From the GA

I’m here at the United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Los Angeles, the annual meeting of Jewish professionals and Federation leaders, which attracts thousands for a few days of panels and plenaries.

If it wasn’t clear before, yesterday’s opening event stressed the theme of this year’s GA: Israel. Speakers included Zeev Bielski, Chairman of the Jewish Agency; Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, the head of an Ethiopian absorption center in Northern Israel; Karnit Goldwasser, the wife of kidnapped Israeli solider Ehud Goldwasser; and the keynote speaker — Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Apparently, this theme was a relatively late development. The GA decided to focus on Israel this summer, during the war with Hezbollah.

As always, the production value for the opening event was remarkable, the stage, video screens, sound, and thousands-member audience resembled a Hollywood award show. The highlights? Karnit Goldwasser delivered a moving plea to work for the release of her husband and the two other Israeli soldiers kidnapped this summer. Despite the pomp and circumstance of the setting, her words were sincere, intimate, and incredibly sad.

Tzipi Livni was also good, and her speech was marked by a nuance that most of the other speakers lacked. Which brings me to my overall assessment:

The opening plenary was, first and foremost, a pep rally for Israel. Each speaker thanked those in the audience for their support of Israel, which gave the event a self-congratulatory air. Most interestingly for me, the program betrayed an obvious and intense conflation of Judaism and Zionism. Now, there’s nothing fundamentally problematic with this. But it struck me as rather unselfconscious, given that we often hear the organized Jewish community grumbling about the world’s conflation of Jews and Israel.

Meaning, somehow we can be trusted to make Israel and Jews synonymous, but others are expected to keep their Israel-talk and Jew-talk (or in unfortunate instances, their anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism) totally separate.

It’s important to allow for free speech and a range of political opinions, which means that it needs to be okay for people to be critical of Israel. But if we conflate Judaism and Zionism, do we have the right to criticize others when their anti-Zionism seems tinged with anti-Semitism?

Since Zionism is our concern, perhaps it’s our responsibility to forge a rhetoric that can distinguish between Jews and Israel. The theme of the GA’s opening plenary was “One People, One Destiny,” and while I’m all for unity, singularity is another story — a story that can, ultimately, banish complexity from the building.

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