By Samuel Green
Ever heard of the Jerusalem Conference? Neither had I until a few weeks ago. Despite the super-awesome sounding name, the conference was a pretty informal two-day ‘symposium’ on Israeli politics and society, held February 15th-17th. It was conveniently held down the street from my dorm on Har Hatzofim in the Regency Hotel, quite near the campus of the Hebrew University. I was able to snag a pass (free of charge, I might add) to the final day of the conference, which was to be capped by a highly-publicized address by arguably the most important man in Israel, the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Word on the street was that PM Netanyahu was to speak about his developing plans to deal with the growing threat of a nuclear Iran. No surprise there.
I strolled down to the hotel after class and was soon issued an oddly misspelled name tag. I soon figured out that this ‘symposium’ was pretty much a pep-rally for the classic ‘pro-Israel’ camp. There were a lot of distinguished-looking, older Modern Orthodox Americans in the sessions. Also present in large numbers were dati lumi (religious Zionist) Israelis. By the looks of it, this was to be a ‘wherever I stand, I stand with Israel’ afternoon. And the Jerusalem Conference did not disappoint. I was able to catch two full panel discussions before Bibi’s talk. The first session was on new immigrants, and the economic, social, and personal challenges facing new-comers to the State. I learned that many take jobs well below their professional training, due to language barriers and discriminatory hiring practices in some communities. The second session was entitled “War in the 21st Century: Counter-Terrorism versus Counter Insurgency” and the panel members were all distinguished American and Israeli military personnel. From this session I learned that Israel must fight the terrorists, and though it is tough, they will win because they have to (and they’ve got the best technology and smartest tacticians etc.). Good to know.
After a quick break for falafel (all that sitting can tire a fellow out…) I went back to the Regency for PM Netanyahu’s talk. Somehow I snagged front-row seats about fifty feet from the man himself. Netanyahu arrived, plenary remarks were made, and then his deep, clear baritone voice began to work its magic on the very friendly crowd. I was loving it. “Jerusalem is our heritage, we’ll never give it up, this will be the city of peace, Israel is the bastion of democracy in the Middle East”, were all covered in the first fifteen minutes before Bibi got into the heavy stuff: Iran and the potential for disaster if it is not stopped from acquiring nuclear weaponry. Netanyahu has the reputation of being obsessed with Iran and making it the center of his current international relations ticket. And perhaps for good reason. Netanyahu wanted us to know that a nuclear Iran = disaster for the world, = catastrophe for Israel. His current plan to avert the coming disaster of Iran acquiring and putting to use serious nuclear weapons (since strict diplomacy, as in “c’mon guys, please don’t do that anymore”, hasn’t worked at all up to this point) is to impose harsh economic sanctions on Iran. Of course, he needs the worlds’ help do this. He’s trying to get the Western democracies and many other states in the world to impose a complete fuel blockade on Iran. The logic goes that since Iran (like every other developed nation on Earth) is completely reliant on fuel for the proper functioning of it’s economy, and since Iran doesn’t produce or refine much oil itself, to impose an oil blockade would force Ahmadinejad to the bargaining table, for serious this time. I don’t know a thing about foreign policy or diplomacy, but this sounds like as good plan as any to me. Netanyahu finisehd his speech to a standing ovation and a rousing, pre-recorded version of ‘Ha-Tikva’.
So I really did like all the Zionism and “democratic, Jewish state” and “light unto the Nations” rhetoric. It’s hard not to feel something when you’re as interested in Am Yisrael (“the people/nation of Israel”) as I am. But I was left wondering—so why did Bibi talk about Iran for 30 minutes at the “Jerusalem Conference”? What does he want us (the foreign audience of older folks and students) to do now? I know, I know…lobby your representative, read, talk to people, stick up for Israel in conversations, conduct signature drives, raise money for AIPAC. But really, what is this business? I’ve never really understood the whole “Israel advocacy” thing. To me it seems that rich Jews, polticial Jews, and AIPAC have pretty much got it locked up. And if Obama wants to get ‘tough on Israel’ than he probably will, regardless of how many leaflets I hand out on campus. And speaking of “on campus”, what roll is on-campus advocacy supposed to play in all of this? American college campuses are frequently sharply divided on the ‘issue’ of Israel (loaded term), and it doesn’t seem to me that vocally supporting Israel at college achieves much more than majorly pissing off the ‘peace and justice for Palestine’ camp. Actually…it also gives kids a chance to put on suits and huff it to D.C. for a day or two of ‘lobbying’ on Capitol Hill. Sweet. So yeah, I love Israel and I don’t want the State to be obliterated by Iran, or anyone else for that matter. And I mostly trust the politicians—Israeli, American, and otherwise—to work it out. But what am I supposed to do to help Israel get through the Iran crisis? Or was Netanyahu’s speech just another chance to make some new Zionists and get some good sounds bites into the next day’s papers? These are the questions that keep me up at night here on Mt. Scopus, Jerusalem.
Samuel Green is a student at Swarthmore College. When he grows up he wants to be a guy with a lot of dogs.