The planners of last week’s General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations found themselves scrambling at the last minute to change the elaborate program to mark the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak |Rabin.
But the programmatic changes reflected only the most immediate and superficial impact of the assassination.
It was clear the killing of Rabin, who had been scheduled to appear, jolted the Jewish communal leaders gathered here, both personally and collectively.
“I have been struggling to figure out why I feel so extraordinarily shaken,” said Morton Mandel, a past president of CJF, during one of the tributes to Rabin.
“Jews are safer all over the world when Israel is safe and Yitzhak Rabin knew that,” he said.
“When I came to UJA, I thought `We are one’ was a trite slogan, but at the core, it’s true,” Rabbi Brian Lurie, executive vice president of the United Jewish Appeal, said in an interview. “We are an extended family and I never felt it more clearly.”
“Rabin brought us back to what’s important, the fact the Jewish people are united,” he said. “We all suffered a loss.”
Nevertheless, it was unclear whether the killing would inspire the conference’s nearly 4,000 delegates to return home to reassess Israel’s flagging importance in the Jewish communal world or catalyze soul-searching about the nature and expression of their ties to Israel.
Menachem Revivi, director of the United Israel Office in Jerusalem, said the turbulent events of recent weeks underscore that Jews “are at a turning point.”
“There is a real question of whether we have two agendas or one,” he said.
“As we in Israel are going through soul-searching about conflicts among ourselves and our neighbors, this should [trigger] soul-searching in regard to the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora,” he said.
The call comes as North American Jewry is painstakingly redefining its agenda, and Israel is the most vulnerable part of it.
“The killing has reaffirmed our emotional attachment” to Israel, but at the same time “it showed that the case hasn’t been made” in recent years for Israel’s needs as a budget priority, said Maynard Wishner, president of the CJF, the umbrella association for more than 180 local federations.
These federations, in concert with the UJA, raise more than $700 million annually for local and overseas needs.
Highest on the federations’ priority list now is energizing these annual campaigns, which have been flat in recent years, and preserving local social service programs threatened by unprecedented federal budget cuts.
What is happening in Washington with a Republican-controlled Congress “is challenging the very nature of the governmental system which has been the safety net for people in need for well over 50 years,” said Nancy Kaufman, director of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council.
Also at stake are educational programs aimed at nurturing Jewish continuity, the community’s newest priority.
The debate over how much money can and will continue to be allocated to Israel in the face of these ever-pressing local needs is central for the architects of a major plan to emerge the central fund-raising structures.
The new entity, it is hoped, will be more efficient and raise more money. It is expected to consolidate the CJF, the UJA and the United Israel Appeal, which funnels campaign money to the Jewish Agency for Israel. The Jewish Agency itself is struggling with its own fiscal crisis caused, in part, by declining Diaspora allocations.
The overseas portion of the annual UJA-federation campaign has declined in recent years from a high of about 60 percent to an average of 40 percent.
The sticking point for negotiators, who worked behind closed doors at the G.A., is how to ensure there will be a strong voice in the new body for advocates of Israel committed to a flow of fair and adequate funding.
For Jewish Agency Chairman Avraham Burg, getting federations to commit to a “floor” of funding to Israel is critical to his sign-off on the merger. He is using the allocations to call into question the stake Diaspora Jews have in Israel itself.
The UJA’s Lurie believes that “the federation system better take notice [that] their preoccupation with domestic concerns is the wrong direction.”
“Jewish needs are not just defined by your home community,” he said. “It’s a mistaken concept which goes against the nature of the Jewish people.”
“We do have a problem,” said CJF’s Wishner. “There has been in the atmosphere a sense of the lessening need and relevancy of organized Jewry’s historic responsibilities to Israel over the past couple of years.”
“This event has refocused our attention on Israel” and “presents an opportunity to try to restate where we are in terms of the role we can play and are needed to play over the next period,” he said.
“Israel has not receded in its importance as a major focal point of our concerns,” he continued. “But there is a perception Israel doesn’t need our dollars as much. The case for the need has not been made well enough and I blame us.”
Clear attempts were made at the G.A. to show identification with Israel, though some came outside the framework of the conference.
Brandeis University students sponsored a spirited rally in downtown’s Copley Square to show support for the Arab-Israeli peace process and it drew scores of G.A. delegates.
“I can’t not be out here,” said Michele Rosen, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. “Clearly we have to help the process forward and stand with the government of Israel.”
And the CJF Board of Delegates approved an amendment strengthening a resolution in support of the peace process. The amendment states “in clear terms our unequivocal support for the government of Israel and the current peace process.”
It also proclaimed unity with the Jews of Israel in the wake of the killing, and called for differences over the peace process not to “erode our commitment to the core unifying principle of Clal Yisrael.”
One of four parallel G.A. institutes was devoted to the Israel-Diaspora relationship and drew about 800 of the roughly 4,000 delegates.
But Israel was conspicuously absent at the institute on Jewish identity and continuity, which drew close to 1,000 people and focused on spirituality and culture.
In this track, “Israel was very marginal,” said David Harman, director of the Jewish Agency’s Joint Authority for Jewish-Zionist Education.
“In the last few years, American Jewry has been coming to grips with its own identity and asserting its independence from Israel. It is linked to Israel by all sorts of bonds but doesn’t derive its Jewishness from Israel.”
Indeed, many of the Israeli participants said they were surprised that Israel did not assume a higher profile on the overall agenda. They said the assassination has torn their country’s fabric apart and raises critical questions about Jewish peoplehood that they would have liked to have had addressed.
“The G.A. did a wonderful job in reflecting American Jews’ dismay and sadness at the assassination of Rabin,” said Avraham Infeld, director of the Jerusalem- based Melitz Centers for Jewish/Zionist Education.
“But I think it completely missed the point that what really happened in Israel was a result of a major battle in Jewish self-understanding and not an internal Israeli political issue.”
The question of whether Israel “is a product of modern nationalism or is part of a messianic process should have played a far greater role in the discussions and content,” he said.
The call by Rabin and other Israeli leaders for closer partnership between Israel and the Diaspora had intensified in the weeks before the assassination, according to Shoshana Cardin, chair of the UIA.
There was “an understanding that there could be a major rift” between the two communities, as each turned inward to address their own concerns and as allocations to Israel were falling, Cardin said.
Sources said Rabin had been planning to address the dangers of the rift and the need for unity in his remarks to the G.A.
Instead his close aide and speech writer, Eitan Haber, underscored the drama of the moment.
“The house is burning,” he told a G.A. plenary. “If the result of this tragedy is not a better understanding of one another, then we all betray the goals of the Jewish people and [Rabin's] legacy.”
Haber said Rabin had underestimated the impact of some of his recent criticisms of Diaspora Jews for not contributing enough to the Israel partnership through the Jewish Agency and not being supportive enough of the peace process.
Rabin “wanted to send a message to the Jews of America” that their fate and the fate of Israelis “is linked forever,” he said.
Israeli Finance Minister Shohat also delivered a powerful call urging North American Jews to express solidarity with Israel.
He drew the loudest applause when he said, “In the name of Yitzhak Rabin, I ask you to raise your voices in your communities and say, no to violence, yes to dialogue; no to bigotry, yes to tolerance; no to fanaticism, yes to pluralism; and yes, yes, yes to peace!”
“These are the values for which Yitzhak Rabin lived and died,” said Shochat, who was joined by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and other dignitaries in paying tribute to Rabin.
Acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres spoke via satellite to the delegates in Rabin’s stead.
Cardin said that although this G.A. did not demonstrate “the overwhelming expression of unity with Israel” that she had seen at others, “there was a heightened interest in the Jewish Agency-federation partnership.”
Indeed, there was an overflow crowd of hundreds at the forum on the partnership between the Jewish Agency and the federations, featuring Jewish Agency Chairman Burg, Cardin and others.
One fund raiser from Boston’s North Shore said at the forum that he is stymied in his work by the “enormous indifference” of donors to Israel, who consistently hear about Israel’s economic successes.
“I but my chops as much as I can and I can’t sell Israel,” he said. “We are two ships drifting in the opposite direction.”
While at a later news conference Burg seemed to dismiss the impact of federal funding on federation allocations overseas, at the partnership forum he said, “I know how difficult it is” for federations strapped by budget cuts and increased local demands.
Nonetheless he issued a warning. “If we don’t have balanced responsibility people will be raising questions about the whole partnership.”
“We are two sides of a coin. One side is mine, one side is yours. Without the two sides, there is no currency,” he said. “Is this the time to sell your share?”
For Burg, the assassination could mark a turning point in Jewish re- identification with Israel, but he said he rejects such a “catastrophic” Zionism.
Rather, he called on communities to “reintroduce Israel into your lives.” Israelis speak about American Jewish isolationism and American Jews say Israelis don’t need American Jewish support.
“It’s not only a question of need. It’s a question of partnership.”