Dispatches From New Orleans on the JFNA General Assembly

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published November 05, 2010.

Livni Calls for Resumption of Peace Talks

November 9, 2010, 3:34 p.m.

At the closing plenary of the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni called for a resumption of peace talks, and for a two-state solution.

Speaking in the last hours of the three-day conference, Livni spoke at length about what she thinks it means for Israel to be a Jewish and democratic state.

“A Jewish state is not a religious state or a halacha state,” she said.

Livni argued that Israel must maintain a Jewish majority, and that in order to do so must pursue a two-state solution.

Livni said that Palestinian refugees should not be allowed to return to Israel, and that Israel should keep the holy sites, particularly Jerusalem, which she called “the eternal capital of the Jewish people.”

Like Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who addressed the General Assembly on Sunday and Monday, respectively, Livni spoke of the threat of what she called the delegitimizaiton of Israel. “Delegitimization is not just about whether they love us or not. Its more than that,” she said. “It’s a real threat because it reflects the ability of the state of Isarel [to defend] against those who are not willing to accept our existence in the Middle East.”

Livni also called for “more effective” sanctions against Iran, and for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinijad to be barred from speaking at the United Nations and in other international forums.

At the end of the plenary, before a much-diminished crowd, Jay Feinberg was announced as winner of the 2010 Jewish Community Heroes contest. Feinberg, a leukemia survivor, founded the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation.

GA Participants Head to the Lower 9th for Service Project

November 8, 2010, 7:15 p.m.

Volunteers attending the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America cleared overgrowth in the Lower 9th Ward.
Josh Nathan-Kazis
Volunteers attending the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America cleared overgrowth in the Lower 9th Ward.

In a much-ballyhooed first, around half of those attending the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America participated in volunteer service projects around New Orleans this afternoon.

And though questions are often raised about the effectiveness of day-long service programs like this one, activists from non-Jewish partner organizations at one of the project sites said that they thought the work had positive impact – albeit not exactly the impact the participants thought they were having.

Linda Jackson, an area resident and member of the Lower 9th Ward Homeowners Association, said that she hoped the outside help, and the media attention it received would shame local government into dedicating more resources to the neighborhood. While local activists agreed that clearing the grasses was important, a number said that the project’s real impact would be on how the work was perceived, both by locals and by the government.

“The people who live here are overwhelmed,” said Denise Thornton, who runs Beacon of Hope Resource Center, which partnered with Repair the World, a new Jewish social service group, to run the program, a brush clearing project in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “When [the Jewish volunteers] come it just gives us a kind of a lift, emotionally.

Deployed across different areas of the city, volunteers from the G.A. cleared brush, packed meals, cleaned a park, and recycled the plastic Mardi Gras beads that carpet the streets during the annual Lent celebration. Representatives of Repair the World, which coordinated the day, said that 1,500 people worked on service projects or what they called service learning tours, and that another 300 had put together packages for the homeless.

In the Lower 9th Ward project, a few hundred volunteers – mostly students brought to the convention by the Jewish youth groups Hillel or BBYO – attacked overgrown brush on empty lots and around abandoned houses with pruning implements and rakes.

“The before and after pictures of this neighborhood will be fantastic,” said Evan Howard, a local activist with a group called lowernine.org who was helping manage the Jewish volunteers.

The project focused on two neighboring intersections along North Tonti Street in the Lower Ninth. Jackson, of the Lower 9th Ward Homeowner’s Association, said that the brush constituted a hazard. High grasses block the sightline of cars as they approach one another at intersections, she said.

Others said that the grasses contributed to crime in the area and prevented residents from returning. “I think we’re making a big difference in the community,” said Becca Nance, a high school student with the BBYO group. She said that she had never participated in projects like this before.

On one empty lot, volunteers were clearing low brush with hand-held implements – work that looked as though it could have been done more efficiently with a lawnmower. But a local activist said that the amount of debris on the ground made the use of lawnmowers difficult.

At a second site, a local community organization that recycles Mardi Gras beads, only a handful of volunteers were present. The project had clearly been set up for a large number of participants. Repair the World spokesman couldn’t immediately explain why the project had such low participation, but said that all of the other sites had hundreds of GA attendees.

Bibi Vows To Confront Those Who Attempt To Delegitimize Israel

November 8, 2010, 3:23 p.m.

In a speech before the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talked about efforts to confront Iran and the threat posed by the effort to delegitimize Israel in the international community.

The speech was interrupted five times by protesters affiliated with the left-wing activist group Jewish Voice for Peace. For more on the disruptions, see a story on the background of the disruption here.

Netanyahu spoke at length about the threat posed to Israel by Iran. He said that the sanctions on Iran were “putting strong economic pressure” on the Iranian government. But he implied that sanctions might not be enough.

“The simple paradox is this: If the international community led by the United States hope to stop Iran’s nuclear program without resorting to military action, it will have to convince Iran that it will take such action,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu also spoke about what has been called the attempt to delegitimize Israel, which has been a focus of the G.A. Like Vice President Joe Biden, who addressed the group yesterday, Netanyahu commended the creation of the Israel Action Network, a new anti-delegitimization effort by the JFNA.

In response to the first protester to disrupt the talk, who shouted “the loyalty oath delegitimizes Israel,” Netanyahu responded: “I’m going to talk about delegitimizing Israel, but they really have the wrong address.” The statement was greeted by extensive applause.

“The establishment of Israel didn’t end the hatred towards the Jews — it merely redirected it,” Netanyahu said. “Today in many quarters, it is Israel that is demonized, singled out, and denied the rights that are granted to other nations, first and foremost the right of self defense.”

Netanyahu also pledge continued support for Birthright and MASA “to ensure that every young Jew who wants to can come to Israel.”

In an odd moment, Netanyahu attempted to extract a promise from American astronaut Garrett Reisman, a friend of the Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon who died in the crash of the space shuttle Columbia, to move to Israel. Reisman said that he had to check with his wife.

Netanyahu’s talk was preceded by a welcome from New Orleans Mayor Mitchell Landrieu, and by a lengthy presentation by Jewish immigrants to Israel from around the world.

Also speaking, in succession, were Steven Schwager, the CEO of the Joint Distribution Committee, and Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The two groups have clashed in the past year over the percentage of funding each receives from the American federation system. The Jewish Agency made a bid for a greater share based on its new focus on Jewish identity.

Schwager and Sharansky each pitched their respective organizations. Schwager emphasized the importance of his organization’s social service programs in the former Soviet Union, and noted his group’s efforts to build Jewish identity in communities outside of the United States and Israel. Sharansky spoke of the Jewish Agency’s role in opposing the shrinking of Jewish communities and in opposing the so-called delegitimization of Israel. Sharanksy appeared to receive a far warmer reaction from the audience than Schwager.

Throughout the program, a reporter for Israel’s Channel 2 television network recorded stand-ups, drawing shushes from audience members sitting near the press area.

The plenary came after a morning of sessions, including a mini-conference sponsored by Jewish education groups, including BJE-NY SAJES, the Covenant Foundation, and JESNA. Called the Jewish Futures Conference, the two-hour event focused on new modes of thinking about Jewish education rather than program specifics.

Following the plenary, 1,700 of the delegates will depart to engage in service projects around New Orleans.

Biden Guarantees Administration Support for Israel, and Speaks Against Delegitimization Efforts

November 7, 2010, 8 p.m.

Vice President Joe Biden reaffirmed the Obama administration’s support for Israel in an address to the opening plenary of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. At a convention marked by its focus on defending Israel, Biden spoke at length about his personal ties to the Jewish state and its leaders, and emphasized the administration’s support for JFNA’s newly announced efforts to combat what it calls the delegitimization of Israel.

“I absolutely guarantee, as long as there’s a breath in me, this government, this nation, will stand with Israel,” Biden said. “It’s in our own naked self-interest, beyond the massive moral necessity.”

After a day of workshops which had included two panels on efforts to delegitimize Israel, Biden said that the Israel Action Network, the new multi-million dollar effort of the JFNA and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs to combat the movement to divest from Israel, was “so important and so appreciated by the President and me.”

“Efforts to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy will only be met by unshakeable opposition by the United States of America,” Biden said.

Biden spoke about his longstanding personal relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is scheduled to speak to the General Assembly on Monday. Biden said that, during the diplomatic incident that erupted during his visit to Israel in March – when the Israeli government announced new settlement construction – he met with Netanyahu at the prime minister’s home. The two “worked it out as friends and brothers,” Biden said.

Biden said that he and Netanyahu met in New Orleans today. “We spent an hour or so together talking about our relationship and the future of the great State of Israel,” Biden said.

According to Forward Washington correspondent Nathan Guttman, who attended an Israeli government press briefing in Hebrew earlier this afternoon, Biden and Netanyahu spoke about peace negotiations, and about sanctions against Iran. Netanyahu reportedly told Biden that the sanctions were having an effect, but that the perception that a military option is on the table is important to maintain.

In his talk to the General Assembly, Biden said with regard to Iran “the door to diplomacy remains open,” but said that “we are also absolutely committed to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” The line was greeted with heavy applause.

Biden put particular emphasis on ensuring the audience of the importance the administration places on its relationship with Israel. Saying that he wanted to dispel “myths” about the Obama administration, Biden cited increased aid to Israel for missile defense programs and large-scale joint military exercised undertaken since Obama’s inauguration.

Biden was followed by David Simon, creator of the HBO hit The Wire and, more recently, Treme. Simon spoke about the distance between the Jewish and black communities, and what he saw as the lack of philanthropic support from Jews while he was researching his book, “The Corner”, over a decade ago in West Baltimore. Calling the plight of the black community in Baltimore a “holocaust in slow motion,” Simon implored Jews to give outside of the Jewish community. He complimented the federations for their financial support for New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Simon said that he would donate his speaking fee to a New Orleans health organization benefiting musicians.

As Curtain Rises, Focus on Volunteerism and Defense of Israel is Clear

November 7, 2010, 11 a.m.

Bruchim Habayim: A story-high sign in front of the Sheraton Hotel in New Orleans welcomes delegates to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Josh Nathan-Kazis
Bruchim Habayim: A story-high sign in front of the Sheraton Hotel in New Orleans welcomes delegates to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.

As over three thousand Jews arrive in downtown New Orleans for the first full day of the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, the themes of the three-day conference are already clear.

Much has been made of the social service projects scheduled for the second day of the conference – a first for the General Assembly. But a second focus has also emerged in this town known more for the debauchery of Bourbon Street and the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina than for sober policy debates: the Jewish communal response to the international movement to boycott and divest from Israel, known as BDS.

A full five sessions at the conference are set to be dedicated to conversations about what is referred to here as the delegitimization movement. Speakers at the sessions include Rabbi Steve Gutow, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, conservative strategist Frank Luntz, and Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

Although a speaker affiliated with AIPAC and another with the right-leaning Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs are scheduled to appear on the panels, there are no representatives of left-wing groups like J Street or Americans for Peace Now.

The focus on delegitimization is tied to the October launch of the Israel Action Network, a multi-million dollar initiative of the JFNA and the JCPA that will “fight back against growing efforts to delegitimize and demonize the state of Israel,” according to a press release.

Stay tuned to this space for much more on this issue.

Meanwhile, the scale of the operation here is impressive. Among the billboards along the highway from the airport advertising French Quarter strip clubs, one welcomed the GA’s convention-goers.

“The GA this year is a great example of change,” said JFNA president Jerry Silverman at a conference session early Sunday morning. “We want a whole new energy to raise the bar of the GA.”

Silverman said that 600 college students are attending the conference through Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

In the main exhibition hall on Saturday evening, singer Neshama Carlebach performed a Havdalah concert before benches arranged to resemble the JFNA’s circular logo. In what appears to be a fortuitous coincidence, the city is currently plastered with advertisements for a traveling performance of “Soul Doctor,” a musical about her father, Jewish liturgical music legend Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at the convention this morning, although he is not scheduled to speak until tomorrow. Vice President Joe Biden will speak at the conferences opening plenary, which will be held at 4:15 this afternoon.



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