Washington — The annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America kicked off this year in an autumnal American capital with the disappointing news that the guest star, President Barack Obama, canceled at the last minute to attend a memorial service for the victims of a shooting at an army base in Texas last week. The president’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, will be taking his place as keynote speaker on Tuesday.
Some 3,000 delegates from across the U.S., Canada and Israel have been arriving since Friday, filling the Marriott Hotel with called greetings, gossip, schmoozing and smatterings of Hebrew.
The security at the event was high even before the delegates arrived. With 24 hours to go, towering security guards with soft voices and imposing weaponry restricted access to the conference hall to delegates only.
The fundamental essence of the conference can be summed up quite simply: What on earth are we going to do now that the crash has taken a huge chunk of our money and Madoff has stolen most of the rest? But all is not lost.
The banners adorning the entrance to the conference all carry the same optimistic message: Anything is possible. Peace for Israel? Yes. Cohesion in the Jewish World? Absolutely. Saving the world? Sure, why not? There are discussions and debates with titles such as “Successful Management in Lean Times,” and “Applying Business Skills to Jewish Work.” The message: however hard the times are, there is a way ahead.
The meet also focuses on the usual topics concerning the largest and most influential Jewish community in the world: Iran, Israel’s image in the world and, of course, the Goldstone commission report on the Gaza conflict and its allegations of war crimes.
Interestingly, there is a panel on Sunday on the role of Jews in Washington. This is a hot topic, given the central role played by Jews in the Obama administration - Emanuel and Obama’s key aide David Axelrod are both of the faith - and the range of responses garnered by his immediate engagement with the settlement issue, both inside Israel and in the U.S. corridors of power.
Unlike the J Street conference in the same city last week, this one is pulling all the heavy hitters. Of the triumvirate of stars on the billing, Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, is the least impressive. He is the warm-up for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who would in turn have been upstaged by Obama. Instead, delegates will have to make do with Emanuel, and what he will tell the delegates is the subject of much speculation here.