Surveying a mostly older audience, the distinguished gentleman at the podium asked, “How many times have you heard, ‘This is a critical juncture for Israel?’ We in Israel use this term less than you do here. The truth is, this is a critical juncture for a variety of reasons.”
With those rather ominous words, Alon Pinkas, the former consul general of Israel in New York, introduced his presentation on “Conflicts & the Future of Israel,” as the guest speaker at the annual Telsey Symposium at the Reform Temple of Forest Hills on April 27.
Before outlining the situation that places Israel in a seemingly dire position, Pinkas, who grew up in Forest Hills and termed his appearance a “homecoming,” offered the first part of the “good news/bad news” scenario.
Since its establishment in 1948, the country, according to Pinkas, has seen “unparalleled” achievements. Israel, he said, is “relatively prosperous.” The population has grown from 600,000 to 8.1 million. It has what Pinkas called “the strongest military in the Middle East” and “an alliance with the United States which safeguards us — not without problems, but solid.” He suggested, too, that “the Arab world is weakening,” saying, “The threat of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s no longer exists.”
Then came the second part. As Pinkas explained it, “In the end, we have three major issues: the “evaporating middle class”; Iran, which he suggested is “kind of on its way to a solution”; and the Israeli-Palestinian demographic equilibrium.
Pinkas projected that within the next five years, Palestinian Arabs will outnumber Israeli Jews in the geographical area stretching from the Jordan River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west.
That would mean, he said, that the Palestinians will demand “one state, one vote,” which would imperil Israel’s identity as a Jewish democracy.
Unless Israel finds a solution to divorce itself from the Palestinians, such as through two separate states, “We will be faced with an existential dilemma,” Pinkas said.
“We need to disassociate with the Palestinians,” he said, a move that “for years, we have failed to accomplish.”
He recalled the words of former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, whom he quoted as having said, ‘The Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” suggesting there were several times throughout history when they could have achieved their own separate state but failed to act.
Recognizing that “a lot of Israeli thinking is still Cold War thinking,” Pinkas said that “Israel faces a situation in which the United States is disengaging from the Middle East,” as the nation “is around the corner of reaching energy independence.” As a result, the Israeli-Palestinian issue “no longer represents prime U.S. interest. The world is less and less interested.”
Prior to Pinkas’ address, the temple’s recently appointed Rabbi Mark Kaiserman, said, “We recognize that Forest Hills is a wonderfully diverse community.” The presentation, he added, was “part of our service to the community. We hear a lot about Israel, but we don’t hear it from the sources directly.”
Temple President Jerry Ball indicated that one of the temple’s goals is to be a “full-service synagogue.” As such, he said, “We believe in providing educational opportunities.”
Lee Newman, a member of the temple’s Sisterhood, said she was in attendance because “I have people who have lived in Israel from before it became a state. I have a concern about peace and what’s happening in the other Middle East countries and whether they truly believe in the State of Israel.”
An extended question-and-answer session followed Pinkas’ address. Afterward, members of the audience reacted to the presentation. One, Steven Gropper, called the speech was “eye-opening,” saying, “We’re not completely aware of what Israel needs to continue.”
Selma Schwartz said Pinkas’ words served to “educate the audience to the reality and gravity of the situation,” adding that there is a need for “good leadership on both sides to come to a positive future for everyone.”
The Telsey Symposium, conceived by Jacqueline Telsey in honor of her late husband, Daubert, who believed in expanding the horizon of the temple’s congregation through intellectually challenging adult education, has attracted many notable speakers over the past 16 years, ranging from legendary Jewish American singer and composer Debbie Friedman to John Sexton, president of NYU.