“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Prime Minister of Israel” and thunderous applause erupted.
And thus Bibi Netanyahu entered the chamber of Congress directly beneath my gaze. It was a spine-tingling, tear-inducing moment for many of us in the gallery.
Not because we were ardent Bibi supporters, kvelling over his reception. Goodness no. And yes, we chose to be present, unaffected by the regrettable Speechgate kafuffle which attended his visit.
The pomp and circumstance, the augustness of the setting, the historic timing of the visit, the import of the issue, the world’s riveted attention — it all made for an electrifying atmosphere.
But beyond that, we were moved chiefly because it was the nation state of Israel and not her unnamed leader, and it was the United States’ sole ally and only democracy in the toughest region in the world who was being received with acclaim, love and respect by the most important nation on earth.
Jewish history was put in stark relief in that freeze-frame moment. To stop and reflect that less than 70 years ago Israel did not exist while today she is accorded the honor and dignity of having her voice heard in the most hallowed legislature on earth is, in a historical sense, stupefying.
Whatever one’s politics, hearing ring out to the world from the rostrum of Congress reference to the story of Purim, an implacable defense for the secure and safe existence of the Jewish state and Hebraic attestation to the people of Israel’s enduring strength and spirit made for a riveting exercise in democracy.
So much has already been written about Bibi’s visit pre- and postmortem, and the speech itself, I dare not weigh in as political commentator. But two anecdotes rounded out my experience in the chamber:
One, a subset of Dems, all clustered in one corner, steadfastly refused to budge throughout the speech. Not one clap, let alone not one rise to their feet. I was told by friends who viewed the speech on TV that there was no mention of that group or any showing of these roughly 50 unmoved legislators. No matter how motherhood-and-apple-pie and apolitical a Bibi statement may have been, they weren’t buying it as their colleagues roared in assent. They were there in peaceful protest and they stuck to their convictions. It was irksome to many of us. Yes, the political run up to the speech was pronounced and, of course, another 50 of their colleagues stayed away in protest; but equally, these Members chose to attend, so where was the derekh eretz, the respect and common courtesy rightly accorded a foreign leader and guest? Those of us on our flank of the chamber had a continuous unimpeded view of them and their impertinence was a minor distraction amidst the successive standing ovations. And the other anecdote is more “Inside Baseball” or “Inside the Beltway” minutia as it bears on foreign leaders’ presentations to Joint Sessions of Congress and any incidence of empty seats. A not well-known factoid I came to learn was that lest the visiting dignitary be offended by a show of empty seats or television expose Congress as being less than present for the Joint Session, it has long been customary for staff to sit in as “scab Members”, taking their boss’s place precisely so their absence would not be noticed.
This WexnerLeads column may be a historic relic by the time you read it two days after the Israel elections, having been written a week before. May Israel’s democracy, fraught with readily as much “schtick” and significance as America’s, flourish under her next government.
Howard Zack, an alum of the SF 2 Class of the Wexner Heritage Program (WHP) and a Delegate to the WH Alumni Council, serves on AIPAC’s national council and their regional Board. He is currently a member of SF Federation’s Board of Governors, Endowment Committee and the Capital Planning and Executive Allocations committee. Howard has also served as Co-Chair of both the Building and Campaign Committees of his shul’s recently concluded redevelopment and is an unabashed Camp Ramah (Ojai) booster. His Jewish nonprofit immersion is leavened by his Board affiliation on the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), America’s oldest and largest nonprofit investigative journalism entity. Professionally, Howard is an active real estate and angel investor, working with a small portfolio of emerging growth companies. He’s married to fellow WH classmate Diane (SF 2) and they have 3 kids — Marty (24), Nathan (22) and Alana (19) who is enrolled in Kivunim 2014-15. Howard can be reached at email@example.com.