Thousands of people gathered downtown earlier this week for the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, and I spent much time taking in the speeches, flitting from panel to panel, doing my share to contribute to the clamor of buzz in the Los Angeles Convention Center's cavernous hallways.
I had sworn off GAs a few years back. After the umpteenth presentation on Inspiring the Next Generation or Strengthening the Israel-Diaspora Bond, I got the idea. Same crisis, different year. At least in "Groundhog Day," Bill Murray kept waking up to Andie MacDowell.
But this year really was different. This GA was held in Los Angeles for the first time since 1982. That meant I didn't have to leave my city -- home to the world's fourth-largest population of Jews at the pinnacle of cultural, economic and political success -- to hear about how desperate the Jewish condition is.
Also, a cabinet full of Israeli ministers and politicians, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, joined the agenda. Never before in L.A. history, and perhaps never in the Israel's history, have so many senior government officials gathered outside Israel.
The ostensible reason was to reaffirm the bond that had helped sustain Israel through last summer's war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. The war brought Israel and the Diaspora closer. Support and money poured in to the Jewish state; differences and politics were put aside. This GA, with the vast majority of programming related to Israel, built on that energy.
"It was like going back to the good old days -- last summer," one attendee remarked very dryly.
Beginning with Livni's speech at Sunday's opening plenary, each Israeli representative offered a heartfelt "thank you" for American Jewry's efforts in Israel's hour of need.
At the same time, they each laid out a fairly dire and uniform picture of the predicament Israel finds itself in. The Israeli government was on message: The mullahs of Iran pose a mortal threat to the State of Israel -- and Israel, America and the world must act now to stop them.
In a Monday evening address, far from presenting an opposing view, opposition leader Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu hammered the message home: "It is 1938; Iran is Germany, and it's about to get nuclear weapons."
The words resounded through the massive hall, Netanyahu's face appearing two stories high on four staggered movie screens. It was as powerful a piece of oratory as you're likely to experience, and it was hard not to be swept up in it. It was hard to think.
"Bibi just invited us all to dinner," one activist whispered in my ear after the applause died down. "And he's serving red meat."
That's the problem I have at these events. The closer and more successfully they adhere to a message, the more completely they squeeze out competing ideas. I don't fault the GA organizers. Their prime audience is the army of fundraisers who must go out and ask for money on behalf of Israel and Jewish causes. So the GA is part pep rally and part Amway convention -- getting the troops pumped up, giving them the tools they need to solicit. But it is also part seminar, providing expert education on the issues of the Jewish people. And when so many politicians attend, it is also, well, political. Out of this often-awkward hybrid, dissenting views, ideas outside the bubble, can get short shrift. There's a reason they call it "conventional wisdom."
And there is, given our perilous times, as much a need for questions as consensus. For instance: Are the current Israeli leaders even capable of leading their country through these crises?
This is a government that has lost the confidence of the Israeli people, is rife with scandal and hampered by a record of incompetence and irresponsibility in Lebanon. The prime minister's approval rating is around 12 percent. Hezbollah, by some estimates, will have more and better rockets in a matter of several months. The Israeli soldiers whose kidnapping sparked the conflict are still in enemy hands, though their release was part of the terms of the cease-fire.
Just before the GA, I asked Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevy why so many high-ranking officials were coming to the GA.
"They want to hear the applause in Los Angeles," he said, "that they can't hear at home."
As for Iran, before the inevitable and necessary showdown, have we absorbed the lessons of the now clearly noninevitable showdown with Iraq? If the Israeli military failed in large part to destroy Hezbollah within its bunkers, will it have more success with Iranian targets?
We'd all be wise to take a breath after Bibi's stem-winder and read this month's Commentary magazine, which at least presents two sides of the debate on the best course of action against the ayatollahs.
To the GA organizers' credit, one plenary reached outside the usual suspects and brought in the French philosopher Bernard Henri Levy and Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria. Theirs was a tour de force of a different sort: a thoughtful discussion of the threat of Islamic radicalism from two different, if not necessarily clashing, perspectives.
Both agreed that Iran and worldwide Islamic fundamentalism posed grave challenges to Western democracies. But, said Zakaria, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rhetoric about wiping out Israel should not be seen as much more than talk.
"Nothing Iran has done," said Zakaria, "suggests that he would risk annihilation." Nuclear weapons for Iran are, Zakaria said, a kind of insurance policy. "It is not an irrational trend motivated by an end of days Mahdi theology."
Levy came to a different and darker conclusion. He said Iran would indeed use nuclear weapons to attack Israel or Western targets.
"We are in front of a strange character whom I'm not sure we can judge," he said. For him, as for Netanyahu, the parallel to Nazi Germany was instructive. "You can be at the summit of civilization and have completely irrational attachments," he said.
This dialogue was thorough and open-minded, a model of what future GAs should aspire to.
It was, in short, anything but conventional.
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