2016-10-26 / Voice at the Shore

Israel’s new Consul General in NY seeks to “keep open channels of dialogue”

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice Shore Editor


Local Jewish Federation President Steven Scherzer (from left) with Federation’s Israel Center co-chairs Judy Galler and Sheila Friedman, along with Andrew Gross, director of political affairs for Israel’s Consulate General in New York, and Amir Sagie, the deputy Consul General. Local Jewish Federation President Steven Scherzer (from left) with Federation’s Israel Center co-chairs Judy Galler and Sheila Friedman, along with Andrew Gross, director of political affairs for Israel’s Consulate General in New York, and Amir Sagie, the deputy Consul General. The Consulate General of Israel in New York has a new set of priorities, said Amir Sagie, deputy consul general, who spoke to a room full of local Jewish leaders at the Linwood Country Club on October 6.

These new objectives have been set by the new Consul General, Dani Dayan, who in August was appointed leader of the New York City-based Consulate by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Sagie. Among Dayan’s priorities: communicating the concerns of American Jews to Israeli government leaders, and finding ways to open lines of communication with millennials, Hispanics, and those who have unfavorable views of Israel.

“We want to keep open channels of dialogue,” said Sagie. “We can agree to disagree, we can agree to agree, but we must have this option to talk to each other. This is our priority and we would like to have your assistance.”

Although Sagie has spoken to local audiences in the past, New Jersey has only been under the purview of the Israeli Consulate’s New York office since mid-August, when the Philadelphia office of the Israeli Consulate closed. According to Sagie, this closure was part of a reorganization aimed at reducing costs.

The New York Consulate now covers New Jersey along with New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Delaware. Although the office is farther away, “we still feel close to you,” said Sagie. He encouraged all those in need of speakers on Israel-related topics or planning Israeli cultural events to contact his office for assistance, just as they had contacted the Philadelphia consulate in the past.

Yet the New York consulate office now seeks to serve citizens in the five states it covers in a new way, he noted. “We are seeing our position in a new way: We are also your ambassadors in Jerusalem,” with direct access to the Prime Minister as well as other elected officials, Sagie said.

“It’s very important for us to be your voice in Israel,” said Sagie, noting that he was well-aware that American Jews felt very strongly about the “issue of pluralism in Israel,” ostensibly referring to the lack of recognition given to non-Orthodox denominations in Israel regarding religious matters. “Our job is to make sure Israel is seen as a home for every Jew in the world,” he stressed.

In addition to creating dialogue with the

American Jewish community over the pluralism issue, the Israeli Consulate is also seeking to create dialogue with a diversity of groups in American society. Hispanic Americans figured prominently among those groups. By 2060, said Sagie, a third of the U.S. electorate will be Hispanic/Latino. “This community is very important, and it’s young. It’s very important for us to build these bridges today.”

Outreach to the Hispanic community has been facilitated by the selection of Dani Dayan as consul general, he added. Born in Argentina, Dayan speaks fluent Spanish.

The Consulate also seeks to reach out to other ethnic groups and especially to millennials, said Sagie. Engaging millennials “is something we really don’t know how to tackle. Everyone is grappling with this. We really need all your help on this,” he told local Jewish leaders.

Perhaps the toughest new priority is “to do more on the progressive side of the map—to dialogue with people not as friendly to Israel, such as Democrats,” said Sagie, stressing the need for Israel to maintain bipartisan support in the United States.

Allowing progressives to say “’leave me alone, I’ve had enough with Israel,’ is not an option,” he said. “We must keep this dialogue. That’s why we are investing more in opening a channel with those who are giving up. It’s our responsibility to listen to criticism and other opinions.”

Rabbi Jonathan Kremer of Shirat Hayam in Ventnor offered Sagie an opportunity to listen to such criticism.

“I hadn’t realized how frustrated and angry I’d become,” said Kremer, who has family in Israel and expressed deep concern over Israel’s handling of current religious and political issues. Kremer cited Israel’s recently announced expansion of a West Bank settlement as one such problematic issue. “If there’s a plan to split the West Bank, how can we tell congregants that Israel is seriously working towards a two-state solution?”

Sagie acknowledged that the settlements are “a very toxic issue in the discourse.” (Notably, Dayan’s selection as the new consulate general could further complicate this discourse. An August 18 New York Times article described Dayan as “an Israeli settler from the West Bank” who is “the controversial former head of the settlement movement.” Dayan was appointed to the New York position after the Brazilian government refused to accept him as its Israeli ambassador due to his ties with the settlement movement.)

“Settlements have never been the issue,” Sagie noted. “Israelis don’t believe it’s about land any more. It doesn’t matter how much land we give, we’ll never receive peace. Palestinians will never accept any kind of Israeli state no matter what the borders are.” He also noted that negotiation was now impossible because “there is no Palestinian leadership that we can talk to” that’s willing to compromise.

Sagie stressed the importance of trying to shift the focus of conversations involving Israel away from the Israel- Palestinian conflict, which he described as “irrelevant to 99 percent of the world,” and instead to focus on the issues that really matter to people worldwide and in the Middle East: ISIS and Iran, “which will go nuclear in 10-12 years.”

Even most Muslims today recognize that “Israel has nothing to do with their problems,” said Sagie. He noted that a new alliance was emerging in the Middle East that included Israel as well as many moderate Sunni regimes concerned about Iran’s growing nuclear threat.

Judy Galler, the Jewish Federation’s local Israel Center co-chair, asked how to best promote a positive image of Israel. Sagie said that Israel was doing this by talking to people about the impact of its technological advances on world problems such as water consumption and more. He also noted that Israel is a shining example of a strong democracy in a neighborhood that lacks democracy and in which other governments are weak and collapsing. 

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