By Janis Siegel, Jewish Sound Correspondent
There’s a new leader for Friends of AKIM USA headquartered in New York City, whose experience in Israeli military intelligence and in business working with his many high level Arab contacts is bringing a fresh vision to the National Association for the Habilitation of Children and Adults with Intellectual Disabilities, the largest service provider in Israel.
Lt. Col. (Res.) Ronnie Porat, a former Israeli diplomat to Egypt and Jordan and owner of his own consulting firm in Israel, is bringing his softer side forward these days to advocate on behalf of the disabled.
Porat visited Seattle in August to help lay the foundation for the organization’s chapter here.
“It’s a challenge and a great mitzvah,” Porat told The Jewish Sound. “It breaks your heart to see people with disabilities, especially kids, but it motivates me to help when you see the staff working with them. It’s a very moving experience.”
Jewish communities from around the world including Mexico, Europe, Peru and the United States sent money to AKIM Israel recently to move over 40 families in its care further north, away from exploding rockets in Southern Israel.
“To see the happiness in the eyes of those children and the relief that the families have, because they are not able to express their fears when they hear the sirens and the bombs around them,” Porat said. “Israel is the best place because they invest so much effort and money, and with the devotion of the staff you really feel that no one is left behind there.”
Up until eight months ago, Porat was the Jewish National Fund emissary in the U.S. and lived in Atlanta for six years. His duties with Friends of AKIM USA will be to help satellite offices, much like the one in Seattle, to develop and organize a board, brainstorm future event planning, and line up informative speakers,
Barri Rind is the first Friends of AKIM USA Seattle chapter chairperson and Anat Brovman is its director of development.
Though reluctant to talk about politics and the current conflict in the Gaza Strip and Israel, Porat nonetheless has much to say about the dilemma around the struggle for a Middle East peace agreement.
“I’ve seen the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and the Lebanon War and I’ve never felt the wars as we feel them now on the home front,” said Porat. “It is a very strange and unpleasant experience.
“The main thing that’s helping Israel is hasbarah — Israeli P.R. in the world — that we are not purposely targeting civilian targets, and the Palestinians,” he said.
With his cross-cultural ties developed while serving in Cairo, Egypt and in Jordan, Porat continues to have many contacts in the region and in both the Palestinian Authority and Gaza.
His perspective on the ongoing peace process over the decades is less optimistic than it might have been when other leadership styles prevailed over the talks. It’s a unique combination of business savvy and military strategy.
“My take is that 20 years ago, there was a real window of opportunity for peace,” said Porat. “In every business you need to make some compromises and the moderates and extremists on both sides were ready to make it, but they are not in leadership positions now. I believe that history will show that this is the reason.”
At his home back in Israel, where he spent the last few months, the ex-intelligence professional told of how his friends and family would go to their roofs and watch the Iron Dome missile defense system intercept rockets from Gaza.
“It looked like something from Star Wars,” Porat said. “We felt very secure because of the 90 percent accuracy. It was amazing to look up in the sky and to see on one side the smoke line of the rockets and on the other side the Israeli Iron Dome go up in the air, meet them up in the air.”
Porat and his friends could routinely find shrapnel and missile debris near their homes, including his yard where he found a two-foot-long metal shard. Some people, he said, were injured, although not severely.
“In this round I am so clear to see that the Palestinians are targeting civilian targets while we are trying to target the launch pads, which, unfortunately, are located within the most densely populated area in the world,” said Porat. “That’s why it causes so many casualties on the Palestinian side.”