AZM Conference Examines Zionism Across the Aisle and the Religious Spectrum

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The American Zionist Movement (AZM) Washington National Conference commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration through its theme, “Zionism Forward: In the Spirit of Balfour.” AZM, the World Zionist Organization’s (WZO) Department for Diaspora Activities, and the Israel Forever Foundation’s Balfour Initiative hosted the conference in Washington, D.C., from Nov. 15-17.

AZM is a coalition of groups and individuals dedicated to bringing the American Jewish community closer to Zionism. It encompasses a broad array of Zionist perspectives and diverse opinions, which was a key aspect of this inclusive event.

Featured events included keynote remarks by Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, a reception at the Israel Embassy, and remarks from members of Congress. The panel discussions gave participants the rare opportunity to hear diverse political and religious personalities share their support for Israel; speakers did not accept all Israeli policies and actions, but all supported the Jewish State.

Herbert Block, AZM’s executive director, chaired the “Zionism across the Aisle — the Washington Debate” panel, which included Shoshana Bryen, senior director at the Jewish Policy Center; Ann Lewis, president of the JAC Education Foundation; Sarah Stern, president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET); and Robert Wexler, president of the Center for Middle East Peace and a former U.S. Congressman (D-Fla.). Bryen, a leading specialist in U.S. defense policy and Middle East affairs, emphasized that the U.S. and Israel are drawn together by our society’s common rights and values, and our unique shared concepts of nationhood. Lewis, long active with Democratic politicians, stressed that the ability and willingness to talk with people who hold differing viewpoints is the foundation for building bipartisan support.

Stern, a strong pro-Israel and pro-America advocate with over 30 years’ experience on Capitol Hill, noted that historically bipartisan support for Israel has atrophied among the progressive side of the Democratic party, commenting on how quickly power changes. Wexler agreed with most of the other panelists’ input, but suggested Israel’s supporters are shooting themselves in the foot. Millennials react negatively if they are not offered an opportunity to evaluate multiple viewpoints. Being told they must support Israel 100 percent does not work.

Wexler criticized what he considered unwarranted judgement against those who do not totally support Israel. The 1967 and 1973 wars and the Entebbe raid were events in Israel’s history where it was clear which was the good, moral side, he said. Current events are less clear-cut, prompting doubts among younger people. Wexler felt these doubts need to be addressed.

Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, past AZM president, chaired the panel on “Zionism Across the Religious Spectrum,” which featured Rabbi Joshua Weinberg, president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America; Sarrae Crane, executive director, Movement to Reaffirm Conservative Zionism – USA; Rabbi Gideon Shloush, president, New York Board of Rabbis and former executive director, Religious Zionists of America; and Rabbi Mendel Bluming, executive director, Chabad of Potomac, Maryland. This panel was united in support of Israel, but some panelists had concerns on how Israel treats different segments of its population, including how the rabbis control Kotel (Western Wall) access. Rabbi Shloush stated Israel is for the Jewish people and we must stand together for Israel. He quoted Sen. Joe Lieberman, “G-d was the first Zionist.” Rabbi Bluming voiced strong Chabad support for Israel.

Topics such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and criticism of Israeli policies affecting segments of diaspora Jewry drew strong responses from participants. During the “Challenges in Securing Peace with the Palestinians” panel, people commented that decades of peace process attempts have not contributed to a solution, Oslo has failed, and there is no Arab negotiation partner. Daniel Pipes, a historian and president of the Middle East Forum, advocated Israel go on the offensive, pursuing a “victory plan” instead of a “peace plan.”

The conference facilitated spirited discussions among people with disparate viewpoints but united in their commitment to Israel’s continued existence, development, and prosperity.

 By Ronald Sheinson