Students hear Bibi in D.C. and JCC


BP Photo by Goldie Fields

LIVE: Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed AIPAC conference March 2. Seventeen students from Shalhevet were there.

By Mark Miller, Staff Writer

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Congress March 3, Shalhevet was ready to receive him. Junior Will Bernstein had made a successful push for the administration to show the speech live in the Auditorium, even though it meant cancelling first period.

“I emailed Reb Weissman telling him how important and historic I felt the speech would be,” said Will, who is also active in Firehawks for Israel.

The entire school gathered in the auditorium in time for the beginning of the address. The speech was shown live on PBS on the movie screen above the stage. Initially some students were on their phones, studying, or talking, but this all stopped once Netanyahu started to speak.

At the same time, 17 Shalhevet students and four staff were in Washington, DC, watching the speech live on huge screens at 2015 policy conference of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. For three days, they heard Israeli politicians, met and lobbied members of Congress, and became educated about specific issues in small sessions as they showed support for Israel.

The AIPAC group also heard Netanyahu speak in person, when he addressed the conference the day before his trip to Capitol Hill.

“It was incredible seeing 16,000 people gathered in the same room so support the Jewish state,” said senior Max Helfand.

“Bibi’s speech felt very unifying,” Max said. “There was a booming applause when he was introduced, and an even louder applause when he left. Everyone in the room was cheering him on in support of Israel. It was great to see.”

Both in Congress and at the AIPAC conference Netanyahu described the threat of a nuclear Iran, and the risk of replacing in international negotiations the current sanctions on Iran with what he called an unreliable promise from the country’s leaders to not develop nuclear weapons.

The prime minister’s objections aside, a preliminary agreement was reached between Iran and various Western countries April 2, providing for restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment program and an inspections regime in return for a gradual lifting of UN sanctions against the country. The deadline for a final agreement is June 30.

Although Iran is a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — which allows countries to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes — many countries suspect that Iran is secretly enriching uranium to weapons gradew. After the United Nations unsuccessfully ordered Iran to stop enrichment activities in 2006, the P5+1  — comprised of the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, France, China, and Germany —  and Iran the began negotiations that continue to this day.

The Obama administration favors the deal, arguing that economic sanctions have limited effectiveness and the only other option is a military strike. Also, the President emphasized that sanctions can be reinstated if Iran cheats.

Supporters of the deal also say that countries like China who have been enforciwng the sanctions might be tiring of the sanctions regime and loopholes could develop.  But Prime Minister Netanyahu said Iran could not be trusted, and argued that to prove it can be, it should recognize Israel’s right to exist and end the two countries’ state of war.

Students, faculty and staff continued to debate the proposed agreement long after the speech and AIPAC trip.  Junior Joseph Schnitzer thought missing class to hear it was the right decision.

“If we claim to be a Zionist, Israel-supporting school,” said Joe, “it is a necessity to miss class for such an important address, so that the students can be informed.”

Principal Reb Noam Weissman explained that the administration loved the idea because it was a historical speech that raised a lot of questions.

“Did he have an ulterior agenda or not?” Reb Noam asked. “Was he speaking on behalf of the entire Jewish people of not? All amazing questions, and we wanted the students to be a part of that.”

Neither Reb Weissman nor General Studies Principal Roy Danovitch could recall another time that class was canceled to watch a speech or current event.

There were a variety of reactions to Netanyahu’s Congress speech at Shalhevet. Will Bernstein did not think did not think that it was improper.

“He went up there not to tell the administration what to do but to inform the general public,” said Will Bernstein. “He gave Congress the backing they needed to reject an Iranian deal that he views as a threat to the very existence of a Jewish state.”.

Senior Anna Gordon thought the Prime Minister’s motivation was political.

“I was not a fan of the fact that he spoke right before the elections,” Anna said. The speech itself I felt was repetitive, and to a degree I feel like we over-glorify Netanyahu.”

Anna was also doubtful that Iran could ever be stopped from obtaining nuclear weapons, regardless of the approach.

“At the end of the day, Iran is going to get the bomb, and you just have to deal with it…,” Anna said. “It’s almost unfair to keep expecting everyone to pool so many resources into preventing it. They’re not going to dismantle their entire nuclear weapons program.”

For several of the students who attended AIPAC this year, the experience strengthened their existing beliefs of the nature of the threat from Iran.

“Coming into it, I knew that the US needed to increase sanctions and go for a much more drastic deal against Iran in the nuclear aspect,” said sophomore Yaakov Sobel. “So AIPAC just strengthened my opinions on this matter.”

Sophomore Maya Golan was similarly affected by the convention, but emphasized that the convention taught her to think pragmatically about influencing Congress.

“I came into AIPAC with firm beliefs that we have to support Israel,” Maya said. “After listening to politicians discuss the deal my beliefs got stronger, but I also started to look at things more practically. Sitting in front of the politician who has the ability to vote to pass this deal or not made the situation seem more real.”

Junior Yonah Feld found that the speeches at AIPAC were somewhat repetitive, but that for the most part the experience was quite exciting allowed him to make connections to his studies at Shalhevet.

“I met my favorite senator, Lindsay Graham,” Yonah said. “It was interesting to see the [anti-Zionist Charedi group] Neturei Carta protesting while we are learning about religious Zionism in school.”