NEW YORK (JTA) — Taking center stage at what organizers dubbed an all-star night of Zionist heroes, Israeli envoy Ron Dermer called on the international community to wage war against “militant Islam” and simultaneously cautioned his audience against viewing Islam itself as the enemy.
Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, issued his declaration Sunday night during his keynote address at the annual Louis Brandeis Award Dinner of the Zionist Organization of America. He warned of a global network of diverse Muslim terrorist groups waging a relentless war to create a world where “women are chattel, gays are hanged and minorities are either eliminated or persecute” — and one where Israel and the United States do not exist.
At the same time, Dermer rejected the idea that the “problem is Islam itself.”
“Faiths tend to be very malleable things,” Dermer said. “They get interpreted in different ways at different times. For most of the last 1,400 years, Islam was much more tolerant to minorities than Christianity was. Jews, of all people, should know this.”
But in the 21st century, Dermer said, “It is Muslims, not Christians, who are killing Jews in the name of religion.”
Dermer added that just as Nazism quickly came and went in Germany, the Islamic world could change again. “But for that to happen,” he said, “it is not only important to define the enemy, it is important to defeat the enemy.”
The Israeli ambassador then criticized those in the media and the international community who strongly condemn ISIS attacks in Paris but make excuses for Palestinian terrorism against Israel. Dermer did not directly criticize members of the Obama administration, but he did take aim at several of their frequent talking points — rejecting as “drivel” the idea that Palestinian terrorism is in any way fueled by Israeli policy and mocking those who respond to Palestinian attacks with calls for an end to the cycle of violence and restraint on both sides.
Dermer, who received the Dr. Bob Shillman Award for Outstanding Pro-Israel Diplomacy, stopped short of including the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, on his list of Islamic terrorist groups. But ZOA’s president, Morton Klein, did — using his speech to compare Abbas and the P.A. to ISIS.
Klein in his more than two decades at the helm of ZOA has turned the group into a relentless opponent of the Oslo process, Israeli territorial concessions and a Palestinian state. In addition to accusing Abbas of anti-Jewish incitement, Klein called for a new law requiring the deportation of parents and siblings of terrorists who failed to condemn their relative’s actions in Hebrew and Arabic. He also issued an impassioned call to block the entry of Syrian refugees into the United States, saying many of the refugees hate Jews and Israel.
Other high-profile speakers at the ZOA dinner included casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a mega-philanthropist and Republican donor; Michele Bachmann, a former congresswoman and GOP presidential candidate; actor Jon Voight; and Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.
During his speech, Dermer also praised the ZOA — a frequent critic of the Obama administration — for its dogged defense of Israel, and he hailed Adelson and his wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, as the “greatest Jewish philanthropists of our time.” Event organizers offered their own tribute to Adelson, hanging a “Heroes of Zionism” banner under the dais with his image alongside seminal Zionist leaders who either laid the groundwork or were directly involved in the creation of the Jewish state — Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion, Zeev Jabotinsky, Edmond De Rothschild, and two previous ZOA presidents, Louis Brandeis and Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver.
Voight, who received the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson Award, drew large applause — and a standing ovation from Adelson — with his call for a Republican to be elected in 2016. The actor, an ardent defender of Israel, was introduced by Bachmann. The former Minnesota congressman is staunchly pro-Israel, but recently found herself in the middle of controversy after telling a Christian radio show that Christians needed to “share” Jesus with as many people as possible, including Jews, because “he’s coming soon.”
Despite the controversy, Klein introduced Bachmann as part-Margaret Thatcher, part-Esther for her defense of Israel and the Jewish people. Afterward, he told JTA that Bachmann had apologized, explaining that she did not intend for her comments to be widely publicized. Klein defended Bachmann and other evangelical Christians, saying that while they believe the key to salvation for all people, including Jews, is the acceptance of Jesus, they also defend Jews and Israel. Klein said it was no different than how he as a Jew rejects fundamental tenets of the Christian faith. Klein added that he would have a problem if he knew that [Bachmann] was actively trying to convert Jews.
The ZOA’s Louis Brandeis Award went to Jack Halpern, a businessman and philanthropist who has worked to promote Israel’s development of energy sources. His father won the award nearly four decades ago.
Susan Tuchman, the director of ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice, warned of increased harassment of Jewish students on multiple college campuses, citing the organization Students for Justice for Palestine and the calls from some of its leaders for a third intifada. She called on university presidents to condemn SPJ and to hold the group’s members accountable under their schools’ anti-hate and -harassment rules.
The night also featured taped remarks from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alan Dershowitz, who received the Mort Zuckerman Award for Outstanding Journalism. And a late addition to the program was one of Jonathan Pollard’s attorneys, Eliot Lauer, who lamented what he described as onerous parole conditions facing his client after his release from a federal prison after serving 30 years for spying for Israel.