I was privileged to have received an invitation to be present at Monday’s special session of the Knesset empaneled to honor the visit of US Vice President Mike Pence to Israel. There is no way of telling for sure, but my guess is I was on the list because I am the long-time chairperson of the American State Offices Association, the umbrella organization for the 13 US state trade and investment promotion representatives in Israel.
Before the vice president was introduced, three other speakers made presentations. The first was a speech of welcome by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. Whenever I see him in the role of speaker, tears well up given his history.
For those have forgotten, Yuli was born in Chernivtsi in the Soviet Union (now part of Ukraine), his mother was Jewish, while his father is the son of a Jewish father and Christian mother. Both converted to Christianity, and his father is now a Russian Orthodox priest in Karabanovo of Kostroma Oblast and goes under the name of Father Georgy. He was raised by his Jewish grandparents.
His grandfather had taught himself Hebrew at the age of 70 and used to listen to the Voice of Israel on a shortwave radio. When Edelstein’s grandfather died, Yuli began to study Hebrew and read books which inspired him such as Leon Uris’ Exodus. In 1977, during his second year of university, Edelstein applied for an exit visa to immigrate to Israel. Turned down, he began to associate with a small group of Hebrew teachers who held classes in their apartments.
In 1979, he was expelled from the university and suffered harassment by the KGB and local police. During this time, he found odd jobs as a street cleaner, security guard, and the like. In 1984, he and other Hebrew teachers were arrested on fabricated charges, Edelstein himself being charged with possession of drugs, and sentenced to three years in prison. He was then sent to Siberian gulags and did hard labor, first in Buryatia and then in Novosibirsk. Edelstein was released in May 1987 on the eve of Israeli Independence Day, the next to last of the refuseniks to be freed.
Could Edelstein have possibly imagined during that period that 30 years later he would be standing in Israel’s parliament as its speaker and introducing the vice president of the United States? Never… and it is this thought that always pushes my “tear button.”
Following the speaker’s remarks, Prime Minister Netanyahu, as well as the Head of the Opposition, Isaac Herzog, both spoke. The common thread between them was Israel’s gratitude for the vice president’s visit and for the continued support of the United States. Beyond that, their words reflected the tenets of the political parties they each represent.
After these three speakers, the vice president took the podium to deliver his prepared remarks, which were projected on the teleprompter in front of him.
Moments after he began to speak, the 12 members of the Joint (Arab) List seated together in the hall rose to their feet with signage indicating their displeasure with Vice President Pence’s visit and his appearance in the Knesset. While much of the press described this as a “riot in the Knesset,” it was no such thing. They did not scream and shout, but rather tried to stand with their protest signs. A phalanx of security people rushed in immediately (given the Joint List’s publicly stated intent to boycott the speech, no doubt the ushers were at the ready), and escorted the protesters out of the hall.
While this was going on, the bulk of the Knesset members not involved in the outburst stood and loudly applauded the vice president, seemingly wanting to drown out the noise from the disturbance. Sadly, video of the incident shows the prime minister and a few around him laughing during the outburst, certainly conduct not becoming the country’s leadership.
When things settled down the vice president continued with the statement: “It is deeply humbling for me to stand before this vibrant democracy.” One can’t be sure if he was simply recovering well from the interruption or signifying that in a democracy it really is okay for parliament members to express opinions not shared by the majority. In retrospect perhaps if the protesters had asked permission to hold signs of protest for 90 seconds at the beginning of the speech with the understanding that they would then take their seats and conduct themselves respectfully as one would expect when hosting a guest, even one with whom you disagree, the cause of democracy and their cause specifically might have been better served. But that was not to be.
The content of the speech was representative of what any committed Zionist would say, were he Jewish or not. It was clearly one of the most unabashedly Zionist speeches — perhaps sermon is the better word — ever heard in the Israeli Knesset, and not just by a foreign statesman. For Israelis, it was as ringing an endorsement of the Zionist enterprise as one could pray for, as well as an unapologetic affirmation of practically unconditional US support. For messianic Jews and Evangelicals, like Pence, the speech was a confirmation that momentous days are here again, with sounds of rapture and signs of the messiah.
He even added words in Hebrew from the Shehecheyanu blessing that acknowledges God’s grace in allowing us to come to this season, generally recited on the first day of each Jewish holiday. It was, of course, not the first time a US vice president had done so. Former vice president Al Gore 20 years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the celebration of Israel’s independence, uttered the same blessing at a ceremony held at the Givat Ram Stadium on the campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The both knew their audiences and understood how good that would make everyone feel.
But there were also promises: to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by the end of 2019; that the US will never ever let Iran develop a nuclear weapon; and the US will never compromise the security of Israel. The question remains: can the US deliver? Will it deliver?
To be sure, whether or not one agrees with the policy of any current US government, the US remains Israel’s strongest and most consistent ally. So, welcoming the vice president of the United States is something that should make all of us proud.
Many of us were taught in our youth that one respects the office independent of who holds it. It is a lesson that has been a hallmark of American culture and one which the rest of the world could benefit from as well. As such, as an American and an Israeli I was proud to be in the audience that welcomed the vice president and proud as well of the general tenor of the reception.