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Despite somber feel and anti-Israel rallies at JNF conference, leaders look forward

“We’re talking about light. We’re talking about good,” Russell Robinson, the Jewish National Fund-USA’s CEO, told JNS. “There’s no pro-anything out there in the street.”

Photos of Israeli civilians kidnapped by Hamas terrorist on Oct. 7, and taken back into captivity in the Gaza Strip, on display at the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver, the site of the opening plenary of the Jewish National Fund-USA annual conference, Nov. 30, 2023. Photo by Carin M. Smilk.
Photos of Israeli civilians kidnapped by Hamas terrorist on Oct. 7, and taken back into captivity in the Gaza Strip, on display at the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver, the site of the opening plenary of the Jewish National Fund-USA annual conference, Nov. 30, 2023. Photo by Carin M. Smilk.

Flanked by what seemed to be hundreds of police and security officers, some 2,500 Zionists filed into the  Colorado Conference Center in Denver on Nov. 30, in one of the largest U.S. Jewish organizational gatherings after Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attacks.

The Jewish National Fund-USA kicked off its weekend-long Global Conference for Israel with a message of standing tall for Israel and the Jewish people. But the tone of the conference was very different from the ones prior to the Hamas attacks. The crowd was subdued, and even the applause was muted for a gathering of such sorts. The Israel Defense Forces’ Special in Uniform Band sang one song (in years’ past, they performed multiple numbers that got attendees on their feet) that lifted the mood just a bit.

At the same time, an empty chair was left at the event for Ofir Libstein, a JNF supporter and head of the Sha’ar HaNegev regional council whom Hamas terrorists murdered as he fought back their infiltration on Oct. 7.

“Ofir was a dear friend of ours. If Ofir was alive today, he would be in the audience,” Russell Robinson, CEO of JNF-USA, told JNS. “He was waiting for this conference. I asked him why, and he said he wanted to be with family. Well, this is the family.” 

Libstein’s wife and brothers made the trek to Denver, according to Robinson. He said that if Libstein were there, he would tell Robinson to think about tomorrow.

“We have been working every day [since] Oct. 7, in everything from providing food and services to over 100,000 evacuees throughout Israel, to providing washing machines and places for them to have a roof over their head,” Robinson said. “But we’re already planning for the next day, with a campaign called ‘To Build Together.’”

Inside Colorado Convention Center
Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protesters gather in front of the Colorado Convention Center, the site of the opening plenary of the Jewish National Fund-USA annual conference, Nov. 30, 2023. Photo by Carin M. Smilk.

‘Going to get them to imagine and dream’

The new campaign revolves around a restoration of Gaza Envelope communities decimated on Oct. 7, and it will make those sites sufficiently inviting to draw millions of new visitors and residents, Robinson told JNS.

“It’s going to be run by the people who live there, because it is their community and they’re going to lead our way,” he said. “But we’re going to get them to imagine and dream—in their circle of pain—about what could be.”

That involves repainting, rebuilding and replanting, and also what JNF hopes will be a set of signature projects, including a new sports center housing a track and soccer and lacrosse fields.

As Robinson spoke with JNS prior to Thursday’s opening plenary, dozens of police officers were putting helmets on and checking their weapons mere feet away, preparing for imminent anti-Israel protests outside. Many of the protesters hailed Hamas’s massacre.

Police cordoned off many of the roads around the convention, but some protesters still managed to beat on glass walls of a corridor outside the auditorium housing the plenary.

“We’re talking about light. We’re talking about good. There are protesters that are coming because they talk about hate, and they talk about darkness,” Robinson said. “There’s no pro-anything out there in the street.”

Hostage Photos at JNF Conference in Denver
Photos of Israeli civilians kidnapped by Hamas terrorist on Oct. 7, and taken back into captivity in the Gaza Strip, on display at the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver, the site of the opening plenary of the Jewish National Fund-USA annual conference, Nov. 30, 2023. Photo by Carin M. Smilk.

‘Lies travel around the world’

Robinson told JNS that supporters should “continuously fill the void with good.”

“Let’s push out the evil, and the way to do that is standing tall and doing, building and creating,” he said.

The weekend’s agenda includes planning sessions for the 500 college and 250 high school student attendees, as well as lectures on Zionist history and panel discussions on topics like Israel’s place at the United Nations.

Gilad Erdan, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, addressed the opening plenary. He blasted the international body, as he has often done before, for its lack of condemnation of Hamas following Oct. 7 and the equivocation of its Secretary-General António Guterres of Hamas’s massacre and Israel’s response.

“What power does the U.N. have to harm Israel?” Erdan said. “What happens at the U.N. doesn’t stay at the U.N. because we live in the internet era. Lies travel around the world before the truth can even get its shoes on.”

Gov. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

He reiterated his call for Washington to defund the United Nations during a gaggle with reporters. He also said that public funding should cease for American universities that allow antisemitic attacks to occur on campus.

“Oct. 7 was incredibly personal” and “made worse the rise of antisemitism we are seeing across America,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, told attendees.

“This is a profoundly difficult time,” he told the audience, “a nightmare brought to life.” He noted the misinformation regarding the Jewish state, much of it fueled by social media, and said “Israel is tested once again.”

Polis, who is Jewish, sported a “Bring them home now” dog-tag necklace. And he said that if anyone still asks why Israel has to exist, “the evidence is now more self-evident than ever before.” 

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