The first ever Israeli-American Conference is slated to convene on Friday in Washington under the headline “The Israeli-American Community: A Strategic Asset for the Future.” The conference, organized by the Israeli American Council (IAC) will be attended by senior Israeli representatives, including the ambassadors to the U.S. and UN, as well as Minister Gilad Erdan. The main speaker at a gala Friday night dinner will be former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and listeners will include his 2012 supporter Sheldon Adelson, who is also the IAC’s biggest sponsor.
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So that if the predictions of impending and stinging defeat for President Obama in Tuesday’s elections are borne out, it would be almost inhuman to expect Romney to abstain from a fair amount of gloating and Schadenfreude at the humiliation of his arch-rival Obama and his “terrible” administration, as Romney has noted in recent weeks. And it would be equally impossible to allay White House suspicions, unfounded as they may be, that the conference is doubling as a victory celebration for Obama’s Israeli critics, from Benjamin Netanyahu on down. And given the expected capture of both houses of Congress by Obama-loathing and Netanyahu-admiring Republicans, it may be overly-optimistic to speak of any imminent change in the thorny relations between the two leaders.
Be that as it may, the conference marks a significant landmark in the annals of Israeli expatriates in America, whose numbers are estimated at anywhere between 500,000 to 800,000. The community once derided as “yordim” (those who went down), and famously described by Yitzhak Rabin as “weakling dropouts” appears set to assert itself on the American political stage through the IAC and with the generous backing of Adelson’s multi-million dollar donation, announced in 2013.
Launched in Los Angeles in 2007, the IAC has used Adelson’s largesse to expand and launch new regional offices in Boston, Miami, New York and Las Vegas, where Miriam Adelson was appointed as Regional Chairperson. The IAC offers educational and cultural programs for expat Israelis as well as pre-school and after-school activities and forums for community volunteers. Its convention in Washington will include other personalities such as former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, Israeli hi-tech entrepreneur Yossi Vardi and Hollywood billionaire Haim Saban and it will hold panels on topics such as “The power of Israeli Americans in Social Media” “The Israel-American Dream” and “The Israeli-American Double Identity.”
Jewish community activists believe, however, that the ultimate objective of the IAC is not only to organize Israeli Americans to support Israel but to form an independent political lobbying group that could one day compete and outflank AIPAC itself. Thus, beyond the short term irritation that the conference may or may not create at the White House, the lighting-speed emergence of IAC is bound to elicit longer term turbulence inside the American Jewish establishment and to raise existential questions in the expat Israeli community as well.
Are the Israelis a breed apart or are they bound to integrate among American Jews and will IAC change the evolutionary process? Has Israel come to a point where it can recognize the legitimacy of those who have moved to other countries and who are still derided, as shown in the recent so-called Milky pudding brouhaha over Israelis driven to Berlin by the high cost of living? Should Israelis become so directly involved in American politics, and if they do so, should their activities be channeled into an organization that seems more inclined to support the Israeli right-wing than its opponents, to put it mildly?
Not all of these questions will be answered during the course of the 3-day convention slated to take place at Washington’s Hilton Hotel, not too far from the White House, but the timing of the conference and its guest speaker Romney are sure to launch the ambitious new group not with a whimper, but with a bang. And the reverberations from the potentially controversial meeting are bound to be one of the hot topics of the day at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, slated to kick off on Sunday, straight on the heels of the IAC convention.
The organization itself, it should be noted, rejects any attempt to color it politically.
IAC Chairman of the Board Shawn Evenhaim told Haaretz that the timing of the conference had nothing to do with the mid-term Congressional elections but with the IAC’s wish to allow people who wish to do so to attend the GA as well.
Evenshaim noted, “in addition to Saban, a prominent Democrat, we’ll have Democrats like Florida Congressman Ted Deutch and Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of NJ.” He said the IAC seeks to strengthen AIPAC, not compete with it, and that several AIPAC representatives will in fact be speakers at the conference. Finally, Evenshaim cited the IAC’s mission statement, which says: “The mission of the Israeli-American Council (IAC) is to build an engaged and united Israeli-American community that strengthens our next generations, the American Jewish community, and the State of Israel.”