By Charles Bernsen
About 250 people were on hand Sunday, Jan. 31 to honor two philanthropists for their lifelong commitment to the Jewish people, get an insider’s view of U.S. Middle East policy, and help kick off the 2016 annual campaign of the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee.
Following a video presentation highlighting their involvement in and support for the Jewish community – particularly Jewish education – President Carol Hyatt presented the Federation’s President’s Award “with a full measure of love and respect” to Libby and Moshe Werthan.
In accepting the Federation’s highest honor, Libby noted that although the couple had lived in Jerusalem for 25 years, visited Jewish communities around the world and met people from many others, “we have never found any community like Nashville.”
The genuine affection and cooperation among Jews in Nashville’s small but tightknit community have helped it avoid the religious and institutional barriers that exist in many other communities, she said.
“We have had two homes – Jerusalem, where our souls soared, and Nashville, where our hearts call home,” she added. “Nashville is special.”
Both Hyatt and Lisa Perlen, chair of the 2016 annual campaign, described the Werthens as role models for many of those now serving in positions of Jewish leadership in Nashville.
“You are the reason Arthur and I are involved,” said Perlen, referring to her husband, a Federation board member who chairs its Community Relations Committee. “Your commitment is an inspiration on a night that is about the power of collective philanthropy.”
Among those who paid tribute to the Werthans were Moshe’s lifelong friend and former Federation president, Steve Riven, who regaled the audience with stories of their childhood hijinks, and Jeremy Werthan, their oldest child, who said he and his siblings both love and admire their parents “for who they are.”
Also on hand to express their appreciation were David Bernstein and Joshua Chidajo, dean and North American executive director respectively of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where both Moshe and Libby serve on the board.
The Werthans were honored during the annual dinner of the Federation’s Bonim Society, which is comprised of individuals and couples who donate at least $1,000 to the annual campaign. The dinner in the Gordon Jewish Community Center was followed by a presentation by former U.S. Ambassador Dennis Ross, who helped shape Middle East policy for four U.S. administrations and has authored a new book, Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama.
Ross, now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy, said he wrote the book in the hope that it will influence the next administration to move beyond three misguided assumptions that have impeded the Middle East policy over the past seven decades.
The first is that by distancing itself from Israel, the United States gains influence with Arab countries. The second is a corollary of the first – that by aligning itself more closely with Israel, the United States loses influence with Arab countries.
“Neither is true,” Ross said, because Arab regimes are primarily concerned about their own security and they perceive Arab rivals, not Israel, as their biggest threats. Citing one of dozens of examples from his book, Ross noted that the week after the Kennedy administration became the first to sell arms to Israel, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia visited the White House and, rather than complaining about the sale, sought American support to counter an effort by Egypt to gain influence in the region.
The other false assumption guiding U.S. policy is that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to bringing stability to the Middle East. This unrealistic view doesn’t take into account the conflicts among “tribe, sect and clan” that are the primary drivers of turmoil and violence in the region today, Ross said.
Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is important for Israelis and Palestinians, he said. Indeed, the future of Israel as a democratic state depends on it.
But if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were somehow resolved tomorrow, Ross said it would have little impact on the major sources of Middle East instability – the civil war in Syria, the proxy war in Yemen between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the rise of the ISIS and other Sunni Muslim extremists, the disintegration of Libya and the retrenchment of civil society in Egypt.
If it hopes to wield influence in a way that might bring some stability to the region, the United States must first recognize the priorities and motivations of the actors involved in its conflicts, Ross said.
Predicting that Middle East turmoil and violence will continue for at least another decade, he concluded his presentation by noting that there is only one country in the region that upholds the same values the Unites States holds dear – respect for the rule of law, civil society, a free press, the rights of women and minorities.
“That country is Israel,” he said, which is why, despite its occasional rocky periods, the U.S.-Israeli relationship is doomed to succeed. •