NEW ORLEANS – You've never seen a line that long in your life. A snake of 3,000 people coiling along the corridors of the Marriott Hotel, up and down stairs, with hordes of security personnel barking orders – "Turn off your cellphones." "Not silent mode – OFF." All this, for what cause? To attend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America convening this year in New Orleans.
The stringent security directives are accepted meekly, including the personal pat-downs and the lines. Security is king these days. One feels that half of America works in security. The airports have cracked down even more: people have to take off 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 policeman. An innocent tube of toothpaste in my backpack caused two of them to escort me aside for further investigation. They let me go but kept my toothpaste. Asking if I could leave a stripe on my toothbrush - 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 security guard. He wasn't amused.
Iran, peace and Sin City
Security was also the main topic in Netanyahu's speech. He repeated the name Iran time and again until even the most obtuse of listeners could see that he has nukes on his mind. He also mentioned the word peace, though it didn't seem one should harbor expectations of developments in that direction.
Right after his remarks on peace, which are de rigueur under the circumstances, Netanyahu went back to his usual thesis, that Israel doesn't need peace in order to develop its economy. He talked about the reforms he's leading, which he claimed will change the face of the Israeli economy, mainly regarding roads and trains that will bring the periphery closer to the center. He loves to talk about that. "Israel is a small country but until recently it would take forever to cross it," he baldly overstated.
No question, Netanyahu is an impressive speaker. The five kids yelling about Israel's illegitimacy didn’t create anything like the upset reported by other media outlets. On the floor, they were barely noticed. At most they gave the swarms of security personnel milling about something to do. If it had any effect, it was the opposite of the media reports – it strengthened the solidarity of the Jewish community leaders, their identification with Israel, and the applause for Netanyahu.
The thousands of participants and millions of Jews in the U.S. 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 you 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? How should we represent Israel's position, which is so horribly complicated?
Netanyahu tried to touch on all the positive aspects of Israel's position among 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 guides publisher Lonely Planet as the third best city in the world and quipped that he agrees, but quibbles 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 Meir
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 before 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 investment in its rehabilitation, the city isn't back on its feet. Whole 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 are hawked on just about every street corner for $50 a person. Booklets citing the commemorative five years since the city's catastrophic flooding sell for $9.99, before tax.
(Of course, if you aren't American and are prepared for the bureaucracy, you can get the tax back: fill in the form, bring the receipt and the form to the appropriate place in city hall and prepare mentally that the clerk will treat you like a pest. You will get the tax back – minus a 25% tax on the tax refund. Handling fee, they call it.)
For all the troubles in America, U.S. president Barack Obama is well-liked here in the city, certain compared with his predecessor, George W. Bush, whose memoirs have just hit the stores. His government's functioning after Katrina swept into (and over) town have made him loathed and he isn't forgiven for the war in Iraq either, which has cost trillions of dollars and cost thousands of America lives. Also, the great meltdown of 2008 began on his watch. Bush's memoirs have renewed the debate about 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 65.
The religion of Steve 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 ten or twenty years ago don't apply any more. Today's American girls say Mom is their best friend and 15% of couples met on Internet. Money is raised through Facebook. Is videoconferencing the Friday night family dinner to the son in college a violation of Shabbat sanctity? Or a positive thing that promotes Jewish family values?
At this stage it seems the religion of Steve Jobs is more popular than Judaism. A lot more participants at the GA had iPhones than yarmulkas. USA Today crowned mom 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. Fliers handed out promise a free iPad to anybody who brings in new volunteers to Jewish organizations.
There are other encouraging signs. The debates, including on the most complex of subjects, are intelligent and thorough. When the participants in a workshop are given time to work in pairs, they don't take it as a chance to get a coffee or to mingle outside: they pair up and start to talk. They listen to one another and wait in line to speak, not interrupting and not snarling don't-barge-into-my-space. The only time things got out of hand was when television cameras were taping Netanyahu's speech: they day before, when no cameras were around, the rioters had behaved perfectly well.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in New Orleans, city officials were discussing the budget. Their discussions were broadcast on a designated TV channel. The city councilmen sat for hour after hour talking with division chiefs and other city functionaries. No tones were raised, no threats were made: the discussion was confined to facts and numbers. The resolution was so fine that sometimes they could devote long minutes to how the grass on the baseball fields should be cut, or to trees uprooted by the storm, or a street lamp that fell and needed replacing. They peaceably discussed how complaints by citizens are handled and how contracts are made.
Netanyahu needled the Americans by noting Israel's economic progress, and relating how Israeli scientists are behind some of the developments in the cell phones they own, and the fruit and vegetables they eat. But he also knows that the Americans are second to none at rebounding from crisis. City Hall operates transparently, the debate between people holding opposite views is so 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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