Yuli-Yoel Edelstein, speaker of the Knesset, addresses delegates in the parliament’s Chagall Hall. (photo by Pat Johnson)
Before the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America began on Oct. 22, a local delegation, headed by Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver board chair Karen James and chief executive officer Ezra Shanken, toured Vancouver’s partnership region, the Upper Galilee Panhandle, which includes Israel’s most northerly communities.
Shanken said that a “mirror” volunteer board of community members from across the panhandle region has been created, including people who are sourcing projects, bringing them in and deciding, along with funders from Vancouver, which critical projects within the region will receive support.
“Those can be everything from a kitchen that we just opened that’s helping developmentally challenged individuals learn cooking skills, or we are looking at education programs … really trying to lift up the north,” he said.
The periphery in Israel has always faced more challenges than the centre of the country, Shanken added. Trying to rebalance that situation, he said, involves engaging the people in the partnership region to take ownership of the projects funded from Canada.
“One of the great things that we saw was the graduation of [the first cohort of] something called Galilee Up, which is something we’ve been working on,” he said. “It’s a leadership development program where we looked around the table and said, who’s going to be the great volunteer leaders of tomorrow?”
More than 20 individuals with leadership potential, mostly younger adults in the early stages of their careers, have been brought together, participating in courses at Tel Hai College. On the Vancouver group’s October visit, the cohort pitched concepts that could help improve the region.
Shanken also celebrated the reopening of a medical centre in Kiryat Shmona, for which Vancouverites had advocated alongside residents of the panhandle.
“This was a huge, huge win for us,” he said.
Democracy in Israel
Speaker of the Knesset Yuli-Yoel Edelstein assured delegates that the health of democracy in Israel is strong.
“Purposely misquoting great American author Mark Twain, I can say that the rumour of the demise of Israeli democracy has been slightly exaggerated,” he told a special evening plenary held in the Knesset’s Chagall Hall. “Israeli democracy has been strong, is strong and will be even stronger.”
He encouraged Diaspora Jews to write, email and telephone members of the Knesset with their concerns.
At the same event, Tzipi Livni, leader of the opposition, offered an alternative view, warning that the Nation State Law undermines the democratic leg of the “Jewish, democratic state.”
She said that her opposition to the law is not based on what is in the law, but what was left out. Israel’s Declaration of Independence states that Israel is a Jewish nation, but guarantees equal rights for all its citizens.
“When the state of Israel was established,” she said, “all the Jewish leaders signed – we’re talking about socialism, communism, revisionism, Charedim – they decided, this is a moment in which they should put aside all the differences and say that Israel is being established as a nation state for the Jewish people, but also giving equal rights to all its citizens.”
This assurance is missing from the Nation State Law, she said.
“And it’s not that somebody forgot it,” she stressed. “It was part of the discussion here. I wanted to add in the first article of this bill: keeping Israel as a Jewish, democratic state. The answer was no. Let’s refer to the Scroll [Declaration] of Independence. The answer was no. I said, let’s have equality. The answer was no. Israel is a democracy and we will keep Israel as a democracy, but, frankly, this is a challenge now.”
Livni added that Diaspora Jews who spend a certain amount of time every year in Israel should have the right to vote in Israeli elections.
“Our decisions as an Israeli government affect your lives as well,” she said.
Trauma experts thanked
Stacy Kagan, the vice-mayor of Parkland, Fla., fulfilled a lifelong dream of visiting Israel, but acknowledged she never envisioned it would be under such circumstances. Kagan was at the General Assembly to thank Israeli emergency responders for stepping up after the mass murder at a high school in her city last February.
“In the days following the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school, grieving and in shock, we received an outpouring of support from across the country, across the world and Israel,” she said. “Within days, experts from the Israel Trauma Coalition were on the ground in Parkland. They were training our local counselors, who were there themselves and unprepared to address the impact of a large-scale attack that terrorized our local residents. The team from the Israel Trauma Coalition was nothing short of incredible. Their experience was invaluable.
“Today, I stand before you not only as an elected official, but as a Jewish woman who has always wanted to visit Israel,” she said. “I’ve dreamed of this but never made it until now. I never could have imagined that I would be here under these circumstances. As a Parkland resident, I come here to express my appreciation to the Israel Trauma Coalition, the entire Federation movement and the people and government of Israel for standing with us. This was our time of need. You showed up. You gave us strength and you taught us how to be resilient. As a wife, a mother and a consoler to those families and children that were taken by this horrible tragedy, I am here to say todah. Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart.”
Danna Azrieli, co-chair of the General Assembly, spoke of the Zionism of her childhood, which was mixed with the intergenerational trauma of being a second-generation Holocaust survivor.
“I struggle with anxiety and fear that an enemy may lurk in a place I don’t expect,” she said. “I am always vigilant. I’m the graduate of a 95-day outdoor leadership training course, just in case, one day, I will have to survive in a forest. And I hope that my overactive antennae that work overtime all the time and have deeply psychosomatic effects on my health will save me if ever, one day, I am faced with an unexpected horror in a restaurant or dance club.”
Since moving to Israel, she has witnessed brutality on both sides, she said.
“I have been within six metres of a terrorist running down the main street of the city where I live,” Azrieli told the plenary. “I saw his knife. I saw him sweat. I heard the sirens because he had just stabbed a 70-year-old lady in the coffee shop on the corner. And I also saw the total abandonment of morality, the bestiality, that overcame my Jewish neighbours when they ran the terrorist over with a car and hit his legs with a stick as he was face down at the bus stop while they were waiting for the police to arrive. I am a product of all of these things.”
Deborah Lyons, Canada’s ambassador to Israel, delivered an address that repeatedly brought the audience to laughter and their feet. Citing the Federation movement’s commitment to helping people in North America, Israel and throughout the world, she said, “Your goals are nearly interchangeable with those of the Canadian government.”
She said, “We both are committed to supporting the most vulnerable around the world … regardless of background. And we both are strongly supportive of Israel, its future and a deepening, closer relationship with Canada.”
Both federations and the Canadian government are facilitating cultural and economic missions to Israel to strengthen connections, especially in the business sector. In recent months, Lyons said, Canada’s governor-general, prime minister and a large number of senior cabinet officials have traveled to Israel.
“Our international leadership is perhaps best demonstrated by our recent partnership in rescuing White Helmet volunteers in Syria, one of the best moments of my career,” she said.
Along with allies, “Canada and Israel answered the moral obligations to ensure the swift evacuation of 422 members of this incredibly brave civil defence group, and their families. It was the support from Prime Minister [Binyamin] Netanyahu and, in particular, the incredible professionalism and heart of the IDF that brought that evacuation about.”
The ambassador added that combined efforts include batting antisemitism.
“Canada has worked alongside Israel to produce an internationally accepted working definition on antisemitism and we will continue to work with Israel to combat this ill everywhere – wherever, whenever,” she said, adding that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will officially apologize for Canada’s turning away of the refugee ship MS St. Louis in 1939.
She reiterated Canada’s support for a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians and spoke personally about her experiences living in Israel for two years now.
“It’s a complicated, invigorating and empowering place that can touch every emotion and challenge every belief,” she said. “It’s filled with energy, with incredible vitality and with endless warmth. I come from Canada – I know warmth when I feel it.… It’s simply very alive here.”
The most emotional presentation of the General Assembly was delivered by Miriam Peretz, winner of the 2018 Israel Prize for lifetime achievement and special contribution to society, whose story of the price Israeli families pay for the security of the nation had audience members sobbing. Earlier this year, Education Minister Naftali Bennett delivered the news of the award to her by arriving at her front door, the same door where, a decade ago, officers arrived to deliver, for the second time, the worst news a mother can receive.
“Ten years ago, on the eve of Passover, three angels knocked on my door,” Peretz said. “They didn’t bring with them the prophet Eliyahu. Rather, they were the bearers of terrible news. My second son, Eliraz, a deputy commander of Battalion 12 of Golani – a father of four little children, the biggest was 6 years old, the littlest was 2 months old; she didn’t know her father – he was killed fighting the terrorists in the Gaza Strip.
“As soon as I saw who was outside my door, I ran. I shut the door. I shut the window so no one could enter,” she recounted. “When they finally came in, I begged them and asked them, please don’t say the word, don’t deliver the news. Just let me [have] my son for one more minute. Because, as long as you don’t say this horrible news, my Eliraz still lives for one more minute. It has to be a mistake, I explained, for I had already paid the ultimate price of our country’s survival. A dozen years earlier, my firstborn, Uriel, an officer in a special unit of Golani … was killed fighting the Hezbollah in Lebanon. And, if it’s not painful enough, my dear husband, unable to bear the loss of Uriel, died five years after of a broken heart.
“So it was the eve of Passover and we were gathered to the seder without Uriel, without Eliraz, without Eleazar, my husband,” she continued. “And we read … we cried when we read in the Haggadah, l’dor v’dor, in every generation they rise up to destroy us…. There is no mother in Israel that wishes her children to be a combat soldier. When we have these children, we only pray to Hashem to let them be alive, to keep them healthy, but not to be soldiers. And my children, every time, when called upon to defend our nation, they did not hesitate. They said simply, Ima, it’s our turn.”
Peretz spoke of her childhood in Morocco and how, one night, her father told the family that “this night we will meet the Moshiach, the Messiah. I asked my father how he looked? And he said he will come with an open shirt, with shorts and with sandals. This is the shaliach of the Jewish Agency.
“They took us from the alleys of this place in Morocco to this country,” she said. “When we arrived to Haifa, I saw my father kneeling and kissing the ground when he said the Shehecheyanu. I didn’t understand the behaviour of my father and I never imagined that, one day, I will kiss this earth twice, like my father, when it covered the bodies of my children on Mount Herzl.”
She said that, after the death of her second son, she asked: “What can I do with this grief and sorrow? I can continue to sleep on my bed, to cry about my destiny, to blame the government, the IDF – this is not my way. I chose to continue and to hold the life. I chose to look outside … to see all this land and ask myself, every day, what can I do to be worthy of them? They gave their life for me. I didn’t want to waste my life, because life is not how many years you are here. It’s what you do with this minute that God [has] blessed you.”
Peretz has devoted the years since to comforting bereaved families and wounded soldiers.
“She did not choose the circumstances of her difficult life,” Bennett has said of Peretz, “but chose to live and revive an entire people. She is the mother of us all.”
“It’s not only my personal story,” Peretz told the General Assembly. “It’s the story of this land. It’s the story of faith and hope. It’s the story of the price that we pay for the existence of this state.”