Israel’s Consul General in Los Angles David Siegel and West Hollywood Mayor John D’Amico gripped the handles of a super-sized pair of scissors as they cut a ceremonial red ribbon Sept. 18, marking their joint partnership in an HIV/AIDS task force.
The ceremony took place at Congregation Kol Ami, an LGBT-friendly Reform synagogue in West Hollywood.
“It’s a big honor for us,” said Rabbi Denise Eger about hosting the ceremony. “It’s a very important social justice issue, so we’re very honored to be a bridge between the city and the State of Israel, which this congregation is very committed to.”
The joint task force is part of a bigger collaborative effort between Israel and the State of California. In March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a strategic partnership agreement with Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown. According to the agreement, Israel and California will combine intellectual and economic forces to address issues such as water conservation, alternative energy, cybersecurity, education, agricultural technology, and health and biotechnology. Israel and West Hollywood’s joint HIV/AIDS task force falls under the spectrum of health and biotechnology.
Los Angeles is the second-largest epicenter of HIV/AIDS cases in the United States, according to a report released by the Los Angeles County Commission on HIV in March 2013. About 58,000 people are living with HIV, and an estimated 1,500 to 2,500 are infected annually.
In July, the HIV/AIDS task force was approved by the West Hollywood City Council, marking the first joint HIV/AIDS task force between Israel and the United States, according to the Jerusalem Post. During the ceremony, Eger read a letter written by the Israel AIDS Task Force, which said that although Israel is breaking ground in the world of HIV/AIDS research — with stand-out institutions that include the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa — it lacks the social service expertise that West Hollywood offers.
D’Amico and West Hollywood City Councilmember John Duran both spoke about being HIV-positive politicians. Duran visited the Technion and Weizmann institutes during a recent trip to Israel; after seeing the facilities firsthand, he said he’s excited and hopeful about the collaboration.
D’Amico said West Hollywood and Israel have much in common: “The morals and the values of the Jewish faith are, in fact, many of the values that were around when the city was founded. … I’m excited by [the task force] because a country like Israel and a place like West Hollywood understand that the luck and promise of providing for others is an actual thing and we can do that.”
Hillel Wasserman, a West Hollywood resident who serves on the board of Being Alive L.A., an HIV/Aids action coalition, told the Journal that he was diagnosed with HIV 27 years ago and with AIDS 19 years ago. He was thrilled to hear about the joint task force.
“This matters because this is my life, and it’s the life of others,” he said.
Siegel explained how the task force came to be: “We literally reached out to the City Council and said, ‘We have this great idea to partner with you and bring our scientists to work with your scientists, bring our NGOs [non-governmental organizations] to work with your NGOs, bring our practitioners to work with your clinics,’ and they loved the idea.”
But this isn’t a completely new relationship between the two parties. For the past six years, Israel has waved its blue-and-white flag during West Hollywood’s annual AIDS Walk Los Angeles, for example.
In 2011, the Israeli consul general flew out Assaf Friedler from the Institute of Chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to collaborate with leading California physicians in the HIV/AIDS field. Last year, it brought out Ron Diskin from Weizmann. Friedler and Diskin, both of whom participated in the local AIDS walk, are standout names in the field of HIV research.
“We’ve been doing this for years,” Siegel said. “What is new now is we have a California-Israel structure.”
Dillon Hosier, political adviser to the Consulate General of Israel, helped draft the pact that was signed by Brown and Netanyahu. He discussed the importance of Israel’s outreach and partnership with California.
“We had a meeting a couple of days ago in West Hollywood with some of the service providers,” Hosier explained, “and these are people who may not engage in Israel, whose understanding of Israel may be simply what they see in the headlines.”
Siegel echoed Hosier’s sentiments: “For us, it’s really important that people understand that Israel is not just about Gaza or ISIS or Middle East crises. [Those] will always be there, but we’re really about innovation and helping humanity.”