June 26, 2019

A Shameful Jewish Silence at the U.N.

“Do not stand idly by” is a popular mantra of Jewish activists who fight injustice. Whether the injustice is genocide in Sudan or child migrants separated from their parents or Israel undermining its democracy, these activists know how to make themselves heard.

But last week, when it came time to condemn terrorism in a high-profile vote, Jewish activists fell largely silent.

There were no online petitions or demonstrations in front of the United Nations in support of a resolution to denounce the terrorist group Hamas. As expected, the General Assembly rejected a U.S.-sponsored resolution that called for an end to violence, encouraged intra-Palestinian reconciliation, and condemned terrorism.

“Over the years, the U.N. has voted to condemn Israel over 500 times . . . and not one single resolution condemning Hamas,” U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley said in response. “That, more than anything else, is a condemnation of the United Nations itself.”

“The United Nations’ sorry record on Israel and terrorism is an issue that should unite the Jews, as well as anyone who cares about justice.”

To add insult to injury, as David May wrote in National Review Online (NRO), “The U.N. indicated that Jews’ praying at the Western Wall is more worthy of condemnation than Hamas’s lobbing rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilians,” as the General Assembly passed another resolution calling for “an end to ‘Israel’s occupation . . . including of East Jerusalem,’ the location of Judaism’s holiest shrine.”

The fact that the U.N. is a cesspool of anti-Israel sentiment, virtually immune to any activism, is no reason not to protest. When the cause is worth it, Jewish activists have no problem fighting against the odds.

We saw them do just that a few months ago when eight Jewish organizations — T’ruah (the rabbinic call for human rights), the New Israel Fund, J-Street, Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now, the National Council of Jewish Women, Partners for Progressive Israel and the Union for Reform Judaism — rose up to protest Israel’s new Nation-State law.

They published an online “pledge” encouraging people to confront those who voted for the law: “Sixty-two members of Knesset voted to approve the Nation-State Law, which denigrates minorities within Israel, as well as Jews outside of Israel,” the statement read. “Take the pledge to hold these MKs to account for their vote, which threatens democracy and equality in Israel, by demanding answers from them.”

The pledge, which followed months of active protests and public condemnation, provided a list of the MKs and suggested five tough questions for them to answer.

It makes you wonder: Why can’t these warriors of justice do the same against Hamas and the United Nations? If speaking truth to power makes sense for Israel, why doesn’t it make sense for the horribly biased U.N.?

I looked on the websites of the eight Jewish groups that protested the Nation-State law and couldn’t find one statement or press release in support of the anti-terror resolution. Why is that?

“If speaking truth to power makes sense for Israel, why doesn’t it make sense for the horribly biased U.N.?”

If their answer is, “It’s not our mission,” my response is, “Why not?”

After all, Jewish activists take special pride in standing up against discrimination and injustice. If the pathological anti-Israel bias at the U.N. doesn’t qualify as discrimination and injustice, nothing does.

And if the mission is the “search for peace,” anti-Israel bias undermines that goal.

As May writes, “By continuously condemning Israel and encouraging Palestinian maximalist demands, the U.N. harms prospects for peace. It only makes matters worse by giving terrorists such as Hamas a free pass. [The UNGA resolution] was a major test for the United Nations in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and it failed miserably.”

The U.N. does not deserve a free pass when it appeases terror groups while singling out Israel for special condemnation. If this injustice is a stain on the U.N., it’s also a stain on Jewish activists who stand idly by.

There are so many divisions in the Jewish community when it comes to Israel, we ought to pounce when we find an issue we can all agree on. The United Nations’ sorry record on Israel is an issue that should unite the Jews, as well as anyone who cares about justice.

So, here’s my simple question for Jewish activists who love to pounce on injustice: Why aren’t you pouncing on the U.N.?

Note to the General Assembly: We Need to Listen

“We Need to Talk,” the theme of this year’s Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) General Assembly in Tel Aviv, sounds like what people usually say before they terminate a relationship. Of course, for Israeli and American Jewry, termination is the last thing on anyone’s mind. The relationship may be strained but a break-up is inconceivable. The very purpose of this annual gathering is to strengthen communal bonds.

As Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said in his welcoming address at the three-day conference on Oct. 21, “We are not strategic allies. We are a family. We are one big family. We don’t have only shared interests — we have a shared faith, history and future.”

This family, though, has become dysfunctional. The relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry seems to be getting worse every year.

Chemi Shalev, the Israeli commentator for Haaretz, wrote that the General Assembly’s bold theme was a “desperate plea” to save Israel-U.S. Jewish ties.

In other words, things have gotten so bad and have been allowed to fester for so long that this is no time to mince words. So, we might as well go for an intervention: “Hey, Israel, it’s gone too far.  We need to talk.”

Shalev may be right that the theme betrayed a sense of desperation, but that is precisely why it wasn’t the best choice of words. If we are desperate to save a relationship, we shouldn’t use a phrase that reinforces that desperation. 

I can appreciate how the organizers needed to show that it’s no longer business as usual in the relationship. As Shalev wrote, “Even if one interprets ‘We need to talk’ in the most positive way possible, it still denotes serious disagreements that can no longer be ignored.”

“Listening is more difficult to do than talking. Jews talk all the time. The problem is that, too often, we talk past each other.

We can agree, then, that it was time to make a provocative statement that would capture the urgency of the moment. But is “talk” the right word? I don’t think so.

Imagine if the theme would have been, “We need to listen.” That would have been even more provocative, because listening is more difficult to do than talking. Jews talk all the time. The problem is that, too often, we talk past each other. 

What we need is not more talking but more listening, from both sides.

Am I making too big a deal of an event slogan? Not if you consider that the theme for such a major gathering is not just for the attendees; it’s also for the whole Jewish world. It sets the tone for the rest of the year. “We need to listen” should become the driving mantra to repair communal bonds throughout all Jewish communities.

I wasn’t at the GA this year, but I hear it had some terrific events and panels. I saw a few online. I’m sure there was a lot of listening. My point is that, in terms of communal aspiration, the word “listening” is more powerful than the word “talking.”   

I’m sure the GA’s organizers would agree. In fact, JFNA President Jerry Silverman, in an interview on JPost.com, said that “increased understanding was required both from Israelis and Diaspora Jews of each other’s concerns.”

How do we get to “increased understanding”? Through better and deeper listening.

As we move forward, American Jews could listen better to Israelis’ new security concerns. For example, according to a report this week on Ynet, instead of basing precision missile factories in Syria, Iran is now transferring the missiles directly to Hezbollah. Why is this a potential disaster? Because precision missiles can wreak havoc not just on civilian centers but on military centers, air force bases, power stations and even Israel’s nuclear reactors.

“We should also recognize another imbalance: There is no Israeli GA that shows up in New York or Los Angeles to critique the failures of American Jewry.”

This kind of existential danger ought to put our relationship problems in perspective. It’s not just a talking point on one side of the ledger. It’s fundamental to appreciating the completely different context in which Israelis live.

We in America have every right to express our concerns about Israel’s failures, and we will continue to do so over the coming year. And yes, Israelis should listen. But American Jews can also be better at internalizing the Israeli reality of living in a state of virtual siege, under constant threat of annihilation. If that doesn’t buy a little understanding, I don’t know what does.

We should also recognize another imbalance: There is no Israeli GA that shows up in New York or Los Angeles to critique the failures of American Jewry — like, for example, the failure to address the new generation’s vanishing Jewish identity.

When that day comes, I hope we in America will listen as well as we expect Israelis to listen. After all, we are one big family.

UN General Assembly Censures Israel’s Actions Against Gaza

United Nations General Assembly hall in New York City.

The United Nations General Assembly voted in favor of a draft resolution censuring Israel on Wednesday.

The 193-member body adopted “Protection of the Palestinian Civilian Population,” following heated debate. The resolution, which censured Israel’s recent actions in Gaza, passed with a vote of 120-8, with 45 abstentions, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Prior to the vote, Danny Danon, Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations, told the General Assembly support for the resolution amounted to support for Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

“By supporting this resolution, you are a supporting a terrorist organization,” Danon said. “You are empowering Hamas.”

Over the last two months, Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip have held weekly demonstrations at the Israel-Gaza border. Israel has responded to the often-violent protests with military force, resulting in the death of more than 120 Palestinians.

Many of the Palestinians who have been killed in the protests are involved with Hamas, a terrorist organization. Hamas has resorted to unconventional tactics in its latest flare-ups with Israel. The organization has flown kites, set ablaze, into Israel, resulting in agricultural damage inside of Israel.

Many of the protests at the Israel-Gaza border coincided with the U.S. relocation of its embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem last month.

On Wednesday, Danon lambasted the General Assembly for putting forth the resolution, which makes no mention of Hamas.

“I have a simple message for those who support this resolution today: You are the ammunition for Hamas’ guns,” he said. “You are the warheads for Hamas’ missiles.”

Opposed to the resolution’s omission of Hamas, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley proposed an amendment to the resolution, one condemning Hamas. Haley’s amendment garnered a simple majority—62-58, with 42 abstentions—but needed a two-thirds majority to pass.

Prior to the vote on the amendment, Algeria’s representative to the U.N. called the amendment irrelevant to the goal of the resolution and called for a no-action motion on the U.S.’s amendment.

Encouraging member states of the General Assembly to support her amendment, Haley called Hamas’ actions against Israel “counterproductive to peace.”

Joanne Adamson, deputy head of the European Union delegation to the United Nations, called on Israel to use more proportional measures when responding to violence at its border.

“Israel must respect the rights to peaceful protests and ensure the use of proportional measures when protecting its legitimate security interests,” Adamson said. “We urge all parties to take immediate steps to deescalate the situation and to act with utmost restraint to avoid further loss of life.”

“We condemn the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel,” Adamson added.

Algeria and Turkey, on behalf of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, put forward the text of the resolution, which condemns Israel’s “excessive use of force” in Gaza.

Why Judaism Matters

The following is excerpted from a speech delivered last month at the General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), held in Los Angeles.

When I had the privilege of addressing the GA last year, I asked three questions: Why does Judaism matter? Why does Israel matter? And why does treating one another with civility matter?

I was sharing my perspective on what I considered the most important issues affecting our community and affecting the work of our Federations.

I still believe these questions about Judaism, Israel and civility are the right questions that we should all be asking ourselves each and every day. And I believe the answer to these questions is: Yes, it all matters, and it matters more than ever.

And at the heart of that answer — as at the heart of everything we do — are the values of our tradition, reflected in our Torah: what is hateful to you, do not do to another; and use your time and your talents to repair a broken world as we help to finish the work that HaShem began.

Each of our communities has its own characteristics — but our mission really is the same.

And no part of our work is more important than connecting with young people — helping them discover why their tradition should matter to them. We have all seen the statistics on assimilation. But statistics do not tell us what we have learned from Birthright, PJ Library, Moishe House, Masa, Entwine and programs developed by Federations that successfully connect young adults to their Judaism.

These programs prove that assimilation is not the result of young people not caring. It is the result of their not knowing what Judaism is and how it can make their lives more meaningful.

It is our responsibility to reach out to them. If we inform them about their tradition, we actually find that they do care. We first need to meet them where they are, listen to their concerns, understand their interests and embrace them as part of our community. And once they understand that Judaism matters, they will better appreciate why Israel matters.

I, like many of you, am a baby boomer. We grew up knowing that there were neighborhoods where Jews were not welcome, clubs that would not accept Jews as members.

That is rarely the case today. We are far more accepted in the United States than ever before, but we also can never forget that we are a very small and very vulnerable people.

My generation grew up with a very vulnerable Israel whose very existence was constantly threatened. We will never forget the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War.

And I will never forget my first trip to Israel, in 1964 with my parents. My father, an immigrant from Latvia, got off the plane, touched the ground and, with tears in his eyes, loudly, proudly recited the Shehecheyanu. You see, Israel was the eternal dream of my father and my ancestors. It was the eternal dream of your fathers and your ancestors for over 1,800 years. And now, that dream had come true.

Our children and grandchildren have experienced none of this. We need to teach them about the traditions that they come from.

The State of Israel is only 70 years old, but it is at the center of who we are. It is a remarkable country.

For its entire 70 years, it has been under siege. As strong as it is today, this tiny country has over 100,000 rockets aimed at its cities by Hamas and Hezbollah, courtesy of Iran, all of which have sworn to destroy Israel.

Notwithstanding all of this, Israel remains a vibrant democracy where women, members of the LGBTQ community and minorities have protected rights. Its technological and scientific advances are improving and saving lives throughout the world. And every day its young soldiers in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] are putting their lives on the line to protect you and me.

Because of Israel, the Jewish people, in so many ways, are stronger and more secure than ever before.

Recently, the American Jewish community has found itself in a disagreement with Israel with respect to the Kotel, the Western Wall. In January 2016, after years of negotiations with the government of Israel — led by our dear friend and hero, Natan Sharansky — the government of Israel passed a resolution to create an improved egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel — to be constructed and governed with oversight by a committee that was to include representatives of the Reform and Conservative streams and the Women of the Wall.

Then, last June, as a result of pressure from the religious parties that form part of the government coalition, the government of Israel froze this resolution.

There will still be an improved egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel. But the resolution is not being implemented as agreed to.

Of course, we have different views. That has been a source of our strength.

This is an important issue to many in our community, and I commit to you that JFNA, as your representative, will continue to fight for the vision of an Israel where all Jews can feel at home, no matter what synagogue they choose to pray at.

At the same time, our support and love for the State of Israel requires us to never walk away or turn our back on her — or give up on our desire to see Israel truly become the country we want and need it to be. But that will only happen with understanding and respect for the miracle that Israel is.

Let’s not forget that we are all descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah; Moses, Maimonides and Hillel; and Herzl, ben Gurion and Golda Meir.

Of course, we have different views. We always have. That has been a source of our strength. But we must respect that diversity and listen carefully to those different views as we unite around our values. Then we can continue to build the Jewish community our tradition demands, and stop delegitimizing and disrespecting those we disagree with, which only divides and destroys.

Kol yisrael arevim zeh-bazeh — all of Israel is responsible for one another.

Let each of us rethink why Judaism matters and why Israel matters as we together make today a new beginning and move our communities from where they are to where they ought to be.

Richard Sandler is chair of the board of trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America and past chair of the board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discusses Western Wall, Iran and more

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared via satellite at the JFNA General Assembly. Courtesy of JFNA/Jeffrey Lamont Brown.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin discussed the controversial decision of the Israeli government to freeze the implementation of the Western Wall agreement; President Donald Trump’s decision to decertify the Iranian nuclear deal, which Israel was opposed to when it was authorized during the Obama administration; Israel’s improved relationships with its Middle Eastern neighbors and more during the final day of the Jewish Federations of North America’s 2017 General Assembly.

JFNA Chair Richard Sandler conducted the interview with Netanyahu, who appeared from Israel via satellite, on Nov. 14. The GA was held at the JW Marriott hotel at L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles.

More than 3,000 people attended.

Here is a transcript of the interview, or you can watch the interview here. The section with Netanyahu begins at the 1:17:47 mark.

Richard Sandler (RS):  Mr. Prime Minister, in January of 2016 much of our audience here today celebrated the resolution the government passed regarding the pluralistic prayer space at the Kotel. And then as we know last June the government froze the implementation. Yesterday at the GA we passed a resolution requesting the Kotel resolution be implemented. So can you please share with us the present status of the resolution and what do we tell those in our community who feel that as Reform or Conservative Jews they may not be fully welcome in Israel?

Benjamin Netanyahu (BN): First of all, you are fully welcome. Israel is the home of all Jews and it must remain so. I took on the issue of prayer arrangements at the Western Wall because I strongly believe all Jews, without exception, should feel at home in Israel.

Now, Richard, you know very well I didn’t have to deal with this; I could have left it to the courts, to the Knesset, but it is vitally important to me, personally. What the government froze in June are only the most ideologically-charged elements of the Western Wall plan. They were holding up the practical elements hostage.

So as many of you know there has been a pluralistic prayer space in the Western Wall, in the Kotel, for almost 20 years. The 2016 decision wasn’t to create prayer space; it was to improve the existing space. We are moving forward with construction to do just that, and I hope, and I am working to make sure that this happens, that you will see the improved prayer space before the next GA [in Tel-Aviv in 2018]. I am working to move forward on solutions for other issues as well.

Here is the thing that guides me—this is true from the time of Ben-Gurion, who as Israel’s first prime minster was faced with this dilemma, how to deal with the conflicting views of religion and the state, and what he articulated then is something that basically all prime ministers have done and I have done as well—you remember also with the issue of conversion, this is this principal: religious status quo issues have always been resolved as the result of evolution, and not revolution.

So, despite the disagreements, despite I have to say a lot of distortions and despite the at-times disparaging remarks about me and my government, I remain committed to moving forward. I believe that the Jewish people are all one family. I believe that Israel is the home of all Jews and that all Jews should have access and prayer in the Kotel.

RS: Now that President Trump has decertified the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] what is in Israel’s best interest and what would we like to see happen next?

BN: Well, for me the bottom line hasn’t changed, Richard. We must ensure that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon. The JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, doesn’t achieve that. On the contrary after about a decade it will leave Iran able to produce hundreds of nuclear weapons in a very short time because the deal rescinds all limitations on Iran’s enrichment capacity. They can have hundreds of thousands of centrifuges, and they plan to.

I want to thank President Trump and his administration for the current American Iran policy. I also want to thank Ambassador Haley for the strong support given for Israel at the U.N.

What President Trump has done is create an opportunity to address the deal’s flaws and in my view I don’t particularly care about the deal. I don’t care if you keep it or you remove it. But you have to correct it either by fixing it or nixing it.

I’ve been speaking to world leaders around the world actually, and I’ve encouraged them to take advantage of this opportunity. Now the question is why is Iran so dangerous? It’s dangerous because of its fanatical ideology of global conquest, its growing power, its unflagging commitment to destroy Israel, its unvarnished aggression.

Iran has already spread bloody conflict across the Middle East – in Yemen; Iraq; in Syria; in Lebanon – and we are far from alone in recognizing the Iranian threat to the Middle East. I believe that the leading Arab countries—Saudi Arabia; the Emirates; many of our Arab neighbors—see things exactly as we do, and I think they’re right.

Now Iran is scheming to entrench itself military in Syria. They want to create a permanent air, land and sea military presence with a declared intent of using Syria as a base from which to destroy Israel. We’re not going to agree to that. I’ve said very clearly: Israel will work to stop this, and we must all work together to stop Iran’s aggression, its worldwide campaign of terror and its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

I think if we stand together we are going to achieve it, but I’ve always said if we have to we will stand alone. Iran will not get nuclear weapons. It will not turn Syria into a military base against us.

RS: I read recently in U.S. News and World Report where Israel was ranked the eighth most powerful country in the world. And thinking about the 70 years of all the pressures and all the distractions Israel has been put under, how do you do it?

BN: It begins with a simple reality that we understand. In our area, and it’s a very, very tough neighborhood, the weak don’t survive. The strong survive. We look around us and see entire nations being wiped out. People massacred tragically. So you have to be strong, and there are basically three powers that we are all the time nurturing. The first power, you would be surprised, you’d think it is military power and it is, but it is very expensive. We nurture the Israeli army, we’re very grateful for the support, the continued support of the United States, and I am very happy I signed with President Obama the MOU for 10-year support for Israel, $38 billion, it helps, but believe me 85-percent of our budget, our military budget, has to come from Israel. And where do you get that? Well you get it from a strong economy, that’s the other power we’re developing.

And, you know, there is a great genius in our people but for too long it was shackled, it was really not allowed to burst out because we had a very controlled economy. So I’ve been working very hard over the past 20 years to liberate, liberalize our economy and it has produce a tremendous economic success.

Now you take our military and intelligence prowess, which all nations need. Our intelligence, because Israel has stopped dozens and dozens of terrorist attacks, in dozens and dozens of countries. We share that intelligence with our friends and with many countries that are not our friends but we want to stop attacks like Barcelona or Paris or the other horrors that you see, and we have. So nations want to partner with us, for intelligence or for technology. They want more milk for the cows; guess which country has the most milk per cow? It’s an Israeli cow, you know that.

Or they want solar energy. Or they want clean water.  Or they want cherry tomatoes — it’s ours too. Anything you can imagine. Autonomous vehicles. Israel has this dual prowess of technology and security and we combine that to get an unprecedented diplomatic flourish. We now have diplomatic power because many countries, many, many countries around the world, are coming to Israel, in fact some of them are standing in line – I was in Africa, twice in a year, I was in Latin America. It’s unbelievable. Can you imagine? I am the first Israeli Prime Minister to have visited a country south of the United States in the western hemisphere in 70 years. It is a tremendous change. And by the way, Mexico should be congratulated. Mexico has just decided to vote against 10 anti-Israel resolutions in the U.N., and I think they deserve your applause.

So these three powers – our economic power, our military power, our diplomatic power – give Israel great presence and great capacity to defend ourselves but they all rest on one other power – our spiritual power. Our strength as a fighter of democracy, as a society anchored in our heritage but always seeking the future, our strength is what creates greatest chances for peace, because you don’t make peace with the weak; you make peace with the strong and the threat of Iran has done one good thing: It’s brought us closer than ever to our neighbors, creating new opportunities for peace and I think you will be hearing more about that in the future.

RS: That’s a perfect segue to my last question. As you think about Israel today, what makes you the most proud?

BN: I’m most proud of the rebirth of the Jewish people through the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty. Remember that for thousands of years Jews wandered around the globe. We were homeless, we were voiceless, we were defenseless, and today the Jewish people have returned to our ancestral homeland, and today Israel is capable of defending itself, by itself, against any threat. Today we have a voice and we need to raise that voice,

I’m also proud Israel is an open society, a free society, an island of liberal democracy in a sea of terror. We have free speech, a free press, minority LGBT rights, everything, we have an Arab Supreme Court Justice, a Druze minister who I appointed in my government; female generals; gay members of Knesset. This is what a vibrant and diverse society looks like. I’m proud we have created an open economy that as I told you before has unleashed the ingenuity of our people, our capacity for innovation; I’m proud that Israel has helped thousands of Syrian civilians injured in the war.

Now I just saw the pictures of the destruction in Iran and Iraq following this week’s earthquake. I saw these heartbreaking images of men, women and children buried under the rubble. I’m proud to announce tonight that a few hours ago I directed that we offer the Red Cross medical assistance for the Iraqi and Iranian victims of this disaster. Now you heard me right. We have no quarrel with the people of Iran. Our quarrel is only with the tyrannical regime that holds them hostage and threatens our destruction. But our humanity is greater than their hatred. Israel continues to be a light unto the nations. This is what I am proud of, and all of you can be proud of, of Israel’s morals and Israel’s might.

The 2017 GA: Day Two Wrap-Up

Sean Rad, co-founder and chairman of Tinder, participated in a morning plenary about millennials on Nov. 13. Photo courtesy of JFNA

On Day Two, Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein gave an impassioned speech, invoking Abraham Joshua Heschel’s plea for Jewish authenticity and encouraging Federations to make it a top priority. “You can’t build … Jewish identity with crisis and fear,” he said. “It’s the wrong language.”

In another session, Tinder founder Sean Rad, a graduate of Milken Community High School, waxed philosophical on his connection to Judaism and what millennials want. He also noted that his best Jewish education came from his family’s Shabbat dinner table.

Rad noted that the average person with an iPhone today has more access to more information than an American president would have had 10 years ago. (I wondered, if the Jewish community is fragmenting because millennials have access to too many people and too much information, doesn’t a dating app like Tinder become part of the problem?)

At a session called Millennial Roundtable, Jackie Rotman, founder of Everybody Dance Now, said that federations can be alienating for young professionals, and that the key to engagement is to earn loyalty and engage people early. She also described various types of donors, saying federations need to expand their definition of how a donor looks and acts.

Swipe Out Hunger’s Rachel Sumekh said that “If you want to engage millennials, the first step is to be curious about who we are.” Jason Leivenberg, who runs NuRoots, an L.A. Federation effort aimed at millennials, charged the attendees: “If we can’t answer ‘Why be Jewish?’ for ourselves, how can we ask others that question?”

Jodi Schwartz, JFNA’s treasurer, introduced a panel on relations between American Jews and Israel by saying, “We all love Israel but it’s sometimes hard to feel at home there.” Gidi Grinstein, founder and president of the Reut Group, said that “A vibrant Diaspora is a Zionist imperative.”

Ambassador Dani Dayan, Consul General of Israel in New York, emphasized the strength of ties between Israel and U.S. Jews. “Despite the fact that we are Jewish, our marriage is Catholic — there is no divorce in this marriage,” he said, adding that, “Our obligation is to put aside our different opinions and promise never to neglect one another.”

“I study Israel education, teaching Israel to American Jews,” said Bethamie Horowitz on that panel, noting the shift in Israel support from a “solidarity” or “blue-and-white model” to something that’s “more bruising: the black-and-blue model.” Horowitz, who is a research professor at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, added that there is a “great need to address the complexities that Israel now opposes. We have to teach ourselves how to decode the complexities.”

At a session examining Hollywood through a Jewish lens, television executive Nina Tassler praised “Wonder Woman” star Gal Gadot for her reported decision not to sign on for a “Wonder Woman” sequel if producer Brett Ratner — who has been accused of sexual misconduct — is involved.

“She took a stand — it was an Israeli woman who took a stand, and I think it is important,” said Tassler, former chair of CBS Entertainment. The audience responded with enthusiastic applause.

Staff Writer Ryan Torok contributed to this report.

President Rivlin found a Fifth Tribe: Diaspora Jews

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.


President of Israel Reuven Rivlin is this year’s senior Israeli speaker at the GA, the annual gathering of the North American Jewish federations. And this is not an easy job: Los Angeles is sunny, and visiting the city is surely enjoyable, but Rivlin came here as the representative of an establishment that is not highly popular with the leadership of US Jewry. Some call it a “crisis” in Israel-Diaspora relations, some deliberately want to avoid the C word. Terminology aside, the Jews of America – well, many of them – are angry with Israel’s government, and feel betrayed, neglected, disrespected. They want to see change.

President Rivlin cannot give them what they want. Moreover, his speech in Los Angeles today reminded North America Jews that “we must all respect Israel’s democratic process. The decision-making process”. American Jews must respect it, and hence accept that their ability to pressure Israel into doing something that its leadership is reluctant to do it limited. President Rivlin himself respect it, and hence is reluctant to express his support for a specific position in the great debate about – well, what is it about?


In a nutshell, Rivlin’s speech included 5 main messages:

  1. Israel is wonderful, and don’t you forget that.
  2. We Jews are partners in good times and bad times.
  3. Religion and State issues are highly politicized in Israel – and this ought to be taken into account.
  4. The Jewish world and Israel are changing, and we must understand and adapt to change.
  5. While we deal with secondary issues, let us not forget the important ones: Iran, anti-Semitism and other serious threats to Jewish existence.


Refereeing to the “crisis” Rivlin used his vast experience as an Israeli politician – one of the most experienced and most successful politicians we have. He used it to remind his North American listeners that “Whether we like it or not, in the only Jewish-democratic state, Religion and State is a political issue”. Obviously, most Jews in the hall do not like it, but Rivlin insisted on reminding them what this reality means: “Around five Israeli governments have fallen on questions like: ‘Can combat aircraft (not on mission) land in Israel on Shabbat?’ Or on the question of ‘Who is a Jew?’ that is Democracy”.

Was he defending the decision by Prime Minister Netanyahu to renegade on the Kotel compromise? I would not go that far. Still, he was clearly at least somewhat sympathetic to Netanyahu’s political calculations. This isn’t some joke, he reminded the room, this is serious business of having to run a complicated coalition by delicately balancing conflicting outlooks and interests.

And as for the Kotel: “I hope that in the future we can return to the table together, and reach an understanding on this important issue”. Note what Rivlin did not say: he did not say that there is need to go back to the deal that the government decided to scrap.


The most interesting part of Rivlin’s speech was dedicated to his theme of “tribes” – a theme that Israelis are already familiar with. Israel is no longer a coherent society. It evolved and now has four main tribes battling for space, influence, resources, ideas – while also having to maintain a certain sense of partnership, because they are all partners who have a stake in the success of Israel. “from a society made up of a clear Zionist majority, to a society made up of four clear sectors or ‘tribes’, which are getting closer in size: The secular Jews, the National Religious Jews, the Haredim and the Arabs”.

Not everybody is happy with Rivlin’s formulation, and with the action he advocates based on it. But that’s not the issue for today. What was noteworthy about his speech today was Rivlin’s attempt at counting non-Israeli Jews as a fifth tribe. “we need the partnership with you, the fifth tribe, (and very important one), the Jews of the Diaspora”.


To be a fifth tribe is an honor – you are one of us – and a burden – you are one of us. It means that Rivlin just complicated the choreography of the already complicated dance of having to make four tribes get along with one another. In his speech, he did not much elaborate on this idea, but make no mistake, he probably thought about it, and already has some ideas as to how such formulation can serve us in the field of Israel-Diaspora action.

Is the Jewish Diaspora a fifth tribe? Does it want to be a fifth tribe? This can be an interesting discussion – but a fifth tribe is surely better than a second people.

Still, there are complications. World Jews are no more a coherent group that Israeli Jews are – so maybe they should not be counted as a fifth tribe but rather be added to the four other tribes (three really: secular, Zionist religious and Haredi). Or maybe to include world Jews in this formulation of tribes there is a need to add more than a fifth tribe – maybe a fifth and a sixth and a seventh.

Also: to have world Jews counted as a tribe we must assume a partnership in something. This might be easier for the Jews, but can we add them to a partnership that includes Israeli Arabs? (it is of course possible: because world Jews and Arab Israelis share an interest in the success of Israel).

And there is the numerical issue to consider. There are eight million Israelis and about the same number of Jews in the rest of the world. Is it fair to count Israelis as four tribes – about two million strong each – and then count all other Jews as just one tribe – eight million strong?

One way or the other, a fifth tribe concept is something fresh to ponder, maybe as a little respite from endlessly talking about the unresolved issue of the Kotel.


As for Iran, note that Rivlin agrees with Netanyahu – and he agrees with President Trump.

Excerpts from the President’s Speech at the GA

Screenshot from YouTube

Dear friends, I remember the first and only time that my father slapped me.

It was just after my Bar-Mitzvah. Some relatives from the United States came to visit us.

I asked them: “Why don’t you make Aliyah?”

I told them: “Israel is the only place for Jews!”

And then my father slapped me.

He said: “Jews need  to take care of each other, not threaten each other.”

That slap made me realize that the relationship between us, the Jewish People, must be based on one simple demand: mutual responsibility.

A commitment to the security and the wellbeing of all our People.

This commitment, must be stronger than any disagreements. We have the challenge of establishing our relationship as a value. a value that is above any argument.

As for the Kotel agreement. The development of the agreement was a sensitive process, led by our government, in order to try and bridge the gap. I hope that in the future we can return to the table together, and reach an understanding on this important issue. It is our mutual responsibility, and a common interest. At the same time,we must all respect Israel’s democratic process. The decision-making process. Whether we like it or not, in the only Jewish-democratic state, Religion and State is a political issue. Maybe the most explosive one.

Around five Israeli governments have fallen on questions like: “Can combat aircraft (not on mission) land in Israel on Shabbat?” Or on the question of “Who is a Jew?” That is Democracy.

My friends, You have real, positive and effective impact on the Israeli system and society. We have built strong channels of cooperation on strategic issues. You have great impact on the Israeli agenda. I ask you, don’t stop.

As part of the challenge of building the relationship between us, We need to create an honest and open dialogue between the sides, this is our only way to move forward.

Today, Iran is establishing its control through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and up to the Mediterranean. This is not just a threat to Israel – It is a threat to the entire world. Iran is the number one exporter of international terrorism. It is a country whose leaders call openly for the destruction of the state of Israel.

We cannot allow Iran to have a nuclear capability. That is madness.

We must work together to prevent that.

The current agreement puts both Israel and the united states in danger, and shakes the stability of the entire region.

It is not enough to enforce all parts of this agreement. It has to be improved, so that we will be prepared for the day after it expires.

This is the Jewish and democratic state that we all dreamed of for two thousand years.

A state based on the vision of the prophets of Israel. A state that respects the unique identity of each sector in Israeli society, and in the Jewish people. A state that regards equality and fairness as its guiding light. A state that demands shared responsibility from all. A state that does not compromise on it’s Jewish identity or it’s vision of Jewish people-hood, while also having a vision of a shared Israeli-identity, for all its citizens. Jews and non-Jews alike.

How the GA Can Fix the Jewish World

Photo from Facebook.

Jewish professionals and volunteers will gather next week in Los Angeles for the GA, The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly. They will convene under the somewhat vague headline “Venture Further.”

Further to where? This is probably a matter for debate, but the slogan conveys a clear sentiment: What we have now is a transitional phase. Our job is to carve a course that will move us forward “into the future of Jewish education, philanthropy and our community.”

The future of “our community.” Here is something to think about: Is “our community” the North American Jewish community or the whole of the Jewish world? Clearly, in talking about a specific community, as large as it might be, there is also a need to keep an eye on other communities, as no Jewish community is an island. The future of “our community” must consider the future of the community that it not “our community,” but someone else’s.

In this spirit, and before this special annual occasion of discussion — where I will be a speaker this year — I would like to briefly suggest a simple framework for understanding the state of the Jewish world, and, hence, the test we must pass as we attempt to venture further. I know, many of the things I am about to write are obvious. But sometimes we need to remind ourselves of the obvious, as not to drown in a conversation about marginal or irrelevant matters.

So, here it is:

The Jewish world rests mainly on two pillars: North America and Israel. These two pillars have different characteristics that occasionally put them at odds, and this has been especially true over the past couple of months. Their main challenges are quite simple: For Israel, it is physical survival; for North America, it is cultural survival.

Israel is located in a problematic and dangerous area, it is small, it is surrounded by people who want to see it gone. All other problems — and of course it has other problems — pale in comparison. Keeping Jews alive, in a Jewish state, is the main concern of Israel. As for culture, most worries are exaggerated: A long process of communal design eventually will produce an Israeli-Jewishness.

Jews in North America are physically secure. Their country is the most powerful on earth (I know, North America also includes Canada, Mexico and other countries). The challenge they face is cultural. They need a Jewish culture that can be preserved in a modern world, and an open society, where they are a small minority. They need it to be intense and meaningful enough to survive the expected erosion of a minority culture in a majority society.

That’s it. That’s the challenge for “our community.”

Can Israel overcome the challenge? I hope it can. To succeed, it must be strong, realistic, sober, battle ready, tough. And since this is Israel’s main challenge, it would be nice if the Jews of North America would attempt to assist Israel in this arena — even as they attempt to advance the other causes they have in mind for Israel.

Can North American Jews overcome the challenge? I hope they can. To succeed, they must strengthen their communal institutions, invest in education and find a way to have a “community” that means more than a group of people who have Jewish ancestry. And because this is their main challenge, it would be nice if Israel would assist them — even it is not always convenient, politically or otherwise.

The first step in using this formula to venture further is not to deny its validity: There are many who argue that Israel has issues larger than security, that it is about to lose its Jewish soul. These people, although right to identify some problems in need of addressing, are diverting us from prioritizing our policies in the right order. There are also many who argue that the Jews of North America have issues more important than reinvigorating their Jewish culture — fighting the alt-right, or correcting Israel’s course, or whatever. These people, while right to identify some problems in need of addressing, are diverting us from prioritizing our policies in the proper order.

Simplicity is key: Israel needs to bolster its security — the rest will take care of itself. North American Jews need to bolster their culture — the rest will take care of itself.

As to how to achieve these two goals? That is what the GA is for.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.

GA ‘17, Limmud After Dark, Matisyahu and More

Mayim Bialik


Stand-up comedian and best-selling author Rita Rudner often alludes to her Jewish upbringing in her act. She’ll give away free tickets to two tapings of her latest stand-up special at the historic Palace Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. Don’t miss an evening with the funny lady who claims to have the longest-running solo comedy show in Las Vegas’ history. 5:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Free. Palace Theatre, 630 S. Broadway, Los Angeles. (213) 488-2010. ritafunny.com.


The New York Times’ conservative columnist serves as Sinai Temple’s 2017 Abner & Roslyn Goldstine Scholar-in-Residence this weekend, beginning with a Friday night dinner, followed by a lecture titled “What Is U.S. Foreign Policy For?” During a Saturday luncheon, Stephens discusses “Will Israel Live Till 2048?” On Sunday he participates in a light breakfast, lecture and discussion with Sinai Temple Rabbi David Wolpe on “Writing While Jewish.” Stephens’ previous positions include writing for The Wall Street Journal and serving as editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post. His focus is domestic politics and foreign policy. Through Nov. 12. 7 p.m. Friday (community Shabbat dinner). 8:30 p.m. (lecture). $70 (Shabbat dinner; lecture is free). Noon Saturday, $45 (includes lunch). 9:30-11 a.m. Sunday, $35. RSVP required. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-1518. sinaitemple.org.


Celebrate Shabbat with “Big Bang Theory” star Mayim Bialik; Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum; and stand-up comedian Benji Lovitt. This evening of music, learning and community marks the official launch of Limmud North America. On the eve of the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, Bialik discusses “Standards of Beauty and Ugliness in Hollywood and Beyond”; Berenbaum examines “21st Century Anti-Semitism: Not Your Father’s Anti-Semitism”; and Lovitt presents “What War Zone? Stand-up Comedy From Israel.” Spirituality expert Sherre Hirsch; Rabba Yaffa Epstein; and Doreen and Chaim Seidler-Feller also participate. Ikar music director Hillel Tigay performs a musical Havdalah. 7 p.m. $30. At-door tickets subject to availability. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. limmud.org/afterdarkla.


Ken Feinberg, an attorney who has been key to resolving many of this nation’s most challenging and widely known disputes, including administering funds to families affected by 9/11, discusses “Unconventional Responses to Unique Catastrophes: What Is Life Worth?” Feinberg served as the special master of the U.S. government’s Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund, an experience he wrote about in his 2005 book, “What Is Life Worth? The Inside Story of the 9/11 Fund and Its Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11.” 9:30 a.m. (Shabbat service), 11:30 a.m. (lecture). Free. Reservations recommended at info@beverlyhillsjc.org. Beverly Hills Hotel, 9466 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 276-4246. beverlyhillsjc.org.


In 1970 in Leningrad, a group of young Jewish dissidents who were denied exit visas plotted to hijack an empty plane and escape from the Soviet Union. Forty-five years later, filmmaker Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov revisits that incident in the documentary film “Operation Wedding.” The film tells the story of her parents, leaders of the group, who were “heroes” in the West but “terrorists” in the USSR, and even in today’s Russia. Zalmanson-Kuznetsov participates in a Q-and-A following this L.A. premiere screening, organized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Russian-speaking Jewish young professionals network RuJuLA and the Museum of Tolerance. 7 p.m. (doors). 7:30 p.m. (screening). $15 in advance, $20 at the door. Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 772-2505. museumoftolerance.com.

His focus is domestic politics and foreign policy. Through Nov. 12. 7 p.m. Friday (community Shabbat dinner). 8:30 p.m. (lecture). $70 (Shabbat dinner; lecture is free). Noon Saturday, $45 (includes lunch). 9:30-11 a.m. Sunday, $35. RSVP required. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-1518. sinaitemple.org.

GA 2017

Julie Platt

Reuven Rivlin

The Jewish Federations of North America’s annual three-day gathering will draw Jewish communal professionals, volunteers and philanthropists. Israeli figures, including President Reuven Rivlin and the Jewish Agency’s Natan Sharansky, are scheduled to appear. Local leaders participating include L.A. Federation CEO Jay Sanderson and Chair Julie Platt, who is co-chairing the GA with her husband, Hollywood producer Marc Platt; Rabbis Naomi Levy, Ed Feinstein, David Wolpe and Nicole Guzik; the Jewish Journal’s Danielle Berrin and Shmuel Rosner; Tablet Magazine Editor-in-Chief Alana Newhouse; Tinder founder Sean Rad; and Joint Distribution Committee Global Leader Ashton Rosin. Through Nov. 14. $499 (general admission), $399 (Jewish communal professional), $189 (single-day admission). JW Marriott, downtown Los Angeles, 900 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (866) 208-2144. generalassembly.org.


Food, storytelling and a screening of Temple Beth Am member Daniel Goldberg’s 1995 documentary film, “Un Beso a Esta Tierra” (“A Kiss to the Land”) highlight this community gathering. 6:30 p.m. Free. Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 652-7353. tbala.org.


Milana Vayntrub, a comedian, actress and activist known to many for her AT&T commercials and for her role in the television show “This is Us,” discusses “Dreams of a Hollywood Refugee.” Vayntrub is a refugee from the former Soviet Union and, after a visit to Greece, became involved in assisting Syrian refugees. Her organization, Can’t Do Nothing, which she co-founded with entrepreneur Eron Zehavi, focuses on empowering people to affect change in the world on the global refugee crisis and other issues. Proceeds from the event benefit Hadadit, formerly the Israel Free Loan Association. 7 p.m. $36. Bel Air private residence (address provided upon RSVP). milana.eventbrite.com.


The Jewish comedienne is a winner of the 2008 “Last Comic Standing” and a regular at the Improv and The Comedy Store. She’ll headline “Girls Night In,” an evening of comedy with special guests. Expect social commentary, politics and pop culture. A portion of ticket proceeds will be donated to Planned Parenthood. 7 p.m. (doors), 8 p.m. (show). $30. Largo, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 855-0350. largo-la.com.


The Jewish-American reggae artist performs as part of his “Broken Crowns” tour, accompanied by Dub Trio’s Joe Tomino (drums) and Stu Brooks (bass) and his original guitarist Aaron Dugan. Expect to hear material from Matisyahu’s latest album, “Undercurrent,” as well as fan-favorites including “One Day,” “King Without a Crown” and “Jerusalem.” Also scheduled to appear are Orange County reggae-rockers Common Kings and Orphan, a Matisyahu-produced project featuring a trio of sons of Lubavitch rabbis. 6:30 p.m. $15-$120. The Wiltern, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 388-1400. matisyahuworld.com.


The Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) Women’s Leadership Network’s annual conference explores “Unstoppable: The Power of Women.” Participants in the program include Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour; acclaimed singer and recording artist Barbara Morrison; fashion editor and meditation entrepreneur Suze Yalof Schwartz; Kathy Suto, vice president and general manager at Bloomingdale’s in Century City; and actress Nikki Crawford, who hosts the event. Proceeds benefit the WoMentoring Program and all JVS programs serving women in need. 8 a.m. (networking breakfast), 9 a.m.-1 p.m. (conference and luncheon). $200. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 761-8888. jvsla.org.


Ronda Spinak, artistic director of Jewish Women’s Theatre, delivers a spirited presentation about her experience of interviewing 18 of Los Angeles’ most prominent female rabbis for a video catalog about a once-marginalized group that fought for representation in their religion. 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. $20. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-1518. sinaitemple.org.


Inspired by NPR’s “The Moth,” this NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change storytelling event features Jews and Muslims sharing personal accounts of solidarity and standing up for one another. NewGround is a nonprofit focused on bringing together Muslims and Jews for change. Previous iterations of this event have explored “Transformation,” “Digging Deeper” and “The Space Between.” 7 p.m. (reception), 7:30 p.m. (show). Iman Cultural Center, 3376 Motor Ave., Los Angeles. newground.nationbuilder.com/spotlight17.


Marking the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Balfour Declaration, a letter declaring British government support for the creation of a Jewish state, a panel of scholars, including Georgia Tech British historian Jonathan Schneer; University of Pennsylvania political science professor Ian Lustick; and University of Cincinnati modern Jewish history professor Mark Raider discusses the history of the Balfour Declaration and its significance for today. 4 p.m. Free. UCLA Faculty Center, California Room, 480 Charles E. Young Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 825-9646. international.ucla.edu.


A yearlong break between the end of high of school and the start of college, the gap year is becoming an increasingly popular alternative for high school graduates. This fair, the largest Israel gap-year fair on the West Coast, offers more than 50 Israel programs appealing to students of all backgrounds. Organized by the American Israel Gap Year Association, the annual event draws representatives of gap-year programs and gap year-friendly colleges as well as parents, students and educators. 7-10 p.m. Free ($10 suggested donation). YULA Girls School, 1619 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 702-0644. israelgapyear.org.

‘Tackling Hard Issues’: the GA Makes a Return to L.A.

Every November, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) convenes thousands of Jewish lay and professional leaders to discuss pressing issues, share knowledge and network in hotel conference rooms and hallways at its General Assembly. The GA, as it is known, returns to Los Angeles for the first time since 2006, running from Nov. 12-14.

“The GA has changed a great degree over the past 10 years,” said Rebecca Dinar, JFNA’s associate vice president of Strategic Marketing and Communications. Instead of opening with a large plenary session, this year’s event will kick off with “four powerful sessions that touch on some of the biggest looming questions that the Jewish communal world is thinking about.” Participants can opt to participate in one of the two-part sessions, which carry titles such as “Distressed Donors & Discourse: Maintaining Mission Amid Conflict,” “Imagining and Re-Imagining, Engaging and Re-Engaging: The Present and Future of Jewish Life” and “Israel and Us: A Changing Relationship.”

The conference’s theme, “Venture Further,” is about “going really deep into conversations that some might say are hard conversations to jump-start,” said Dinar, who added that organizers have made efforts to understand what draws GA participants and provide pertinent programming. “It’s all done in a way that is relevant to the people who power Jewish Federations.”

One of those is Julie Platt, chair of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, who is co-chairing the GA with her husband, Hollywood producer Marc Platt. Julie Platt said she has attended “more than many” GAs, with highlights such as engaging with Supreme Court judges and touring the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.,  with Susannah Heschel and John Lewis.

“But more than all of those things, I am always rejuvenated and re-energized being with people for whom this is the way they want to spend three days,” she said. “The kind of person whose priority it is to take time out of your life to be inspired and enriched — you’re my kind of person. I love that people care in the same way that I do.”

Jay Sanderson, the L.A. Federation’s President and CEO and a veteran of about 15 GAs, said that compared to previous GAs, the this year’s will be “much more current and about today, tackling hard issues in the system and in the community.”

Platt noted that, in Los Angeles, Federation’s conversations “are truthful, dynamic and bold, and the Federation is on the cutting edge of open discussion, and innovation. We are not afraid to try things, to be nimble, innovative and dynamic.”

“I love that people care in the same way that I do.” – Julie Platt

Platt and Sanderson hope to show off the L.A. Federation’s “leading-edge” programs. Platt pointed to NuRoots, a project to build and curate unique Jewish experiences for Jews in their 20s and 30s. She also mentioned JQ International, a Jewish LGBTQ-support organization, saying she was “so proud” that it “formed before anyone else was thinking about it, so people don’t have to choose between doing LGBTQ and being Jewish.”

Sanderson highlighted the First 36 Project, an initiative that uses neuroscience and psychology to help early childhood educators in contributing to the growth of Jewish children.

In a typical year, the GA draws 30 to 40 people from Los Angeles; this year, 250 people from the greater L.A. area are registered, and many will bring specific agendas.

Michelle K. Wolf, a disability activist and executive director of JLA Special Needs Trust, who is also a Journal contributor, said she plans to advocate for disability inclusion, “encouraging JFNA to take a very strong and public stand to stop the proposed Medicaid cuts in the Trump budget.”

Rachel Sumekh, founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger — which helps college students direct dining credits toward fighting hunger — will participate in a GA mainstage panel about Jewish millennial engagement. But she said she feels Federation doesn’t represent her as much as organizations such as American Jewish World Service, IKAR and Bend the Arc.

While her organization is secular, Sumekh said she feels more connected to Judaism than do many of her colleagues at Jewish nonprofits, because she has paved her own Jewish path. “That old model of simply inherited Judaism no longer sticks,” she said. “My Judaism shows up in every right (and left) swipe on JSwipe and every page of Abraham Joshua Heschel I read, every meal I serve.”

Sumekh said her goal in attending the GA is “to make the Federation more representative of me and my values.”

Susan Freudenheim, executive director of Jewish World Watch (and former Journal managing editor), said she is attending “to learn more about the philanthropic climate we are working in today, about networking with the next generation and other creative ideas.” She also looks forward to promoting her organization and “the opportunity to be with so many engaged Jews.”

Janelle Eagle-Robles, a first- time attendee, and her wife Jenna Eagle-Robles, will be introducing a Honeymoon Israel video, and, she said, “representing both the LGBTQ and interfaith communities of Los Angeles” in what she called “a big and valuable visibility moment.”

David Katz, executive director of Hillel 818, in Northridge, attended three previous GAs, but owes a particular debt to the 2014 gathering, in Washington, D.C., which he attended “with the specific goal of finding my next professional opportunity,” he said. His conversations and networking there influenced his decision to accept the Hillel 818 job.

Besides highlighting the Los Angeles Jewish programs, this year’s GA will also reflect its location and connections to Hollywood. One session, featuring Marc Platt, will focus on social consciousness in filmmaking. Another features Nina Tassler, past chair of CBS Entertainment, and Marta Kauffman, creator of “Friends” and “Grace & Frankie.”

“What we want to do this year is to create conversations in the room that stimulate conversation outside the room and for days, weeks, and months ahead,” L.A. Federation’s Sanderson said. “I’m hoping this GA is taking the GA, and the system, in a proactive, relevant direction, dealing with the great challenges we are facing.” n

For more information, visit http://generalassembly.org/.

At Federation’s General Assembly, grappling with less authority and more division

What’s our mission? How will young Jews react? How do we not alienate the growing number of Jews with left-leaning views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

In a breakout session Nov. 9 at the Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) annual General Assembly (GA) in Washington, D.C., 3,000 Federation professionals and volunteers from across the country grappled with how Federations can handle the changing views of American Jewry vis-à-vis Israel. The session was titled “The Elephant in the Room: Managing Divergent Perspectives on Israel and Beyond.”

Among the questions included on the handout worksheets:

Should someone who supports boycotting “settlement goods” but opposes the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement be allowed in as a speaker? 

If Israel bombed an Iranian nuclear site without coordination with Washington, would your local Federation quickly release a statement in support if donors demand that? 

If a synagogue rabbi calls your Federation and says his congregation is being torn apart by members who want to associate with more groups on the left or the right, such as AIPAC, how could Federation intervene?

“There is growing competition in Washington, D.C., on Israel advocacy, leading to an increased ‘which camp are you in?’ kind of environment,” Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in the San Francisco Bay Area, told those in the room. “In addition, there is a rapidly deteriorating support for Israel on one side of the aisle. It’s true, according to all of the polls, that Israel is increasingly seen through much more of a partisan lens.”

Managing divisions within Federations — on Israel, Iran and how to handle the growing anti-Israel BDS movement on American campuses — the same divisions that have manifested themselves in so many other areas of American-Jewish life in the past year, was a persistent theme at this year’s GA. During the opening plenary on Nov. 8, for example, when Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella mentioned Justin Trudeau, the newly elected prime minister from Canada’s Liberal Party, there was significant, although certainly not unanimous, applause — his predecessor from the Conservative Party, Stephen Harper, was widely regarded as the West’s most ardent supporter of Israel.

At the breakout session, Kahn pointed out that in response to President Barack Obama’s signature nuclear agreement with Iran last summer, 24 Jewish Federations came out against the deal, while the remaining 106 did not take a public position.

“There’s not unanimity at all nationally, which is OK, but which is fairly unusual within the system,” Kahn said. At a separate breakout session on defining Federation’s role within Jewish communities, volunteers and professionals from two East Coast Federations discussed how each approached the issue of staying neutral on the Iran deal or publicly opposing it, with one woman saying that her Federation first consulted the executive board and major donors before making a decision.

Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said in an interview at the GA that after his office sent a community-wide email in late July stating that the agreement with Iran “threatens the mission of our Federation as we exist to assure the continuity of the Jewish people,” and encouraging people to contact their elected representatives, he had dozens of meetings and conversations about Federation’s outspoken decision. Federation’s email prompted angry responses from some leaders and rabbis in the community who supported the deal and felt it wasn’t Federation’s job to take such a public position.

“The vast majority of people that I heard from over time were happy that the Federation was willing to take a stand,” Sanderson said. “In our mission, it says that we support a strong and safe and secure State of Israel.”

Federation sent its email after a unanimous vote by its executive committee but did not consult its general board, which also upset a handful of board members, none of whom, Sanderson said, has left his or her position or stopped financial support of the organization.

“We [now] have a process to make decisions in a more transparent way,” Sanderson said, when asked whether he wishes Federation had handled the Iran email any differently. “It will get brought to the executive committee, and then to the board, and it will need a very serious majority of the board for us to make a public statement.”

Richard Sandler, former L.A. Federation board chairman and the new board chairman of the JFNA, supported the L.A. Federation’s position on the Iran deal, and said while he wishes it had handled the process of the letter differently, he believes the result would have been the same. “I think we would have come out, quite frankly, in the exact same place,” he said in an interview. “But we owe a responsibility to the entire board.”

Sandler characterized the division among American Jewry as a “symptom of an insidious disease.”

“There are tremendous divisions within the Jewish community,” he said. “It’s not about the Iran deal. If there was no Iran deal, they would still exist.”

In a session titled “Identity Crisis: Defining the Role of Community Organizations,” Rabbi Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, addressed what may have been the most prominent elephant in the Washington Hilton: that Federation, once the longtime go-to Jewish communal organization with no close second, is now just one — albeit a big one — Jewish group among hundreds of influential nonprofits. 

We “can no longer take for granted that we’re in charge and can shape an agenda,” Kurtzer said. “We are living in a post-authority moment for Jewish life,” in which many American Jews feel that “if the leadership decides not to support my views, I am no longer beholden to the institution.”

To add to the problem, while policy on support for Israel used to be a unifying issue,  it has increasingly become a divisive topic in some synagogues, Hillels and Federations. Further, study after study shows that American Jews, particularly young Jews, are becoming less religious and less involved in Jewish communal organizations.

“I’m worried that what’s going on now will alienate a lot of people that we don’t want to alienate,” Sanderson said. “My job is to build the Jewish community first and foremost, and sometimes we’re going to have to build it where Israel is not the central driver.”

The GA’s featured speakers, roundtables and breakout panels reflected the Federation leadership’s hope to appeal to all parts of a community with widely varying religious, social and political priorities. Diverse political views on Israel were covered — with speakers and panelists including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, opposition leader Isaac Herzog and Canada’s previous foreign minister, John Baird, as well as Obama administration officials such as Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro and the White House’s Jewish outreach liaison, Matt Nosanchuk. 

There were breakout sessions focused on the successes of Chabad and Hillel, as well as LGBT issues and “tailor-made Judaism” as it pertains to being inclusive toward interfaith families.

For Federation insiders, this year’s GA, like every other year’s, was first and foremost a chance to share best practices and cram weeks’ or months’ worth of meetings and travel into three days in one hotel. For outsiders and observers, it was just the most recent example of how a pillar of American Jewry is adjusting to a community that is more divided and less reliant on the traditional handful of large Jewish institutions.

For Sandler, as a national leader, that means navigating a Jewish community that, when he joined the L.A. Federation eight years ago, saw Federation as being in the “tax-collecting” business.

“You’re Jewish, you have a responsibility to your people; you have to give money to the Jewish world. We have traditionally been the outlet for that money; we distribute it where it needs to go,” Sandler said. “It doesn’t work anymore, because there are so many other places to give your money, and each generation becomes less connected with the prior generation.”

Everyone’s talking ISIS at the UN, leaving Netanyahu glaring

All anyone attending the United Nations General Assembly opening seemed to want to talk about was the threat posed to the world by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

That was much to the consternation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who argued in his speech before that body on Thursday that Iran, beyond the benefits accrued to it because of the sanctions relief for nuclear restrictions deal, was benefiting from the intensified focus on ISIS.

“When your enemies fight each other, don’t strengthen either one, weaken both!” he said.

In one of the most dramatic moments of the week of speeches, Netanyahu charged the assembled world leaders with silence in the wake of Iranian provocations, including calls for Israel’s disappearance, before and after it reached the deal in July with six major powers.

He held up what he said was a 400-page tome by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which anticipated Israel’s demise.

“The response from this body, the response from every one of the governments represented here, has been absolute silence, utter silence, deafening silence,” the Israeli leader said.

Netanyahu then glared, silent, his eyes moving back and forth across the chamber, for 44 seconds.

He was not precisely correct in suggesting that no other leader had called out Iran. President Barack Obama, speaking Monday, focused on Iran’s perpetuation of mischief even in the wake of the deal.

Iran “continues to deploy violent proxies to advance its interests,” Obama said. “These efforts may appear to give Iran leverage in disputes with neighbors, but they fuel sectarian conflict that endangers the entire region, and isolates Iran from the promise of trade and commerce.”

Obama called on Iran to choose a “different path.”

“Chanting ‘Death to America’ does not create jobs or make Iran more secure,” he said. “If Iran chose a different path, that would be good for the security of the region, good for the Iranian people and good for the world.”

Still, Netanyahu had reason to be concerned that the Obama administration was preparing to pivot toward a gentler accommodation of Iranian ambitions in the region, precisely because of shared interests in confronting the Sunni extremist ISIS.

Prior to the formal opening of the General Assembly, Secretary of State John Kerry met in New York with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, for the first time since the July deal was announced – and made clear that the U.S. had more to discuss with Iran than just nuclear compliance.

“We have a lot of issues to talk about,” Kerry said on his way into the meeting. “I view this week as a major opportunity for any number of countries to play an important role in trying to resolve some of the very difficult issues of the Middle East. We need to achieve peace and a way forward in Syria, in Yemen, in the region itself.”

The success of ISIS, and the wave of Europe-bound refugees it has created, preoccupied many of the speakers, chief among them Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who sparred over best practice: Targeting ISIS while seeking the ouster of the the Iran-backed Bashar Assad regime in Syria, as Obama counseled, or embracing Assad as a useful partner in defeating ISIS, as Putin advised.

“The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict,” Obama said.

“But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo,” he said in his General Assembly address. “Let’s remember how this started: Assad reacted to peaceful protests by escalating repression and killing that, in turn, created the environment for the current strife.”

Putin, speaking soon thereafter, likened Obama’s insistence on Assad’s ouster to his Soviet predecessors’ notorious interference in smaller states.

“We should all remember what our past has taught us,” Putin said. “’Social experiments’ for export, attempts to push for changes within other countries based on ideological preferences, often led to tragic consequences and to degradation rather than progress.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, speaking Tuesday, also dedicated much of his speech to the threat that he said ISIS posed.

“The gravest and most important threat to the world today is for terrorist organizations to become terrorist states, for the destiny of nations to be determined by arms and terror rather than the ballot box,” he said. “No country should be allowed to use terrorism for the purpose of intervention in the affairs of another country.”

As if anticipating Netanyahu’s direst warnings, Rouhani welcomed the nuclear deal as an entree into the international community while continuing Iran’s tradition of lobbing anti-Israel rhetorical bombs at the United Nations.

“The agreed-upon deal is not the final objective but a development which should be the basis of further agreements to come,” he said.

Rouhani warned the assembled leaders “not to allow the Zionist regime to remain the only impediment in the way of realizing this important precedent.”

Having failed to stop the nuclear deal, Netanyahu appeared to realize that his best bet is to encourage its close supervision. He made clear that keeping a close eye on Iran would be high on his agenda when he meets with Obama at the White House on Nov. 9.

“Israel deeply appreciates President Obama’s willingness to bolster our security, help Israel maintain its qualitative military edge and help Israel confront the enormous challenges we face,” he said. “Israel is grateful that this sentiment is widely shared by the American people and its representatives in Congress, by both those who supported the deal and by those who opposed it.”

UN nuclear watchdog rejects plan on monitoring of Israeli sites

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s General Assembly rejected a proposal to require the monitoring of Israel’s nuclear sites.

Titled “Israeli nuclear capabilities,” the resolution was defeated Thursday in Vienna by a vote of 61-43. Egypt submitted the proposal to the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog; among those in support were Syria, Iran, Libya and Iraq. It was not the first time that Egypt has proposed the nonbinding resolution.

In addition to calling for Israel to allow IAEA inspectors to visit its nuclear facilities, including the nuclear reactor in Dimona in southern Israel, the proposal called for an international conference on making the Middle East a nuclear weapons free zone.

Israel sent diplomats to several countries to convince them to vote against the resolution.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement called the vote a “great victory for Israel in the international arena.”

“I have spoken directly with over 30 presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers,” Netanyahu said. “I explained that there was no place to hold a discussion of this kind as long as the main problem in the Middle East is Iran’s efforts to arm itself with nuclear weapons and its clear declarations regarding its intention to destroy the State of Israel.”

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied that it has nuclear weapons.

Proposed nation-state law crosses American Jewish red lines

I wish I could draw.

A few years back, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood before the United Nations General Assembly with a cartoonish drawing of a bomb meant to illustrate Iran’s march toward achieving a nuclear weapon. He pointed to a red line across the top of the image, indicating the point of no return at which the mullahs were sure to go nuclear.

If I could draw, I would send the prime minister a picture that represents American Jewry — say, in the shape of the Liberty Bell — and draw a red line across some part of it. That line would represent how far Israel can push against its democratic principles before it loses American-Jewish support.

Netanyahu got a lot of ridicule for his picture, and I’m sure I’d get some for mine. But sometimes, as the prime minister must know, you just have to break it down for people, so they get it.

So, here goes: There exists, I believe, a red line in the relationship between American Jewry and Israel, and that red line is democracy.

The reason the nation-state identity bill, which the prime minister supports, has precipitated a crisis in Israel is that those red lines exist for the Israeli public, as well — both Jews and Arabs.  They, after all, have the largest stake in this debate, which is about the very nature of their country. 

The bill, called “Israel, the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” would formally identify Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, affirm Jewish law as the inspiration for its legislation, and delist Arabic as an official language. Unlike the country’s Declaration of Independence, the bill makes no mention of Israel as a democratic country or of the rights of its non-Jewish citizens.   

As numerous commentators have pointed out, the law’s intent cannot possibly be to affirm Israel as a Jewish state — something the country’s Declaration of Independence already accomplished. That document also promises “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex and will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

In the region where Israel thrives, those words are as rare and precious as water. Drain them of their power and Israel as we know it withers and dies.

Instead, the proposed law would seriously undermine those rights, privileging one group, demeaning others and, eventually, frighteningly, laying the legal groundwork to single out and mistreat Israel’s minority. Can I be blunt?  This proposed law lays the legal framework for apartheid.

And that, I’m certain, is the red line.

American Jews cherish the fact that Israel is a Jewish state. It may be hard for some to wrap their heads around, but a country can be a haven for one people, and utilize its symbols, holidays, and religious and cultural inheritance as the basis for civic life without disenfranchising other citizens who live there, or impeding their prosperity or religious practices. There are countries around the world with state religions that embody varying degrees of freedom and democracy, from Anglican England to Muslim Saudi Arabia to Buddhist Cambodia. By objective international measurements of democratic norms, Israel, within its Green Line, ranks pretty high among them. 

Is Israel, at 66 years old, a perfect democracy?  No. America at 66 was a slave-holding, white Christian male redoubt, with some beautiful words and ideals to live up to. And, as the news constantly reminds us, the United States is still a work in progress. Israel, too, is a functioning, struggling democracy.   

As it strives to be a more perfect union, Israel has the moral, financial and political support of American Jews, who know from experience stretching back to 1776 that no country and no system of government, in the history of civilization, has done more to defend our rights, protect our heritage and unleash our potential.  

The irony here is that it is democracy that protected American Jews and enabled them to flourish here. It allowed American Jews to express their identity by joining in the struggle for a Jewish state. They were not cheerleaders or even bit players; they were instrumental in procuring the funds, weapons and political support that made Israel possible. Because of the United States’ political system that gave Jews a voice as a minority, they were the key to getting the world’s largest and strongest nation to back one of the world’s smallest and most vulnerable nations. In other words, the system of government so threatened by this proposed law is the same one that enabled the Jews who support it to thrive in the land of Israel in the first place. 

Will American Jews support Israel no matter what?  Some will — a minority of a minority. But it is a Jewish and democratic Israel that American Jewry signed up for, and it is only that Israel that will inspire, and deserve, their support. 

I know Benjamin Netanyahu knows all this. He is a very smart man. He certainly doesn’t need me to draw him any pictures.

Q&A with Federation head Jay Sanderson

At the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly (GA), held this year in National Harbor, Md., Nov. 9-11, thousands of Jewish professional and lay leaders filled a conference center and hotel to listen to famous and powerful Jews, including two Supreme Court justices and the Israeli prime minister (via telecast), sit through breakout sessions and, most important, network with one another and share ideas that have been tested at Jewish Federations across the country.

Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President and CEO Jay Sanderson came here this year with seven staff members and 17 lay leaders; for him, this year’s GA caps a year in which the L.A. Federation’s leadership predicts it will reach its fundraising goal of $50 million and its outreach goal of 20,000 donors by Jan. 1.

In two interviews with the Journal during the GA, Sanderson spoke with his usual candor about what the GA does and doesn’t offer, about the L.A. Federation’s successes and shortfalls in 2014, and his frustration at the inability of Israeli Americans in Los Angeles and the local Federation to create a partnership that will help further integrate Israeli Americans into the local Jewish community.

Jewish Journal: What do you see as the goal of the GA?

Jay Sanderson: This is the one time that the Federation system can tell its story to national and international lay and professional leaders.

JJ: What’s the story?

JS: There’s no organization in the world like the Federation system. There just isn’t. There hasn’t been. You’re talking about billions and billions of dollars. You’re talking about the establishment of the State of Israel, the rescuing of Soviet Jews, of Ethiopian Jews. That’s done through the Federation collective.

JJ: Is Federation losing relevance as Jews become increasingly disengaged from Jewish communal life?

JS: There are more Jews involved in Federation in L.A. today than there were 10 years ago. OK? That’s factually correct, not anecdotal — based on number of donors and number of people in leadership, and meaningful leadership. Those are things you can measure, and we have a dramatic, and growing, increase in engagement and involvement. 

Now that doesn’t mean that the vast majority of Jews are not — in your generation for sure — are not disengaged; they are disengaged from institutional life, not Federation life. They are disengaged from synagogues, they are disengaged from the Anti-Defamation League and [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] — they are disengaged. We have a majority of Jews disengaged in institutional organizational Jewish life. That is a communal challenge, that’s the Pew [Research Center] report. 

I can say in Los Angeles that we are focused on addressing that. I’d say most organizations say it, but we have strategies to do it. So the GA is — right now you’re going to meet mostly the people who drank the Kool-Aid, some of the people who make the Kool-Aid, some of the people who bathe in the Kool-Aid. You’re not going to see a lot of people here who think there’s too much sugar in Kool-Aid.

JJ: Changing topics: 2014 is almost done. What’s a goal L.A. Federation has accomplished that you’re proud of, and what’s an area where you came up short?

JS: One accomplishment was we wanted to make the Federation a better place to work. We’ve started all these programs for people to feel more engaged, and we’ve given a lot of people opportunities to do other things. So there’s been a lot of people that work at the Federation that are moving into new opportunities within the building. 

JJ: Where have you come up short in 2014?

JS: NuRoots, our initiative for young adults, is behind — timing-wise — where it should be. I thought we’d be further along in NuRoots. We launched the fellows program, we had four engagement fellows working in the community, building micro-communities in four geographic locations, and we are moving in other directions. But I think we are six to nine months [behind] where I thought we would be now. It’s gone slower than I had hoped in terms of development of the project. 

I wish we were further along in our relationship with the Israeli-American community in Los Angeles. We’ve had a lot of fits and starts trying to work with the [Israeli-American Council], and they are growing nationally and they are very successful, but I feel like there’s not the kind of partnership with the Jewish community that I was hoping for when I started this job. I think some of it is cultural challenges between the two institutions, and I don’t think it’s a big enough priority.

JJ: For either side?

JS: Maybe for either side. I think it needs to be a bigger priority for both sides.

At G.A., Jewish federations see future in more collaboration

There was the vice president of the United States, two Supreme Court justices and an Academy Award-winning actress with a compelling Jewish story. There were Jewish professionals, lay leaders, clergy and recent college graduates. The West Point cadets’ Jewish choir performed. The Israeli prime minister appeared via satellite from Jerusalem.

Part pep rally, part training and part family reunion, this week’s annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America drew some 3,000 people to a conference center outside Washington to cheer federations’ philanthropic work, listen to presentations ranging from European anti-Semitism to crowdfunding, and to schmooze.

As usual, much of the talk at the General Assembly was how to bolster North America’s 153 Jewish federations.

“We can go beyond exchanging ideas to actually exchanging services,” Jewish Federations CEO Jerry Silverman said in a speech at the closing plenary. “JFNA expanded the resources of our consulting and community development department, but what if we also leverage and share the resident expertise in this room and across our federations?”

The federations face an uphill battle at a time when studies show younger American Jews are less affiliated than previous generations with Jewish institutional life and less likely to give to Jewish causes — let alone clearinghouses like Jewish federations.

Though federation annual campaigns are up by about 7 percent compared with this time last year, the number of federation donors has declined by about one-third since 2000, according to the sociologist Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Meanwhile, last year’s Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews found that 43 percent of non-Orthodox Jews ages 30-49 donate to Jewish causes — in contrast to their counterparts ages 50–69, some 60 percent of whom give Jewishly.

At the conference, the answer to these trends was twofold. One, organizers showcased dozens of federation programs that are piloting new models for programming and outreach. Billed by organizers as “fedovations” — a mashup of the words “federation” and “innovation” — they included case studies in reaching younger donors, providing services to the elderly, planning profitable events, and finding ways to engage and excite unaffiliated community members. Jewish Federations plans to share these success stories in a federation-wide online database to be deployed in the coming weeks.

The second answer was for federation leaders — and some of the plenary speakers from outside federation, including the actress Marlee Matlin — to drive home the message of the importance of collective action in the Jewish world.

“We do have the intellectual and financial potential to effectuate substantive change, but only if we work together,” Jewish Federations board chairman Michael Siegal said in a plenary address Monday. “Federations must lead this charge and convene the necessary organizations and thought leaders because, simply, we have the reach that others do not.”

Barry Shrage, the president of Boston’s federation, called Combined Jewish Philanthropies, said that while many federations are doing terrific things, the challenge for the federation network as a whole is to identify priorities and then chart a course to address them collectively.

“At the end of the day, do we have an agenda or do we not have an agenda?” Shrage told JTA.  “Where are we going?”

He also dismissed concern about shrinking donor bases, saying the number of high-end donors is growing — they contribute the bulk of federation dollars — and that federations should not measure their successes by the checkbook.

“The most important thing is not to count how much money we’re raising,” Shrage said. “It’s to count how many good things we’re doing.”

Vice President Joe Biden affirmed the Obama administration’s “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security and talked about his experience taking each of his kids to the site of the Dachau concentration camp when they were 15 to teach them about the “incredible resilience and indomitable nature of the human spirit.”

Biden also called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “really great friend” — in contrast to the recent characterization of Netanyahu as “a chickenshit” by an anonymous Obama administration official in an interview with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, who also spoke at the G.A.

Seeking out Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, in the audience, Biden said, “Ron, you’d better damn well report to Bibi that we’re still buddies. You got it, right?”

In another plenary, NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg got U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer to discuss the Jewish values that drive his work (tzedakah) and Justice Elena Kagan, who grew up Jewish on the Upper West Side, to reveal that she has become a duck hunter since joining the nation’s highest court.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s former chief rabbi, gave a rousing plenary address about the importance of Jews’ commitment to each other despite their differences.

“I don’t need you to agree with each other; I need you to care about one another,” he said.

A late-night session featuring Goldberg and the editors of two Israeli papers, Aluf Benn of Haaretz and Steve Linde of The Jerusalem Post, was packed. Goldberg related that his conversations with Netanyahu and officials in his government left him with the impression that the Israelis plan to wait until the next U.S. president takes office before trying to rebuild ties with the White House.

The conference’s theme was “the world is our backyard,” and it included a sprawling indoor space designed like a backyard replete with patio furniture, artificial turf panels and giant dandelions. The corners featured small stages where presenters — the list included author Peter Beinart; Philip Gordon, the White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region; and Matt Nosanchuk and Noam Neusner, the current White House Jewish liaison and a predecessor in the post — held court during mealtimes. But many of the sessions were not listed in the conference booklet and had poor turnout.

Deborah Covington, vice president for planning and allocations at the Chicago Jewish federation, Jewish United Fund, said she came to the G.A. to network with peers and hear about federation work outside of what she regularly encounters. On that count, she said, the G.A. was a success.

“The breakout sessions felt relevant to me,” Covington said. “I thought it was a particularly good conference this year.”


Netanyahu: Iran is U.S. enemy, not partner

The United States should treat Iran as an enemy and not as a partner, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Jewish leaders.

“Iran is not part of the solution, it’s a huge part of the problem,” Netanyahu said Tuesday, referring to reports that the United States may be coordinating with Iran in their shared battle to crush the Islamic State jihadist group in Iraq and Syria. “The Islamic state of Iran is not a partner of America, it is an enemy of America and it should be treated as an enemy.”

Netanyahu, speaking via video link to the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, said such treatment should extend to nuclear talks now underway between the major powers and Iran “by keeping tough sanctions on the regime, by making clear that the international community is determined to do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from breaking out or sneaking out to get the bomb.”

He said a deal that would allow Iran a limited uranium enrichment capacity would be a “disaster of historic proportions.”

U.S. officials have said that such a deal is the likely outcome should the sides come to an agreement. The deadline to reach a deal is Nov. 24.

“The worst thing that could happen now is for the international community to agree to a deal that would leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power and removes its sanctions,” he said.


At D.C. confabs, U.S. and Israel present a united front

Joe and Bibi? Still buddies. U.S. and Israel? Still allies. Agreement on Iran and the Palestinians?


The governments of President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were back on joshing terms this week, but the deep differences that led to recent name-calling exchanges still percolated.

Netanyahu and Vice President Joe Biden, as well as top aides in both governments, used back-to-back conferences this weekend to get the message across loud and clear: We love one another.

“Ron, you’d better damn well report to Bibi that we’re still buddies. You got it, right?” Biden said Monday, picking out Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, known for his closeness to Netanyahu, from the crowd at the annual Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, this year taking place outside Washington in Oxon Hill, Md.

The next afternoon, at the conference’s close, Netanyahu was right back atcha in a video-linked address.

“And by the way, Ron, you can tell Vice President Biden that I know we’re still buddies, we’ll always be buddies,” Netanyahu said from his library.

Dermer spoke Saturday night to the Israeli American Council, a crowd that would be more skeptical than most of claims that the Obama administration had Israel’s back.

But the ambassador went out of his way to show that not only was the alliance close, it was unprecedentedly close, and the recent hiccups were not unusual.

Dermer praised the “the moral, political and strategic support that Israel has enjoyed for over six decades from Republican and Democratic administrations, including from the Obama administration.”

“Today the depth of that support comes in the form of unprecedented security cooperation and intelligence sharing, record military assistance and missile defense funding and backing at the United Nations and other ways,” he said.

The loquacious Biden in his Jewish Federations speech could not resist the repeated use of the “L” word.

“I once signed a photo to Bibi: ‘I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you,’ ” he said. “We love one another and we drive one another crazy — I’m serious. That’s what friends do. We are straight with one another.”

Crazy may be overstating it, but the relationship sure has been fraught: From anonymous Israeli government accusations over the summer that Secretary of State John Kerry was engaging in a  ”terrorist” attack on Israel by backing a cease-fire agreement with Hamas that had been shaped by its Qatari backers; to Netanyahu’s lecturing U.S. TV audiences on how un-American it was for the Obama administration to oppose Israeli building in eastern Jerusalem; to an anonymous Obama administration official telling journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that Netanyahu’s behavior on the peace process and on Iran was “chickenshit.”

Despite the recent love fests, the issues that underpinned the tensions remained.

It’s not yet clear whether Iran and the major powers will reach a deal by the Nov. 24 deadline, but Philip Gordon, the National Security Council’s Middle East counselor, told JTA that were such a deal achieved, in all likelihood it would allow Iran to continue enriching uranium at limited levels.

“We’ve said yes, we can imagine a small enrichment program, so long as we had confidence that if they try to break out, we’ll have plenty of time, and that’s the only deal we’ll accept,” Gordon said during a Q&A at the General Assembly. (JTA’s Ron Kampeas moderated the session.)

Netanyahu in his remarks to the Jewish Federations gathering said that allowing Iran to keep any enrichment capacity would leave it as a nuclear threshold state.

“The worst thing that could happen now is for the international community to agree to a deal that would leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power and removes its sanctions,” he said.

Also percolating was blame laying as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process remained in tatters and violence intensified in Israel and the West Bank. This week, two Israelis have been stabbed to death in terrorist attacks and one Palestinian was killed in the West Bank in clashes with Israeli troops.

For Netanyahu, blame had a single address: the Palestinians.

“The Palestinian Authority, which should also be working to calm tensions, has joined Hamas,” he said, in “fanning the flames.”

The Israeli leader referred to Palestinian praise for the gunman who two weeks ago attempted to kill a Jewish activist, Yehuda Glick, who seeks greater Jewish access to the Temple Mount, and to P.A. claims that Jews have no historical affinity to the site.

The Obama administration, however, sees blame on both sides. Netanyahu this week urged Arab-Israelis protesting the shooting death of an Arab-Israeli protester to move to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

“Anyone who is not urging calm and nonviolence and a return to the status quo runs the risk that it can be a very explosive situation,” Gordon said.

Collaboration at its best

Reinventing. Rethinking. Rebranding. Innovating.

They’re all buzzwords we hear today – whether talking about education, healthcare, product marketing, or Jewish communal work. We’re living in a time in which endless access to information and 24 hour communication is challenging us to question just about everything. As a result, we have seen new models of business, philanthropy and outreach in every corner of the globe. Airbnb, Zipcar, and Kickstarter are examples of businesses that have successfully harnessed the tools of this new era to fill a need.  For some, the opportunities are tremendous. 

In the Jewish community we have also witnessed a new age of innovation. Birthright, Moishe House, and PJ Library are just a few organizations that have emerged to fill our communal needs. And at this year’s annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations, we are going to take a good look at how we can continue to maximize our potential. 

We will know we have been successful when attendees leave with just as many new questions as answers and are inspired to continue the conversation long after the conference concludes.

The theme of the GA is “The World is Our Backyard.” The program amplifies this message through a combination of thinking sessions and inspirational moments, high-level speakers and new opportunities for Federations to share their best programs and strategies and discuss their scalability. 

In Florida, for example, the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando recognized how tough it is for adults with disabilities to find jobs. So JFGO started a program called RAISE (Recognizing Abilities and Inclusion of Special Employees) that not only matches adults with special needs to part-time jobs, but also gives those employees professional support and job training, helping them to become valued and productive members of the community.

In San Francisco, the Jewish Community Federation was struggling to figure how to engage young people in philanthropy. The result was to schedule events around different themes that Federation supports, whether Jewish camping or LGBT programming, with each attendee asked to make voluntary contributions.

In Vancouver, Jewish leaders saw the difficulty in getting social services to suburban areas, and came up with JHub Richmond, which provides office space, meeting rooms and administrative support for social workers, counselors and peer support staff from various agencies to meet clients, family members and caregivers.

These kinds of programs are in our Jewish community backyards throughout North America. In fact, when Jewish Federations of North America solicited 153 North American Federations for ideas to feature at this year’s GA, to be held Sunday-Tuesday in National Harbor, Maryland, we received 250 submissions, selecting 50 to showcase. 

By featuring these 50, we’ll be giving representatives from across North America the opportunity to gather ideas, share stories, and question their colleagues on what worked for them, what didn’t and what they learned along the way.

It’s collaboration at its best.

And, that’s what the General Assembly is all about: Federations are able to amplify the successes of their own communities to others, and think about the ways we can have a greater impact on the issues and concerns we share.

That’s the value of collaboration. And, that collaboration extends to the global Jewish community, whether it’s aiding Israelis under rocket fire, helping to fund Jewish summer camps and other identity programs in the former Soviet Union, or assisting elderly afraid to leave their homes in Ukraine.

As at all GAs, this year we’ll hear from top U.S. figures – including Vice President Joe Biden and Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan – internationally renowned journalists, and game-changing innovators in philanthropy, education and Jewish life.

We’ll also hear compelling stories from some of the millions overseas whose lives we’ve touched this year – including Jews from Europe who are fighting the rising tide of anti-Semitism and Israelis from the resilient south.  We will hear from Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, the top editors of Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post and students defending Israel on college campuses. 

But, most of all we’ll hear from each other, as we gather as one big family in our “Backyard” – where the physical space has been transformed to foster and support conversations and schmoozing.  The GA Backyard transforms the traditional exhibit hall into a themed, welcoming area. Registration, exhibit booths, conversation areas, game areas, food areas and stadium-seating conversation pits will create the kind of casual meeting space where participants can, well, hang out and network. It’s an opportunity to learn from our successes and failures, exchanging ideas and offering guidance; to embrace a new age and a new way of thinking. 

And of course, being together will fuel our neshamot, our souls, allowing us to return to our communities renewed and inspired. 

Gerrald (Jerry) Silverman is president and CEO and Michael Siegal is chair of the board of trustees, respectively, of the Jewish Federations of North America.

Netanyahu: Iran poses greater threat than Islamic State

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday tried to shift the spotlight away from Islamic State fighters and back to Iran, warning the United Nations that a nuclear-armed Tehran would pose a far greater threat than “militant Islamists on pickup trucks.”

It was the fifth day of speeches at the annual gathering of the 193-nation General Assembly in New York, where Islamic State's seizure of large swaths of Syria and Iraq and its alleged massacres of civilians and soldiers have dominated discussions at the U.N. podium and on the sidelines.

Describing Iran, Islamic State and the militant group Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip as part of a single team, Netanyahu compared them all to Germany's Nazis, who killed six million Jews in World War Two.

“The Nazis believed in a master race, the militant Islamists believe in a master faith,” Netanyahu said. “They just disagree who among them will be the master of the master faith.”

“Make no mistake, ISIS (Islamic State) must be defeated,” Netanyahu added. “But to defeat ISIS and leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power is to win the battle and lose the war.”

“It's one thing to confront militant Islamists on pickup trucks armed with Kalashnikov rifles, it's another thing to confront militant Islamists armed with weapons of mass destruction,” he warned.

Iran rejects allegations by Western powers and their allies that it is developing the capability to produce atomic weapons and wants economic sanctions lifted as part of any nuclear deal.

By describing Iran, Islamic State and Hamas as part of the same team, Netanyahu appeared to be playing on already existing doubts among U.S. lawmakers about the wisdom of President Barack Obama's decision to engage with Tehran after the 2013 election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a soft-spoken pragmatist, to resolve the 12-year-old nuclear standoff between the Islamic Republic and the West.

“You know, to say that Iran doesn't practice terrorism, is like saying Derek Jeter never played shortstop for the New York Yankees,” he said.

These issues will undoubtedly come up during Obama's meeting with Netanyahu in Washington on Wednesday.

“Iran's nuclear military capabilities must be fully dismantled,” Netanyahu said. He added that the goal of a charm offensive by Iran's “smooth talking president and foreign minister” was to get international sanctions lifted “and remove the obstacles to Iran's path to the bomb.”

“The question before us is whether militant Islam will have the power to realize its unbridled ambitions,” he said. “There is one place where that could soon happen – the Islamic State of Iran.”

He twice referred to the “Islamic State of Iran,” which would appear to be a deliberate play on the country's official name – the Islamic Republic of Iran – and Islamic State, which is often referred to as ISIL or ISIS.


Netanyahu referred mockingly to Rouhani's speech to the 193-nation General Assembly last week, in which he accused the West and its allies of nurturing the group.

“Iran's President Rouhani stood here last week and shed crocodile tears over what he called the globalization of terrorism. Maybe he should spare us these phony tears and have a word instead with Iran's Revolutionary Guards,” he said.

Rouhani said he supported efforts to combat Islamic State, a Sunni militant group that views the predominantly Shi'ite Iran as heretical, though he said it should be handled by the region, not countries outside the Middle East.

Iran and six world powers held 10 days of talks on the sidelines of the annual gathering of world leaders at U.N. headquarters in New York City but made little progress in overcoming deep disagreements on issues such as the future scope of Tehran's nuclear program and the speed of lifting sanctions.

The talks involve Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. They are aimed at getting a long-term agreement that would gradually lift sanctions against Tehran in exchange for curbs on its atomic program.

The two sides are expected to meet again in Europe in the next two weeks, Iranian and Western officials say. Speaking about the talks, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns told reporters in Washington: “It's no secret that the gaps that remain in the negotiations are quite significant right now.”

Netanyahu's strident critique of Iran may be a preview of the hard line he will take in Washington. He has repeatedly warned Obama not to make concessions in the nuclear talks.

Netanyahu, on the topic of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, expressed his support for a “historic compromise” with the Palestinians that would bring peace and stability for the Israeli people and the region. But he offered no new details of what such a compromise would envisage.

An Egyptian-brokered ceasefire in late August ended a 50-day war in the Gaza Strip between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas that controls Gaza. Israel began an offensive on July 8 with the aim of halting cross-border rocket salvoes by Hamas and other militants.

Netanyahu repeated his position that “ISIS and Hamas are branches of the same poisonous tree.”

The conflict devastated some Gaza districts and killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, according to the Gaza health ministry. Sixty-seven Israeli soldiers and six civilians in Israel were also killed.

Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, Michelle Moghtader in Dubai and Arshad Mohammed and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Grant McCool and Andrew Hay

Focusing on ISIS in U.N. speech, Obama virtually ignores Iran

President Barack Obama devoted the bulk of his U.N. speech to the fight against violent Islamic extremism and hardly mentioned Iran’s nuclear program.

In his U.N. General Assembly speech last year, Obama spent a lot of time talking about Tehran’s nuclear pursuit, describing it as one of two major focus areas for American diplomatic efforts (the other was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). In this year’s General Assembly speech, Obama devoted just four lines to Iran.

“America is pursuing a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue, as part of our commitment to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and pursue the peace and security of a world without them,” Obama said. “This can only happen if Iran takes this historic opportunity. My message to Iran’s leaders and people is simple: Do not let this opportunity pass. We can reach a solution that meets your energy needs while assuring the world that your program is peaceful.”

The thin coverage of Iran drew immediate notice from Jewish groups.

“Obama devoted only 78 words at #UNGA to greatest threat to world peace, the #Iran nuclear threat; 1,540 words to #ISIS,” the American Jewish Committee’s Global Jewish Advocacy project noted in a tweet.

Near the speech’s conclusion, Obama also spoke a bit about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Leadership will be necessary to address the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis,” he said. “As bleak as the landscape appears, America will not give up on the pursuit of peace.”

The turmoil in Iraq, Syria and Libya should disabuse anyone of the mistaken notion that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is somehow the root of all Middle East conflict, Obama said. Noting that the turmoil has made too many Israelis ready to abandon the hard work of peace, Obama diverted from his prepared remarks and added, “That’s something Israelis should reflect on.”

“The status quo in the West Bank and Gaza is not sustainable,” Obama said. “We cannot afford to turn away from this effort, not when rockets are fired at innocent Israelis or when the lives of so many Palestinian children are taken from us in Gaza.”

He said, “Israelis, Palestinians, the region and the world will be more just and safe with two states living side by side in peace and security.”

Most of the president’s speech focused on the need for the international community to counter what he described as the “cancer of violent extremism.” At the top of the list was ISIS, the Islamic group in Iraq and Syria also known by the acronym ISIL.

“Collectively, we must take concrete steps to address the dangers posed by religiously motivated fanatics and the trends that fuel their recruitment,” Obama said, outlining four major focus areas.

“The terrorist group known as ISIL must be degraded and ultimately destroyed,” he said. “There can be no reasoning, no negotiating with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.”

The second, Obama said, is for “the world, especially Muslim communities, to explicitly, forcefully and consistently reject the ideology of organizations like al Qaeda and ISIL.” That means, he said, cutting off the funding of those who fuel hateful groups and ideologies; contesting the space terrorists occupy, including the internet and social media; expunging intolerance from schools; and bringing people of different faiths together.

“There should be no more tolerance of so-called clerics who call upon people to harm innocents because they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim,” Obama said.

The third focus area Obama outlined was addressing sectarian strife and resolving differences at the negotiating table rather than through violent proxies. In Syria, he said, that means finding a solution that works for all Syrian groups.

“Together with our partners, America is training and equipping the Syrian opposition to be a counterweight to the terrorists of ISIL and the brutality of the Assad regime,” Obama said as Syria’s U.N. delegation watched from the audience. “But the only lasting solution to Syria’s civil war is political: an inclusive political transition that responds to the legitimate aspirations of all Syrian citizens, regardless of ethnicity or creed.”

The fourth area of focus, he said, must be to encourage civil society and entrepreneurship in the Arab and Muslim world, particularly among young people.

The first nation Obama focused on was Russia, which he lumped in with ISIS and Ebola as one of the reasons for “a pervasive unease in our world – a sense that the very forces that have brought us together have created new dangers.”

“Russian aggression in Europe recalls the days when large nations trampled small ones in pursuit of territorial ambition,” he said. “We will impose a cost on Russia for aggression, and counter falsehoods with the truth.”

The president also talked briefly about the need for a more robust and coordinated response to the Ebola outbreak in west Africa.

U.N. declares 2014 year of ‘solidarity’ with the Palestinians

The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2014 the “International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.”

The draft resolution was adopted Tuesday by a vote of 110-7, with 56 member states abstaining.

The resolution also welcomed the resumption of U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and called on the Palestinians and Israel to take all necessary steps to ensure the success of the current round of peace talks.  It also called for an end to Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, including eastern Jerusalem.

Another resolution approved on Tuesday called on Israel to hand the Golan Heights over to Syria, despite the fact that the country is in the midst of a civil war and that more than 100,000 of its own citizens have reportedly been murdered by the military.

Netanyahu offers inquiring U.N. interpreter a job in Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there will always be a job waiting in Israel for a U.N. interpreter caught wondering aloud at the excessive number of anti-Israel resolutions.

Netanyahu played a video recording of the incident during Sunday’s regular Cabinet meeting and called the unidentified interpreter “brave.”

The interpreter’s remarks came during the Nov. 14 meeting of the U.N. General Assembly’s Fourth Assembly attended by representatives of all 193 United Nations member states. Nine of the 10 resolutions adopted at the meeting condemned Israel.

“I mean I think when you have five statements, not five, but like a total of 10 resolutions on Israel and Palestine, there’s gotta be something, ‘c’est un peu trop, non?’ ['It’s a bit much, no?'],” the interpreter said in English and French in remarks heard live by the delegates. “I mean I know, yes, yes, but there’s other really bad s*** happening, but no one says anything about the other stuff.”

Amid titters of laughter from the delegates, the committee secretary says, “I understand there was a problem with the interpretation.”

“Interpreter apologies,” the interpreter responds.

Netanyahu said, “I would like to tell this interpreter that she has a job waiting for her in the State of Israel. There are moments that tear the hypocrisy off the unending attacks against us, and this brave interpreter did so.”

Religious pluralism a theme at General Assembly

It is a cause that elicited cheers from a roomful of participants at The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly (G.A.).

Leading politicians have long championed it and are now trying to push it through a divided Knesset. Nearly two-thirds of Israelis support it, and activists say it’s crucial for ensuring Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. Opponents say it could augur the downfall of Israel as we know it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stance is hard to read.

It’s not peace with the Palestinians or a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program. It is the institution of civil marriage in Israel.

Under current law, the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate in Israel controls marriage for Jews, which leaves Conservative, Reform, civil or same-sex marriages — not to mention interfaith marriages — unrecognized by the state.

Responding to growing calls for change, a bill proposed last month by the centrist Yesh Atid Party would institute civil unions with the same rights as the marriages now permitted by the Chief Rabbinate.

The Jewish Federations, which held its annual G.A. in Jerusalem this week, may soon be joining that fight. CEO Jerry Silverman said in an interview that the federations are “studying the issue” without a definite goal in mind.

But advocating for religious pluralism in Israel was a recurring theme at the assembly. Susie and Michael Gelman, the confab’s North American co-chairs, laid out that goal on opening night.

“We look forward to the day when Israel will realize the dream of being a Jewish, democratic and pluralist state,” they said.

A panel discussion moderated by Susie Gelman on Nov. 11 specifically addressed the issue of civil marriage, with five of six panelists advocating before an enthusiastic crowd.

“The panel charged those of us who attended to get involved and to raise our voices,” Susie Gelman said. “In terms of civil marriage, this is an issue that touches all of us. It is not just an Israeli issue.”

On Monday night, Labor Party Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich said her party is planning to introduce its own civil marriage bill.

“We support civil marriage and gay rights, including same-sex marriage,” Yachimovich said. “We currently have a unique opportunity. Parties in the coalition and opposition are capable of joining forces to pass this law.”

Her speech followed calls by Finance Minister Yair Lapid to “equalize” the Jewish denominations.

“It’s very important to us that Israel would be pluralistic,” Lapid said.

Civil marriage would not be the first religious pluralism fray that the Jewish Federations has entered.

The umbrella group of American Jewish Federations was stridently opposed to the 2010 Rotem bill, which would have consolidated authority over conversions in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate. Silverman called it a “betrayal,” and Netanyahu suspended debate on the bill, which three years later has not come to a vote.

More recently, the Jewish Federations advocated for a plan formulated by Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky to expand Robinson’s Arch, a non-Orthodox prayer site immediately south of the Western Wall plaza.

The plan has received support, in principle, from Women of the Wall, the women’s prayer group whose monthly services at the wall brought global attention to the issue. Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz also has given the plan his tacit approval.

Netanyahu endorsed the idea to raucous cheers in his Nov. 9 speech at the G.A.

“The Kotel is in Israel, but the Kotel belongs to all the Jewish people,” the prime minister said, using the Hebrew term for the wall. “We have to consult together and reach a solution together.”

On Nov. 12, the G.A. ended with hundreds of delegates walking from Jerusalem City Hall to Robinson’s Arch, where they participated in an egalitarian prayer service. Speaking afterward, Sharansky praised the service as an example of Jewish unity, though he acknowledged that the current temporary platform erected there is only a first step to a solution.

“We’re not fighting to defeat the other,” Sharansky said. “We’re fighting to see how we can be one people with one God, one prayer and one Kotel.”

Regardless of whether the federations support it, Yesh Atid’s civil unions bill likely will fail in the Knesset. The Jewish Home Party is expected to block the measure — a prerogative it enjoys as a member of the governing coalition.

Yesh Atid ran for Knesset on a platform opposing Orthodox privileges in Israeli law. But while the party has won Jewish Home’s support in ending the Charedi Orthodox exemption to Israel’s mandatory military draft, Jewish Home opposes any change to the religious status quo.

A Jewish Home bill passed last month allows Israelis to register for marriage anywhere in the country, not just in their home districts — a move that eliminates one of the more onerous restrictions of the current marriage laws but leaves the Orthodox-controlled system intact.

But judging from the tenor of this year’s G.A., such changes won’t satisfy North American Jewry. While he emphasized that the Jewish Federations had not made a decision on whether to engage in the civil-marriage debate, Michael Gelman said he personally feels American Jews should be assertive in advocating for marriage reform in Israel.

“When it comes to things that affect worldwide Jewry, we need to get involved,” he said in an interview. “There needs to be a lot of noise coming out of North America on this issue.”

L.A. Federation at G.A. offers ideas for attracting young Jews

Leaders of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles were in Jerusalem this week to take part in The Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly (G.A.). In all, the G.A. — which is held in Israel once every five years — attracted more than 3,000 participants from North America, Israel and Europe. 

While much of this year’s conference focused on challenges Israel is facing, Federation leaders and Israeli officials also spent a great deal of time discussing the recent Pew Research Center survey on U.S. Jewry, which indicated that Jewish affiliation among non-Orthodox Jews is declining at an alarming rate. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the delegates his government is creating a “broad and deep initiative” to reach “the inner cores of identity of the Jewish people around the world” as a way to fight assimilation. 

This follows Netanyahu’s statement during a government summit on Diaspora issues last week that it is “particularly important to embrace this initiative and work together” and to “create a firm base of identity” for Jews outside Israel. Details on the plan have not yet been announced. 

During the G.A., leaders from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles helped lead sessions on Federation innovation and Jewish continuity. They told other community leaders about Nu Roots, a new program they are launching in Los Angeles  to engage 20- and 30-somethings in a proactive Jewish life. 

“For two decades” many American Jewish leaders “have ignored the trending revealed by Pew,” Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of the L.A. Federation, told the Jewish Journal. “Truth be told, the non-Orthodox community is dwindling at a rapid rate. Jews are proud to be Jewish but not necessarily to connect Jewishly. This is a wakeup call, an electric shock.” 

Richard Sandler, chairman of the L.A. Federation, said it is focused more than ever on providing young members of the community  “multiple entry points to their Jewish journey. It’s something we’ve developed following a lot of research. We’re looking at what others are doing to connect people to their Judaism and learning from the best models.”  

Sandler said G.A. participants spent a great deal of time discussing why many young Jews find Judaism irrelevant to their lives. 

“We really believe that one of our failings is that we don’t really educate our kids well as to what it means to be Jewish, to really teach them the value system and what has preserved us for thousands of years.” 

Far too many young people don’t grasp that being Jewish “is a life of meaning, a life of giving” long after a child’s bar or bat mitzvah, Sandler said.

He spoke of a sermon by Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, that emphasized the importance of asking children why it is important to them to be Jewish. 

“It needs to be a conversation, not a lecture. That’s what we’re focusing on here,” Sandler said. 

Sanderson believes the American Jewish community has “created a Jewish community based on ‘episodic Judaism.’ There’s the bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, Birthright, but they’re not linked to other events. The L.A. Jewish Federation believes we must change the model, to adapt to the findings of the Pew report. ” 

Many Jewish community leaders, Sandler said, are so preoccupied with their community’s immediate needs, from providing food to the poor to housing for the elderly, that they sometimes find it difficult to plan for the future. 

Les Bider, the Los Angeles Federation’s incoming chairman of the board, said the L.A. contingent shared its fundraising model with the leadership of other federations in hopes of inspiring change.  

“It was an opportunity for us to meet with people from different communities, to vet ideas about how we and they are changing.”

Many communities, Bider said, start with a fundraising budget and the activities that budget has funded in previous years as a way of determining what to fund in the coming year. “It’s funding first, then programming,” Bider noted. He said L.A.’s Federation does things differently.

“We define what the needs of our community are by engaging with the community and then raising funds to support those needs.” To do otherwise, Bider said, “means being less in touch with the community.” 

“Communicating our message from L.A. is starting to impact Jewish life in a positive way, and we’re pushing that agenda,” Sanderson said. 

While the G.A. focused first and foremost on strategy, it was also a chance for Israel-based organizations to meet some of the people who support their programs from abroad. 

At a booth in the Jerusalem Conference Center, where the G.A. was held, Elyssa Moss Rabinowitz, director of Kol HaOt, which provides interactive Jewish educational visual and performing arts programs in Israel, noted that the L.A. Valley Alliance Women’s Mission had participated in a Kol HaOt program just a few days earlier. 

“It was exciting and gratifying that they could finally see us in action. We’ve work with their missions, their Birthright groups and a Catholic educators mission, but to have those women who are so involved in the Federation was really very special,” Rabinowitz said.

At G.A., Peres and Netanyahu strike different tones on Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued his hard line against Iran’s nuclear program in an address to the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, repeatedly telling the gathering of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem that the compromise being formulated is a “bad deal.”

“What is being proposed now is a deal in which Iran retains all of that capacity” to build a nuclear weapon, Netanyahu said Sunday. “Not one centrifuge is dismantled; not one. Iran gets to keep tons of low enriched uranium.”

Netanyahu’s comments came as negotiations between Iran and Western powers failed over the weekend to reach an agreement that would ease sanctions in return for the Islamic Republic freezing its nuclear program for six months.

Netanyahu said he would continue to criticize such an agreement and called on his audience to join him in advocating against it. Later he suggested that Iran has plans to attack the United States.

The prime minister’s sharp comments underscored what some perceive as a widening gulf between Israel and the United States on the Iranian issue — speculation that Israeli President Shimon Peres sought to downplay in his address to a plenary session at the G.A. on Monday.

“The United States is our best friend, and the friendship of the United States to us is deep and meaningful,” Peres said. “[Obama] committed himself not to permit the Iranians to become a nuclear power, not just for the sake of Israel but for the sake of humanity.”

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who also addressed the Monday plenary, took a similar line, emphasizing that the alliance between the two countries is “as close as it has ever been.”

“There is no greater priority for the United States and Israel than preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Shapiro said. “On this issue the United States and Israel share an identical objective. [Obama] will not permit Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, period.”

In his speech Sunday, Netanyahu repeated his demand that in order for Israel to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians, the Palestinian leadership must recognize Israel as a Jewish state. He also called for a continued strong bond between Israel and the North American Jewish community.

“When it comes to Jewish survival and the survival of the Jewish state, I will not be silenced, ever,” he said to loud cheers from the crowd. “We are the Jewish state. We are charged with defending ourselves and speaking up. All of us, all of us, have to stand up and speak up.”

Netanyahu also said that Israel must have “robust security arrangements” in order to be confident that a peace with the Palestinians will last, and referred to Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided capital.” The Palestinians claim the eastern half of the city as their capital and have slammed recent Israel announcements of building in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, as have the United States and others.

“The minimum thing we can demand is that the official position of the Palestinian leadership recognizes the Jewish state,” Netanyahu said. “This will be a long process but it must begin with that.”

At the end of the speech, Netanyahu praised the strong relationship between Israel and the U.S. and Canadian Jewish communities. He noted his government’s efforts to reach a compromise between feuding factions at the Western Wall, long a high priority of American Jewish leaders.

“The Kotel is in Israel, but the Kotel belongs to all the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said, using the Hebrew term for the wall. “We have to consult together and reach a solution together.”

Netanyahu appeared relaxed during the speech, cracking jokes, leaning on the podium and calling out audience members by name. And conference delegates speaking before Netanyahu echoed his speech’s main points, especially on Iran.

Speaking at a reception for the Ruderman Family Foundation before Netanyahu’s speech, former Netanyahu adviser Dore Gold called for the Jewish people “to unite on this issue of Iran.”

And introducing the prime minister, Jewish Federations Chairman Michael Siegal said the international community must oppose the Iranian nuclear program.

“A nuclear Iran is an unacceptable position,” he said. “It is unacceptable to Israel, it is unacceptable to the U.S., it is unacceptable to the world.”

On Sunday morning, at the start of the Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu called the deal on the table between the world powers and Iran “bad and dangerous.”

“It is dangerous not just for us, it is also dangerous for them [the world powers],” he said.

Thinking big about littlest Jews

When Michael Siegal, chairman of the board of The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), addresses the umbrella organization’s upcoming General Assembly (GA) in Jerusalem on Nov. 10, he may very well be thinking about a constituency not likely to be present at the Jerusalem International Convention Center: America’s Jewish 5-year-olds. 

It was those kids — and their parents — that Siegal and JFNA President and CEO Jerry Silverman were targeting when they proposed offering free Jewish preschool to American Jewish kids as a way to combat the trend of assimilation and disaffiliation identified in the recent Pew Center study of American Jews. The proposal was published in an op-ed that appeared in The Forward and the Huffington Post on Oct. 24.

“Children laugh without the inhibition that they’re going to be judged. We have to bring that joyfulness back,” Siegal said in an interview with the Journal on Oct. 31. “And clearly, a 5-year-old can influence their parents.”

Siegal, 60, says becoming a grandfather made him favor this idea, but the chairman and CEO of Cleveland-based Olympic Steel — which was a family-owned business before he built it into a publicly traded company valued today at about $290 million — pushed any sentimentality aside, estimating such a giveaway could cost roughly $400 million per year. 

It’s a staggering sum — JFNA as a whole spent a total of $317 million in the fiscal year that ended in June 2012 — and the idea is still in its earliest phases of gestation. But in light of the Pew study’s findings, Siegal said, bold actions are required. 

“If we can’t get the money to do all of this, what part of this can we do?” Siegal asked. “Because we want to make an impact that changes the narrative 70 years from now.”

That Siegal and JFNA are addressing the Pew study results at the GA at all is itself a change — as of early October, Silverman said that the Pew study wouldn’t be on the agenda. 

But just weeks before the three-day gathering, which will begin with a plenary featuring a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, JFNA assembled a panel about the Pew research that includes executives from Federations across the country — including Jay Sanderson, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The topic seems likely to take up some of the other sessions at the GA as well. The more than 2,500 Jewish leaders from across the continent who are expected to attend — including about 20 from Los Angeles — will also witness a conversation between public opinion pollster Mark Mellman and five members of the “millennial generation,” which the Pew study found to be the least engaged of all adult Jews in the United States. 

Siegal and Silverman also mooted an increase in support for Jewish camp and proposed designating certain American cities as “Jewish empowerment zones,” where innovative pilot projects could be tested. They also urged Birthright to share its database of contact information for its more than 350,000 past participants.

Whether their proposals will drive discussion in Jerusalem remains to be seen. 

 “We threw these ideas out there for the debate,” Siegal said, “and that’s what we want to do at the GA.” 

A number of other controversial topics are up for debate at the GA — including the contentious argument over the future of the Western Wall. The GA will host the first public conversation between Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall, which has been holding female-led prayer services at Judaism’s holiest site for 25 years, and Ronit Peskin, who directs a new group, Women for the Wall, that opposes any changes to the current restrictions. 

Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky, who has been working to come up with a resolution that might appease — if not please — all parties, will also appear on the panel, along with MK Aliza Lavie, a member of the Knesset committee focused on the status of women. 

On Nov. 12, GA participants will walk to the Western Wall, where they’ll be invited to pray — as they wish, where they wish — or not. 

“Our walk is to state that Israel is a dream, and Israel is a reality,” Siegal said. “The fact that we’ve got leadership in Israel trying to connect the dream to the reality and trying to come up with solutions … we want to support the government.” 

The GA takes place in Jerusalem every few years, and this year’s gathering will focus on Israeli issues and on connections between Jews in the Diaspora to the Jewish state. 

But Siegal clearly sees his task as strengthening the Jewish American communities represented by JFNA. As such, at the end of his ranging conversation with the Journal, he returned to the themes — and concerns — raised by the Pew study.

“America is intoxicating, America is a drug,” Siegal said, seeming to simultaneously emphasize the positive and negative aspects embodied in his metaphor. “Minorities disappear and become Americans and are replaced by other minorities. 

“The reality is,” he continued, “Jews don’t have a lot of people to replace themselves with. We have to stand tall by ourselves and say that our responsibility is to the great-grandchildren that none of us will ever meet, for them to have the same vibrancy that we have today, if not better. And we’re heading down some paths that give us some pause.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani talked the talk

As one who has studied a folio of Talmud each day for the last 14 months, I am tempted to present President Hassan Rouhani’s interview with CNN as a text to be studied, dissected point by point, sentence by sentence in talmudic fashion.

According to the translator hired by the Iranian government to translate the CNN interview, the Iranian President said:

“I have said before that I am not a historian personally and that when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust as such, it is the historians that should reflect on it.

“But in general, I can tell you that any crime or — that happens in history against humanity, including the crime that the Nazis committed towards the Jews, as well as non-Jewish people, is reprehensible and condemnable, as far as we are concerned.

“And just as even such crimes are — if they are to happen today against any creed or belief system or human being as such, we shall again condemn it.

“So what the Nazis did is condemnable. The dimensions of whatever it is, the historians have to understand what it is. I am not a historian myself, but we — it must be clear here, is that when there is an atrocity, a crime that happens, it should not become a cover to work against the interests or — or justify the crimes against another nation or another group of people.

“So if the Nazis, however criminal they were, we condemn them, whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn, because genocide, the taking of the human life, is condemnable and it makes no difference whether that life is a Jewish life, a Christian or a Muslim or what.

“For us, it’s the same. It’s the taking of a human life and an innocent human life is (INAUDIBLE) in Islam. It’s actually something that we condemn and our religion also rejects.

“But this does not mean that, on the other hand, you can say, well, the Nazis committed crimes against, you know, a certain group, now, therefore, they must usurp the land of another group and occupy it. This, too, is an act that should be condemned, in our view.”


CAMERA, the media monitoring organization, has claimed:

Rouhani never said the phrase “the Holocaust.” He never said “reprehensible.” And he never indicated that he believes the Nazi genocide of the Jews as documented by real historians ever happened. 

Multiple independent translations by Farsi speakers conflict with CNN’s translation and support a claim by Iran’s radical Fars News Agency that CNN mistranslated the interview. Instead of “the Holocaust,” Rouhani vaguely referred to “historical events.”

Let us also examine CAMERA’s words:

Significantly, CNN maintained that the president’s translator — and, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has challenged them on this matter — was hired by the Iranian government and not by the network. 

Might we not learn that Rouhani was addressing two audiences — the international audience that he was seeking to charm and the audience of his critics at home who are ready to pounce on every word? So he, as many political leaders do, walked the fine line between covering his “posterior” at home and charting a different course as he approached the West.

Would it not be wise to accept the words as translated, and proclaim time and again that the president of Iran has accepted the basic historical fact of the Nazi crimes against the Jews — and others — commonly known as the Holocaust, and then force him to deny it if he was misunderstood, mistranslated or if the pressure from home becomes too great?

His first sentence was: “I have said before that I am not a historian personally and that when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust as such, it is the historians that should reflect on it.”

I concur.

As one who has edited a book of more than 800 pages titled “The Holocaust: The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed and the Reexamined” consisting of essays by more than 30 of the greatest scholars of three generations, I salute him for saying that understanding the dimensions of a historical event is the work of historians, but not of historians alone.

Poets and philosophers, psychiatrists and sociologists, physicians and lawyers, historians and writers, artists and musicians reflect upon the meaning of the Holocaust. I am pleased that he endorses their efforts.

Who can take issue with his next two paragraphs expressing moral condemnation?

“But in general, I can tell you that any crime or — that happens in history against humanity, including the crime that the Nazis committed towards the Jews, as well as non-Jewish people, is reprehensible and condemnable, as far as we are concerned.

And just as even such crimes are — if they are to happen today against any creed or belief system or human being as such, we shall again condemn it.”

Neither can one object to the paragraph that follows shortly thereafter:

“So if the Nazis, however criminal they were, we condemn them, whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn, because genocide, the taking of the human life, is condemnable and it makes no difference whether that life is a Jewish life, a Christian or a Muslim or what.”

I was intrigued by what the president then said:

“For us, it’s the same. It’s the taking of a human life and an innocent human life is (INAUDIBLE) in Islam. It’s actually something that we condemn and our religion also rejects.”

I wish that CNN’s Christiane Amanpour had followed up. 

Does that mean that he condemns the groups supported by his own government and its predecessors that fired rockets on non-combatants and that used bombs in civilian areas and used suicide bombing as a weapon without distinguishing between combatants and innocent civilians? Forget for a moment violence against Israelis and Jews. Is the president really ready to condemn the violence of radical Islam against fellow Muslims?

We should remind him of these words and see how they are reflected in Iranian policy going forward.

The venerable Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman objected to the next two paragraphs — the seifa, the last part of his statement.

“But we — it must be clear here, is that when there is an atrocity, a crime that happens, it should not become a cover to work against the interests or — or justify the crimes against another nation or another group of people …

“But this does not mean that, on the other hand, you can say, well, the Nazis committed crimes against, you know, a certain group, now, therefore, they must usurp the land of another group and occupy it. This, too, is an act that should be condemned, in our view.”

Jewish groups responded defensively, almost impulsively. Such a response presumes that Jews stole the land from the Palestinians.

Of course, the victimization of the Jews did not justify stealing another people’s land. We concur.

Jewish claims to the land now called Israel are deep and historical, and from its inception, the Zionist movement made deliberate and public efforts to buy the land from its owners and to gain international legitimacy for its efforts at statehood, culminating in the Nov. 29, 1947, United Nations resolution calling for two states, one Jewish and one Arab.

The West Bank was only conquered in June 1967 after Jordan attacked Israel, following formal requests from Israel that Jordan stay out of the war and assurances that Israel would not attack Jordan first. Egypt never asked for Gaza to be returned to it during the Sinai negotiations — would that they had!

So the Iranian president, is correct: The Holocaust did not justify stealing land. The Jewish people did not lay claim to the land of Israel after the Holocaust, but well before it. They did not steal the land, they bought it and settled it and later conquered it in a defensive war. 

The Jewish community would be wise to welcome President Rouhani’s affirmation of the Holocaust as a historical event and his condemnation of genocide, but let us not make too much of it. 

His statements mean only that he has ended one dimension of the lunacy of the last regime, and that we now are dealing with a clever, rational actor, which is most useful as one contemplates nuclear negotiations.

We should hold the Iranian president to the humanitarian and religious values he seemingly affirms and remind him of his condemnation of acts of violence against innocent civilians.

Such words — whether uttered by the president or his translator — should be welcomed but must be followed by actions.

During the height of the Cuban missile crisis, President John F. Kennedy received two different communications from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev — one conciliatory and one belligerent. He responded to the former but not to the latter, and nuclear catastrophe was avoided. Might history repeat itself?

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at jewishjournal.com.

Netanyahu talks tough on Iran, leaves door open to ‘meaningful’ diplomatic solution

The “credible military threat” against Iran that Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to hear while he was in the United States this week eventually emerged — from his own lips.

The Israeli prime minister, in a blunt speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, warned that Israel was ready to go it alone against Iran should it come close to obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“I want there to be no confusion on this point,” Netanyahu said. “Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone. Yet in standing alone, Israel will know that we will be defending many, many others.”

The warning came one day after Netanyahu met with President Obama at the White House and again sought assurances that the United States would continue to tighten the screws on Iran even as the two countries had their highest level of diplomatic engagement since the 1979 Islamist Revolution: a 15-minute phone call last Friday between Obama and Iran’s newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani.

Netanyahu in his meeting with Obama told the U.S. leader that a two-pronged strategy of crippling economic sanctions and a credible military threat was the only way to peacefully resolve the standoff. Obama seemed to get the message.

“I’ve said before and I will repeat that we take no options off the table, including military options, in terms of making sure that we do not have nuclear weapons in Iran that would destabilize the region and potentially threaten the United States of America,” Obama told reporters Monday.

Still, Netanyahu continued to insist throughout his American visit that Rouhani was not to be trusted –this despite warnings from certain quarters that his alarmism threatened to alienate the United States, which is pressing for a diplomatic accord with the Islamic Republic.

Netanyahu repeated the point in meetings Monday with Secretary of State John Kerry and the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee.

The Senate committee embraced another of Netanyahu’s objectives for this trip: a pledge to intensify sanctions should it appear that the Iranians are using negotiations to buy time for their suspected nuclear program.

“Our resolve to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability remains unchanged and we will not hesitate from proceeding with further sanctions and other options to protect U.S. interests and ensure regional security,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the committee chairman, said in a statement. “While we welcome Iran’s diplomatic engagement, it cannot be used to buy time, avoid sanctions, and continue the march toward nuclear weapons capability.”

Netanyahu’s General Assembly speech was devoted almost entirely to exposing what he said was Rouhani’s “ruse” in presenting a more “smiling” countenance to the West and offering to reach an agreement.

His accusations were met with a fiery response from Mohammad Khazaee, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, who insisted that his country’s nuclear program was peaceful and delivered a warning of his own.

“The Israeli prime minister had better not think about attacking Iran, let alone planning it,” he said.

Despite such tough exchanges, there were signs that Netanyahu was resigned to a diplomatic initiative. He repeatedly qualified his call for for dismantling Iran’s nuclear program with the words “military” or “weapons” — an apparent nod to the fact that any diplomatic solution is likely to preserve Iran’s right to a civilian nuclear program. He also explicitly embraced diplomacy, as long as it resulted in a comprehensive deal.

“He did not reject a diplomatic approach,” said Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director. “He had caveats.”

Those caveats reflected the major differences that remain between Obama and Netanyahu on the Iran issue. In his U.N. speech, Netanyahu laid out four requirements for a comprehensive deal; two of them — an end to all uranium enrichment and the removal from Iranian territory of all uranium stockpiles — are unlikely to be embraced by the West.

Western powers reportedly are ready to allow Iran to enrich at 3.5 percent — less than the 20 percent it now enriches and well short of the 90 percent required for weaponization.

Netanyahu’s two other requirements were the dismantling of infrastructure necessary for a so-called “breakout capacity” — including the underground facility at Qom and the advanced centrifuges at Natanz — and the stopping of all work at the heavy water reactor in Arak.

David Makovsky, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank with close ties to the Obama and Netanyahu governments, said such differences were less significant than the fact that Iran, Israel and the United States are all proclaiming support for a comprehensive deal.

“I’d rather be where we are now then where we were with [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad six months ago,” Makovksy said, referring to Rouhani’s rejectionist predecessor. “For all the heated words between Rouhani and Netanyahu, each side is saying we’ve got to do bigger sooner.”

In an interview with “60 Minutes,” Kerry said he believed a deal could be reached in less than the six months Rouhani envisioned in an interview last week with the Washington Post — depending on how forthcoming Rouhani is prepared to be.

“We need to have a good deal here, and a good deal means that it is absolutely accountable, failsafe in its measures to make certain this is a peaceful program,” Kerry said. “If it is a peaceful program and we can all see that, the whole world sees that, the relationship with Iran can change dramatically for the better and it can change fast.”