Speakers at national meeting of Jewish federations focus on Obama-Bibi

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washington, d.c.  |  The decidedly undramatic results of President Barack Obama’s meeting this week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were no surprise to the Mideast experts who addressed the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.

“Peace-making is not the focus today,” Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said on Nov. 8, the first day of the three-day national conference in the nation’s capital.

Echoing the consensus of a half-dozen conference speakers, Ross, who has advised several administrations seeking to broker an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, emphasized that both leaders acknowledge no forward motion on a peace agreement is possible during the final stretch of Obama’s presidency. It’s about “preserving the possibility of future negotiations,” he said.

“We’re entering a stage of cryo-diplomacy, freezing things in place so they don’t get worse” until the next administration takes power in 2017, said Laura Blumenfeld of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, who spoke on another panel Nov. 8. While Obama “does not want the two-state solution to die on his watch,” Blumenfeld said, “the motto of this administration going forward is ‘do the doable.’ ”

Johns Hopkins University’s Laura Blumenfeld participates on a panel photos/courtesy jfna

That sober — some might call it realistic — assessment of the current state of Israeli-Palestinian relations set the tone for a low-key but far from despondent GA. About 3,000 delegates attended, representing 151 federations in the United States and Canada, as well as 300 smaller communities without federations. Some two dozen participants represented the East Bay- and S.F.-based federations.

Two of the three keynote speakers at the Nov. 8 opening plenary spoke of the anti-Semitism they or their parents encountered growing up. But instead of dwelling on the trope of Jewish victimhood, they described how they have translated those experiences into active support for rights of other oppressed people.

Actress Debra Messing of “Will & Grace” fame told the opening night crowd that her first memory from second grade was a classmate telling her, “get to the back of the line, kike.”

“I was the only Jewish kid in my small Rhode Island town,” Messing related. “The word anti-Semitism was a big word, a grown-up word that I learned way too early.”

Despite the isolation she felt in school, Messing said her parents — Jews from the Bronx who sent her to religious school and were officers in their local Jewish federation — gave her a strong Jewish identity that persisted throughout her life. And her experience of being in the minority led her to empathize with the LGBT community, first with the popular TV series in which she co-starred, and now with seven years of volunteering as global ambassador for Youth AIDS in Africa, where she brings a message of hope to thousands every year.

“But for my parents and their commitment to federation,” she said, “I would not be living a life of tzedakah.”

Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella, who was born in 1950 in a displaced persons camp in Germany to parents who survived the concentration camps, spoke to the GA. She told how her family’s Holocaust experience inspired her first to go into law and then to devote her life to ensuring that others don’t go through the same trauma, giving her “an unquenchable thirst for enforceable international norms that make intolerance impossible wherever it occurs.”

actress Debra Messing speaks at the opening plenary, both on Nov. 8 in Washington, D.C.

“In the Holocaust,” she said, “the world lost not only 6 million hearts and minds, but the right ever to expect Jews to stand silently in the face of injustice.”

Other sessions at the GA focused more closely on the need for Jews to protect their own rights as well as those of others.

The parlous situation of European Jewry in the face of a new, virulent strain of anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Israel sentiment was highlighted in several sessions, as was the threat faced by Jewish students on university campuses where the movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel is strong.

Sacha Reingewirtz, president of the Union of French Jewish Students, spoke passionately at a Nov. 9 plenary about the spread of anti-Jewish hatred on the Internet. His student union had legal success, he said, in forcing Twitter in France to turn over email and IP addresses of those posting such hatred “so we can take those individuals to court.”

In that same session, Stanford University senior Molly Horwitz related how when she was running for student senator this spring, a minority-student organization whose endorsement she sought questioned her ability to judge Mideast questions objectively “because I am a Jew” (www.jweekly.com/article/full/74431).

These days, she told the crowd, she is trying to pass a bill in Stanford’s student senate “that says criticism of Israel is OK, but crossing the line into anti-Semitism is not.” She hopes her bill, if passed, will serve as a model for similar student resolutions at other campuses.

The Bay Area showed up in other appearances at the GA. Ukrainian-born high-tech entrepreneur Alex Rayter, recently honored at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Oct. 29 Day of Philanthropy, was one of 44 young lay leaders nationwide singled out for recognition on Nov. 9 for Young Leadership Awards. Bab Freiberg, the federation’s director of strategic consulting, presented its newly launched pro-bono consulting practice, a service for local Jewish agencies, at a session highlighting innovative partnerships. And Rabbi Doug Kahn, longtime executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, facilitated a lively workshop on how to maintain civil discourse in communities with divergent perspectives on Israel.

In a Nov. 9 afternoon plenary, Rabbi Jim Brandt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, recalled the deep social divisions in Israel that were exposed by the politically motivated assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 20 years ago this month. On Oct. 31 this year, Brandt stood in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square with thousands of other Israelis and lovers of the Jewish state “as they sang ‘Hatikvah,’ singing not only for the realization of 2,000 years of the Zionist dream, but of their undying hope for Israel to know peace, find unity and flourish.”

Reminding the crowd that the Jewish federations in North America have been there for Israel every step of the way since 1948, in times of joy as well as national trauma, Brandt concluded by saying, “We are a partner in Israel’s struggle to shape its soul, to make Israel a place for all its citizens.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].