CHICAGO, Nov. 14 (JTA) – In a speech that was the centerpiece of the North American Jewish federation system’s gathering in Chicago this week, Israel’s prime minister recalled being a small child when he heard of the United Nations’ 1947 vote to partition Palestine.
That period – when the Jews’ willingness to split the land was rebuffed by Arabs, precipitating Israel’s difficult, but triumphant War of Independence parallels the situation of the Jewish state today, said Ehud Barak.
Again, he told more than 4,000 flag-waving Jews on Monday at a rally intended to show solidarity for the embattled state, Israel feels its efforts at compromise have been rebuffed and that it may face another war.
It was against this backdrop – and perhaps because of it – that this year’s General Assembly drew 4,500 participants, the first sell-out in recent memory, said organizers.
With Monday’s large solidarity rally, unprecedented security measures, about 100 Arabs demonstrating outside and a bevy of Israel-related programming, this week’s gathering of Jewish leaders from around North America was not a typical G.A., as the gathering is commonly known.
Security was unusually strict at the sprawling downtown hotel where the assembly took place. Police stopped approaching vehicles, searching under them as well as inside the hoods and trunks. Inside, guests were frequently asked to show their nametags.
Amid intense fighting between Israel and the Palestinians – and concurrent attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions around the world, including in the United States – the heightened security was clearly intended as a precaution against any terrorist action against Israel’s top leaders and a major Jewish gathering.
But despite the threat of war facing Israel, Barak’s message to North American Jewry was one of peace and solidarity.
Israel must be “liberated from the crushing burden of never-ending war,” said Barak, whose speech was preceded by a multiracial Israeli youth choir that sang folk songs about peace.
“We derive great strength from knowing that we in Israel are not alone,” he said
Despite his repeated message that there is no alternative to peace, Barak also squarely blamed the Palestinians for the violence and outlined several conditions – including a “Jerusalem broader than it has ever been in history” – for a peace agreement.
A speech early Tuesday morning by opposition leader Ariel Sharon had a somewhat different tone.
He outlined his own plan for peace, but without mentioning Barak’s name, criticized the prime minister for asking President Clinton during their meeting on Sunday to help bring about a reduction, rather than a cessation, in violence.
After years in which the G.A. had been dominated by debates about religious pluralism and hammering out details of the newly formed United Jewish Communities, issues of Jewish solidarity and Israel ruled the day.
The UJC, formed by a merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal, is the Jewish community’s central fund-raising and social service system.
Except for comments from retiring U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) – angry that neither his son-in-law who converted to Judaism nor the Jewish-raised children of his Catholic daughter-in-law would be recognized as Jewish in Israel – discussion of religious pluralism were notably absent from the assembly.
In speech after speech, Israeli leaders spoke gratefully of American Jews as partners and family members, thanked them for the solidarity missions they have been organizing since the violence broke out in late September, urged them to defend Israel in the media and asked them to visit Israel.
Most participants said they were not only pleased to have the opportunity to learn about Israel, but also relieved to see Jews – at least temporarily – unified.
The focus on solidarity came “at a time when maybe we’d have been discussing the different factions of the community,” said Jennifer Levine, president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago’s Young Leadership Division.
But despite Israel’s starring role, it did not – as some had initially feared – crowd out all other issues.
For the first time, the Jewish Outreach Institute sponsored several sessions many well-attended – on outreach to interfaith families. There were sessions on Jewish education. And the top professional of the UJC delivered a speech that focused more on the institutional changes federations need to make than it did on Israel.
“Our infrastructure needs to be majorly overhauled if we’re going to continue to be relevant,” Stephen Solender, UJC’s president and chief executive officer, said, citing the need for more designated giving opportunities for donors, upgraded technology and collective responsibility for maintaining and enhancing a central fund-raising and funding system for local, national and overseas needs.
And, of course, the saga of the U.S. elections was a frequent conversation topic in the halls.
“Obviously, Israel is first on everyone’s minds, but we’re all focused on what we came here to do as well,” said Guila Franklin Siegel, assistant director of the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values.
Amid the talk about solidarity, there was some confusion over just what American Jews – particularly those in the grass roots – should be doing to express that solidarity.
Although some federations have begun focusing more heavily on Israel in their fund-raising campaigns, Israel is not asking for new money at this time.
Many G.A. participants said Israel is treated unfairly in the media. But beyond writing letters to the editor and op-ed pieces, many were uncertain what they could do.
“There’s injustice in the media but Israelis are not being killed left and right,” Chicago’s Levine said, noting that she has had difficulty recruiting her peers for solidarity missions, many of whom don’t understand the purpose of such trips.
“People are confused by what they should be doing. It’s not like it’s a war and we should be packing up supplies,” said Levine.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, said part of the difficulty is that American Jews have not yet received clear or consistent marching orders from Israel.
In meetings with regional leaders, Epstein said he is finding that people “want to be supportive but are totally bewildered.”
Some of those questions were answered at the Monday night rally, as Israeli officials repeatedly urged American Jews to travel to Israel and to lobby on their behalf in Washington.
“Come to Israel not only because our hotel rooms are empty, but because we don’t want our hearts to be empty,” said Yuli Tamir, Israel’s minister of absorption.
With so much uncertainty as to how things will shake out in Israel, few participants could say whether the renewed intensity of the relationship between North American Jewry and Israel portends a lasting shift or simply a temporary response to a crisis.
Although saddened by the problems in Israel and the fact that it took attention away from domestic concerns, Nancy Kaufman, the executive director of Boston’s Jewish community relations council, described the tensions as a “wake-up call” to American Jews.
Before the crisis in Israel, said Kaufman, “many members of the community were not focused on Israel at all.”
Her community now plans to focus on Jewish-Arab coexistence within Israel, through its Partnership 2000 relationship with Haifa, a city known for its mixed Jewish-Arab population.
Indeed, a surge of interest in Israeli Arabs – who shocked many Jews when they held their own protests against the Jewish state in recent weeks – was evident in two well-attended sessions on Jewish-Arab coexistence.
How lasting the concern will be is unclear.
“When you have a family member stricken with tragedy, you don’t say we have six children and have to divide our time equally,” said Rabbi Solomon Schiff, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. “When there’s a crisis, you mobilize the family to help that one.”
Many participants said that just as it did not pre-empt all the other sessions on the G.A. program, Israel will not crowd out work on Jewish identity building and education.
Donald Schoen, president-elect of the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines, said there is still a need for Jews in America to “expand their base.”
Some noted that, without focusing on Jewish continuity and renaissance, there will be few American Jews left in future years to rally in support of Israel.
Perhaps reflecting these dual concerns, Birthright Israel, the partnership between private funders, the federations and the Israeli government that sends young Jews on free Israel trips, was mentioned frequently and favorably in speeches throughout the assembly.
Judy Eichhorn, assistant director of the Mid-Kansas Jewish Federation in Wichita, said that many young American Jews are not supporting Israel now because they “weren’t very connected to begin with.”
And with negative images of Israel in the media, they cannot be counted on to rally to Israel’s side, she said.
David Winer, a 38-year-old Chicago attorney who was volunteering at the G.A., noted the contrast between the involved G.A. participants and most of his Jewish peers.
Many of his Jewish friends, he said, have no idea even who the key political players are in Israel, or which countries border the Jewish state.
A few weeks ago, he said, he decided to make a small show of solidarity by putting a sticker with the Hebrew acronym for the Israel Defense Forces, Tzahal, on his notebook and showing it to his Jewish colleagues.
None of his colleagues could read the Hebrew. “Most didn’t know what it said and when I explained it, they still didn’t know what it is,” Winer said.