Ayalon, who just finished his term as Israel’s Ambassador to the US, stressed the need to unite behind Israel’s officials during these critical times. He also responded to Jewish Agency Chief Ze’ev Bielski’s call for American Jews to immigrate to Israel, saying: “I join Ze’ev’s call for Aliyah (Jewish immigration) from the states – but I have to say, you can wait a while.”
Ayalon told the crowd of observant Jews that the focus should be put on Aliyah from Europe instead, with Jews in America playing a role in influencing US policy to Israel's favor for the time being.
Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar addressed the crowd, speaking about Abraham's purchase of land in Hevron.
A video was screened outlining the assistance offered by the OU's Israel Center to residents of the north during last summer's war with Hizbullah. The video featured a resident saying, "when the IDF wasn't allowed to respond appropriately, it was very tough."
Also mentioned were the community centers being opened by the Israel Center in cities across Israel. "We are investing millions into making Israeli Jews into Jewish Israelis," OU President Stephen Savitsky said. The OU's efforts on behalf of those evicted during the Disengagement, as well as residents of Sderot, were also mentioned.
Olmert himself began his speech by talking about Israel’s financial success. “Warren Buffet came to Israel after investing $4 billion,” Olmert declared, receiving a hearty applause from the visiting American Jews.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, welcomed with a standing ovation.
He went on to declare that Israel unquestionably won the war against Hizbullah last summer and called upon Orthodox Jews to continue to stand united behind Israel. “We may have some differences occasionally – I don’t think we do. But they are marginal,” Olmert said. “We know you are there for us any time.”
Olmert received a much heartier applause prior to his speech than after it.
"There is no question that we won the war!"
Savitsky introduced Olmert, recalling an OU mission’s meeting with him when he was mayor of Jerusalem shortly after the 2001 bombing of the Sbarro Pizzeria. “Mr. Olmert said he was sorry he was late and explained, ‘I thought you were a Reform or Conservative group – and they don’t come anymore. But when you called my secretary I realized you were an Orthodox group, and you come no matter what,’” Savitsky recounted.
Olmert himself departed from his prepared speech to respond to the anecdote, saying: “The 15th of August was [the] Sbarro [bombing] – a day we will never forget.”
The Sbarro bombing actually took place on August 9th, but August 15th is indeed a significant date in subsequent Israeli history – it was the day the Gaza Disengagement officially started and Gaza was closed to Jews.
Grassroots efforts to convince the OU to cancel Olmert’s appearance due to his role in the Disengagement did not bear fruit, though a synagogue from Brooklyn contacted their rabbi and threatened to withdraw their membership in the OU if the address went ahead as planned. A handful of protesters who thought it inappropriate for the OU, considered the representative of religious Zionist ideology in America, to offer a platform to Olmert held signs and shouted slogans outside the hotel criticizing the decision.
Protesters opposite the hotel. "Hechsher" means kosher certification, which remains one of the central functions of the OU.
“I encourage conventions which promote Israel and Torah observance,” said protester Ellen Horowitz, who traveled to Jerusalem from her home in the Golan Heights to register her outrage. “But everybody should be fully aware of where they are standing at this time in history. And none of us should be standing with Ehud Olmert.”
OU officials responded, saying that Olmert was not being honored, but was merely invited to address the group as the prime minister of the State of Israel.
Arutz-7's Israel National Radio will be broadcasting live from the OU conference from 3-5 PM Israel time Thursday. Click here to listen live (8-10 AM EST) to INR's Yishai Fleisher and Alex Traiman interviewing OU officials and rabbis live from Jerusalem.