Ron Dermer and the New Archetype of Jewish Ambassador
Right after my twenty-second birthday I was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Oxford University to serve as Rabbi to the students. It was a strange place to send a young Rabbi with his newly-wed wife. Oxford had not more than approximately 800 Jewish students and a small Jewish resident community. Was it worthwhile for Chabad to open a significant operation in a city with such a paucity of Jews especially when there were many larger communities who were still not served by a full-time rabbi?
But what the Rebbe understood was the influence that students in elite universities would later have. “He [Rabbi Boteach] is influencing a group of people who will in turn influence orders of magnitude more,” the Rebbe told to a supporter of mine. The Rebbe’s prediction was born out as many of our students went on to positions of influence, some of the most outstanding being Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark and Democratic Party favorite in the upcoming New Jersey senatorial election, and Eric Garcetti, the newly elected mayor of Los Angeles.
But of all the thousands of students that I met in my eleven years as Oxford’s rabbi, the one who stood out most in his devotion to Israel was the young political science superstar, Ron Dermer. Since his days at Oxford Ron has gone on to serve as Israel’s Minister of Economic Affairs to the United States and as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s most senior advisor. If media reports are accurate he will soon face challenges of a new magnitude in acting as Israel’s ambassador to the United States.
Israel’s reputation is suffering terribly around the world and Ron is the best spokesman to combat the vicious assault against the Jewish state that I have ever encountered. Whereas Ambassadors of other countries are focused primarily on influencing government policy in their host nations, Israel’s ambassadors have to be different, focusing as well on influencing public opinion in the media markets to which they are sent. Ron is gifted in his ability to make Israel’s case. From his days at Oxford, where he served as President of our student organization, the L’Chaim Society, he was demolishing opponents in the marketplace of ideas with an unparalleled command of the facts and electrifying presentation. He persuaded some of the world’s brightest students on the Arab-Israeli conflict, including Arab students from some of Middle East’s most prominent families who were his close friends.
His skills have only increased since.
Ron recently addressed a small gathering of Jewish leaders that I organized together with Birthright-Israel’s co-founder, Michael Steinhardt, mesmerizing them with his erudition on the Middle East. The great battle for Israel today goes beyond the bombs and bullets being slung against it by terrorist neighbors. Rather, it is a war of words and it demands highly-skilled words warriors. Ron will continue the tradition of Israel’s distinguished outgoing Ambassador Michael Oren, who made a positive and scholarly impact throughout the United States, and will build strongly on that legacy.
Israel’s success both as a flourishing democracy in the Middle East and as a world hub of entrepreneurial ingenuity is without parallel. Nonetheless, it continues to lose the public relations battle at nearly every step. With anti-Semitism on the rise globally and the BDS movement spreading at campuses the world over, there is a growing need for educated and charismatic spokespersons capable of advocating for Israel and winning converts. But we in the Jewish community often lack the tools necessary to engage, and ultimately win, this vital debate.
How has the Jewish community responded to the challenge of Hasbarah, or making Israel’s case? Primarily through creating organizations that focus on social media, networking, and bringing high profile personalities to Israel that portray the Jewish state in a positive light. Israel advocacy groups organize well-publicized trips to Israel to visit and meet Israel’s leaders.
There is no question that this is important. Barbra Streisand’s recent concerts in Israel made international headlines as did Madonna’s decision to launch her global concert tour last summer in Tel Aviv. My own organization, This World: The Jewish Values Network, will have the honor of hosting Dr. Mehmet Oz – the global television star who is the world’s most famous doctor and foremost advocate for public health – later this month, G-d willing, in Israel, where his show also airs. Dr. Oz, one of the most approachable and genuine men I know, will appear in a public panel chaired by the editor of the Jerusalem Post, Steve Linde.
But there is no substitute for something even more important, namely, the grooming of charismatic spokespersons promoting Israel, Jewish values, and the Jewish contribution to society.
I have long advocated the creation of an international institute of Jewish values, a foundation dedicated to producing and training exponents of Israel advocacy and Jewish values. To influence and young men and women is crucial to successfully boost Israel’s public standing and spread the universal teachings of Jewish values to the world. There are talented individuals within our communities and on our campuses who firmly believe that is Israel is a thriving democracy and champion of human rights, but lack the skills necessary to present this image to the world. The establishment of an institute focused on excellence in training our brightest minds and promising talents would be remarkable. Fostering individual lights to illuminate the darkness created by the ignorance of values would also immeasurably enrich the United States. The purpose of a National Institute of Jewish Values would be to school thinkers, writers, broadcasters, and entrepreneurs in the art of advancing Israel and Jewish values.
The Jewish community, through the power of global media, has the capability to live up to its ancient mandate of being ‘a light unto the nations’ by spreading its universal values in a manner that brings inspiration to modern culture and society. What is needed is a growing body of eloquent, articulate, informed, and dynamic spokespeople to communicate the Jewish people’s timeless message of personal dignity and accountability, the infinite value of every human life, strong families, education-based opportunity, rights of and respect for women, and morally virtuous living. We need to begin aspiring to attract leaders from all walks of life and grant them the advanced skills necessary to become world-class ambassadors for the State of Israel and universal Jewish values.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is founder of This World: The Values Network, which is working to launch The National Institute of Jewish values to promote universal Jewish teachings in the American media. He has recently published “The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.