Nearly 400 people spent 36 hours in Israel this week on a mission organized by the United Jewish Appeal to show solidarity with Israelis in the wake of the recent series of terrorist attacks.
The trip, organized in about a week’s time, was not intended to make any political statement. Still, many of the participants said they were pained by the high price of the Middle East peace process and fear a continuing cycle of violence.
The group’s chartered airplane made a dramatic landing Monday afternoon on a runway at an air force base in the rural Jezreel Valley in northern Israel.
As they descended from the plane, the visitors were greeted with recorded Israeli music, flags, military personnel and dozens of youths from Afula, where a terrorist car bomb exploded April 6, immediately claiming seven lives. Four were local teen-agers.
At around the same time as the landing, the death toll rose to eight, as 37- year-old Ahuva Cohen Onalla died of the wounds she sustained in the blast.
“We felt we had to say we care, so when the opportunity arose, we jumped,” said Mark Seiger, from Hartford, Conn. Afula is Connecticut’s sister city under UJA’s Project Renewel.
“Connecticut has worked very closely with Afula to have a real connection,” he added. “We feel the city is part of us. It’s family.”
The recent attacks have unnerved Seiger. “It makes you wonder if there can ever be peace,” he said. “I used to think it was the Israelis being stubborn. I don’t any longer.”
“A lot of us are deeply committed to Israel and feel frustrated, wondering what more can we do to help people here at times like these,” said Larry Weinberg of Los Angeles.
“So, when UJA offered the opportunity to stand here in Afula, I said yes without hesitation,” said Weinberg, the media and marketing advisory board chairman for UJA’s Western region.
“It is incredibly important that American Jews express their solidarity with Israelis as they move forward through the peace process,” said Debra Pell, co- chair of UJA’s Young Leadership Cabinet.
“I want Israelis to know that as an American Jew, I support the courage and vision of this government and that no act of violence or terror should be allowed to derail it, despite the pain and the suffering.
“I also came because I feel it is extremely important that American Jews know that life goes on in Israel and that there is no place safer in the world. They must come in numbers and they must come again and again,” said Pell, who lives in San Francisco.
“I came because I thought it was the right thing to do,” said Eugene Schupak, chairman of the western region’s Exodus campaign from Phoenix.
“It’s not for any American to tell Israel what to do,” he added. “But as someone who cares, I’m concerned there may not be the peace everyone wishes (from) the agreement with the Palestinians. It takes both sides to make peace and I’m not so sure the Palestinians have embraced it. I think terror will continue and even increase.”
“I know this is a two-edged sword, to parachute in and parachute out in 36 hours,” said Rabbi Brian Lurie, executive vice president of UJA.
“There is a sensitivity toward American Jews coming in like voyeurs,” he continued, “but there is such an earnestness with this group. They wanted to make a statement about Jewish solidarity and to say it’s right, it’s safe for Jews to come here.”
Virtually all the Israelis approached by a reporter said the UJA visit was a welcome and important gesture.
“The people in Afula think this visit is important,” said Alon Aflalo, a 17- year-old local high school student whose best friend’s mother was killed in the blast.
“They feel they’re not alone. It strengthens them to go on. Of course, American Jews can’t feel what we feel, but (their) being here is important. It gives us a special feeling,” said Aflalo.
The UJA mission left the air base in a bus caravan for the center of Afula and the bus stop where the suicide bomb exploded. En route to the site, local teens recounted the incident to the visitors.
“Two of our friends were killed as well as the mother of our friend,” said Keren Eloz, 17. “Their legs and arms were blown (off).
Afula took this very hard,” she continued. “People were very angry and screamed against the government.”
But, “I’m not mad about the Arabs, (only) the terrorists. The Arabs are good people but there are extremists,” she said. “It’s hard but we have to find a solution to the situation.”
One by one, the mission members placed roses at a makeshift memorial site at the bus stop marked by a dried-up wreath bearing a banner which read, “From people who care.”
Memorial candles and old flower arrangements, still in plastic, adorned the site, past which traffic flowed, pausing only to take note of the influx of outsiders.
The group was formally welcomed in Afula with a concert and ceremony at the town’s cultural center across the street from the site of the explosion. Afula’s Deputy Mayor Uzi Golan thanked the group for coming, saying, “I am moved from the depths of my heart to see all of you.”
He called their visit a “meaningful gesture which has truly lifted our spirits.”
The ceremony’s official decorum was shattered by a violently emotional outburst from Michel Elharar, father of Maya Elharar, a 17-year-old who was killed in the attack.
In an unscheduled address from the podium, Elharar began to thank the group for the visit, which he said helped to case the pain. Then he began to attack the government, singling out Tourism Minister Uzi Baram, who sat in the front row, prepared to address the audience about the importance of continuing to travel to Israel for the sake of Israel’s economy.
He repeatedly shouted at the minister, saying it was a “disgrace” the government had sent a top-level representative to Afula to greet the Americans but had not sent anyone to the funerals of the victims or to offer condolences.
In fact, Deputy Education Minister Micha Goldman came to the funerals, but had to be evacuated by police because of the angry crowds. Local residents say the government should have sent a more senior representative.
“The house in Israel is divided,” Lurie told the clearly shaken assembly, most of whom did not understand the Hebrew but needed no translation of the bereaved father’s rage. “We feel the urgency and the pain,” he said.
“The peace process is not antiseptic. It’s not just a negotiation between leaders,” he said later. “It’s a painful exercise for the whole polity, and this underscores it. It’s frightening.”
Lurie, still later, said he had not felt as much grief in Israel since a visit after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
“I feel torn,” said Robert Zwang, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Waterbury, in Connecticut. “There is no question in my mind where Israel has to head, but I feel for the man. His rage was so raw. This really illustrates the depth of the division over Israel’s agonizing options.”
Meanwhile, the thirst for peace remains. Seventeen-year-old Aflalo said, “Yitzhak Rabin must continue peace negotiations because the killing must be stopped.”
But finalizing the agreement with the Palestinians will not stop the violence immediately, said Aflalo. “After they finish the negotiations, it will take one or two generations before there is real peace.”
“Most people support the government, but they are a quiet majority,” said Nir Harmat, 17.
The UJA group held a brief ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem with Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau, and had meetings with U.S. Ambassador Edward Djerejian, President Ezer Weizman and Knesset Speaker Shevach Weiss.
“I believe we were able to give the participants a sense of what life is like on the ground and the price people are paying for peace,” said Marvin Lender, UJA president and chairman of the mission.
“At the same time, we want to tell people back home that it’s perfectly safe to come here. I’ve been here 80 times and I’ll come 800 more times. I always feel safe here.”
“Everybody in Israel was behind us,” said Nechemia Dagan, executive director of UJA Overseas Programs, who had the inspiration for the mission.
“We had one message: `We are with you,’ and we’re going back to say, `It’s not easy, but life is continuing and terrorism will not affect Israeli behavior.’”
At the same time, he added, “we cannot let the terrorists be victorious by dissuading us from visiting Israel.”
The mission was planned in cooperation with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Israel’s Tourism Ministry and El Al Airlines.