There are hopeful voices emerging regarding Israel and its place in the world from unexpected places. Last month, 2,400 Jewish community activists, including 85 from the Washington area, students and leaders from 56 countries gathered in Jerusalem for AJC’s Global Forum. It was the first time AJC’s signature annual event was held in Israel in the organization’s 112-year history and was the largest gathering ever held in Jerusalem by an American Jewish advocacy organization. The four-day conference demonstrated that there is much to be hopeful about in 2018 despite concerns about the threats of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah and the recalcitrance of the Palestinian Authority to sit down for direct negotiations.
There is change afoot when it comes to Israel — in European capitals and in the Muslim world. While the cancer of anti-Semitism continues to plague much of the continent, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, addressing the AJC Global Forum, declared that the Austrian government viewed both the fight against anti-Semitism and the security of Israel as a matter of “staatsräson,” of national interest of his country. It was the first time in 73 years that an Austrian leader used the word “staatsräson” to describe Austria’s relationship with Israel.
The 31-year-old chancellor, who flew to Israel especially to address the AJC Global Forum on the eve of his country becoming president of the Council of the European Union, also spoke passionately about Holocaust responsibility. “We are not only responsible for what we do, but also for what we did not do,” he said. “There were many people in Austria who did nothing to fight the Nazi regime. Far too many actively supported these horrors and even were perpetrators.”
Hopeful Muslim voices were heard as well. Civil society leaders from Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan expressed a firm desire to build bridges and to overcome years of enmity. Most powerful was the address of Indonesian religious leader Pak Yahya Cholil Staquf, general secretary of the Nahdlatul Ulama Supreme Council — the world’s largest Muslim organization, with 50 million followers —who spoke about the need for “rachma,” mercy and reconciliation between Jews and Muslims. Pak Yahya’s trip to Jerusalem and address to a Jewish audience made international headlines and demonstrated AJC’s pioneering role in advancing Muslim-Jewish relations.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke about Israel’s improving relations with countries around the world, not always seen publicly, that undergird her economy and security. And he made a commitment to working to resolve the deeply troubling issues about religious pluralism and recognition of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. “Israel is the home of every Jew, and every Jew should feel at home in Israel,” he said.
One of the most striking hopeful voices was Sarah Idan, Miss Iraq, who was reunited with Adar Gendlesman, Miss Israel, on the AJC Global Forum stage in Jerusalem. Since both took a selfie of themselves in December at the Miss Universe contest in Las Vegas, Idan received death threats and her family was forced to flee Iraq. But she has held firm in her conviction that peace is an imperative. Both women spoke passionately about the need to bring people together in common purpose.
In 18 parallel excursions around the country, from Arab villages to air force bases and from Meah Shearim to Sderot, AJC Global Forum participants heard diverse viewpoints about Israel and her challenges. And at 25 lunches with ambassadors from around the world, they shared their concerns and hopes for improved relations between Israel and other nations.
Israel still faces grave threats, but focusing exclusively on them precludes us from seeing the broader, more nuanced picture. Economic and technological achievements demonstrate huge progress in normalizing Israel’s place in the world. Diplomatic achievements are beginning to emerge. And the people of Israel continue to rank 11th in terms of happiness, more than the people of the United States, who rank 18th.
Much remains to be done to support Israel and ensure her place among the nations. Anti-Zionism, an often thinly veiled expression of anti-Semitism, has taken hold in some quarters in Europe and the academy. The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement challenges Israel’s very legitimacy and the United Nations continues to unfairly single out Israel for criticism and condemnation.
Advocates for Israel make the case that Israel should be treated like every other nation. The good news is that this is starting to happen, albeit slowly and not always in the public eye. Encouraging countries to normalize relations, to establish business or other ties, and to connect at a “people to people” level with average Israelis moves this process forward.
While peace remains elusive, advocates build coalitions of support that promote a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict that ensures the continued existence of a Jewish, democratic state living in peace and security.
It seems that people are beginning to listen.
Alan Ronkin is Director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Washington, D.C. Region.