He’s got one of the toughest jobs in Washington, especially these days. Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, shared a side of himself reporters rarely see when he appeared last week at the 100th national convention of Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT), one of the oldest Jewish fraternities in the country.
As he bounded onto the stage at the Wardman Park Marriott Hotel in the District, he looked happy and relaxed, enough to begin his keynote speech with a wry joke. “Nothing interesting is happening in my neck of the world,” he complained mockingly to peals of laughter from the crowd of several hundred ZBT brothers from across the country.
This was no Wolf Blitzer or Jake Tapper he was speaking to, and, Dermer, 43, was clearly relishing this chance to engage with a friendly audience.
The face and voice of Israel in the United States went on to say that he had “honed my abilities to stand up to attacks on CNN” because of his “pledge master” days, supervising a group of new members of his fraternity, the ZBT chapter at the University of Pennsylvania.
While Dermer reminisced at length about his “deep connection” to ZBT, including mentioning how his late father, who died around the time of his bar mitzvah, was also a member, the diplomat still couldn’t resist talking politics, and tried to persuade the mostly college-age crowd why they should get fired up about supporting Israel.
“In 1898, two years after Herzl wrote his book on [his plans for the] Jewish state, ZBT was founded by Zionist rabbis,” Dermer said. “These were twin goals,” he said, referring to Herzl’s and ZBT’s mission to create safe spaces for Jews in the United States and in Israel. “Our enemies see Israel as the 51st state, a projection of American values and ideas in the heart of the Middle East. Israel represents the Statue of Liberty torch in the Middle East,” Dermer said.
“Israel is important to America because it is the most important ally to us and [because of] security – dangers in the world emanating from the Middle East.”
He continued: “We are on the front lines of a much larger struggle. Two-thirds of Israel running into bomb shelters. Imagine living your life … running to bomb shelters. Israel is the most threatened nation on earth.
“Israel is fighting for the values of ZBT, the U.S. and we are on the front lines,” Dermer said. He urged the fraternity brothers, therefore, to be proud of their joint Jewish and American identities.
“American-Jews. It’s the hyphen,” he said. “America is the one place where Jews didn’t have tochoose between [their] own identity and [being] fully integrated into that society.” Dermer lightened up once more before heading off the stage.
As he was handed a thank-you gift, a copy of a book by fellow ZBT brother Stuart Eizenstat, Dermer couldn’t resist one last quip. Thanks, he said. “I have so much time on my hands to read right now.”