At GA, A Big ‘Thank You’


Los Angeles — The month-long war with Hezbollah this summer left Israelis feeling vulnerable and depressed, but it did reassert and solidify the bonds between the Jewish state and diaspora Jewry.At a time when the relationship between the two communities seemed to be growing apart, the war reminded many diaspora Jews of their deep connections to and spiritual dependence on Israel. It also underscored to Israeli leaders that diaspora Jews are there for them, especially in a crisis.And so it was that the heads of the Israeli government came here this week to publicly thank American Jews for contributing more than $350 million to an emergency charitable campaign to help Israel rebuild the north, and to reiterate that the relationship between the Jewish State and the diaspora must be strengthened in ways beyond dollars, from education to aliyah.“From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for your support,”

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told several thousand lay and professional leaders of Jewish federations throughout North America at the closing plenary here on Tuesday of the 75th annual General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities.UJC leaders say the Israel Emergency Campaign will continue to raise funds to strengthen the Israeli north, hardest hit by Hezbollah rockets.Olmert’s 20-minute address at the most important yearly meeting of North American Jewry touched on several themes that reverberated throughout this GA. First was the war with Hezbollah, and the prime minister praised “the heroism” of Israeli soldiers, defended Israel’s military actions as proving “we would not tolerate threats against us,” pledged to “correct whatever is needed,” and promised to do all in his power to bring home Israel’s three kidnapped soldiers. He also spoke of his willingness to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “immediately and without preconditions” to move toward peace, but asserted that Israel “cannot accept a government led by an organization [Hamas] that denies our existence.”Olmert called for building stronger ties between the diaspora and Israel, and he emphasized that at this “pivotal moment” on Iran, that the world must act to assure that Tehran does not achieve its goal of nuclear power. While the prime emphasis of the plenaries, panels and breakout sessions at this year’s GA was devoted to Israel post-war, and the need to rebuild the cities and communities of the north, speaker after speaker came back to the existential danger to Israel that a nuclear Iran would represent.

Opposition leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of a number of Israeli political leaders in attendance, gave a stirring address focusing on the need for “political preemption” in making sure that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons.“It’s 1938, Iran is Germany, and racing to acquire nuclear arms,” he said, declaring that there is still time to avert catastrophe but that it requires the willingness of leaders to act before it is too late. Netanyahu said all nations must back the U.S. pledge to make sure Iran does not achieve its nuclear goal, and all possible ways of dealing with the crisis must be employed because “we cannot let this happen.” He did not go into detail about the possibility of an Israeli military attack on Iran’s nuclear sites.A session on “the challenge of radical Islam” featuring Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, and Bernard-Henri Levy, the French intellectual, activist and author (most recently of “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?”), was a highlight of the GA. Zakaria’s thesis was that in the last five years the world has seen both “enormous economic integration and enormous political disintegration and turmoil,” and that the two trends are related. The global economic boom, he said, has placed great demand on products like oil; the countries that have it, like Iran, fare well in spite of their politics, and have the funds to support a variety of terror activities.

In addition, he said, global growth for Iran inspires national confidence and a resistance to being dominated by countries like the U.S., feeding a culture of protest and defiance. But Zakaria said he was confident that “the forces of globalization and progress are likely to overwhelm the radical discontents,” and he said it is America’s job to help the moderates reform and modernize and “keep pushing the extremists to the sidelines.”Levy noted that he agreed with much of what Zakaria said but he emphasized that radical Islam is a new form of fascism, one that is “explicitly, deeply rooted” in European thought and history, and defined by a hatred of modernity, liberty, women and intellectuals.While Israel is the first target of the radical Islamists, America and Europe are not far behind, he said, adding that European leaders tended to believe “if they remained quiet and stayed out of it,” they would be spared. But in the wake of terror attacks in London, Madrid and elsewhere, that is “an absurd, ugly and stupid dream,” Levy stressed.The third “and maybe most threatened” target is the Muslim people themselves, he said. In this clash of civilizations within Islam, between the moderates and the “haters,” Levy said the moderates must be supported, echoing Zakaria’s comments.One of the most thoughtful talks at the GA came at the opening plenary on Sunday from Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who devoted much of her remarks to issues of Jewish identity, including concerns about the apparent growing rift between the Jews of Israel and of the diaspora — remarkable themes for the foreign policy leader of a nation to address.While insisting that Israel was in a better position after the war with Hezbollah than before — chiefly because the international community is engaged in containing Hezbollah — Livni acknowledged that many Israelis are “frustrated” with the outcome of the war and must accept the fact that Israel cannot solve all of its problems quickly and militarily.

She also announced a new initiative to enhance Israel’s image in the world, not through “advertising or spin,” she said, but by helping the Jewish state be seen through a wider lens “not just in the shadow of conflict but in the bright light of accomplishment.”The goal of addressing Israel as a brand will not replace diplomacy, Livni said, but may help change people’s perception of Israel as a hard country best known for conflict and religion into one known also for great accomplishments in science, medicine, technology and other fields.She, like many other speakers, after listing a litany of problems facing Israel and the Jewish people, said that at heart she was an optimist, and believed that in the end the side of truth and openness will prevail.It was a quintessentially Jewish response, perhaps natural for a people that has seen so much tragedy in its history, but has survived to face the next challenge and the one after that.The mood among the GA delegates — 5,000, according to UJC officials — was somber in that Israel is facing serious crises, from an expected war with the Palestinians in Gaza to renewed fighting with Hezbollah to political scandals to the black cloud of Iran. But there was also a sense of renewed connection to and interdependence between American and Israeli Jews, and an inspired sense of purpose in addressing these problems together.As Prime Minister Olmert said at the end of his talk, each Jew can play a role in “helping to shape our heritage.”