Dani Dayan, the consul general of Israel in New York, recently made his Pittsburgh debut with speaking engagements throughout the city. On Sunday, Oct. 15, the Argentinian-born Israeli citizen addressed more than 50 community members at the Katz Theatre of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. The following day, Dayan met with business-minded students from the TAMID chapter at the University of Pittsburgh, select student leaders from local college campuses and, later, with a larger group at the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh.
The purpose of the consul general’s visit and multiple speaking engagements was to “answer the questions about Israel,” he said prior to Sunday evening’s event.
“There are many messages I wish to share, particularly a better understanding of Israel’s situation, about our challenges and opportunities and what we are doing today both in terms of security and diplomacy,” he explained.
Before addressing each of the aforementioned areas, Dayan employed some humor. While prefacing Sunday’s speech, which according to materials from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh was to center on “religious pluralism in Israel and the Diaspora; Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas; and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent trips to Africa and Latin America, ore,” the former business executive quipped, “We are Jewish so we can’t avoid our complicated tradition of starting with the tsuris.”
Today, there are “three main strategic challenges facing Israel. One challenge is important, another is urgent, and the final is delicate. The important challenge is Iran; the urgent challenge is Iran; and the delicate challenge is Iran,” said Dayan.
The complications posed by Israel’s eastward adversary are that “Iran is not only aggressively trying to acquire mass nuclear capabilities, but also [is] the epicenter of a vast terrorist network.”
Given its anti-Israel ambitions, Iran is set to deliver a new global reality, he explained. “If we inherit to our children and grandchildren a world that has nuclear access from Pyongyang to Tehran, then we are inheriting to our children and grandchildren a world that is far worse than the world we grew up in and worse than the Cold War.”
Apart from these concerns is the distressing ongoing reconciliation of Hamas and Fatah, added Dayan. Although “it’s too premature to say what the ultimate outcome and bond between the two Palestinian factions may be, we’re watching it carefully.”
Such insights represent the benefit of the consul general’s visit, explained Cindy Goodman-Leib, chair of the Community Relations Council, as Dayan’s Pittsburgh stay provides a forum for local residents not only “to have direct contact with a representative of the Israeli government,” but to engage in thought on issues being discussed in Israel and in Pittsburgh.
Although multiple subjects were set for discussion, of particular interest to both Dayan and those present at Sunday’s event is the current relationship between Israel and American Jewry.
“In certain aspects, we are in the midst of a crisis,” said Dayan.
Both because of concerns regarding religious pluralism in Israel and the continuous Palestinian-Israeli conflict (Dayan briefly addressed each topic during Sunday’s 70 minute session), what was once a previous affinity for Israel has now faltered for many American Jews, acknowledged the consul general.
“We have marital issues to work on, but our marriage is a Catholic one: there is no way to divorce,” he said.
What American Jews should understand is that they should become more “active in Israeli politics from the inside.” Either by opening an embassy in Israel, “making hasbara” or lobbying members of the Knesset, American Jews can greatly influence the foreign decision-making process by educating the Israeli people of “who you are and what you want,” he said.
On Monday, while meeting with a group of roughly 20 student leaders from local college campuses, Dayan returned to the subject of a strained American-Israeli union.
“I’m a great believer that the alliance between Israel and the U.S. shouldn’t only be an alliance between governments but between people,” Dayan said. These days, much like abortion and gun control, Israel has become too partisan in this country, and the overwhelming support for Israel shown by conservatives in contradistinction to liberals is worrying, as “I believe that Israel could be a progressive cause in American politics.”
Returning then to a style reminiscent of Sunday evening’s affair, Dayan delivered several illustrative cracks.
When asked about the shortcomings of Israeli democracy, the speaker replied, “I cannot say that Israeli democracy is perfect because no democracy is perfect,” as evidenced by the Electoral College. The consul general added, “Even before I became a diplomat, I used to feel uncomfortable talking about Israeli politics because it’s aggressive and weird, but now I see that we’re not alone.”
Following the dinner and forum with student leaders from groups including Pitt College Democrats, the Pitt Model UN and the Pitt Interfraternity Council, Dayan delivered his final Pittsburgh talk along with a question-and-answer session at Hillel JUC to a larger student body.
It was an important event as Israel is something which many students feel both committed to but challenged by, said Dan Marcus, executive director and CEO of Hillel JUC. “The opportunity for students to get beyond the headlines and have an informed and meaningful discussion with Consul General Dayan allows them to deepen their understanding of Israel and also to ask challenging questions that are relevant to them.”
Meeting with Consul General Dayan “gave us an opportunity to ask questions on a more intimate level,” and it gave him a chance to “hear what life was like on campus,” said Avigail Schneiman, an engagement fellow at Hillel JUC and one of several student leaders who met with the diplomat.
“This was an opportunity to ask questions and deal with those challenges,” and it was a learning experience for all involved, said Marcus, who credited Panthers for Israel, a pro-Israel group at the University of Pittsburgh, for facilitating Dayan’s visit.
“For us on campus facing different challenges, it was inspiring and cool to hear [from the consul general],” said Alan Menaged, a junior at Carnegie Mellon University.
The visiting speaker offered similar sentiment. When asked to describe his highly programmed Pittsburgh trip, Dayan simply termed it “a success.” pjc
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.