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July 9, 2013 6:26 am

Ron Dermer and the New Archetype of Jewish Ambassador

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

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Ron Dermer with the author. Photo: Shmuly Boteach.

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.

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  • Yoel Nitzarim

    I want to say something of profound meaning to me, Rabbi Boteach. I am almost sixty-four years old. In the recent four years, I have been the recipient of emotional homicide on two occasions: one in a Chabad synagogue while I, the solitary kohen, was “duchening” when one-half of the congregation left the sanctuary intentionally right before and during the service on Simchat-Torah and the other on Facebook, where I will need to remove the membership in an Israeli group that I so cherished from my biographical profile at Marquis Who’s Who in the World, by a fellow Israeli Jew. Having finished my formal education in 1983 with an M.Ed. in Secondary Language Arts at Northeastern Illinois University, a local community college in Chicago, I have had to put up with being slighted by numerous PhD’s, rabbis, MD’s. and the like now for my entire adult life; and I am just plain sick and tired of it. As a so-called educated human being, every person who has acquired an advanced degree should understand that it is a privilege to own such a designation, not a red badge of courage to be utilized to swipe at “underlings.” With just a small amount of understanding of what it means to be human, I know that my education in a school setting was just the base. Afterwards, I would dedicate my life to learning and to helping others learn. The others have turned into thousands over a career that has spanned some thirty-five years and counting. Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, MIT, Stanford and every other Ivy League college or university should be respected as institutions of excellence. More importantly, the individuals who graduate and enter into the work force as well-prepared, highly educated professionals should know that life is the greatest educator. Furthermore, what they contribute to society is of great significance; yet how they treat their fellow human being, as well as other living creatures, is of the greatest significance. Their advanced degrees at highly rated institutions of higher education will pale in contrast to displays of moral ineptitude, moral turpitude, or moral laxity as manifested in arrogance, manipulation and exploitation of people, and self-aggrandizement. Of all the characteristics one may possess as a human being, humility is of the most revered. In Jewish history, our greatest leaders and heroes maintained a sense of their belonging to a people who is a mere component of the Divine Being. Therewith the notables demonstrated through their actions and deeds that no one’s life is more sacred than another: no one Jew is better than another in the eyes of the Maker, for each and every Jew is created in His image. Mr. Dermer is a very young man to hold the position of Israeli Ambassador to the United States. I hope and pray that he comports himself with the humility requisite for such a position, for haughtiness, condescension, brazenness, and presumptuousness are not attributes with which a Jewish leader and representative of the Jewish people should conduct himself.

  • Yoel Nitzarim

    Rabbi Boteach, there is a new organization being established with Danny Ayalon as the founder, to accomplish just what you are advocating: The Truth About Israel. With Director Klarina Shpitz-Aviram leading and supervising the inchoate stages of this new organization. Perhaps you would like to engage Mr. Ayalon and Ms. Shpitz-Aviram as they begin this new endeavor. Your ideas regarding the inculcation of Jewish values, as delineated in the conclusion to your op-ed, would be of seminal, sober benefit to this new venture at Hasbara.