Local leaders attend national Jewish unity event in support of Israel

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

As combat continues in Gaza and diplomatic efforts run around the clock to end the fighting, five St. Louisans were among hundreds in Washington D.C. who were able to hear from leadership in both parties about America’s relationship with Israel.

“It was just a really wonderful, uplifting meeting,” said Phyllis Markus, president of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

The gathering, which took place at the National Press Club under the auspices of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, included representatives from Jewish agencies in 50 communities. In addition to Markus and Jewish Federation president and CEO Andrew Rehfeld, others on the daylong visit to the nation’s capitol included Federation board chair Patty Croughan, co-chair of Jewish Federations of North America Rapid Response Team Heschel Raskas, and past board chair of the Federation Sheila Greenbaum.

While there, the visitors heard Monday from top-ranking congressional leaders including Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer. National Security Advisor Susan Rice also spoke as did Israel’s ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer.

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The trip comes as the military conflict in Gaza, which began earlier this month, is intensifying. The U.S. has generally backed the Jewish State’s efforts against Hamas but has also been trying to negotiate a ceasefire. Israeli media has crackled of late with reports of deep dissatisfaction toward American Secretary of State John Kerry whose recent outline for a truce was seen by some as not addressing Israeli security concerns. The ongoing negative commentary drew an uncharacteristically icy rebuke Monday from a State Department spokeswoman who said the criticism was “not the way partners and allies treat each other.”

But Markus said officials at the briefing felt the tension was overblown and that Rice and Dormer said Kerry’s efforts had been appreciated.

“Both of them said that what you hear in the press is not true,” Markus said. “Kerry has been making an extraordinary effort and reports have been misleading. The reality is that Kerry’s work on behalf of the U.S. has been very helpful every step of the way for Israel.”

Markus said the president’s national security advisor spoke positively of the American-Israeli relationship during the two-hour session.

“Susan Rice said again and again that we have always been a partner with Israel,” she said. “We stand with Israel during times of war and during times of peace. We understand what’s at risk here.”

Rice also talked of Iron Dome, the Israeli defense system which has seen success in warding off rocket attacks from Gaza and Rep. Eliot Engel of New York told the group he would push for greater American aid to expand the system.

“Engel said he was introducing a bill in the House tonight to support the Iron Dome and provide more funding for Israel,” she said.

Markus said it was her first time at an event of this nature. She was heartened by the atmosphere of steadfast support for the Jewish State.

“It was Republicans and Democrats. They said that we may disagree on a lot of things but what Congress and this administration stands together on is Israel,” she said. “There was just no doubt that the relationship was strong and enduring.”

Croughan also said she was encouraged by the feeling in the room.

“I thought it was a terrific meeting to really reinforce the sense of unity among the Jewish people,” she said.

Croughan also noted the prominent role that the missile system played in the conversation.

“Everybody who spoke referenced Iron Dome as a key element in the current conflict,” she said.

Croughan said other topics of conversation included the need to destroy Hamas’ tunnel system, the demilitarization of Hamas in Gaza and the disturbing rise of anti-Semitic sentiment in Europe in the wake of the conflict. 

She said that speakers emphasized that it was Hamas which initiated the violence and Hamas which continues it.

“Our war is with Hamas, not the Palestinian people,” she said. “That was referenced many times.”

The group flew back to St. Louis directly after the meeting.