Fears of Unrest Prompt Federations to Postpone Major Missions to Israel

As American Jewish organizations stand firmly with Israel through the Persian Gulf crisis and the aftermath of the riots on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, Jewish federations across the United States are canceling major fund-raising missions to Israel because of fear that hostilities will break out.

While the national United Jewish Appeal is going ahead with its programs in Israel, five out of six major missions planned for this fall by community federations have been postponed, including “mega-missions” from Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

A major mission sponsored by the Jewish Federation of South Broward, Fla., is still planned for Nov. 11 to 20, although officials said the number of participants has declined.

Federation officials stress the missions have not been canceled, but postponed, with smaller fact-finding missions being organized in lieu of the original missions.

But postponement of the mega-missions, which in the past could bring up to 1,000 people to Israel at a time, has dealt Israel’s already beleaguered tourism industry a major blow.

Although federation officials say they believe it is safe to travel to Israel at this time, the Israeli army last week began distributing gas masks to its civilian population as a precautionary measure.

Fears were heightened last week after the U.S. State Department issued an advisory warning U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to East Jerusalem or the administered territories.

‘PEOPLE HAVE A GENUINE FEAR’

Washington’s “Miracle Mission” started receiving cancellations as the Gulf crisis unfolded, dropping the original number of participants from just over 500 to “somewhere still in the hundreds,” said Debra Adelstein, director of communications for the United Appeal Federation of Greater Washington.

“There were a substantial number of first-timers” signed up for the mission, explained Philip Margolius, co-chairman of the mission, “and some people have a genuine fear of what’s going on.

“Let’s face it,” he said, “there could be a war. We don’t think Israel is going to be involved, but people have a genuine fear.”

The federation postponed the mission and instead sent a delegation of 40 people to Israel on Sunday.

Officials of the Federation of Jewish Agencies of Greater Philadelphia, in deciding to postpone their “Mission 1,000,” cited the changed circumstances in the Middle East since the trip was originally planned.

Instead, the federation is sending a smaller fact-finding mission to Israel from Oct. 28 to Nov. 6, the original dates for “Mission 1,000.”

Raphael Farber, tourism commissioner for Israel in North America, expressed outrage at the postponement of the missions, contending that Israel is “one of the safest places in the world” for travelers.

“We were very shocked when three mega-missions for October were canceled,” he said. “What is amazing today is that those people who thought it was very important to help Israel in times of crisis, when a real crisis comes, they couldn’t convince their constituency to go.”

He appeared to be referring to the fact that the mega-missions were originally conceived to boost travel to Israel that fell off after the intifada erupted.

JEWS ARE ‘FIRST ONES TO CANCEL’

“It’s shocking again to see that the first ones to cancel trips to Israel are Jewish people, and not just Jewish people but affiliated people,” he said.

Aware of Israel’s strong sensitivity on the subject, some federations, mainly those with missions scheduled further down the road, are proceeding with their plans and, in some cases, issuing statements affirming their intent to travel to Israel.

The board of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma counties approved a resolution Tuesday reaffirming its commitment to the “Shalom ’91″ mega-mission scheduled for mid-April.

The mission is cosponsored with the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose and the Jewish Federation of Sacramento.

In its resolution, the San Francisco federation stated: “At this time, it is especially important for Northern California Jews to demonstrate their support and solidarity with the people of Israel by making plans to visit Israel next April on the ‘Shalom ’91′ mega-mission.”

The Metro West Federation in New Jersey is still planning its “Kehilla 2: The Celebration Continues” mission for next October, having sent its first mega-mission to Israel in March.

“We are inspired, excited and ready to go,” said Gadi Aronson, the mission coordinator.

National UJA also expects its two major fall missions — one to the Soviet Union and Israel, and the other to Poland and Israel — to arrive in Israel early next week, as planned, despite a few cancellations by participants.

“Neither mission has been canceled, and both are scheduled to arrive in Israel with hundreds of participants in the next few days,” UJA said in a statement issued by Gerald Nagel, its director of public relations.

A SWITCH OF HOTELS

Disputing rumors that UJA would no longer hold events at the Western Wall, where the rioting occurred last week, Nagel said the missions would “include a visit to the Western Wall, as is the custom on UJA missions.”

However, the missions will not stay at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in East Jerusalem, as planned, but in the Laromme Hotel in the western part of the city.

“Our lawyer advised us that if, God forbid, something would happen to someone on a mission in East Jerusalem, we could be held liable for ignoring the State Department’s advisory,” UJA Vice President Raphael Rothstein told the Jerusalem Post.

(Contributing to this report were the Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia and Andrew Silow Carroll of the Washington Jewish Week.)

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