The past few days have been a whirlwind. I’m going to get caught up by putting everything into a few buckets:
The Congress opened Tuesday morning in the Binyanei HaUmah Convention Center. This is NOT your typical conference. I’m used to seeing the AJC Global Forum (June 5–7, 2016, only $300 for first-timers if you register by 11/19!) , or AIPAC Policy Conference, or, to a lesser extent, USY International Convention — meticulously planned, thoroughly produced, and more or less ideologically homogenous. This is NOT that. The Congress began with a guy who I’ve been calling the bus driver (because, with his shiny bald pate, wiry frame, leathered skin, guttural intonation, and short-sleeve white dress shirt, he reminds me of an Israeli bus driver) step up to the podium and unceremoniously ask the room to quiet down so he could please start. No slick videos, no messages on the screens behind him, no “voice-of-god,” just him, the bus driver, asking his noisy passengers to quiet down so we could all get on with this wild ride called Zionism.
Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu was next. A fellow MERCAZ delegate with several Congresses notched on his belt told me that he always looks forward to Bibi’s speech at the Congress, not because he’s a Likud partisan (though he may be, he didn’t say), but because when Bibi speaks in Hebrew, he is often more reflective and thoughtful — more insightful, less inciteful. Well, lo and behold, Bibi opened his mouth and out came…English. Womp womp. My colleague was right about one thing though: Bibi in English is far from thoughtful. He delivered some boilerplate hasbara (more or less recycled here), and then went way overboard by saying the following:
Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, “If you expel them, they’ll all come here.” “So what should I do with them?” he asked. He said, “Burn them.”
No Bibi, just no. When al-Husseini met with Hitler, Mein Kampf had already been written, Babi Yar had already happened, and the Final Solution was about to be finalized. Was al-Husseini a bad person who wanted to kill many Jews? Assuredly so. Was he responsible for giving Hitler the idea to exterminate the Jewish people? Absolutely not.
After Bibi, we were treated to a panel discussion on modern Zionism featuring, among others, JTS Chancellor Arnie Eisen, and former Labor MK Einat Wilf. It was good stuff, especially Arnie’s impassioned defense of disapora Zionism and Wilf’s point on the stigmatization of the terms feminism and Zionism (summed up here).
After getting lunch, my friends Max, Aaron, Michael, and I all headed back to Michael’s hotel to nap and hang out. We didn’t end up going back (the rest of the sessions were unfortunately not worth attending). We hit Burgers Bar for dinner, did a little shopping (trying to spend as much money as possible — within reason — to support Israeli businesses in this troubled time), and enjoyed tea in the Waldorf — more for the experience than for the tea.
This morning we returned to the Congress and began with a meeting with our coalition partner, Rabbi Dov Lipman of Yesh Atid (who is the man, as many of you know). He sent Yair’s regrets (Lapid was in London) and painted a beautiful picture of the pluralistic future Yesh Atid envisions for Israel. I must admit, it feels very cool to be officially allied with Yesh Atid, a truly visionary party that inspired me a couple of years ago and continues to do its darnedest to use the Knesset as a force for positive change in Israeli society.
Speaking of my political heroes…We heard from Boujie Herzog this morning. After beginning by refuting Bibi’s absurd Holocaust denial, he delivered quite a beautiful speech (which I wish I could find) on the nature of Zionism and the challenges that lie ahead.
Next came our first real Congressional business. We broke up into our committees and, much like the U.S. Congress, marked up resolutions and voted on whether or not to advance them to the floor.
I was assigned to Committee #5: The Structure of the National Institutions in the Mirror of Time (Aspeklaria Shel Hadorot? Heschel reference?). Some of the resolutions before us were quite interesting. Unfortunately, the committee chairman was quite good at his job. Why is that unfortunate? He ruled the committee with an iron fist, cut through any bullshit, and, recognizing that most people would vote the party line on every amendment, severely restricted the debate. That, plus the fact that the translation headsets were malfunctioning, meant that the committee was over in what must have been record time.
Feeling somewhat dejected, I ate lunch with my coalition partners from Yesh Atid, Boaz, Gal, and Ofra. It was only part-way through that I found out that Boaz used to be an MK. The conversation went something like this:
Seffi: Whoa, you sure know a lot about this topic.
Boaz: It was kind of my pet project when I was in the Knesset.
Seffi: You were in the Knesset?
Boaz: Yes, but then we lost mandates, so now I’m not. It sucks.
I’m sure it does Boaz, I’m sure it does.
Just when I’d given up on the Congress as super boring, Michael came barreling around the corner on his way to the buses to take people to the South for a program in solidarity with Sderot, et. al. (I had decided not to attend — way too much time to sit on a bus, especially considering I was in Sderot seven months ago), and mentioned to me that his committee was crazy. That was all I needed to hear. I hopped over to his committee room and took his seat at the table. Meretz had proposed a resolution that would require the JNF to only spend funds developing land inside the Green Line (i.e., not in the West Bank). To me, that’s a no-brainer. We hope to someday be able to leave the West Bank, when the Palestinians are finally ready to accept a two-state solution. So why should the JNF be spending donated money on new national parks and major internal improvements on land that we will ideally leave? This isn’t even an extreme step. Despite how ZOA tried to portray it, it’s not a boycott (which I’d never support), nor is it a settlement freeze (which I generally do support). Israel needs JNF’s important work in the periphery and elsewhere; so why waste funds on the settlements?
I was proud to speak on behalf of the resolution. It failed 30–26 but, due to a bit of parliamentary action (votum separatum), it’ll get a vote tomorrow before the full Congress.
With that over, instead of going South, I went to the Israel Museum, which I hadn’t been to in years, for a little self-guided tour. Did you know about Suriname’s Jewish community?
Tomorrow the full Congress will vote on each of the resolutions before us. Very exciting!
I’ve been blessed to have some free time while I’m here! In the past couple days I’ve seen my friends Josh Goldberg from my year in Israel, Sara Miriam Liben from USY and school, and Maya Zinkow from school. Plus, I’ve hung out with many terrific MERCAZ delegates and alternates and made a few new friends. Hooray!
Why do Israelis have so many different types of pudding?
I’ve taken a number of cabs, with both Jewish and Arab drivers, and learned a lot from my conversations with them.
Courtesy of the Israel Museum, the difference between the sciences: