BiographyBook ReviewsJoin Mailing ListScheduled AppearancesArticlesFeedback


From the GA
Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupoliansky greets GA delegates
by Judy Lash Balint
Israel Insider
November 17, 2003

Israel's only growth industry got another boost this week. The 4,000 delegates attending the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in Jerusalem added an expected $15million to the Israeli tourism economy by their presence here.

Tourism is up over 24 percent over last year, as word trickles out that you can still have a great time in a country at war. Potential visitors realize that peace isn't about to break out any time soon, so it doesn't really pay to postpone a trip to one of the most inspiring places in the world.

GA delegates are not tourists, of course--most tourists tend to spend a little more than three days in Israel--but the hope is that they will return to their home communities and spread the word that tourism can help Israel almost as much as writing a big check.

That's the message Israel's Ministry of Tourism tries to spread through the GA in perhaps the cleverest piece of shtick handed out to delegates. Among the US and Israeli flag pins, buttons, CDs and posters offered to the Jews wandering the conference halls of the Binyanei Ha'uma conference center, Tourism Ministry representatives pass out packages of four playing cards.

On one side are the questions: How can you really help Israel? How can you really fight assimilation? How Can you really strengthen your community? How can you really raise more money?

On the flip side, the answer to all the questions: Bring Your Community to Israel! Right below the answer in a box set up to resemble the surgeon general's warnings on cigarettes, are factoid boxes: Fact: Frequent visits to Israel strengthen Israel's economy. Fact: Frequent visits to Israel fortify the immune system against assimilation. Fact: Frequent visits to Israel build strong communal unity. Fact: Frequent visits to Israel open the heart--and the checkbook.

Indeed, one Chicago delegate was still in shock as she related the huge donations pledged by some members of her delegation at a pre-GA "caucus." Several donors promised contributions of millions of dollars, she told me.

Money was a topic mentioned by GA machers at the news conference just prior to the conference opening. More than $220 million is transferred annually to Israel by the N. American federations. But the Associated Press gave their story lead to the two busloads who plan to visit communities in Gush Etzion, over the Green Line.

Few of the fifty display booths scattered through the conference center are overtly political, with the exception of Americans for Peace Now. Most publicize the larger Israeli non-profit and cultural organizations, such as Magen David Adom, Naamat women, the Israel Museum, or prominent business ventures catering to English speakers such as the Jerusalem Post, Israel Discount Bank or the Dan Hotels. Booth fees of $5,000 kept most grassroots organizations away, but here in Jerusalem at least no one is preventing people from handing out literature, an unfortunate occurrence at previous GAs in the US.

Veteran Jewish leaders who never seem to tire of the Jewish political game are seen reuniting with old friends at the delegate's lounge. Ruth Popkin and Shoshana Cardin, who between them have held every conceivable high office in major American Jewish organizations over the past thirty years appear older but still engaged.

Security for the opening gala is tight but things runs smoothly. Several hundred birthright student participants keep things moving as the crowd waits in the auditorium for the event to begin. One young man decides to do a simulated streak through the audience with a Canadian flag flowing from his back. There's loud applause. A few moments later he's persuaded to do a rerun draped in an Israeli flag--much louder reaction.

Finally the Cabinet and Knesset members are seated next to the chief rabbis in their black hats (the only ones in the entire hall) and President Katzav and Prime Minister Sharon are escorted into the hall to standing ovations. The two and a half hour production features speeches, music, dancing as well as the requisite protest.

Outside Binyanei Hauma, several hundred protestors have gathered to raise a voice on behalf of imprisoned Israeli citizen Jonathan Pollard. Many Israelis question why successive Israeli governments have done little to press the American administration to release Pollard, who is serving a life sentence for conveying classified material to Israel.

Inside the auditorium, about ten pro-Pollard activists get up a few minutes into Arik Sharon's speech, pull out pictures of Pollard and yell out : "Bring Pollard Home!" Sharon barely pauses in his remarks. The protestors make a few fatal errors--their signs are too small, their choice of seats unfortunate as UJC Israel director Nachman Shai is sitting a few sets down, and they're not close enough to the front to have any impact on the crowd. The protestors don't even try to struggle as they're escorted out, and seem too shy to continue yelling their slogans--most delegates have no idea what is going on.

Sharon gets a sustained standing ovation when he booms out: "Our enemies have yet to understand that the Jewish people cannot be broken...and will never be broken." Just like President Katzav who speaks right before him, Sharon makes a concerted pitch for N. American aliya. More applause...."I have a dream that every Jew will spend at least one year living here during his lifetime," Sharon goes on.

It's the first opportunity for Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupoliansky to introduce himself to a large N. American Jewish audience. Unlike his predecessor, the urbane, secular Ehud Olmert who spent almost as much time overseas as in Jerusalem, Lupoliansky has yet to travel to the US. He addresses the crowd in passable English, but his declaration of Jerusalem as the eternal, undivided capital gets no ovation.

Along with a children's choir and the Mechola dance troupe, organizers chose singing star Noa as the featured entertainer--knowing full well that a left-wing political monologue is a trademark of her performances. She didn't disappoint this evening. Noa delivered a speech before launching into her vocal number that lauded the efforts of Rabbis for Human Rights and Ami Ayalon, both committed to positions well beyond the consensus of Israeli public opinion.

Later today when some delegates step out of the conference hall and parade through downtown Jerusalem streets passing through Machane Yehuda and Agrippas Streets, they'll get a dose of mainstream Israeli views. For those few who, like GA co-chair Susan Gelman can converse in Hebrew, the experience might provide enlightening.