein said could include passing resolutions against BDS and for cooperation with Israel, and possibly become involved with Title VI anti-discrimination statutes at the federal level.
“We want to actually accomplish alliances in counties and municipalities,” Milstein said. “We want to be engaged in legislation that’s taking place on the federal level.”
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