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Israeli Consulate in Philly Threatened With Closure
Local supporters of Israel have launched a public campaign to keep the Israeli consulate in Philadelphia open.
Though no final decision has been made, Israeli government officials in Jerusalem confirmed that the diplomatic mission that serves the mid-Atlantic region and beyond is being considered for closure.
“There are indeed discussions regarding the possible closing of a consulate, and it is also true that the Foreign Ministry has been considering ways to fund new diplomatic representations which need to be opened in order to expand Israel’s global diplomatic and economic network,” Yigal Palmor, spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, wrote in an email.
“As nothing has been announced so far regarding Philadelphia, you can understand that no final decision has been taken. We are in the process of deliberating and discussing all possibilities, and I expect that soon enough, the decision will be made public.”
News reports from Israel have said the Israeli Foreign Ministry is considering the action since Israel is represented in nearby Boston, Washington, D.C., and New York, and any of those sites could cover the region now under the Philadelphia office’s jurisdiction.
This is not the first time in the last few decades that Philadelphia’s consulate has been threatened with closure, but it never came to pass.
The main reason given for the possible closure is financial, according to The Jerusalem Post, with the money saved likely used to open an additional diplomatic mission in China.
The office conducts public diplomacy, engages with the local Jewish community, and works on building cultural and economic ties between Israel and the consulate’s designated region, which includes all of Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, Delaware, Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. The office also performs bureaucratic functions such as processing passports and travel documents for tourists and Israelis living in the region.
An open letter sent out late last week by Richard A. Bendit, president of the Philadelphia-Israel Chamber of Commerce, sought to alert supporters of Israel about the potential closure and beseeched them to petition the Foreign Ministry to keep the consulate open.
It also suggested sending a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or contacting him through the prime minister’s website. There is also a Save the Israeli Consulate in Philadelphia Facebook page, which as of early this week had nearly 600 “likes.”
Bendit stressed that closing the consulate would not only do damage to Philadelphia, one of the largest centers of American Jewry, but also to Israel, “its citizens, institutions and businesses.”
The Greater Philadelphia region, he said, “plays a key role in accelerating U.S.-Israeli business development, advocating pro-Israeli causes, and strengthening cultural, political and philanthropic ties between our countries.”
Yaron Sideman, consul general of Philadelphia, declined to comment on the matter, saying: “I cannot comment on things in the press. If and when we have something official to say, we will say it.”
But two staff members at the consulate have circulated emails pleading the case that the consulate is vital to the region.
“The fact that you can take a direct flight from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv is in no small part due to the work of our Consulate,” wrote Deborah Baer Mozes, who has spent eight years running arts and cultural programming for the consulate. “When I took my position, there was virtually no Israeli arts and culture in our region. That is no longer the case!”
Hillel Zaremba, a veteran activist who recently left a position at the Middle East Forum think tank to head up Jewish community relations for the consulate, wrote that the closing of the consulate would obviously be a blow personally, but also would leave a void in terms of Israel advocacy in the region.
“Many of you are familiar with the recent Pew report on the current state of American Jewry. One of the findings of that report was that while support for the State of Israel among American Jews was significant, among the young and the unaffiliated it was eroding,” wrote Zaremba.
“Diminishing support for Israel is not a minor matter especially in light of the threats that the state faces from a nuke-seeking Iran and the tumultuous gains of jihadist and Islamist elements in surrounding nations,” he added. “Shoring up that support was to be my primary goal.”
The office of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett is expected to write a letter in support of the consulate to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, according to Corbett spokesman Jay Pagni. “Anything we can do to support the consulate and our friends in Philly, we will do,” Pagni said. Mark McDonald, press secretary for Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, said the mayor would raise the issue during his first official visit to the Jewish state, which begins this week. “The mayor will be in Israel and will meet with various officials to make the case that Israel would be making a smart investment to continue supporting the existing consulate in Philadelphia,” he said.
McDonald pointed out that a quarter of all Israeli exports to the United States pass through the Philadelphia region “and our life sciences, medical research and energy industries in the region complement similar sectors in Israel. So, the mayor will vigorously make the case to Israeli officials as well as American officials in Israel.”
On Nov. 4, leaders of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia sent a letter to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, urging the government to keep the consulate open.
“The closure of the consulate will negatively affect our Federation’s contining efforts to support Israel by acting as a partner and an advocate,” stated the letter, signed by Federation President Sherrie Savett and Interim CEO Alex Stroker.
An email sent out by Federation also urged community members to sign an online petition to keep the office open.
On Oct. 17, the American Jewish Committee also sent a letter.
Marcia Bronstein, executive director of AJC’s Philadelphia chapter, said there are about 600,000 Jews within the Philadelphia consulate’s jurisdiction.
She pointed out that Philadelphia is a hub of diplomatic activity, with more than 30 career and honorary consuls serving in the region and the Israeli consulate is an important part of the mix. She added that there is a “boisterous” boycott, sanctions and divestment movement in the region and the consulate plays a key role in combatting it.
In an interview, Josh Cline, a local businessman who’s helping to get the word out, said the only way to convince the Israelis to keep the consulate open is to bring pressure to bear.
Cline said that it’s “also vital to help Israelis and people from the U.S. understand what the mission of the consulate is.”
Palmor, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said of the public campaign: “We are naturally open to any message or comment from people who feel concerned and involved.
“And we look forward to meeting Michael Nutter in Israel next week and talking to him about a wide range of issues of mutual interests.”
This story was reported and written by Bryan Schwartzman, Bob Leiter and Lisa Hostein.