Most of us keep abreast of current events in Israel and the Middle East through television, newspapers and books. However, for 11 members of the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community, hearing firsthand from prominent leaders and Israeli policymakers who converged in Israel was a learning experience like no other.
In January, the delegation was sent by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia to the seventh annual Herzliya Conference, which focused on the balance of Israel's national strength. Since its inception, the Herzliya Conference has become the annual "summit meeting" of the most influential Israeli and international leaders.
The idea of sending Greater Philadelphia community members to this four-day conference was conceived by Asaf Romirowsky, manager of Israel and Middle East affairs for Federation's Center for Israel and Overseas.
"Israel advocacy is a priority for our Federation," said Romirowsky. "We strive to be more knowledgeable and policy-oriented when it comes to supporting Israel. We want our community to understand that what happens in Israel affects what goes on here in the United States."
Romirowsky noted that the Philadelphia Federation was the only one in the United States to attend the Herzliya Conference. "It's good to be on the cutting edge, and we are," he said. "Other Federations can look to us and replicate what we are doing and that says a lot about our organization and our dedicated volunteers and staff."
Federation's Israel Advocacy Task Force, chaired by Gary Erlbaum, selected the delegation that attended the conference and is now collaborating with delegates to develop a strategic plan that will allow the community to gain more insight into matters concerning Israel. The task force seeks to ensure that Israel remains a viable, secure and democratic Jewish state within defensible boundaries, and that all of the resources available are used to support that mission.
"The goal of our task force is to educate our community, and the best way to do this is for us to know the facts," said Erlbaum. "By sending a delegation to the conference, we had the benefit of hearing from policymakers and other prominent world leaders firsthand. The delegates heard what was being said and who said it, and made the determination of what was important for our community here at home to know. It was an invaluable experience."
The Herzliya Conference has become Israel's center stage for the articulation of national policy by its most prominent leaders. Thus, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon chose to deliver his most important foreign-policy speeches, now commonly known as "The Herzliya Addresses," at the Herzliya Conference. At the third Herzliya Conference, he announced his support for the road-map peace plan; at the fourth Herzliya Conference, he introduced his unilateral disengagement plan. Central issues first raised or emphasized at the conferences have become part of the public discourse in Israel. The Israeli government has adopted numerous Herzliya Conference reports and recommendations as official policy.
Israeli leadership at the 2007 conference included Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud Party leader and former prime minister; Minister of Defense Amir Peretz; and Shimon Peres, vice premier and former prime minister. U.S. representation included John Edwards, head of the One America Committee and candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, who spoke via satellite; Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz; and Newt Gingrich, former U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives.
For Lori Lowenthal Marcus, delegate and Israel Advocacy Task Force member, this was just the kind of multiday event she had been longing to attend. As an active member of the Jewish community and co-host and commentator of the ZOA Middle East Report, a weekly radio show on WNWR, Lowenthal Marcus spends many hours a day conducting research and reading news from and about Israel. "There were many highlights of the conference, but what I found most important was the validation of the years I have spent trying to convince people that Iran is the greatest threat to world peace, and specifically, to Israel's existence," she explained.
Lowenthal Marcus and other delegates saw Herzliya as an important opportunity to see the policy makers and their advisors discuss and plan for major policies that Israel must face and manage. "A former member of the Israeli Knesset informed me that he was thrilled to learn that Philadelphia has such a strong pro-Israel community that is focused so strongly on the development of essential Israeli policy," said Lowenthal Marcus. "That kind of goodwill and insight is invaluable for Philadelphia and our Federation."
As chair of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's Greater Philadelphia Leadership Council, delegate David Edman is very familiar with current issues facing Israel and the crisis in the Middle East. "I love Israel and am concerned about the future of our homeland, due primarily to external threats," commented Edman. "I want to do everything within my power to promote a strong and secure Israel, and encourage others to do the same. The conference was an incredible gathering of the best minds in Israel and beyond."
Having visited Israel on a variety of missions, Beryl Dean, another delegate and task force member, found the conference to be a unique way to immerse himself in Israel and the issue of security. Active with the Public Policy Committee of the Jewish Employment and Vocational Service and former chair of Advocates for Israel of Har Zion Temple, Dean was surprised at the diversity of participants, including a panel of participants from Germany. "No matter what the German people said, the fact that they were at a conference like this one was a miracle of the Jewish people, and to me, another proof of the existence of God," he noted.
Dean added that there were two "calls to action" issued to American participants to take back to the United States. The first, made by Netanyahu and reinforced by Natan Sharansky, called on Americans to lead the fight to delegitimize Iran through disinvestment by U.S. pension systems in businesses with ties to Iran. The second, by Dershowitz, was to take on the falsehoods broadcast by Jimmy Carter and others. "In response to the calls to action, we are personally trying to initiate those efforts here at home," said Dean.
Delegate Dr. John Cohn, a speaker on Israel advocacy and monthly contributor to the Jewish Exponent, felt that this, his second, conference was a unique way to rub shoulders with some of the best minds from Israel and elsewhere and to hear about the pivotal issues concerning Israel's survival. "Israel has been sobered by the events of the past year, so this year's conference seemed to have more unity of purpose and recognition that Israelis have a lot of work ahead of them and that these are dangerous times, but with understanding comes solutions."
Cohn believes that the Herzliya Conference is an excellent opportunity to educate Israel's advocacy community on the important issues and options for solving them and he appreciated the chance to hear the ideas debated. "If strengthening Israel is good for the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community, then sending delegates to the conference is worth it. I made personal contacts that I now relate to in my own advocacy work, and I truly feel the Israelis appreciated our presence."
For more information, call Asaf Romirowsky at 215-832-0549.