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Farewell, Los Angeles

In less than a month, I will be packing up and returning to Israel, after concluding a four-year mission in the city.

Hillel Newman, Consul General of Israel to the Pacific Southwest. Credit: Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles.
Hillel Newman, Consul General of Israel to the Pacific Southwest. Credit: Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles.
Hillel Newman
Hillel Newman

In less than a month, I will be packing up and returning to Israel, after concluding a mission of four years in Los Angeles. It was a fascinating experience to serve in the city as Israel’s senior diplomat to the Pacific Southwest. 

Before I reveal some of my impressions from my service, let me first share a few words about what we do as a consulate. Many may not be aware of the main mission of an Israeli consulate.  

Many Israelis think that the main objective is serving their needs, such as issuing new passports and notarizing documents. The Jewish community may think that we are here mainly to assist them in their visits to Israel, and by signing immigration documents. That is only partially true. Our agenda is much wider and more comprehensive. A big part of our agenda, for example, does not involve the Jewish community at all. 

The Israeli Consulate to the Pacific Southwest, representing the state of Israel to a wide region including six and a half states (Southern California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Hawaii, Colorado and Wyoming), is mainly entrusted with the task of strengthening bilateral relations between Israel and the United States. Such a task has many dimensions, but a large part of it is working with Americans, mainly non-Jewish.

The span of activity includes political networking (engaging with members of Congress and elected officials on all levels); increasing trade and economic relations; interlocking positively with minorities like the Hispanic and African American communities; engaging with faith communities, especially churches of different denominations; reaching out to influential people; exposing Israeli culture to the wide public via cultural events (like screening of Israeli movies and performances); working with the entertainment industry for increased Israeli presence in Hollywood and reaching out via social media.

These are just examples. Due to the wide range of expectations and activity, and time limitations, one must prioritize. That means concentrating efforts and giving primacy to defined objectives.  

Still, I did try maintain a comprehensive approach, which meant not neglecting any one field. This required a wide range of activity, working in all sectors. But we also prioritized political networking and the goal of touching as many people as possible in a positive manner. Trying to influence public opinion on Israel in a positive way was always a priority.

Let me try to summarize highlights of our achievements. In the political field, we maintained contact with all six governors, with the 75 federal-level elected officials and hundreds of state- and municipal-level elected officials. We brought two governors to Israel on official visits (Utah and Arizona), both accompanied by high-level delegations, and signed new agreements (one of them with the governor of Hawaii).

We assisted dozens of delegations of elected officials and Christian and Jewish groups to Israel. We even brought two delegations of Iranian expats to Israel. We hosted a few high-level visits from Israel (former President Reuven Rivlin, his successor and former head of the Jewish Agency Isaac Herzog and the Science and Innovation minister (twice), Deputy foreign Minister).

In the economic field, we appointed a director of innovation and economic affairs, arranged more than 50 high-level, quality events, oversaw the signing of several significant agreements, organized dozens of economic delegations and aided Israeli companies in partnering with U.S. counterparts. 

In an attempt to touch as many people as possible positively, we implemented diverse methods of community outreach, of which we are especially proud. Among the activities: launching a project to set up computer hubs in Latino and African American communities; financing murals in schools and on the Korean federation building (in solidarity with the Asian American community); partnering with Los Angeles in setting up COVID test sites for South L.A. Latino communities and building a network of more than 200 spiritual leaders of churches in our wide area, meeting once a quarter. 

In the field of culture, we sponsored the screening of at least 50 Israeli movies, as well as several cultural events in partnership with diverse organizations. In the entertainment area, Israeli performers (like Gal Gadot and Shira Haas) and show creators (of shows such as “Fauda,” “Unorthodox,” “Hit & Run,” etc.) have had a major impact.

To further build on this momentum, we arranged one-on-one “speed dates” between Israeli creators and the American production companies, and devised a new project called “Scripted Israel,” which supervised the arrival of a delegation of 40 Israeli creators  for television and film. They met with the large streaming and production companies, to expose them to the innovative content originating from Israel, with the hope that it will lead to further collaboration. This project alone cost approximately a quarter of a million dollars, and it was worth the investment. 

A large part of our work was being there for the community, including visiting churches and synagogues, attending gala events and delivering briefings to a wide range of gatherings. Due to the shocking antisemitic attacks, visiting vandalized synagogues and maintaining close contacts, and monitoring these terrible acts with the law enforcement authorities, became an important element of our work. A highlight in that aspect is a solidarity dinner we convened in the Kosher Pat’s Restaurant, after it was attacked. The mayor of Los Angeles and the LAPD chief attended, along with many faith leaders and civil society stakeholders.    

The COVID era had its special challenges. We quickly regrouped to address the needs and concerns of both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Our consular department worked around the clock helping thousands who needed to travel and required special processing. Our Public Diplomacy team did not miss a beat and employed creative programming to keep in close touch with our partners around the region. With the resourceful Israeli spirit we improvised and thought “outside the box” to support and even strengthen connections through that difficult time, including sponsoring banners on the streets and expressing solidarity with first responders and essential workers. It was also vital to share with our region the information and compelling role Israel was playing in combatting COVID and helping humanity. 

Now let me share some impressions. On the positive side, we were comforted by the fact that there is still a strong bipartisan support for Israel. Despite attempts to boycott and defame Israel, there were hardly any significant steps taken in this regard in our area, mainly because of the wide coalitions built, the personal relations forged and the strong supporters of the state of Israel, who were not ashamed to voice their opinion when appropriate. The standing ovations that President Herzog received following his address to a joint session of Congress, and the “sense of Congress” vote last week, which received the support of 412 against nine, were strong demonstrations of the overwhelming bipartisan support the U.S.-Israel relationship continues to enjoy.  

On the less positive side, we did see a rise in antisemitism, which includes manifestations of anti-Zionism. During my term here, Jews were attacked on the streets of Los Angeles, Jews were shot at on Pico Boulevard, and violent protesters during the George Floyd riots targeted Jewish neighborhoods. Shameless antisemites voiced support for the “death-con” call by Kanye West and antisemitic flyers were spread in Beverly Hills and other areas. A Jewish student felt it necessary to resign from a leadership position at the University of Southern California just because she was a Zionist, and there were attempts to promote BDS resolutions in different academic and other institutions.

I will never forget the African American president of Pitzer College, who vetoed the BDS resolution adopted by staff and students, paying a personal price for his principled stand. When Israel was attacked by the Hamas terrorist organization, there were a few anti-Israel demonstrations, which were often met with pro-Israel counter demonstrations.

In summary, there are malevolent forces out there, as there have been throughout Jewish history, which attempt to undermine the relations between Israel and the United States. The good news is the majority does has not been influenced by this brainwashing.

Nevertheless, despite the “sense of Congress” vote and the successful address by President Herzog, there is still reason for concern. Nine members of Congress voted against support of Israel, and there are other members and segments of public discourse openly working against this relationship. An issue that keeps us up at night is the spreading of popular trends in American society which have an anti-Israel or anti-Jewish streak to them, especially through social media. They superficially and shallowly draw negative correlations with Israel.

There has been a gradual erosion in the willingness of elected officials and influencers to publicly voice support for Israel when anticipated, due to a fear of “grass-roots” movements.

Los Angeles is unique in many ways, especially in the dispersion of power, the wide range of opinions and the scope of “influencers.” The Jewish Journal has also been a fascinating source of information and a “home item” for me over the past four years. I will not part from it, and continue to follow it closely. This will be my L.A. connection, which will remain with me. It has been a captivating experience, and I express deep appreciation to all those in the communities who hold strong to their values and have been a source of inspiration and support to me. Israel cares for all of you.

Originally published by The Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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