The Israeli Foreign Ministry announced on Wednesday its intention to close its consulate in Philadelphia along with four other of its consulates as a cost saving measure.
The consulate in Philadelphia serves the Mid-Atlantic region, which includes all of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Delaware, Kentucky and southern New Jersey.
“We’ve know for awhile that Israel was considering closing the office in Philadelphia, but we were hopeful that they would elect not to,” said Josh Sayles, director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “That office has always been a good friend and partner of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. We will miss working with Yaron [Sideman, consul general to the Mid-Atlantic region] and all of our colleagues, and we are optimistic that whatever Israeli consulate takes responsibility for the Pittsburgh region will continue to be a strong ally to the Jewish community of Pittsburgh.”
Sideman was responsible for strengthening relations between Israel and the Mid-Atlantic region by building partnerships for enhanced economic trade, and academic and cultural exchange. He was in Pittsburgh last October to brief the community on the current state of affairs in Israel in light of the recent wave of Palestinian terrorism.
“We can confirm that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the State of Israel has decided to terminate operations of the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia by the end of 2016,” according to a statement issued by the Mid-Atlantic consulate. “Until the Consulate ceases its activities it will continue operations and serving the Mid-Atlantic region; once closed other Israeli missions in the U.S. will expand their reach. The Ministry will do its best to assist its local employees in this process.”
The consulate in Philadelphia was on the chopping block two years ago, but the decision to close that office was canceled due in part to efforts by the Jewish community there, as well as local politicians. Leading those efforts was the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, a lobbying arm of statewide Jewish federations.
Matt Handel, chair of the PJC was “disappointed” to hear the announcement of the closing of the consulate.
“We consider the Israeli consulate in Philadelphia important not just to Philadelphia, but to the whole Mid-Atlantic region,” Handel told The Chronicle, adding that the PJC intends to speak with other interested groups to see “what we can do to save it.”
On Wednesday, the PJC sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, asking him to “to reject the recommendation to close the Israeli Consulate in Philadelphia.”
The PJC cited several examples of the work the consulate had accomplished in the Mid-Atlantic region, including providing guidance and information to the Pennsylvania legislature in 2011 leading to the passage of the requirement that no state funds could be invested in companies that do business with Iran.
“The Consulate is a valuable voice in educating the Pennsylvania Governor, legislators and state officials on the importance of our nation’s support for the State of Israel,” the PJC letter states. “It has helped to develop a strong understanding about Israel and the need to protect the nation against Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terroristic efforts to hinder Israel’s right to govern as a nation and enable your citizens to live and grow in your country.”
State Rep. Dan Frankel (D-23), who was part of the effort in 2013 to save the Philadelphia consulate, expressed his “disappointment” with Wednesday’s announcement.
“The consulate in Philadelphia and the Consul General and his staff have been very helpful to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Frankel said, adding that Sideman has been “visible and active” at the state capital.
“Consul General Sideman spoke a couple of times from the dais of the General Assembly of the House about the importance of the relationship between the Commonwealth and Israel, and trade relations, not just to Jewish communities, but to all the folks in the state.”
The Philadelphia consulate provided “immediate access” to an Israeli voice, Frankel said.
“I valued that as a politician representing a larger Jewish community in Pittsburgh.”
While Frankel said he understood the reason for the closure was “budgetary issues,” he called the decision “short-sighted.”
Former Pittsburgher Shep Englander, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, also expressed “disappointment” over the decision to close the consulate.
“We will wait to see how they intend to service us, and we hope our service levels don’t drop,” he said.
In addition to the embassy in Washington, Israel currently has consulates in nine U.S. cities: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami, Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The Israeli embassies in Belarus, El Salvador and Marseilles also will be closing, according to a report in the Jerusalem Post. Israel’s roving ambassador to the Caribbean, who is stationed in New York, will also be cut.
Closing the consulate in Philadelphia was explained as necessary in order to open up Israel’s fourth consulate in China, at Chengdu, according the Jerusalem Post.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.