NEW ORLEANS - You've never seen such a long line: 3,000 people snaking along the corridors of the Marriott Hotel, up and down stairs, with hordes of security personnel barking orders: "Turn off your cell phones: not silent, OFF." And to what end? To hear Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.
The stringent security arrangements, including the long lines and the pat-downs, are accepted meekly. Security rules. I had the impression that half of the country is working in security. The airports have cracked down even more: Passengers must remove their shoes and coats for inspection as unsmiling officers search for exploding envelopes. An incautious movement or stupid remark will lead you straight to interrogation by a humorless police officer. The discovery of an innocent tube of toothpaste in my backpack caused two poker-faced officers to take me aside for special attention. They let me go but kept the toothpaste. A request to put a little on my toothbrush first - I'd just come off an 11-hour flight - proved unwise. "Colgate is an American company, what are you afraid will happen?" I asked the officer. He wasn't amused.
Security was also the main topic of Netanyahu's speech. He repeated "Iran" so many times that even the most obtuse of listeners could see that he has nukes on the brain. He also said the word "peace," though somehow there didn't seem to be any reason for audience members to start building up their hopes in that direction.
Right after the remarks on peace, which were de rigueur under the circumstances, Netanyahu returned to his pet theory, about how Israel doesn't need to have peace in order to jump-start its economy. He talked up all the reforms he is championing, which he claimed will change the face of the Israeli economy - especially the highway and rail networks that will bring the north and south of the country closer, that is more quickly, to the center. He loves to talk about that. "Israel is a small country, but until recently it took forever to cross it," he baldly overstated the case.
No doubt about it, Netanyahu is an impressive speaker. The five kids yelling about the illegitimacy of the state did not create anything near the hullabaloo described by other media outlets. On the floor, they were barely noticed; at most, they gave the swarms of security staff milling about something to do.
Indeed, if the hecklers had any effect, it was the opposite of the reports: It acted to heighten the solidarity of the Jewish community leaders, their identification with Israel and their applause for Netanyahu.
The 4,000 or so GA attendees and millions of Jews in the United States and Canada apparently agree that Israel is perfectly legitimate. Yet the applause for Netanyahu rang a tad false. In the corridors hard questions were being asked, mainly by young people.
How do we reconcile the conflict between Israel the democracy and Israel the oppressor? What should we do when we want to identify with Israel but don't agree with it? How should we respond to Israel's increasing isolation and deteriorating image internationally? How should we represent Israel's position, which is so horribly complicated?
Netanyahu tried to touch on all the positive aspects of Israel's standing in the family of nations. He noted that it ranked 15th on the United Nations' Quality of Life index (after attacking the UN for its anti-Israel positions ). He noted Tel Aviv's ranking by travel guide publisher Lonely Planet as the third-best city in the world and quipped that he agrees but quibbles over New York's ranking as No. 1: For him, Jerusalem will always be first. The audience ate it up. (Lonely Planet, on the other hand, cited that it chose Tel Aviv as the utter opposite of Jerusalem: "a modern Sin City on the sea rather than an ancient Holy City on a hill". )Identifying with Golda
Netanyahu wasn't the only Israeli prime minister to speak at the GA. Not Yitzhak Rabin, not Shimon Peres: Ironically, the one mentioned three times in the speeches was Golda Meir, who in 1973, one of the grimmest years in Israeli history, told a visiting senator, Joe Biden, that the secret of Israel's success was "We have nowhere else to go."
Golda is long gone but Biden is the vice president of the U.S. and continues to tell that story to Jewish audiences.
New Orleans can identify with her sentiment, after suffering the horrors of Hurricane Katrina five years ago. The storm killed 1,600 and devastated the city, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless. The thrumming city center we see today says the crisis has been overcome but in fact, for all the vast effort and spending on rehabilitation the "Big Easy" is not yet back on its feet. Entire neighborhoods still lie in ruins.
Mitch Landrieu, the new mayor of New Orleans, embraced Golda's concept: We have no other option, either. We too have nowhere else to go, he said.
Truth be told, Katrina has become a source of income for some. Tours to the stricken areas - $50 per person - are hawked on nearly every street corner. Commemorative magazines marking the fifth anniversary of the catastrophic floods sell for $9.99, before tax.
(Of course, if you are a foreign tourist, and are willing to brave the bureaucracy, you can get the tax back: Fill in the form, bring the receipt and the form to the right place in city hall, after preparing yourself mentally to be treated as a nuisance by the clerk. The sales tax will be refunded, minus a 25% "handling fee," of course. )
For all the troubles in America, President Barack Obama is popular in New Orleans, certainly when compared to his predecessor, George W. Bush, whose memoirs have just hit the stores. The Bush administration's handling of Katrina and its aftermath made him a particular target of loathing. Nor has he been forgiven for the war in Iraq, which has cost trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives. Also, the great financial meltdown of 2008 began on his watch.
Bush's memoirs have renewed the debate of his merits, with some pundits claiming he was the worst president America ever had and others calling him a southern gentleman whose true achievements will only become clear through the prism of time.
But at the moment, the people at the GA are more preoccupied with other issues, such as what to do when the kids don't feel a sense of Jewish identity. Or what to do when the people who led the great Jewish organizations and arranged the huge donations are passing the age of 65.The religion of Jobs
But if there's one thing bemusing the conference participants the most, it's how to cope in a constantly changing reality. Truths of 10 or 10 years ago no longer apply. Today's American girls say Mom is their best friend, and 15% of all couples met on the Internet. Money is raised through Facebook. Does videoconferencing Friday-night dinner to your son's college dorm room violate the Shabbat, or is it a positive thing that promotes Jewish family values?
At this stage, the religion of Steve Jobs seems to be more popular than Judaism. A lot more participants at the GA had iPhones than skullcaps. USA Today crowned Mom's and Dad's iPhone the most popular toy in America. iToy they call it, and parents are worried. Are they bringing up a generation of sociopathic monsters?
Some are working at bridging the worlds. Flyers handed out at the conference promised a free iPad to anybody who recruits in new volunteers for Jewish organizations.
There are other encouraging signs. The debates, including those on the most complex of subjects, are intelligent and thorough. When workshop participants are assigned to work in pairs, they don't see it as an opportunity to escape for coffee or schmoozing in the hall: They buddy up and get down to business. And even when the sessions get heated, they try to listen to each other and they line up for a chance to use the microphone in the audience. No, interrupting, no don't-invade-my-space snarling. The only time things got out of hand was when television cameras were taping Netanyahu's speech: The previous day, when no cameras were around, the hecklers had behaved perfectly well.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in New Orleans, city officials were discussing the budget. Their discussions were broadcast on a designated television channel. The council members sat, hour after hour, talking with department and division heads and other functionaries. No shouting, no threats, just facts and numbers. The resolution of the discussion was so fine that long minutes were devoted to handling a fallen street light and trees uprooted by the storm, and how the grass on the baseball diamonds should be cut. They peaceably discussed how resident complaints are handled, and how contracts are signed.
Netanyahu needled the Americans by noting Israel's economic progress, telling them that Israeli technology is behind some of the features and components in the cell phones they use and the fruit and vegetables they eat. But he also knows that Americans are second to none at rebounding from crisis. City Hall operates transparently, the debate between people with opposing views courteous, New Orleans is up and running - it puts America's rebound into new perspective. And let us not forget that even our national anthem is a symbol mainly of fond hope.
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