A hoarse Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told thousands of Jewish community representatives at the Washington Hilton Tuesday that disagreements over issues as divisive as the recent nuclear deal with Iran should not undermine either communal unity or the Israeli-American alliance.
“Maintaining the unity of our people is of paramount importance,” Netanyahu said at the closing plenary of the 2015 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. “There is only one Jewish people, there is only one Jewish state … and now more than ever, we must work together to secure the Jewish state.”
Netanyahu acknowledged that passions were higher this year due to the Iran deal, which he had urged Congress to scuttle, but he reiterated that Israel has no better friend than the United States and vice versa — a line for which he received a standing ovation.
Netanyahu had met the day before with President Barack Obama and said he was grateful for the United States’ financial support of Israel’s military needs.
“We have to pay for defense, and defense is very, very expensive,” he said. “In fact, it gets more and more expensive all the time.”
The prime minister also spoke out against anti-Semitism and said the Jewish state cannot be held to a “triple standard.”
“Today, we have a voice, and we must ensure that our voice is heard loud and clear,” he said. “We must speak out against the slander of the Jewish people and against the Jewish state.”
Netanyahu said he remains committed to a vision of two states for two peoples with a demilitarized Palestinian state.
“When we meet a leader who is able to finally recognize Israel as a Jewish state, we will have peace,” he said.
Netanyahu’s speech came one day after Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog addressed the G.A. Herzog had met with Secretary of State John Kerry Monday morning and called him a “great, great friend of Israel.”
“I told him that we commend and express great gratitude to him and to the president for their indelible support of the State of Israel and their contribution to Israel’s safety and well-being,” said Herzog.
Herzog referred to American historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Louis Brandeis and Betty Friedan as leaders he feels have been important in influencing the nature of U.S.-Israel relations. He also praised Aung Sang Suu Kyi for her democratic leadership in Myanmar after facing difficult odds under house arrest for 21 years.
“I think it’s only a symbol, a symbol for us here as Jews, to wish well to another nation seeing democracy shine again out of the darkness of dictatorship,” he said.
Among those who turned out for Monday’s events were 60 people from The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. One of the conference’s primary purposes is to allow members of the Jewish philanthropic community to share ideas about how to improve their own communities.
“The G.A. to me is an intellectual hub. It is a place where there is so much philanthropic thinking,” said Linda Hurwitz, chair-elect of The Associated. “It’s just a fabulous, fabulous opportunity that every lay and professional leader should take advantage of.”
Hurwitz, who was JFNA’s National Campaign chair last year, said the G.A. is an opportunity to “rub shoulders with people who have years of experience.” She attends the conference every year and said she always enjoys speakers who “inspire the hell out of her,” such as former Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.
“My whole life is klal yisrael, one Jew for another, and I don’t feel that for anywhere else except Israel and the G.A.,” she said.
Michelle Gordon, chief of staff for The Associated, said she has been to seven G.A.s and she always enjoys learning how they can utilize the best practices they hear about from other federations.
“It’s great to hear what all of our other counterparts are doing across the country and North America, the relationships that we can build with other organizations that are here,,” she said.
Gordon said such a geographically diverse abundance of Jews fosters a strong sense of community that she feels makes the G.A. unique.
“When you come here and you see so many people who are living passionately about the same things you are, you feel energized and supported and part of something much bigger than yourself; you can’t replace that by reading a book or reading an article,” she said.
Monday’s activities began with a series of morning breakout sessions followed by a three-hour plenary meeting, at which point all of the federations gathered by tables in the main ballroom. Speakers included Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The delegation then headed to their afternoon breakout sessions, including one entitled “Major League Fundraising,” which was co-led by Associated Senior Vice President Leslie Pomerantz. Pomerantz gave a presentation on how federations must think outside the box when it comes to fundraising.
“We allocate $47 million every year, $31 million of that comes from our unrestricted annual campaign,” she said. “Thank goodness we’re not in a crisis situation, but yet we know that we have community needs that are not being met and that we are leaving money on the table.”
Pomerantz said last year, The Associated changed the way it engages with its donors by doing things such as changing the job descriptions of senior-level fundraisers and focusing on making sure they get out of the office.
“All of us are fabulous organizers; we are great at making sure the events look great, that the trains are running on time, that direct mail is getting out, that the list pool is correct,” she said.
Pomerantz emphasized that when communicating with donors, it is important to maintain a good rapport and be “sellers, not tellers.”
“This isn’t about not taking no for an answer, this is about reframing the question,” she said.
Melissa Apter contributed to this story.