PHILADELPHIA — In a seismic event that will be felt across no fewer than six states, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Israel announced last week that it will be closing the Consulate General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region by December of this year.
Consul General Yaron Sideman confirmed that the mission, which opened in 1961, will close at the end of 2016, but there is no specific date yet.
He said the Israeli government decided back in August to close several diplomatic missions solely for budgetary reasons, and Philadelphia made the list.
“It’s not the first time in Israel and it’s not the first state that has experienced budgetary and financial needs that translate into shutting down diplomatic missions,” he said.
Although a report in the Jerusalem Post linked the closing of the Philadelphia consulate to the opening of a fourth consulate in China, Sideman said they are two separate issues.
He added that plans to open a consulate in Chengdu, China were already in the works about two years ago.
The Foreign Ministry released a statement Jan. 5 announcing the establishment of a Technion Israel Institute of Technology in the Chinese province of Guangdong, which is near Israel’s consulate in Guangzhou.
Israel currently has its embassy to China in Beijing, and consulates in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
“At the end of the day, they opened a consulate in China but they didn’t close Philadelphia. Now it’s purely budgetary constraints that have nothing to do with opening elsewhere,” he explained.
“It doesn’t render Philadelphia less important,” Sideman said. “It’s always an extremely painful decision to make. All of the responsibilities and activities of this consulate will be administered in a different way by other existing Israeli missions in the U.S.”
According to spokesman Michael Alexander, once the consulate ceases its activities, Israeli citizens living in Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware and southern New Jersey will have to go to other missions in the United States for consulate services. In addition to the embassy in Washington, the Jewish state maintains consulates in Chicago and New York City.
The Philadelphia consulate was first rumored to close in 2013, but the Jewish community and local politicians successfully fought to keep it open.
Rumors of closure again began percolating in August 2015, when reports surfaced indicating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli government would close the mission and six other embassies and consulates around the world.
Although this is the third and, apparently, the final time the threat of a closure has been made, Lou Balcher, former director of the Department of Academic Affairs for the consulate, said Philadelphia’s community can help reverse the decision again.
“We need to make sure that they get how important Philadelphia is to the narrative of America — and the Jewish community of Philadelphia, too,” he said. “It’s unconscionable that Philadelphia is used as a punching bag when Israel wants to cut corners.”
Balcher doesn’t think the closure will strain U.S.-Israeli relations in the larger sense, but he emphasized that pulling away is still the wrong message. The ministry may save a few shekelim, he added, but they lose the big picture.
Sharona Durry, founder and executive director of PhillyIsrael, agreed that this decision is not final. She said she hopes the Israeli government sees how important the consulate is to the city and new businesses.
“It’s always good to have a representative from the Israeli government because it gives you more of an official presence of Israel,” Durry stated. “We, as Israelis, have dual citizenship and are very connected to whatever is going on in Israel, but at the same time, we’re also American citizens.”
Naomi Adler, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, who has advocated for the consulate since she started at the federation in 2014, expressed disappointment in the ministry’s decision.
“It’s very shortsighted on the part of the Israeli government,” she said, adding that “the government of Israel didn’t listen to what the Jewish community had been saying for years.”
Israel also has consulates in Boston, Miami, Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Although speculation about its closure has been building for several years, the announcement came as a surprise to many, including Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.).
“The consulate is essential to continuing the strong relationship between the people of Pennsylvania and the region with the people of Israel,” he said in a statement. “I recently met with the Israel consul general, Yaron Sideman, to discuss the potential for expanded economic cooperation between the commonwealth and Israel, as well as concerns about the BDS movement in Europe and elsewhere. We need to maintain these strong ties. I will be writing to Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders to urge them not to close the consulate.”
Other politicians chimed in on the matter in emails.
“We’re obviously disappointed given our sister city relationship with Tel Aviv,” wrote Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, “and we’ll be reaching out to them to see if there’s anything we can do to change their decision.
“But regardless of the outcome of those conversations, we are still committed to maintaining a positive relationship and open dialogue with our Israeli residents.”
“The Israeli consulate, coupled with Southeastern Pennsylvania’s strong Jewish population,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), “has long played an integral part in developing important business, artistic and political ties between the U.S. and Israel. The loss of the consulate in Philadelphia could unfortunately hinder future growth opportunities and partnerships.”
Morton A. Klein, a Philadelphia resident who is the national president of the Zionist Organization of America, was incensed by the decision to close.
“I don’t know Israel’s budgetary considerations, but I think it’s a serious mistake to close a consulate that serves one of the largest Jewish communities,” he said.
In his capacity as ZOA president he has spoken to the Foreign Ministry and other Israeli officials about the mission’s importance.
“Especially at a time when the Arab-Islamic propaganda is expanding all over America, when the BDS movement is expanding all over America,” he said, “this is not a time to reduce the spokespeople of Israel in major American cities.”
WJW political reporter Melissa Apter contributed to this report. Rachel Kurland writes for the Jewish Exponent.