During his four-day mission to the Jewish state, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter told Israeli President Shimon Peres and Foreign Ministry officials that the local Israeli consulate is too important to close.
“I made the case that the strength, the vitality, the prominence of the Jewish community in Philadelphia warranted an office,” Nutter said in a Nov. 12 interview with the Exponent, held in his City Hall office just hours after his flight home touched down.
Israeli officials have confirmed that the government is considering closing the Philadelphia consulate in order to open a new diplomatic mission, possibly in China, where the Jewish state hopes to expand its presence.
Local Jewish communal and business leaders have said that such a closure would deal a major blow to economic and cultural ties between the city and Israel.
Nutter said that Peres and Liora Herzl, assistant deputy foreign minister, promised they would raise the issue with Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who resumed his former job this week after he was cleared of corruption charges.
“Ultimately, it is up to the foreign minister,” said Nutter. “My focus is to raise it with every possible person that we can. I will be writing a letter to the foreign minister as well.”
On Nov. 7, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett wrote Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on behalf of the local consulate. Closing the office, Corbett wrote, “would be detrimental to the numerous Pennsylvania and Israeli businesses which utilize the Philadelphia Consulate’s services.”
Nutter sounded tired but upbeat after returning from a 10-day trip abroad to England and Israel. While in the Jewish state, he was accompanied by more than 30 local business and civic leaders on a mission focused on deepening economic ties between the Philadelphia region and Israel. He also toured major sites in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Nutter said that while it was mostly business-focused, his first visit to Israel had deeply personal undertones.
He recalled that his maternal grandmother, who lived with his family in West Philadelphia all through his childhood, had always wanted to visit Israel. She died in 1977 before she got the chance.
She was afraid of flying, but “the only place she would ever fly would be the Holy Land because she believed that God would never allow anything to happen to her if she was on that journey.”
The mayor, a Baptist, said that after he had a moment of private prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, he purchased a burgundy kipah because it was his grandmother’s favorite color. (While at the wall, he wore a kipah given to him by a Philadelphia police officer whose son recently had a Bar Mitzvah.)
“I made a commitment a long time ago that I would complete that journey for her,” he said. “That has been on my mind and my heart for a very long time.”
During his visit, Nutter attended the opening plenary of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America along with some local delegates and received a shout-out during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech.
“Well now, I know something about Philadelphia. It’s the City of Brotherly Love,” said Netanyahu. “We’re all brothers and sisters here in a common cause, so welcome back to Jerusalem, all of you.”
Nutter said he chatted with Netanyahu for about five minutes. The prime minister had just given a major speech about the Iranian nuclear threat, and the mayor felt it wasn’t the right time or place to raise the issue of the consulate.
In addition to touring Jerusalem, Nutter spent part of a day in the West Bank Palestinian city of Bethlehem and met with the city’s mayor, Vera Baboun, a Christian with a background in African-American literature.
“We have a very strong Palestinian business community here in Philadelphia,” he said in his City Hall office. “And as a leader of the city, it is my responsibility to speak to all of our constituents. If peace is to come — and I believe that it can — we have to make sure we are talking to all parties.”
Nutter said that several tangible developments came out of the trip. One came from a discussion with Nechemia Peres, son of Shimon Peres and founder of the Pitango Venture Capital group in Herzliya. Peres told Nutter he was seriously interested in leading a delegation of Israeli venture capitalists to Philadelphia in the next year.
He and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai spoke about expanding student-exchange opportunities between the two cities.
And one development that was reported in advance of the trip was the Jerusalem signing ceremony of a research consortium among Drexel University, Hebrew University and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, focusing on pediatric research.
Drexel’s president, John Fry, who traveled to Israel for the signing, said in a news release that the project will “create a unique opportunity to address unmet needs in pediatrics through innovative commercial pediatric therapeutics and diagnostics.”
As for the potential for new Israeli companies to open offices here or the announcement of other blockbuster deals, the mayor cautioned that these things take time. While in Israel, he handed out dozens of his business cards, written in Hebrew. He was listed as the rosh ha’ir, which translates to head of the city.
“I can assure you that there are a whole lot more people in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Bethlehem that know a whole lot more about Philadelphia today than they did a week ago,” said Nutter. “If we are not getting our story out, we are behind. We can’t continue to act in an isolationist fashion.”
Nutter recalled that one Israeli CEO told him his company had opened an office in Massachusetts in part because the state’s governor, Deval Patrick, visited Israel and pitched the virtues of the Bay State.
Pennsylvania and Philadelphia leaders, the mayor said, need to do more of that. “The future for us on the international stage is bright,” he said.
Several participants praised the mayor’s performance on the mission.
Robin Schatz, who directs government affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and has known Nutter for 20 years, said he did “a wonderful job of selling our city."
Wayne Kimmel, who participated in three capacities — as a venture capitalist, as treasurer of the Philadelphia Federation and a trustee of Jewish Federations of North America — said the mission was all about bringing high-tech, well-paying jobs to Philadelphia, the kind that attract well-educated, ambitious young people.
But beyond economics, Kimmel said he felt a personal satisfaction being there with Nutter.
“It made me feel proud to be a Philadelphian — and a Jewish Philadelphian,” he said. “This trip will pay dividends for many more years for our city and for our Jewish community.” l