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New Jersey and Israel: Perfect together
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New Jersey and Israel: Perfect together

Gubernatorial race could impact the future of NJ-Israel Commission

We have a gubernatorial election in less than two weeks. Democratic candidate Phil Murphy, a former ambassador to Germany, and Republican candidate Kim Guadagno, the current lieutenant governor under Gov. Chris Christie, have been debating the big issues facing our state, including immigration policy and how to address the highest property taxes anywhere in the country.

But one issue that has pretty much flown under the radar screen is whether to restore the budget for a paid executive director at the New Jersey-Israel Commission. This position was eliminated by Christie, and Guadagno assumed responsibility for the portfolio as part of her duties these last eight years. Murphy’s position is to restore the budget for the director, while Guadagno says there is no need to spend extra dollars on paid staff. 

In 1988, when Thomas Kean Sr. served as governor, New Jersey signed a symbolic “Sister State” agreement with Israel. The concept was concretized the following year with the establishment of the New Jersey-Israel Commission, “to promote the development of trade, culture and educational exchanges; encourage the development of capital investment and joint business ventures; and foster a spirit of cooperation between the citizens of the State of Israel and the State of New Jersey,” according to its webpage hosted on New Jersey’s Department of State website. 

Jacob Toporek, executive director of New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, has been involved with the Commission since its inception. “Its effectiveness,” he told me, “depends on whether the governor is truly committed, or just gives lip service.” The Commission’s “high point,” he observed, was during the period of Gov. Christine Todd Whitman’s administration, when it even had an Israeli office in Raanana. “The 82 members currently serving on the Commission have not been very involved in recent years,” he said, “and we should be discussing with the next governor both the membership and agenda going forward.”  

Several colleagues pointed to North Carolina as a state that, at one time, had as robust a relationship with Israel as any in the country. Marilyn Chandler, executive director of the Greensboro Jewish Federation, confirmed that assessment and corroborated Toporek’s point about the importance of the governor’s commitment. In the 1990s, then-N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt (D) went on a trade mission to Israel and “came back a cheerleader, totally committed to building a true partnership between North Carolina and Israel.” 

“We had the most holistic relationship with Israel, with committees comprising Jews and non-Jews working on economic development, science, arts, medicine, academics, and many other areas with staff both in the state and in Israel coordinating those efforts,” Chandler told me. Almost every department of North Carolina state government was involved in the Israel partnership, she said.  “It was truly remarkable.”  

A spokesman for Murphy told me that not only would he restore the commission’s budget for an executive director, “as governor, he would actively engage to return the Commission to a place of prominence so that it can create the lasting partnerships that will benefit both New Jersey and Israel.” 

I spoke to West Orange resident Mark Levenson, a Newark-based attorney and longtime chair of the Commission who supports Guadagno, to better understand the rationale for the lieutenant governor’s position. 

He cited three entities that “much more effectively and efficiently” help New Jersey and Israeli companies navigate the state’s bureaucracy to expand trade and “reach the most advantageous and mutually beneficial deal.” Those entities are the New Jersey Economic Authority, the New Jersey Business Action Center, and Choose New Jersey, the privately funded economic development organization. 

Levenson noted that his 15 years of experience with the Commission under four governors has demonstrated to him that  the more significant and impactful business deals tend to get done at the highest business and government levels, not through the efforts of a mid-level professional.  

“In a perfect world where money was no object, I wouldn’t mind if there were additional paid professionals to assist beyond the existing entities, which in large part did not exist eight years ago when there was a paid professional staffer for the Commission,” he said. “However, with a tight and challenged state budget, choices must be made. The potential limited benefit here does not justify the cost, and I don’t realistically see either gubernatorial candidate funding a staff position for the Commission when faced with budget realities and other promised campaign commitments.”  

I’m on the side of restoring the Commission’s budget for a paid professional. It is true, as Levenson argues, that most business deals get done at the highest levels. Yet, as someone who has worked with senior volunteer leaders and high-powered professionals during a 40-year career in the Jewish community, I have come to recognize the vital role support staff plays in background research, coordinating meetings and trips, and doing the all-important follow-up work to make sure decisions made at the highest levels are implemented. Staff also can nurture relationships with the New Jersey Jewish community, which has the potential to be a great asset to the Commission. 

The three entities Levenson cited address business issues globally. Even if those entities continue into the next administration, they do not give Israel the kind of focused attention that would maximize potential business growth with our state. 

No matter who is elected governor next month, I believe the New Jersey Jewish community should advocate for a staffed commission. Ideally, it would have professionals both here and in Israel, as was the case during Whitman’s administration, but at very least there ought to be one paid professional in Trenton.  

The Commission is primarily geared toward economic development, which is understandable. As Jews, we instinctively support expanding all kinds of ties with Israel. For the non-Jewish residents of New Jersey, however, it is particularly important to demonstrate how building a stronger relationship with “start-up” Israel can benefit them concretely, especially through job creation. 

At the same time, the underlying goal of the Commission is more than just dollars and cents. Rather, it is to facilitate meaningful relationships between Israelis and civil society leaders of all stripes by fostering “a spirit of cooperation.” This is more important today than ever. 

Research has shown that many people continue to have a distorted view of Israeli society. The Brand Israel Group, a team of volunteer marketing professionals that develops communication strategies to enhance Israel’s image in the United States, has found that Americans, especially on the political left, see Israel as ultra-religious, intolerant, and deficient on human rights. We also need to keep in mind that there is a concerted effort on the part of Israel’s detractors to push the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), and to characterize Israel as a pariah state. The best way to dispel negative stereotypes is to bring people on trips to Israel so they can see the country for themselves, but in that only a tiny segment of the broader community gets to experience Israel firsthand, other tools must be utilized to foster connections with the country. 

As important as it is, the Commission represents only one dimension of the New Jersey-Israel relationship. In fact, Jewish federations and other organizations are engaged in a wide variety of ambitious and mostly localized programs that enable both Jews and non-Jews to connect with Israel. What seems to be missing, however, is a mechanism to regularly bring all relevant Jewish organizations around a common table to strategically work on statewide initiatives that would enhance the New Jersey-Israel relationship. 

I believe our Jewish community is strong enough to develop such a mechanism on its own. However, a reinvigorated New Jersey-Israel Commission and an involved governor, no doubt, would give this effort a huge boost.

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