From Nov. 30 through Dec. 3, over 2,500 supporters of Israel gathered at the Denver Convention Center for Jewish National Fund-USA’s annual Global Conference for Israel. In the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks, the speakers called for unity, inspired attendees to love their fellow Jew and encouraged them speak up for Israel even when it was difficult.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis, who is Jewish and spoke at the opening plenary, voiced his support for Israel as protestors outside the conference center banged on the windows and shouted at attendees that they were “baby killers” who “have blood on your hands.”
Polis said, “If anyone asks why the world needs a Jewish state of Israel, it’s more evident than ever before… I proudly wear with you the necklace that says, ‘Bring Them Home Now.’”
JNF-USA President Dr. Sol Lizerbram also spoke at the opening plenary, highlighting the work JNF-USA has been doing since Oct. 7, including relocating thousands of affected Israelis in the Gaza Envelope to safer areas and sending volunteers to rebuild the country.
“We don’t just plant trees,” Lizerbram said. “We invest in infrastructure. We are the doers and the builders. That is JNF-USA.”
Rabbi Erez Sherman of Sinai Temple of Los Angeles, who brings together cohorts of rabbinical students to learn about Israel, said kaddish for the Oct. 7 victims, inserting the names of the areas that were targeted, like Nova and the kibbutzi.
The JNF-USA conference, which included a heavy police presence and ample security measures, also featured a talk from Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations Gilad Erdan, who told the Jewish Journal that the U.N. is misguided.
“The U.N. proved time and again it’s paralyzed and it’s lost its moral compass,” he said. “You could see how the leader of Iran, the Butcher of Tehran, Raisi, was accepted [and] received a red carpet treatment after his regime slaughtered thousands of women and peaceful protestors. The UN should go through a reform, but until then, the United States of America is the biggest funder of the U.N. Maybe the time has come to defund the U.N. and demand fundamental reforms.”
Social media was a hot topic of the conference, with a panel showcasing former Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor of California and JNF-USA supporter Ron Nehring. As Ted Cruz’s former spokesperson during the 2016 presidential campaign, he learned about how to deal with detractors. He pointed out how it used to be called the “Arab-Israeli” conflict, since the Arab nations teamed up against Israel to try to destroy it, but now it’s called the “Israeli-Palestinian” conflict to try to make Israel look bigger and cut out the legions of doom, Iran and Syria, who are also actively trying to eliminate the world’s only Jewish state.
“Don’t use their language,” he said. “Always use the vocabulary you choose … And make sure you speak towards your persuadable target audience.”
In a session with Geller International Fellows from Israel on Campus Coalition, Senior Fellow Tessa Veksler, student president at UC Santa Barbara, talked about what it’s like being a visibly proud, pro-Israel Jew on campus.
“We were the first student government in the nation to condemn Hamas,” she said. “I also got threats on a daily basis, students protested about me and I was told that I should be beaten in the streets.”
Orlando Valdez III, who is not Jewish but is also in the ICC Geller Fellow program, said he – a person of color – has been called a white supremacist for supporting Israel.
“We have demonstrations from Hillel and support systems in place for people like me who are Zionists and love the state and people of Israel,” he said.
President of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law Alyza Lewin moderated the panel of students. She represents students who sue their schools under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which says that no person shall be discriminated against for their identity under any activity or program receiving federal assistance, like universities.
“It’s not a good faith political debate taking place on campuses. What’s happening is the demonization, marginalization, shunning and exclusion of Jews.”
“It’s not a good faith political debate taking place on campuses,” she said. “What’s happening is the demonization, marginalization, shunning and exclusion of Jews.”
On Shabbat, JNF-USA held a Shabbat dinner and services with different denominational options, along with further talks and gatherings of college students. After Shabbat, a musical Havdalah and a night of comedy featuring Alex Edelman performing his show “Just For Us” were held. Afterparties for college students and JNFutures, the young professionals group that has chapters across the U.S. and Canada, were held at the hotel directly next to the convention center, the Hyatt Regency.
Other talks included remarks from JNF-USA CEO Russell F. Robinson, former Israeli diplomat Ido Aharoni Aronoff and President of Israel Isaac Herzog, who gave a viritual speech from Israel.
One of the most emotional moments came when filmmaker and pro-Israel influencer Yuval David gave his talk about his advocacy work. He told his audience that as the protestors yelled outside the convention center, a 70-something Jewish man was walking by, with his head down, looking dejected. David ran up to the man, locked arms with him, and said, “Head up, baby!” This instantly brightened the man’s day. David said the man told other people to keep their head up, too.
“This conference has been such therapy I cannot even describe,” said David, who lost 32 friends on October 7. “I’ve barely been shaking hands because I’ve been hugging everyone.”
He continued, “I am so thankful for all of you.”