When I heard Mayor Edna Jackson had gone to Israel, I was a little puzzled.
What does the mayor of Savannah have to do in the Jewish Holy Land? I wondered, probably because my own 20 year–old, rather unholy memories of Israel mostly involve a lot of Maccabee beer and cute IDF soldiers with beards.
Then, not even two months later, a bunch of Israel dignitaries show up in the Lowcountry, touring the port and hanging out with the Savannah Economic Development Authority folks.
What is going on here? Unless the whole city council is planning a group bar mitzvah (which actually sounds like a pretty good time), there’s got to be more to this cultural exchange than just culture, right?
The burgeoning Savannah–Israel connection certainly jumpstarts the activity of SEDA’s new World Trade Center and raises up the city’s international profile several nice notches. Mayor Jackson graciously squeezed me into her schedule last week to talk about her trip and what else the future may hold.
Invited to Israel for the annual International Mayors Conference in May, the mayor took in the sights and sat in sessions with municipal heads from cities all over the world, from Little Rock to Nairobi to Warsaw to Caracas. The group also heard presentations from thriving companies like Israel Aerospace Industries (Israel’s Gulfstream) and visited several universities, including the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, ranked #15 on the list of the Top 50 Fashion Schools — right above SCAD at #18.
The Middle East’s only democracy and its most thriving economy, Israel has plenty to show off in terms of economic development. It made a strong impression on the mayor.
“I wanted to learn more about what the country is doing in high–tech and in its security—and it is just beyond reproach,” recalls Ms. Jackson, who also visited a parking garage that doubles as a bomb shelter. “There is so much happening there, and they want to do business.”
Her visit also deepened the mayor’s appreciation for Savannah’s Jewish community, whose members she first encountered when performing acts of civil disobedience during the ‘60s. On her visit to the Holocaust Memorial Yad Va’Shem, she recognized a kinship in tragedy.
“Jews had no decision about what happened to them during that time, and I equate this in certain ways to the Africans that came from Africa,” she said. “I look at my own city and think about the role the Jewish community played here in the Civil Rights movement.”
(Before anyone gets all bothered that this was another junket paid for by our taxes, know that the trip’s expenses were covered by the Israeli government, and the mayor’s airfare was paid by the Savannah Jewish Federation.)
The trip also took her to Old City Jerusalem and the ancient Tower of David, where she walked through newly–excavated tunnels to the Western Wall, as well as to the Muslim Quarter, a living history village in Nazareth and the famous Baha’i Gardens in Haifa. The existence of different kinds of people living together in one tiny place also brought Savannah to mind.
“This is a place where people coexist, and it made me think of—and be proud of—my city.”
At the behest of Counsel General Opher Aviran, she planted a tree on behalf of the city, an Israeli tradition. And there were meet–and–greets with major political players that are just names in the news for most of us: Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Avigdor Liberman, Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The mayor waited patiently while I scribbled notes.
“Here, it’s all in this book,” she said, hefting a thick binder on the table. I scribbled more, trying to keep up.
“Take it with you, honey,” she insisted.
How’s that for transparency?
I spent an entire afternoon with The Binder, a trove of information that included much more than the entire itinerary of her trip. There was advice from her staff on Israeli social customs, including the gentle understatement “Be prepared for interruptions during business meetings.”
I also learned what thank–you gifts went to whom: Lots of matted cityscape prints and “Shalom Y’all” T–shirts from Congregation Mickve Israel. Interesting tidbit: PM Netanyahu received a wooden miniature of River Street and a Savannah canvas tote for his wife. Maybe we’ll see our local tsotchkes on CNN one day?
The Binder contained spreadsheets of port statistics, revealing that Israeli shipping company ZIM is already by far our port’s best customer, and that Israeli consumers are hungry for our regional exports as well (mostly wood pellets and paper. Hey, it’s a start.)
Also tucked inside was the agenda of the Israeli Chamber of Commerce President Uriel Lynn, who visited last week after meeting Ms. Jackson in Tel Aviv. Whatever the cultural value of these visits is, it definitely comes down to business.
“We’re looking for businesses to come and create jobs, facilitate exchanges between our universities, and maybe to draw some Israelis to Savannah as tourists,” mused the mayor. “It’s going to happen. The connection is already there.”
Within its three rings, The Binder paints a picture of a partnership between Savannah and Israel that could bring bigger–brain jobs here and feed a market that wants U.S.–made goods — as well as boost everybody’s hospitality industries. It’s a fascinating read, and it’s on display in the lobby of City Hall for the next few weeks if you happen to be in the neighborhood.
Maybe we’re not quite ready for a round of “Hava Nagila” under the Gold Dome, but the Savannah–Israeli connection holds much promise for all of us. The Israelis plan to return soon with a delegation of business leaders, and if all goes well, it could be a long, prosperous relationship.
“They’re coming back and they’re bringing business,” vowed the mayor.
Can I put in a request for a couple of cases of Maccabee?