The executive director of the Philadelphia-Israel Chamber of Commerce saw a story in an Israeli newspaper in October that mentioned the country’s government was considering closing its diplomatic mission in Philadelphia.
The group swung into action, mobilizing its supporters to start campaigning on the consulate’s behalf. They contacted Israeli and American officials, started an online petition that received more than 1,500 signatures and collaborated with other like-minded organizations such as the American Jewish Committee.
The consulate supporters were rewarded for their efforts last week when the Israeli government announced that it would maintain its mid-Atlantic office, which serves Pennsylvania, Ohio, Delaware, West Virginia, Kentucky and Southern New Jersey.
“I laud the tireless efforts made by so many of our friends in the mid-Atlantic region to keep the consulate open, efforts that bore fruit in the form of this exciting news,” Yaron Sideman, Consul General of Israel in Philadelphia wrote in an email.
Sideman first broke the news to Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter at a board of trustees meeting of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia on Dec. 12. Nutter, who was attending the gathering at the Jewish Community Services Building to share thoughts about his November trip to Israel, became emotional when Sideman read a letter addressed to the mayor from Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, announcing that the consulate would remain open.
“Philadelphia and Tel-Aviv are truly sister cities,” Sideman read, referring to the official agreement between the two. “The shared values of our peoples can be seen in the fact that both cities served as the location for announcing the independence of our respective countries.”
The announcement ended months of speculation and campaign efforts after word came that the Israeli government was considering closing the diplomatic mission. Media reports had suggested that the closure would have occurred primarily for financial reasons as the government was considering opening an additional diplomatic mission in China. Some Israeli officials had suggested that the local mission wasn’t necessary and the region could be served by diplomatic outposts in Washington and New York.
Richard Bendit, the president of the Philadelphia-Israel chamber, said that he and others in the organization understood that keeping the consulate open would take a significant lobbying effort.
“We realized this wasn’t something that one person or one organization or one elected official was going to be able to accomplish,” Bendit said. “We realized this needed to be a broad-based effort.”
American Jewish Committee regional director Marcia Bronstein said she understood the need to close an office in the United States in order to open one in China, but she said in considering the closure of the Philadelphia office, Israeli government officials “maybe just didn’t understand what the consulate means to this area.”
The cause was joined by top political and business figures in the region. Gov. Tom Corbett and U.S. Sens. Pat Toomey and Bob Casey, the Southeastern Pennsylvania congressional delegation and Nutter also sent letters to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging him to keep the consulate open. Many of the letters appealed to the prime minister’s having lived in the area, where he attending Cheltenham High School.
“I think the relationship” between Israel and Philadelphia “was always strong but I think that going through this process just strengthened it,” Bronstein said.
In a letter reacting to the news that the consulate would remain open, Bendit wrote, “Preserving an official Israeli presence in our region will help the Greater Philadelphia area maintain its leadership role in accelerating U.S.-Israeli business development.”
The consulate will now work to further economic, academic and cultural ties between Philadelphia and Israel, said Deputy Consul General Elad Strohmayer. He said he would like to see additional agreements like the research consortium among Drexel University, Hebrew University and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that was announced last month during Nutter’s mission. He said he is also working to bring Israeli artists to Art After 5, a Friday evening music program at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“We’re working full-steam forward to building connections with the Jewish community, the non-Jewish community and the entire region,” said Strohmayer.
Before the announcement during last week’s meeting, Nutter spoke about how important the consulate was to him and how he was optimistic that it would remain open. During his trip, the mayor said, he had discussed the closure threat with Israeli President Shimon Peres as well as Foreign Ministry officials. He said he also raised the issue with Valerie Jarrett, President Barack Obama's senior adviser, a few weeks ago when the president visited Philadelphia for a fundraiser.
“I have talked to every possible person that I can talk to about the importance of this office in Philadelphia, its significance in our city and the respect that needs to be shown to the Jewish American community in Philadelphia as well as the city in general,” he said.
At the meeting, Nutter and Sideman embraced, and the room of more than 100 people from the Philadelphia Jewish community stood and applauded.