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During President Barack Obama’s short stay in Israel starting today, his experiences on the ground will no doubt affect him. To more clearly handle a complex situation, there is no substitute for first-hand knowledge.
President Obama’s meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others occur as an inspiring next generation of leadership is rising in Israel. Nearly half of the 19th Knesset will include fresh faces, with 47 new members. The Knesset will also include an unprecedented 26 women and 38 religious members. Propelled by recent movements for social change, new energy is reshaping the political scene.
This new political generation is focused on issues that in some ways reach back to the state’s founding days, to matters of social justice and the very nature of the Jewish state’s identity. Yet these new leaders are just as informed by the idealism of Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, as they are by contemporary economic or social conditions.
We were fortunate enough to meet many of these emerging leaders on a recent Jewish Federation visit last month to Israel, and came away deeply optimistic about Israel’s bright future. We look forward to discussing a range of issues with thousands of participants at our annual General Assembly, which will be held in Jerusalem in November.
Of course, our hopes are tempered by the reality that Israel faces profound challenges, not only domestically but critical external threats. Jewish Federation leaders also visited Israel in November, during Operation Pillar of Defense, and experienced first-hand the kinds of dangers so many Israelis face every day.
On that November trip we found ourselves lying in a ditch by the side of a highway en route to the southern town of Kiryat Malachi, ducking for cover as a Hamas rocket flew overhead. Fortunately, Israel’s Iron Dome Missile Defense system, developed jointly with the U.S., intercepted the incoming rocket, right overhead. Iron Dome was truly one of the heroes of the conflict saving many lives.
Since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2006, terrorists have fired more than 8,000 rockets into southern Israel. When the Hamas regime in Gaza escalated the number and reach of rocket attacks last fall, to the point where one million Israelis were living under constant threat, Israel was forced to launch last November’s defensive military operation.
When the conflict broke out, Jewish Federations quickly convened to help those many Israelis living under fire. Federations approved $5 million in emergency assistance as part of a terror relief fund, and sent our solidarity mission to experience the situation ourselves.
We met with local residents, politicians, caregivers and hundreds of others. We learned from them, we mourned with them — and we were inspired by their resilience and deep commitment to their homeland. More than anything else, we shared a simple message: The Jewish people around the world stand shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and sisters in Israel.
Beyond the Jewish community, of course, many people worldwide admire and identify with Israel, out of a sense of shared values. They know that Israel is built on the same democratic principles they hold dear.
I have been to Israel many times, and always I am struck by the country’s boundless energy and hope. The people of Israel have built a thriving democracy that is not only surviving but contributing so much to the world.
As American Jews we are proud to see our president visit our ancient homeland and meet with the people of Israel. In advance of his trip, the president gathered Jewish leaders at the White House to discuss his hopes and objectives for the visit, and I was very privileged to participate in the meeting and represent federations.
President Obama’s trip will be an important opportunity for the United States and Israel to engage on a range of critical issues, from Iran to Syria and to connect with the people of Israel. This is a critical time for our nations to come together, and at the same time we believe an important moment for new hope and leadership as well.
Jerry Silverman is president and CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America.