Bay Area Jews kick off yearlong party for Israels 50th

On Tuesday night, she and more than 400 others nestled in the velvet seats of San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel to hear speeches marking the historic moment and to witness a re-enactment of the vote.

The event also attracted Jews who weren't around back then.

"I'm here because I love Israel. I'm proud of its history over the last 50 years," said 37-year-old Roxanne Epstein of Richmond, who came with her husband and 1-year-old son.

The event was sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, Sherith Israel and "Israel at 50," a joint project of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and other Jewish groups.

The commemoration was the first in a series of Israel at 50 events over the next year marking the Jewish state's golden anniversary.

"It gives us an unparalleled opportunity to educate and infuse in our community a deep sense of pride in Israel," Madeleine Haas Russell, chair of the Israel at 50, said from Sherith Israel's bimah. "Here's to an exciting year."

The synagogue, adorned with a pair of Israeli flags hanging behind its bimah, welcomed consuls general from nearly 20 nations, including Korea, Germany, Switzerland and Iceland.

Youths were also part of the event. The Brandeis Hillel Day School Chorus gently sang "Hatikvah" from the choir loft.

Rachel Abileah, a 15-year-old sophomore at Half Moon Bay High School, received a $500 State of Israel Bond for her winning poem in a teen writing contest. The theme was "Growing Up with the State of Israel."

Dore Gold, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, was scheduled to speak but had to cancel at the last minute. Lenny Ben-David, the No. 2 diplomat in the Israeli Embassy in Washington, filled in.

Ben-David touched on what he called "that monumental vote." His address, however, focused mainly on advancing the Likud-led government's position on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"The peace process must, can and will continue. But it requires reciprocity," the deputy chief of mission said.

The diplomat brought up several historical specters, including "Arabists" in the U.S. State Department, the Arab boycott of Israel and the infamous U.N. resolution in 1975 equating Zionism with racism. Ben-David said he feared similar perils may re-emerge.

Gold canceled his appearance, Ben-David noted, because he is putting out diplomatic fires at the United Nations.

The Palestinian Authority, backed by several Arab countries, has been challenging Israel's credentials and its right to represent Jerusalem and the territories in the United Nations, Ben-David said. The Palestine Liberation Organization also has been working once again to change its status from observer to member state, he said. Ben-David called on the Palestinians to stop such "diplomatic aggression."

Regarding Israel's agreement not to build more Jewish settlements in the territories, Ben-David said his country had kept up its end of the bargain.

But Israel will not prevent the natural growth of existing settlements — a move the Palestinians argue violates the Oslo Accords. "They will continue to grow," he said.

Promising his audience a bit of optimism, Ben-David also waxed about Israel's success.

Fifty years ago, he said, 600,000 Jews were "hanging on by their fingernails." Today, 5.5 million are protected by one of the world's strongest armies and enjoy a $17,000 per capita annual income — comparable to Britain's.

Back then, he said, Israel exported only Jaffa oranges. Today, its economy is a powerhouse with its own version of Silicon Valley.

"Israel was once an international pariah," he said. Today, it has growing relations and markets in countries such as Korea, Japan, China and India.

"We have come so far," Ben-David said.

His speech was followed by a re-enactment of the Nov. 29, 1947 partition vote. Acting as U.N. member countries, participants were spread throughout the audience and popped up to announce their vote during the roll call.

One of the night's lighter moments came when participants representing a couple of the obvious opponents to the partition, including Iran, accidentally voted "yes" and then had to change their votes.

At the end of the roll call on partition, which came out 33 in favor, 13 against and 10 abstentions, AJCommittee regional board member Bo Links described the elation of the times.

"The words of Theodor Herzl had at long last come true: `If you will it, it is not a dream.'"