I know you all have been waiting with bated breath to see if I used my journalistic stealth to find my way into Convergence 2006, a meeting of top Israeli dignitaries in the unlikely setting of coastal Georgia. You have permission to exhale, because in spite of my fast-and-free journalism skills and general farblongentness, I did manage to crash the concluding ceremonies Tuesday morning.
Unfortunately, the main thing I found out was how much I’d missed.
The first person I ran into was the moderator of the event, Kevin Cohen, an award-winning talk show host for WVOC out of Columbia, SC. He was kind enough to fill in the blanks of the press release and the local paper’s precoverage, which focused on the organizers’ controversial views of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. This caused Kevin to roll his eyes. “That wasn’t even mentioned here.”
The sensationalism of tearing down mosques to build a Third Temple may have made more interesting copy, but the real story here is the assembly of so many powerful Jews in one place. “This has been such an amazing event,” said Kevin, shaking his head at me for being so lame to show up at the end. “You’ve had members of the Knesset, IDF generals, representatives from [U.S.] Congress, all talking about Israel with intelligence and passion.”
The “star of the show,” according to Kevin, was Dr. Arie Eldad, who represents the Moledet party in the Knesset, is a former IDF Brigadier General and one of the world’s foremost burn specialists. Eldad’s beliefs that the creation of an Arab state would be a disaster, and that any more withdrawals would be a huge mistake, may not be very popular with American liberals, but many of the others echoed that the only way to peace is to stand its ground and not give up even an inch more land.
Other speakers included Knesset members Limor Livnat and Yuval Steinitz, the outspoken head of the Zionist Organization of America Mort Klein, media analyst and Sopranos-lookalike Raanan Gissin, Congressmen Jack Kingston and Joe Wilson, Rabbi Eliezer Ben Yehuda and IDF generals Giora Eiland, Eliu Ben Onn and Moshe Yaalon, who some where whispering could become Israel’s next prime minister. Even though security was tight, it was probably good that the event was tucked away on Huntington Island in the sleek and stunning Convention Center rather than one of Savannah’s more historic but higher profile locations.
The shibboleth for the conference was “facing claims and challenges of Israel’s Future in the Middle East,” which may reveal something of the attendees’ and speakers’ politics. This was no “let’s-say-a-b’rucha-for-peace” kind of crowd; both Israeli and American military experts spoke on the necessity of not only curbing Iran’s nuclear capabilities, but bringing down its current leadership by whatever means necessary.
The conference’s decidedly hawkish bent is part of the reason much of Savannah’s Jewish community including Mickve Israel’s rabbi distanced itself from the event. That’s a real shanda, since all Jews need to be educated about Israel, no matter what their opinion is of its politics. Sitting there in the sanctuary-like auditorium listening to experts clarify the reality of Israel’s fight not only against violent, irrational enemies but what Raanan Gissin called its “war of perception” in the world media, an already existing fire was fanned in my belly. Though I support Israel in my heart, I tend to shy away from discussions about its politics, because, frankly, I turn into flubber-tongued dunderhead and nine times out of ten start to cry out of frustration at my own and other people’s ignorance. So I’m committing myself to learn more about how to educate people about the truth of Israel calmly and clearly. (The Israel Project is a terrific resource for this.)
There was also a strong Christian presence at the event, whom organizer Orly Benny Davis called “our good friends.” I know there are some who reject the Bible Belt’s support of Israel because of its creepy Messianic implications, but I say whoever loves Israel is family, Jewish or not.
Yeah, I’m a bleeding heart liberal who wants everyone of all religions and races to put down the bombs and hold hands and dance a Persian hiphop hora to African drums. But the grown-ups know that it’s not going to be that easy for the Jews; never has been, never will be. The business of the Middle East is all of our business; whether you wear a giant Zionist ‘Z’ on your chest or you disagree with pretty much everything Israel does, American Jews, especially us lazy ones here in the South, cannot ignore her.
Am Yisrael Chai, yo. All in all, it was a rich day for this transplanted Savannah Jew. I returned to the other side of the river a changed woman, a more enhanced Semite. But I had to switch gears and put on my redneck hat right quick, because at the other convention center, country-fried rock icon Gregg Allman was tuning up. Falafel and peaches, baby - it’s Southern Jewish life.
Photo of Orly Benny Davis and Raanan Gissin by John Carrington c/o Savannah Morning News.