In a seismic event that will be felt across no fewer than six states, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Israel announced Wednesday that it will be closing the Consulate General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region by December of this year.
Details are still forthcoming at this point. Beyond a confirmation from consulate spokesman Michael Alexander given during a phone call this morning with the Jewish Exponent, the only official statement from the consulate came in the form of a terse, three-sentence email Jan. 6 that read, in its entirety: “We can confirm that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the State of Israel has decided to terminate operations of the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia by the end of 2016. Until the Consulate ceases its activities it will continue operations and serving the Mid-Atlantic region; once closed, other Israeli missions in the U.S. will expand their reach. The Ministry will do its best to assist its local employees in this process.”
Budget costs were cited in the decision. According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, resources are being shifted toward a new consulate in China as part of an effort to improve trade relations between the two countries.
The ministry also released a statement on Tuesday announcing the establishment of a Technion Israel Institute of Technology in the Chinese province of Guangdong, which is near Israel’s consulate in Guangzhou.
Israel currently has its embassy to China in Beijing, and consulates in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Guangzhou. The fourth consulate will be located in Chengdu.
The local consulate, located in Center City, was first rumored to close in 2013, but the Jewish community and local politicians successfully fought to keep it open.
Rumors of closure again began percolating in August 2015, when reports surfaced indicating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli government would close the Philadelphia consulate and six other embassies and consulates around the world.
Although this is the third and, apparently, the final time the threat of a closure has been made, Lou Balcher, former director of the Department of Academic Affairs for the consulate, said the community can help reverse the decision again.
“We need to make sure that they get how important Philadelphia is to the narrative of America — and the Jewish community of Philadelphia, too,” he said. “It’s unconscionable that Philadelphia is used as a punching bag when Israel wants to cut corners.”
As the third-largest Jewish community in the country, closing the consulate is not just a local issue, Balcher said, but an American one.
“The Israel Consulate in Philadelphia is the lifeline in six states” — in addition to Pennsylvania, the consulate covers Ohio, Delaware, West Virginia, Kentucky and South Jersey — “that will be lost without the services,” he said. “With Philadelphia as basically the birthplace of the nation — the symbolic role of Philadelphia in the sense of American values of freedom and liberty, and there being a Liberty Bell in Jerusalem — in my mind, America is the most critical partner that Israel has in the world.”
Because Philadelphia is in between the consulate in New York and the embassy in Washington, D.C., Balcher said the Israeli government does not see a need for a consulate in the middle.
He doesn’t think this will strain U.S.-Israeli relations in the larger sense, but he emphasizes that pulling away from Philadelphia is still the wrong message.
The ministry may save a few shekels, he added, but they lose the big picture.
Sharona Durry, founder and executive director of PhillyIsrael, agreed that this decision is not final.
She said she hopes the Israeli government sees how important the consulate is to the city and new businesses.
“It’s always good to have a representative from the Israeli government because it gives you more of an official presence of Israel,” Durry stated. “We, as Israelis, have dual citizenship and are very connected to whatever is going on in Israel, but at the same time, we’re also American citizens.”
Naomi Adler, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, who has advocated for the consulate since she started at Jewish Federation in 2014, expressed disappointment in the ministry’s decision.
“It’s very shortsighted on the part of the Israeli government,” she said, adding that “the government of Israel didn’t listen to what the Jewish community had been saying for years.”
The mid-Atlantic region encompasses a huge territory, but “it adds an additional layer of difficulty for anyone in the mid-Atlantic region who is either going to be pushed to go to Washington, D.C., or New York for anything from visas to what’s happening in Israel,” Adler said.
Israel also has consulates in Boston, Miami, Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“We are sorry to hear of the closing of the Israeli Consulate in Philadelphia,” added Bud Newman, Jewish Federation president in a statement. “We will continue to work on behalf of the state of Israel in our region.”
Although speculation about its closure has been building for several years, the announcement came as a surprise to many, including Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.).
“The consulate is essential to continuing the strong relationship between the people of Pennsylvania and the region with the people of Israel,” he wrote in a statement. “I recently met with the Israel consul general Yaron Sideman to discuss the potential for expanded economic cooperation between the commonwealth and Israel, as well as concerns about the BDS movement in Europe and elsewhere.
“We need to maintain these strong ties. I will be writing to Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders to urge them not to close the consulate.”
Other Pennsylvania politicians chimed in on the matter via email.
“We’re obviously disappointed given our sister city relationship with Tel Aviv,” wrote Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, “and we’ll be reaching out to them to see if there’s anything we can do to change their decision. But regardless of the outcome of those conversations, we are still committed to maintaining a positive relationship and open dialogue with our Israeli residents.”
“The Israeli Consulate, coupled with Southeastern Pennsylvania’s strong Jewish population,” stated Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), “has long played an integral part in developing important business, artistic and political ties between the U.S. and Israel. The loss of the consulate in Philadelphia could unfortunately hinder future growth opportunities and partnerships.”
Ferne Hassan, the associate director of the Philadelphia region of StandWithUs, and Steve Feldman, executive director of the Philadelphia office of the Zionist Organization of America, both heard rumors about a possible closing, but neither expected it.
“We are very sorry to hear the news of the consulate’s closing,” Hassan said. “The consulate’s office has lent a strong Israeli presence to the community that will be sorely missed. The consul general and staff have served as a bridge connecting not just the Philadelphia Jewish community with Israel, but the greater community as well. StandWithUs has invited members of the consular staff to address our audiences on numerous occasions, and it was obvious to us that the effect of having a representative of the state of Israel present was both positive and warmly welcomed.”
“Every time it has been discussed it’s been avoided,” Feldman said. “I think it’s going to hurt the community. The Philadelphia region is one of the largest Jewish populations in the country and the level of Israel advocacy has been boosted because of the presence of the consulate there.”
Israelis in the Philadelphia community are surprised about the closing. Amiram Gabay, rabbi at Beit Harambam Congregation in the Northeast and owner of Jerusalem Israeli Gift Shop on Castor Avenue, was shocked when he heard the news.
“Where do we go if we need anything?” he asked.
Nurit Erez, co-owner of Shalom Pizza on Haverford Avenue, was just there to renew her children’s passports.
“Hopefully they won’t close it,” she said. “It’s very convenient when it’s here.”
But it’s likely few will feel the impending vacuum more than Howard and Dayna Glantz, the cantor and programming director, respectively, at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Melrose Park.
To them, the consulate has been a lifeline to better help them connect with their sons, Rafi and Remy, currently living in Israel.
“The folks at the consulate have been wonderful to Lone Soldier parents — and there are a lot of us here,” said Dayna, whose oldest, Rafi, just completed his tour in combat search and rescue but has remained over there while 18-year-old Remy serves. “For me, it’s been a comfort to know they were there. If I had some kind of question I went directly to [former deputy consul] Elad. As matter of fact, Elad signed my son’s visa. Israel’s far — this helped bring it a little closer.”
Personal feelings aside, the cantor said this is a loss for everyone.
“Regardless of me having children in Israel, having a consulate in Philadelphia is of huge importance; it’s very disappointing to hear this,” said Glantz, who’s been at AJ the past 12 years. “The staff of the consulate has always been there for our synagogue in a multitude of ways. They do an incredible job creating alliances with politicians in Philadelphia as well as the business community.”
Now that will change, which Glantz said can’t possibly be good for the local community.
“My assumption is that’s going to mean someone will be assigned a multitude of locations and have to stretch themselves between them,” he said. “I wonder how much effort can they have? Obviously we will make do, but I will be responding directly to Israel’s government.”
That’s an opinion shared just up the road at Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom.
“It meant a lot to have the consulate here,” said Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin. “It made access easier for a lot of folks to stay connected to Israel. I can express unequivocally it will be a loss for the Philadelphia Jewish community and it will make our access more difficult. You develop relationships. Because of the proximity, that will be much more difficult to have without the office here. It will be a loss for everyone.”
Jason Cohen and Jon Marks contributed to this story.
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