The audience of more than 1,000 gathered in the Washington Hilton ballroom stood for the national anthems and in one haunting voice established their priorities for the evening: "Hatkvah" came first.
And it wasn't just among the members of the Jewish National Fund, who were honoring Ryna and Melvin S. Cohen last night, that Israel held a speical significance. There were others who cashed in on the Fund's concern with conserving and reclaiming land in Israel, most notably through their tree-planting projects, to sow a few seeds of their own.
"It is President Carter's conviction and policy that this nation's national interest depends on a stable Middle East," said Special Ambassador Robert Strauss. "And the cornerstone of that policy -- of our whole foreign policy -- is a secure, strong and vital Israel," he continued to applause. Warming to the reception, he got tough: "Don't let anyone tell you anything different -- it's a lot of baloney. And you can quote me on that and you can quote the president."
In a very few hours, Strauss would be flying to Loudon to continue negotiations on the Middle East peace treaty with Israeli and Egyptian representatives, but that was not the reason he had to leave the JNF banquet early. Both he and the other guest speaker, Mayor Marion Barry, were moving on the another gathering. As the mayor candidly put it:
"I am a politician and politicians have to go where other politicians are . . . and right now, all the other politicians are at the Hyatt Regency." He was referring to the Carter/Mondale fund-raiser across town, not that any of the guests at the Hilton had to be reminded of the competition for the politicos' attention. Strauss, who spoke first, had managed to insert at least four references to Carter/Mondale into his brief speech.
Of course, Strauss wasn't there to make a political speech. He said so himself. No, he was there to talk about waging peace, and not getting cynical, and realizing that there will be some setbacks along the way.
"I was feeling a bit pessimistic yesterday," he said, "but I am not now. This president is tenacious and he thinks it can be done. He has told me that peace in the Mideast is more important than who gets elected . . ." and without missing a beat he then swung into his next statement . . . "and that is why I am going to be Carter/Mondale dinner next." It was at this unabashed politicking that the audience's polite attention began to dribble away as rapidly as the elaborate ice sculptures guarding the abundant fare on the banquet tables.
Barry's early candor received a round of applause as did his later statement that, "We may have come over on different ships, but we're all in the same boat together."
While the politicians may have used the forum as a dress rehearsal for their later appearances, the JNF itself strives to remain apolitical. As Rabbi Stanley Rabinowitz said, "We are working to conserve land and a way of life. We studiously avoid involvement in political questions both here and in Israel."
Another person who was avoiding political comment on Israel was Israeli Embassy staff member Jacob Nehushtan, whose comment on Moshe Dayan's recent resignation was to quote David Ben-Gurion: "Go into the cemetery and see how many irreplaceable people are lying there."