Guitar in hand, Peter Yarrow, the last living member of the legendary folk band Peter, Paul and Mary, strummed a few chords and wryly joked, “sounds Jewish, doesn’t it?”
Those initial chords may not have done much to reveal Yarrow’s heartfelt love for the Jewish state, but the rest of his song certainly did. In a new tune written especially for the Jewish National Fund, his soothing voice sang:
“Make sure Israel will flourish
We know we’ll always stand
To cherish and protect of
this precious land.”
In an unabashed ode to Zionism, Yarrow’s performance in many ways encapsulated the conference itself: hundreds of attendees gathering together highlighting everything good about Israel, without turning a blind eye to all the work that must be done so it can continue to flourish.
Below are some highlights from the three-day conference in South Florida that wrapped up last week.
A clarion call for hope over despair
Ronald S. Lauder
As Ronald S. Lauder walked off stage, following his remarks, a film showing children from all over Europe – Rome, Vienna, Berlin, Cologne – singing Hatikva displayed on the screen. It was a fitting conclusion to a speech that espoused the need to choose hope over despair when it comes to challenges in the Jewish world.
The children all hailed from schools established by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation which, for 30 years, has dedicated itself to educating the next generation of young Jews in Europe so the flame of Jewish life in the continent could never be extinguished.
“I was concerned that we are losing the younger generation of Jewish children in Europe. We started one small kindergarten in Vienna. Today we have camps and e-learning programs. We’ve impacted up to 40,000 children and their families,” said Lauder, whose schools are located all over Central and Eastern Europe.
During his speech, JNF chairman of the board-emeritus and World Jewish Congress president, spoke from the heart regarding his personal journey and explained how advocating for the Jewish state became an active choice for the philanthropist and businessman.
Telling his own story of an affluent, unaffiliated Jew in New York city, it wasn’t until he became the ambassador to Austria that he made the conscious decision that Israel needed to be staunchly defended.
As a Jew, he could no longer sit on the sidelines.
He spoke of the election of Kurt Waldheim as president of Austria despite his dark past as a Nazi officer.
“I went to hear him speak in the center of Vienna – he was no longer hiding his past – I heard him say, ‘I did nothing different from your friends or fathers or uncles. It was the New York papers that turned it into a story,’” he recalled the late president saying. “You know what he meant by that. ‘New York’ newspapers were a code word for Jewish newspapers. Here we were 40 years after the Holocaust, and nothing had changed,” he lamented.
“That was the first time in my life that I truly came across the ugly face of antisemitism. I didn’t like it. I had two choices – let it die down and do my job as ambassador or fight it as an ambassador,” he said.
He spoke of his dedication to the Jewish National Fund as a pillar in protecting the Jewish community and Israel so it can remain steadfast against real and existential threats.
“Here’s my message to you: Never forget the challenges we face, but never despair – be strong and positive,” he said.
“Today, there are strong and powerful organizations, like the JNF, WJC and many others – and most important, we have the State of Israel. It’s a small country, but what a country!” he added.
At 70, Israel doing better than ever
While Lauder spoke about the importance of understanding the past in order to understand the threats of the present, Israel’s Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, chose to focus strictly on the future.
And according to Dermer, that future is a bright one.
“You have this remarkable technological power in Israel. Because the 21st century is the century of knowledge, Israel is probably in a better position than any country to seize that future,” Dermer told the crowd.
Citing Israel’s great strides as a hi-tech powerhouse with laudable achievements in the automotive, agricultural and especially cyber industries, Dermer painted an optimistic future for the Jewish state that would have seemed unfathomable 50 years ago.
He even debunked one of the most popular talking points espoused by Israel’s critics – that Israel is getting increasingly isolated. “Israel is very strong diplomatically. Israel is less isolated today than it has ever been in its history, ever,” the diplomat claimed. He cited expanding ties with South America, Asia and Africa as proof that Israel’s being welcomed in foreign countries like never before.
“Why is this happening? It’s not because they suddenly decided to join the World Zionist Organization or Jewish National Fund,” he joked. “They want Israel to help solve their problems.”
Those countries, in short, see what Israel can offer when it comes to counterterrorism, cyber and innovation and they want a slice of the Start-up Nation pie.
Dermer also noted that this is a year of major milestones for the Jewish state.
“This is a year of anniversaries. We are celebrating the 100th year of the Balfour Declaration, the UN decision recognizing Israel, the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel and we are in the 50th year of the liberation and unification of Jerusalem. It’s time to take stock of where we are,” he said.
As such, JNF is eager to take part in this year of celebrations, and has announced at the conference the launch of its Israel@70 Campaign.
During the campaign, JNF will offer five different comprehensive tours so people can see for themselves what Israel has accomplished in its short history.
JNF will also bring Israeli pioneers responsible for those achievements to the United States so they can explain their contributions to the start-up nation.
And on Israel’s Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut, JNF will host events across the country where its Declaration of Independence will be read by Jewish community leaders.
While the conference was a whirlwind of activity and offered three days of lauding and extolling the virtues of the Jewish state, Dermer remarked that Yarrow’s song will be remembered most of all.
“A very tough act to follow. After this conference, we’re going to say a lot of words and hear a lot of speeches, but the only thing we’ll remember are the songs that you’ve sang,” Dermer said.
This article was written in cooperation with JNF-USA