In the end, the part of the evening that that had been scorned the most was the one that confounded the cynics: When Jacob Ostreicher poignantly thanked Sean Penn for saving him from a Bolivian jail, when Penn responded with an eloquent homage to a dialogue between political opponents and when the well-heeled New York audience of mostly right-wing Jews gave an enthusiastic standing ovation to the decidedly left-wing Hollywood star.
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It was an upbeat climax to “kosher sex” Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s power-studded and often self-indulgent annual bash, held at posh Cipriani in midtown Manhattan on Sunday night, in which Penn’s efforts on behalf of Ostreicher were recognized and rightfully appreciated. Nonetheless, the six-hour Second Annual Champions of Jewish Values International Award Gala was as preposterous at times as its long name implies: When Boteach tearfully called up eight of his nine children to present the first award of the evening to his wife Debbie “so sure of herself she needs no spotlight”; when past and present beneficiaries of Sheldon Adelson – who hosted the evening together with his Birthright co-sponsor, Michael Steinhardt - showered him as well as each other with hyperbolic superlatives and over-the-top awards; or when the evening’s main attraction, New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie, tried to make amends for his original sin of saying “occupied territories,” only to forget to mention Israel at all.
In fact, it was the potential reprise of Christie's Las Vegas glitch last month, in which the presidential hopeful bungled his audition before big donor Adelson, that brought national media attention to Boteach’s event, enabling organizers to hold an authentic “red carpet” preliminary for some of the so-called “VIPs” of the evening. Christie, however, preferred to stay away from the press - avoiding snarky questions about the traffic he encountered on the way on the George Washington Bridge? - allowing Texas Governor Rick Perry to fill the void and to gleefully pose with both Sheldon and Miri Adelson. The 80-year-old casino magnate, for his part, seemed to revel in his Hollywood-starlet treatment and to bask in the flickering camera flashes from the scores of photographers and groupies crowded behind the red rope.
Christie gave what the U.S. media described as a “muscular” speech, in which he lambasted America’s deteriorating international stature “in the past five years” – i.e. since Obama was elected. He called for a restoration of American “moral leadership” and said that the U.S. “must stand with its friends” but strangely neglected to explicitly mention the word Israel. That did not sit very well with Mort Klein, the president of the right-wing Zionist Organization of America – and another Adelson dependant - who was largely responsible for stirring up the hornets' nest that accompanied Christie’s Las Vegas snafu.
“I am surprised and disappointed and even shocked that in front of a major Jewish audience he doesn’t mention Israel in any way shape or form,” Klein told Haaretz. “Especially after he was strongly criticized. Anything he said would have gotten a huge applause, but he said nothing.”
Citing Christie’s endorsement of what he described as “radical” New Jersey Muslim figures, Klein added: “I have to believe that he’s really not comfortable with praising Israel, that’s the only explanation I can come up with.”
Perry, however, who is also contemplating a 2016 presidential race, more than made up for Christie’s reticence, gushingly lauding both Israel and Sheldon and Miri Adelson, to whom he presented the Jewish Values “Principal Benefactors Award” for being “the foremost supporters of Jewish wisdom” and for “ensuring that Israel is a light unto the nations.” This was followed by Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who first praised Adelson, whom he has represented in court, for “standing up for all that is good in the world” and then presenting “one of the most important people in the world" - Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, who once worked in the Adelson-funded Shalem Center and became friends with Boteach at Oxford – with the Defender of His People Award. Finally, in bipartisan mode, Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii presented another one of Boteach’s Oxford mates, recently elected New Jersey senator Cory Booker, with the Champion of Human Spirit Award.
By the time Sean Penn was finally invited to the stage, it was getting late and the audience was growing restless. Ostreicher, the floor contractor who was jailed in Bolivia in 2011 on suspicion of money laundering, was slated to deliver a short tribute to Penn’s efforts on his behalf, but once he got started, even Boteach’s persistent tapping on his shoulder could not make him stop.
Ostreicher spoke movingly of his ordeal in Bolivia’s Palmasola prison and of Penn’s tireless and ultimately successful efforts to release him and to accompany him after he was freed. “Sean put me up in a 5-star hotel and then he brought me into his home, gave me a warm bed, a refrigerator stocked with kosher food and told me ‘Jacob, my house is your house.’ He even took me to synagogue and sat by my side as I attended Friday night prayer services for the first time in 3 years.”
"This is not the story you expected to hear about the anti-American, Jew-hating, communist-loving Penn,” Ostreicher said, stating the obvious.
Penn, who was greeted with the most boisterous applause of the evening, raised some concern about the tone of his speech when he included “Israelis and Palestinians” among innocent victims of political imprisonment worldwide. He also said “there is no such thing as a suicide bomber who believes that tomorrow could be a better day for his state, religion or homeland”.
Penn alluded to being called an anti-Semite, a term too often used, in his words, to stifle criticism and discredit legitimate dialogue. “To these attacks,” Penn said, in an allusion to his friend, Israel-boycotter Roger Waters, also accused of being an anti-Semite, “I have become comfortably numb.”
But Penn also deflected criticism sparked by his presence at the gala – at Penn from the left, at Boteach from the right – by saying that he had decided to attend for the simple reason that “Rabbi Shmuley reached out”.
“If we ignore the generosity from those with whom we may part ways on various issues,” Penn said, “if we shun conciliation and throw up walls between us, we are complicit in the same spirit of conflict, violence and false imprisonment. And while I understand that I will be the target of cynics, I accept this invitation without cynicism and with great appreciation.”
Possibly, you had to be there to value the uniqueness of the moment. Much may have to do with the persuasive presentations of both Ostreicher and Penn as well as the undeniable ebullience of Rabbi Shmuley’s embrace. In any case, it was a rare moment of coming together at a time of when the Jewish community in particular and the American political community, in general, appear to be splitting apart.
And while it’s true that Adelson left the stage before Penn’s address, in the conciliatory spirit with which the evening ended, let’s assume that his absence was only due to understandable fatigue.