American Jewish Committee Global Forum 2018 or Israel as you (don’t) know it

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) regularly organizes its anniversary conferences in great style, but this year’s meeting was exceptional. The AJC was founded in 1902 with the aim of defending Jewish interests in the USA and around the world. Just to give you an idea, AJC has regional headquarters in 11 countries, and 22 branches in the USA. In Europe, AJC has its headquarters in Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Warsaw and offices in Sophia and Rome.

More than 2400 delegates from 56 countries representing six continents met in Jerusalem shortly after the USA and other countries recognized it as the capital of Israel. They met under the slogan “This year in Jerusalem”, an adaptation of the known Pesach festival phrase “Next year in Jerusalem”. The Czech Republic was represented by Petr Papoušek and Tomáš Kraus from the Federation of Jewish Communities, as well as ČISOK representative Linda Štucbartová, who had received an invitation from Avital Leibovitch, the main organizer and director of AJC in Jerusalem. Over four days, the conference participants had the opportunity to get to know Israel, and to learn about the current affairs in the country and the region, and the themes of Israeli- American relations from many different viewpoints.

The conference was unique in terms of the events organized. The large plenary session was followed by expert panels for smaller discussion groups. Half of the day was dedicated to excursions. The opening of the conference, which for the first time in 112 years was held outside the USA, and the participation of top political representatives demonstrated how important this conference was for the two main stakeholders, Israel and the USA. Nir Barkat, the Mayor of Jerusalem, welcomed the conference participants. He described Jerusalem as a progressive city belonging to everybody regardless of their religion. Interest in visiting Jerusalem has doubled, and four million tourists visit the city each year. The aim is to prepare the city to receive 10 million visitors.

Jerusalem is a city of history but also a city of the future. It is home to 50 of the most influential high-tech companies. Jerusalem has tripled its budget to support the development of investment and infrastructure. As far as security is concerned, Nir Barkat joked, he is pleased to return home especially after travelling to the USA, because Jerusalem is statistically 15 times safer than Washington DC, the US capital, in terms of violent deaths.

It was my dream to experience the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not only from a journalist’s viewpoint, but also as an expert in leadership. It was not necessary to introduce the Prime Minister of Israel, so the president of AJC introduced the audience to the Prime Minister. Benjamin Netanyahu conquered the entire congress hall not only with his warm welcome, but also with the reproach that Antarctica was not represented. He reminded the audience that AJC had opened its first office in Jerusalem 60 years prior and said that the Israelis were pleased when companies and states opened their offices in Jerusalem. Then it was time for emotions. More than 300 US high school and university students received a special welcome because they were the reason why the Prime Minister works so hard and with determination. He explained that AJC mobilizes truth and it was important for visitors to Israel to see the truth for themselves. He was proud to share the latest economic data on Israel’s performance with the enthusiastic crowd. Israel has surpassed Japan in per capita income, while unemployment is at 3.8% and the gap between the highest and lowest earnings is getting smaller. One of the reasons for this economic growth is that more Orthodox Jews, Arab citizens living in Israel, and women have entered the labour market. He joked that Israel is the only country in the region that has free elections and free media. He has experienced both since he won the elections four times and lost once, and shared that every morning he learns something interesting about himself in the media. Diversity, he continued, makes Israeli society stronger. He mentioned equal rights for gays, the presence of women pilots in the Army, and Druze ministers in the government. As for the peace process, Netanyahu said he was ready to negotiate under three conditions: if the Palestinians recognize the Jewish state, if they invest in the peace process, and if they stop financing terrorists. By sharing research results and innovations, Israel boasts the best diplomatic relations with individual countries in history. Israeli research helps protect valuable water resources, supports agricultural development, air protection, and protection from cyber-attacks. Last but not least, Prime Minister Netanyahu mentioned Israel’s crises and humanitarian aid in affected areas. Recently, he has sent aid to Guatemala. In the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal, Israel was the most significant provider of humanitarian aid after India. “Do you know where Iran has given similar aid to?” He ended by thanking the conference participants for their support of Israel and added, “We are thankful for the friendship shown to us from around the world.”

Being grateful for friendship and long-lasting relations was an important commemorative point of the conference. Each day of the conference featured a segment called “Remembering the Courageous Friends of Israel”. Tribute was paid to Harry Truman who as president of the United States recognised Israel’s independence 11 minutes after it was announced. Tribute was also paid to the leaders of the mission from Brazil and Guatemala who were present when the UN resolution 181 was being negotiated and voted for in 1947. Prime Minister Mitsotakis, who normalized the Greece-Israeli relations in 1990, was also mentioned.

During the conference and the following bilateral meetings, top European and world representatives took the opportunity to highlight their friendship and intensive relations with Israel. The Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz ceremonially addressed the AJC Forum, as did the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, the representative of the European Parliament Péter Niedermueller and the Vice-President of the Georgian Parliament Tamar Chugashivili.

Twenty-three mission leaders and major representatives of different countries hosted a lunch in honour of their relations with Israel. In this context, it was somewhat unfortunate that the representative of the Czech Republic had cancelled his participation at the last minute. Although it might seem that Czech and Czechoslovak relations with Israel are profound and above standard, it is necessary to take care of them and develop them further. Given the example of other countries, it is obvious that Israel has many friends and it would be a shame if the Czech Republic was left aside.

My favourite part of the conference was the segment called “Faces of Israel”. Through the lives of special people, we realized how truly diverse the nature of Israeli society is. I have chosen the stories that most appealed to me.

Rivka Ravitz, head of President Rivlin’s office, is a Haredi or Orthodox Jew. Although she looks like a mature university student, she is the mother of 11 children and many times grandmother. She herself is one of 10 children, her husband one of 12, so a wedding in the close family circle of cousins amounts to 1000 people. Although she works full-time, she has never had to compromise the values of her faith or the quality of her work. She tries to fight the stereotype that Orthodox women have limited rights, are locked up in their homes and discriminated against. On the contrary, she sees herself as the proud bearer of the 3000- year-old tradition of Torah teachings and laws.

Belaynesh Zevadia is the current ambassador to Ethiopia. She arrived in Israel during Operation Moses, an undertaking that saved about 8000 Ethiopian Jews. Before Israel carried out this successful rescue operation, Ethiopian Jews had had to walk several hundred kilometres to Sudan to be detained in provisional camps for more than a year. Only few know that almost 4000 Jews did not survive the long journey or the bad conditions in the camp. Belaynesh successfully graduated from university, became the first Ethiopian to work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ambassador of Israel in Ethiopia. She is mother of three and her husband supports her career. Whenever she meets young girls on Ethiopian streets, she remembers her story of transformation from total poverty to the embodiment of success.

Ahlam Alsana, director of the girl’s school Desert Stars School Branco Weiss, is of Bedouin origin. Although she did not have the same conditions and support to study as her brothers did, her results show that through hard work she caught up with them in the end. Her aim is to get at least 70% girls to attend her school; today 30% attend. She literally goes from house to house and persuades parents to allow their daughters to study.

May. Gene. Doron Almog was a successful army general, who had taken part in several elite operations, including the liberation of air hostages in Entebe, secret operations liberating Ethiopian Jews or operations to free Israeli soldiers in Lebanon. After the birth of his son with severe disabilities, he left the Army and founded the Aleh Negev Nahalat Eran Rehabilitative Village, named after his son. It is a centre for children and young adults with severe combined disorders. An area of 400 acres offers a paradise for the clients, not the patients. For 140 clients there are 140 staff members. The Centre is not an institution, but a community where the clients receive love and care. The Centre is based on social responsibility because every society is as strong as its weakest member is. Eran died at the age of 23; however, the Village and its concept continue to grow with many European and American centres. I gave the Centre’s contact to Petr Třešňák who deals with autism in the Czech Republic.

Colonel Achiya Klein is a veteran of the Israeli armed forces who lost his vision during an operation to liquidate an underground tunnel leading into Gaza. He returned to IDF four months after his injury and became an expert in technology that helps search for similar secret tunnels. In addition, he takes care of other veterans, runs in marathons and is a member of the Paralympic team of rowers. Hamas took his sight, but not his desire to live, build and protect Israel.

Part of the congress was also the 70 years of Israel exhibition. It was dedicated to the past, but it mainly dealt with the future. Seven panels documented seven decades, and the influence of AJC in the context of major events. Far more space, however, was given to today‘s companies that represent Israel and its inventiveness, innovation, community, diplomacy, vision, diversity and progress. All these values are connected to the concept of tikkun olam, or the efforts of Jews to repair the world. Visitors could see and often taste products from the Jordan valley (delicious vodka made from dates, also dates, pineapple, and grapes) or wine from Jerusalem’s vineyards. Scientists from the Research Institute Volcani Center provided quality olive oil and introduced new research aimed at the nutritional enrichment of chickpeas. Companies such as OrCam and ReWalk Robotics are known in Czech Republic thanks to ELAI Week of Innovations. Watergen introduced the production of water from air, which could be an interesting solution even for the Czech Republic since the country repeatedly faces problems with groundwater supplies. Real View Imaging uses holographic 3D imaging for complex surgery and Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, supplier of the Iron Dome defence system, was present as well. Space was given to brand new companies that produce unique solar panels in the form of thin foils so that photovoltaic power plants don‘t need to take up too much land, and to the start-up ElectReon, which plans to install rechargeable batteries for cars directly in the asphalt of roads. When I began to feel tired, a chatbot or rather “a barbot” mixed a cocktail according to my wishes. This year Czechoslovakia will celebrate 100 years and I hope that a similar exhibition, focusing on the future rather than the past, will take place in our country in October.

Having written about the different events at the conference, I will now mention the presentations by two expert panels. The first dealt with the bias of the media in relation to Israel. Despite all the discoveries and inventions, the social diversity, the cultural and sport events, 70% of European news and 90% of US news focus on the conflict in the Middle East. This conflict is often portrayed as “the imperialist army fighting against peace-loving citizens who follow the principles of Mahatma Gandhi,” says Henrique Cymerman, a Middle East expert on the media problem. Thanks to the great work of Czech reporters, we don’t need to solve this problem, but at the time of various disinformation sites and unverified news from social networks, it is important to be cautious.

The second panel dealt with the more serious problem of anti-Zionism as a new form of anti-Semitism. Israel is often criticised and accused of wrongdoings according to standards that are different to those applied to its neighbouring countries.

Fortunately, in the Czech Republic, this phenomenon is not widespread. However, this is not the case in the rest of Europe. While the panel meeting was taking place, there was a demonstration by Islamic fundamentalists in Berlin; the slogan “death to Jews” often appears in Paris, and Barcelona has joined the BDS organization (boycott, divestment and sanctions). This new anti-Zionism seems to have become fashionable among young people in the USA. Radicalization, both on the left and extreme right, is a dangerous trend and doesn’t leave much room for objective debates based on concrete facts and history.

Finally, I would like to mention the excursions that were a real cherry on the cake. The participants could choose from 18 different excursions dedicated to history, innovations, settlements, the IDF bases, and religious matters. I chose the excursion to Kiyat Gat to learn about the process of acceptance and integration of new immigrants. Israel receives 20,000-30,000 immigrants a year. Kiryat Gat deals with immigrants from Ethiopia, who find the transition from their traditional farming communities to the modern industrialized society particularly challenging. It was interesting to see how Israel is based not only of the laws of acceptance but also on those of integration. Emphasis is placed on education, with children being immediately integrated into mainstream schools, and parents attending Hebrew lessons. At the same time, however, it allows nationalities to maintain their own traditions and identity. Ethiopians can work in the fields and meet in traditional huts, which is particular important for the older generations.

The AJC conference is a truly unique opportunity to get to know Israel. I recommend all those interested in learning about Israel in a wider context to experience this conference at least once. If I have tempted you, the next conference will take place in Washington DC on 2/6 – 4/6 2019. And for women I have one more offer: the first woman business mission from the Czech Republic to Israel will take place from 12/10 to 20/10/2018. If you are interested, contact the organizer Linda Štucbartová at linda@stucbartova.cz.

By Linda Štucbartová

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