The crowd of 260 that attended Gratz College’s Jeffrey B. Plevan Annual Gala must have left the event with a spring in their step. From the videos during the cocktail hour to the accolades for the honorees – board member Leon Levy, retiring professor Dr. Saul Wachs and former College President Joy Goldstein – the whole event was supercharged with gratitude, positivity and optimism. Even the keynote speaker, David Makovsky, the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute, offered a rather upbeat assessment of Israel and its relationship with its Arab neighbors, a topic more often described in terms of deep-rooted problems.Makovsky opened his remarks by touting Israeli successes, including Israel’s population growth, its increase in per capita GDP and its role as a leader in the high-tech and bio-tech industries. He also pointed to the far-reaching impact of the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. According to Makovsky, these agreements have enabled Israel to reduce the percentage of its budget targeted to defense spending, and to increase the percentage earmarked for domestic projects. Makovsky even added that Israel is ranked number 11 on the World Happiness Report.
In describing positive developments in the Middle East, Makovsky, the director of the Washington Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process, focused much of his attention that evening on what he referred to as the “fascinating strategic convergence between Israel and Arab states that previously couldn’t have been imagined.” Although Makovsky did not belittle or ignore Israel’s challenges, such as its domestic income disparity; fear of an eventual Iranian nuclear bomb; threats from Hezbollah, Hamas and ISIS; and the longstanding Palestinian issue, he advised the audience at the gala “to draw strength from the good news.”
Makovsky explained that consistent with the maxim “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” there has been a surprising – and largely under-the-radar – degree of cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors in response to shared threats in the region. Israel and Jordan have participated in joint maneuvers against ISIS. The threat of both Hamas in Gaza and ISIS in the Sinai has resulted in unprecedented security cooperation between Israel and Egypt. Opposition to Iran has even put Israel on the same page as Gulf States, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Given this unexpected alignment of interests, Makovsky joked that “Israel is the first Sunni state to be Jewish.”The question he then raised is whether it is possible to build on these changing dynamics to create progress in other areas, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, what if the Arab states moved toward more open relations with Israel, such as telecommunication connections and direct flights? What if the Israelis agreed not to build settlements east of the security barrier? And what if the Palestinians ended the practice of financially rewarding the families of loved ones killed during attacks on Israelis? Each one of these actions could kick start the other, and collectively move the Israelis and Palestinians one step further toward peace, in what Makovsky describes as a “virtuous circle.”
In discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Makovsky likes to use a baseball analogy, arguing that hitting “a solid single” is better than trying to hit a homerun and striking out, as we have done in the past. He experienced firsthand the problem of setting the bar too high when he served as a senior advisor to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under Secretary of State John Kerry. Makovsky’s advice: “Aim a little lower, but succeed.”
One initiative that has seen some success is the Washington Institute’s religious dialogue project, led by Makovsky and his colleague David Pollock, which aims to bring together Jewish and Muslim religious leaders from Israel and the Palestinian Territories to condemn the use of violence — violence that is often perpetrated in the name of religion. Last fall, a meeting was held at the residence of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, during which the Jewish and Muslim leaders in attendance issued a joint statement against violence. Makovsky is hoping that another such meeting will be organized on the West Bank in Ramallah.
In addition to featuring Makovky’s expert analysis of the situation in the Middle East, Gratz celebrated its three honorees at the gala with great distinction and respect. In the case of Leon Levy, philanthropist and member of the Gratz College Board of Governors since 1997, a citation of honor from the city of Philadelphia was presented to him by his longtime friend, Councilman At-Large Allan Domb. The citation recognized Levy for his contributions to the Jewish community, the city of Philadelphia and the Greater Philadelphia Region.Professor Saul Wachs, who has retired after 42 years at Gratz College, received the most profound honor a teacher can get: a tribute from a student. In honoring her professor, Dr. Zipora Schorr, who earned her doctorate in education from Gratz College this year, spoke reverently about Dr. Wachs, describing him as “a giant of the intellect, of the heart, of the spirit.”
Finally, Interim President Rabbi Erin Hirsh introduced her predecessor, Joy Goldstein, as a “beloved friend and mentor.” Goldstein originally came to Gratz for eight weeks as a consultant — and ended up staying on for eight years, including a five-and-a-half year term as Gratz’s first woman president. In thanking Goldstein for her service to the College, Rabbi Hirsh said, “We are grateful that you applied every aspect of your wisdom and your character to shepherding Gratz to this point.”
Billed as an event for “honoring our legacy and charting a course for the future,” the Gratz gala was an evening of learning, celebration and gratitude.
Photo credit: Brad Gellman Photography.