As famous, glamorous and cosmopolitan as Beverly Hills is, during my tenure as mayor I’ve tried to stress that for those of us who live here, it’s just home, and how we are all connected by this very simple fact.
Last month I attended the 31st International Conference of Mayors in Israel, to which I was invited along with mayors from 16 different countries around the world, from Tanzania to Taiwan, from Uruguay to the Ukraine, from Austria to America. For most of the mayors, this was a first visit to Israel.
Along with Philip Levine, Mayor of Miami Beach, I was the only Jewish mayor (the other American mayors were from Irving, TX, Trenton, NJ and Bridgeport, CT).
Beverly Hills has deep ties with the state of Israel, with a street in our City named in honor of Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. We cooperate with Israel on multiple levels, having signed an extensive MOA with Israel last year, and this year having co-hosted two summits with Israel in Beverly Hills, one on water usage and one on cyber security, both areas in which Israeli technology and innovation lead the world. It was my first visit to Israel in an official capacity and I was honored to represent our City and grateful to our residents for giving me this opportunity.
Beverly Hills is unique in many ways. We are a diverse City. But we also have a strong Jewish tradition and are likely one of the few cities outside of Israel where as a Jew our residents don’t feel like a minority, in which being Jewish is a normal fact of everyday life. For many of us, this is a true blessing.
The theme of this year’s mayoral conference was “Smart Cities” and we had a chance to meet with Israeli start-ups and tech entrepreneurs, as well as various mayors from around Israel itself. I shared with the other mayors our vision for autonomous vehicles as an integral form of public transportation.
It’s not surprising that visiting Israel feels like going home for a Jew. That’s the point. Israel is all about shalom. And while I have said in the past that home is an almost sacred concept, this notion has an extended meaning in the Holy Land.
After our group visited the wrenching Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, I was approached by three African mayors, who saw I had worn a kippah at the site. They asked me if I was Jewish. When I told them I was, they then asked me why the Jews weren’t all together, why were we so spread out over the world. It led to an interesting and enlightening discussion about Jewish history, including mention of the Uganda plan with the mayor of Kampala.
Before my conversation with the African mayors, just upon leaving the main exhibit hall of Yad Vashem, my peripheral vision somehow automatically drew me to those two words which make up the name to our City. They somehow seemed so out of place. I walked closer to discover a memorial to the half million children who perished in the Holocaust. The inscription says it was donated by Abraham and Edita Spiegel, “of Beverly Hills, California” in memory of their son, Uziel. Uziel was murdered at Auschwitz in 1944. Reading that hit me like a sucker punch and I had difficulty maintaining my composure. Under different circumstances, Uziel might have been a Beverly Hills neighbor. He might have attended Beverly. He might have been a Council colleague. Instead he was murdered at the age of two.
Outside of the hotel in Tel Aviv, I took an early morning walk one day. Again, almost involuntarily, my eyes were drawn to the words “Beverly Hills.” The park I was walking through had also been dedicated by the Spiegels. Both at the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem and at the Tel Aviv park, they felt it important enough to identify that our City was now their home. From the Ukraine through Auschwitz, the Spiegels had made their way to Beverly Hills and found a home here. Beverly Hills. The Spiegels’ home. Our home.
And as if it wasn’t enough to see our City’s name etched in glass and stone in Israel’s two largest cities, at our meeting with Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai, I met his advisor Yoav Adler. Yoav happens to be an alumnus of Horace Mann in Beverly Hills, the school my mother graduated from and which my son now attends.
Yes, we are all connected. Across time, like with Uziel Spiegel, and across space, like with Yoav Adler. That’s part of what Israel is about: connecting generations, l’dor v’dor, and connecting Jews and non-Jews around the world.
When I spent a couple of days in our sister city, Herzliya, it was no surprise I felt at home. Shabbat dinner at Vice Mayor Ofra Bell’s home along with Herzliya mayor Moshe Fadlon was the very definition of heymish.
And it was a pleasure to attend a basketball match of the local professional team, B’nei Herzliya, with Moshe and Ofra as they played the New York Yankees of the league, perennial powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv. Unlike in American sports, there is no revenue sharing nor luxury taxes in Israeli basketball. Maccabi’s budget is something like 15 times that of our Sister City’s team, which plays its home games in a high school gym. It’s hardly surprising that Herzliya hadn’t beaten Maccabi in 6 years. After having taken an early 24 point lead, late in the game it looked like Maccabi would come back to continue the curse, but Herzliya held on for a two point victory and bedlam ensued. Maybe there is some mazel in this Sister City relationship, which we need to do a better job of leveraging. Maybe turnabout is fair play and Moshe and Ofra could help end the Beverly Hills High Normans’ football drought.
I also had the opportunity to present Prime Minister Netanyahu with a copy of our City Council’s resolution affirming the Jewish connection, both spiritual and historical, to Jerusalem, which UNESCO idiotically had voted to deny.
It wasn’t my first meeting with him. Over 30 years ago as a student at Yale, I joined a group for a meeting at the Israeli embassy in Washington to discuss what we could do to counter the Jew hatred spread around campus, some of which was couched as “anti-Zionism.” And while there was no talk of BDS at the time, there were other knee-jerk double standards which seemed to blame the Jews for the ills of the world. Some things it seems, alas, never change.
Moshe Ahrens was the Israeli ambassador in the early 80’s, but he didn’t have the time to meet with a group of college students. Our host was the political counselor, Benyamin Netanyahu. He greeted us in a friendly manner at the entrance and then told us we would be going through a further security screening. “Please double check to make sure you don’t have anything which could be used as a weapon.” As I emptied my pockets I pulled out a kippah, which I held up. He saw it, smiled, and said, “That kind of weapon we allow.”
Netanyahu is absolutely right. The kippah and other symbols of our Jewish identity — along with our memory — are the most potent weapons we possess, shields which protect and connect us with past generations and each other, across time and space, and which allow us to forge a common future as a People.
Over 30 years since our last encounter (which there is no way he could possibly remember), I brought Prime Minister Netanyahu our resolution and assured him that we stand with Israel. I sent him greetings from all the people of Beverly Hills on whose behalf I affirmed “Am Yisrael Chai,” “Long Live the Jewish People.”
His response was to pause a second and smile, before he simply said “Shalom.”
We need to continue to safeguard our individual and collective memories. We need to continue to share our story and our stories with each other and the world.
Prime Minister Netanyahu conveyed a simple “shalom” to the residents of Beverly Hills. Shalom, indeed. To all of us and in all of our homes, now and forever. Shalom