By JANICE ARNOLD
MONTREAL – The honoree was billionaire builder and philanthropist David J. Azrieli, but most of the accolades went to Stephen Harper at last week’s Jewish National Fund of Montreal Negev Dinner.
Guest speaker, former U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell, praised the Canadian government for its support of Israel in its battle against Hezbollah, and Public Works Minister Michael Fortier received a standing ovation for reaffirming the prime minister’s stand. Israeli Ambassador Alan Baker also thanked Harper for his support.
“As the former secretary of state, I am not authorized to speak for the government, but I will anyway. We have the deepest admiration for the courageous position [Harper] has taken by standing steadfast with Israel,” Powell said.
He said that Israel had the right to respond with force against the “terrorist” Hezbollah’s threat to Israel’s sovereignty.
“The ceasefire agreement will only be meaningful if the Lebanese government takes hold of the country’s south, the United Nations forces are effective and not like the failed UNIFIL mission, and Syria and Iran can be persuaded through all political pressure that it is not in their interests to be supporting terrorists.”
He thinks that Israel will continue to have strong support, not only from the U.S. government, but from the American people because of their “deep-seated” faith in the region’s sole democracy.
“Let us pray that gifted statesmen can come together and push the peace process. No one’s child, in Israel or Lebanon, should be fearful of a rocket or terrorist attack. All children should have a better future without war. Shalom.”
Powell, who left the White House in January 2005, commented briefly on the approximately 200 demonstrators on the street outside the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, who angrily denounced him as a war criminal for allegedly misleading the United Nations on the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which was a pretext for the American invasion, and for speaking at an event in support of Israel.
“The demonstrators should feel very privileged to be in a country where such demonstrations are permitted. That is what we are fighting for around the world,” he said.
But he also stressed the importance of the United States remaining welcoming to Muslim immigrants because they will “learn our real value system” in that way.
Powell, who underwent surgery on a torn Achilles tendon the day before, almost didn’t make it to Montreal. “The doctors ordered me not to travel, but I said, ‘No way; I’m going to Montreal.” He was brought into the ballroom in a wheelchair and sat during his address.
He said his single greatest wish is to see a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He still hopes that “the responsiblity of governing” will moderate Hamas’ violent ways.
On Iraq, Powell suggested the American public is “reaching the limit of its patience” in seeing its troops dying in what has become “sect-on-sect violence,” but that the United States cannot withdraw until the Iraqi government is strong enough to contain it themselves.
On tensions with Iran, he surmised that the solution will “ultimately be diplomatic.”
Appearing relaxed and exhibiting a sense of humour that contrasted with his stern public image while in office, Powell gave a wide-ranging talk on his encounters with world leaders, the adjustments he has made in returning to private life, and the challenges of aging.
Particularly pleasing to the audience of 700 were his reminiscences of the kindness and influence of his Jewish neighbours while growing up as the son of Jamaican immigrants in New York’s South Bronx. He demonstrated that he had not lost the Yiddish he picked up while working as a youth for a Russian-Jewish store owner for seven years, a man he credits with being the most influential in his life after his family.
In a brief encounter with reporters, Powell commented that he respected the demonstrators’ right to protest but was concerned by the presence of Hezbollah flags among the crowd.
Over the course of the noisy but orderly two-hour demonstration, at least four Hezbollah flags were observed, along with the Lebanese, Palestinian and Iraqi flags. The protesters also called for JNF’s charitable tax status to be removed because they charged that it has confiscated land from Palestinians and has been engaged in “ethnic cleansing” since the creation of the Jewish state.
Police presence was heavy, including officers in riot gear, but there were no incidents. The demonstration was organized by PAJU (Palestinian and Jewish Unity) the same group that has held weekly vigils outside the Israeli consulate for more than five years.
The only public figure present was Amir Khadir, a founder and spokesperson for the new provincial political party, Quebec Solidaire.
At the dinner, Fortier reiterated that Israel had every right to defend itself after Hezbollah’s unprovoked aggression inside Israel’s borders. “Those who choose to build will always win over terrorists who choose to destroy.”
He ridiculed the opposition’s response to the conflict as “obscure doctrines that, to put it generously, are absurd.
“Being friends with everybody regardless of the circumstances is not sound foreign policy. At best, it’s a sound-bite.”
He said the international community “cannot tolerate Hezbollah’s acting as a state within a state” and that Canada “must always stand up for Israel’s safety in secure borders.”
The evening got off on a political note when, to enthusiastic applause, JNF Montreal president Joe Kislowicz said that “my traditional political allegiances that I grew up with were shaken when our new prime minister had the moral courage to look terrorism in the eye and call it what it is” and to maintain his pro-Israel position despite “unrelenting political pressure,” as Liberal Senator Yoine Goldstein, a longtime JNF leader, looked on from the head table. Federal ethics commissioner Bernard Shapiro, the Negev honoree two years ago, was the master of ceremonies.
Proceeds from the evening will go toward the construction of a 2,000-seat outdoor amphitheatre in Be’er Sheva for the holding of concerts and other cultural events.
Azrieli said he choose a project in the Negev, where he has been a developer for some 20 years, because of its rapid growth due to immigration. It currently has no such facility. The amphitheatre will be the centrepiece of the new 11-km Be’er Sheva River Park.
Azrieli, 84, is credited with changing the skyline of Israeli cities over the past quarter-century, from the building of the country’s first western-style shopping mall in Jerusalem to his crowning achievement, Tel Aviv’s triple-towered Azrieli Centre, the tallest manmade structure in the Middle East.
“Israel’s pioneering days are not over,” Azrieli said, but the modern chalutz is not draining swamps and planting trees. Today’s chalutz is anyone who is making Israel more competitive in global markets, whether by advancing technology, designing better products or selling Israeli goods abroad.
“Israel is often described as threatened, besieged, isolated. But that is far from the truth. Israel is a modern society with a mind-boggling infrastructure. And Jews are a people of hope, and also hard work, and dedication,” he said.
It was announced that next year’s Negev Dinner honoree is Sylvain Abitbol, a past president of FEDERATION CJA.