Dispatches from the Elders of Zion, part one: Netanyahu Speaks at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly

Each year, the Jewish Federation’s General Assembly brings together all the Jewish VIPs. Our leaders, professionals and all the organizations come together to hear speeches and, of course, network their brains out. So last week, Heeb sent writer Juli Weiner to the 2009 Assembly to find out just what those big guns have to say for themselves.

Everyone attending Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address this morning got a fortune cookie. "Israel is for tough cookies," the tiny white scroll inside my snack reads. Not everyone eats their little treat as fast as me. "I’m saving it for during the speech," Avi Scher, the Rutgers student seated to my left, tells me. In his suit, he’s all dressed up like a bar mitzvah boy. Token youth aside, this feels like the place for Jew power—both the Israeli and American variety are present. Big banners asking "CAN ISRAEL BE SECURE AND AT PEACE?" and "CAN WE HOUSE ALL THE HOMELESS?" decorate the gargantuan lobby. There are free copies of Lilith in the women’s restrooms. EL AL has provided seat covers for the already clean and comfortable chairs. It’s a bit like after-prom.

Before the big man hits the stage, various people who have something or other to do with the Jewish Federation take turns. They deliver parables of self-discovery, always with a redemptive personal narrative. Yeah, it’s boring, but these opening acts reveal the all-important rules of clapping. Rule #1: If at any point, somebody mentions serving in the Israeli Defense Force, there will be clapping. Rule #2: If any at point, anyone mentions returning to Israel for aliyah, there will be clapping. Rule #3: Birthright Israel or anything endorsing Jewish identity for young people gets enthusiastic clapping. It’s like a science. If you liked, you could graph it.

After an hour of speeches from people you don’t care about, Netanyahu finally appeared. His voice had the effect of making the listener both nervous and safe—like the clarity and smoothness of his intonation implies that he can (and will!) both hurt you and protect you—which I guess is the idea.

For his part, Netanyahu identified three (3) of the biggest threats currently facing the Jewish people. There was also a fourth "threat," in the form of a woman wrapped in a red flag with "Gaza" written on it. "Shame on you!" she screamed, right at the start of his speech. "I have to say I was better received at the United Nations than here," Netanyahu shot back, but flag lady was already taken down to some darkened, hellish recess of the Adams Morgan Marriott. But on to the other three threats, in the order in which Netanyahu presented them: 1. Anything that prevents peace. This includes endless "negotiations about negotiations." "It’s high time to stop negotiating about negotiations," he declared. "Let’s get on with it!" Cheering ensued. Palestine must accept that "the fantasy of flooding Israel with refugees is gone," and "declare unequivocally that conflict is finally over." Good luck with that, Binyamin.

Other roadblocks to peace? Actual roadblocks. Also: unhelpful security checkpoints, bureaucratic opposition to Palestinian economic development, and that recent UN report on human rights abuses in Gaza that accuses Israel of war crimes. The IDF is "as moral as any army on Earth." (IDF: cue applause.) He urged everyone in the room to reject the report, and thanked Congress, Obama, and Canadian PM Stephen Harper for doing so. (Final addendum to Clapping Postulate: Canadians go nuts when Canada is mentioned in any context. They actually "Whoo!" like teenagers on TRL.)

Second on Netanyahu’s list of things he despises: a nuclear Iran who has promised to "wipe Israel off the face of the map." And he clarifies again and again just how small and vulnerable the homeland is. "I’m sure you know it’s small," he begins. "I don’t think you know how small it is," he corrects us. "The United States and Canada are roughly 400 times each the size of Israel. The Arab World"—because this is a thing that has borders?—"is 500 times the size of Israel!" Egypt alone is 40 times bigger, Jordan is four. Yup, the Arabs have more land than us. Understood. Israel is bigger than Rhode Island, the Prime Minister admits. No applause from anyone from Rhode Island, either because they are embarrassed or because their claps are also correspondingly tiny.

Third—and this one’s a bit of a wild card—is the world’s dependence on oil. He brings up this salt analogy that’s been popping up lately in alternate energy circles: the relationship between energy independence and national security. Salt was "worth its weight in gold"—and then some guys invented canning and refrigerators. Are we are one breakthrough away from making oil cheap and easy? (And de-powering the Arab world hold on the rest of us. That’s the clear implication.) He seems to think so. He already has a solution to the water crisis because "Israel has already mastered both of the technologies: desalination and solar energy." (Seriously? Mastered it?) With all these tech breakthroughs going on, Netanyahu calls Israel the "start-up nation," which sounds bittersweet to me since the word "start-up" connotes total failure to Americans these days. Guess Israeli dot-coms are doing all right. "We are strong enough to form a state. We possess all the human and material resources for this purposes. If we will it, it is no dream," he concludes. It’s a hopeful moment. Look, he was no Obama, but he gave the people what they wanted.

The lights flicker off again as Netanyahu is ushered off the stage. The audience drifts off as an inexorable mass towards the lobby. As an entity, we’re frustrated, slow-moving–it seems like an endless struggle that tests the elasticity of politeness, not unlike the peace process itself. "Let my people go," says one fortysomething man to no one in particular. Go where? It was hard to say, but we were moving there together—like it or not—and we had fortune cookies for the trip.

Text by Juli Weiner

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Steven enjoys alliteration and quirky line drawings. His turn-offs include broken links, enriched uranium and Holocaust denial.

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