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Solidarity Gives Way to Caution As Diaspora Jews Cancel Israel Trips

The Maccabiah Games, the quadrennial tournament of Jewish athletes from around the world, is poised to become the latest casualty of the eight-month-old Palestinian uprising.

Barring any last-minute change, organizers of the 16th Maccabiah were expected to announce Friday that the Games — slated for July — will be postponed until next summer. If so, it would mark the first time the Maccabiah Games have been canceled since World War II.

It also would follow the recent announcement by the U.S. Reform movement that it is canceling its summer youth camps this year in Israel.

Both developments have drawn the ire of Israeli officials, who feel that especially now — when Israelis feel they are under siege from Palestinian terror attacks and international criticism — world Jewry should make good on its frequent protestations of unity.

Yet by canceling trips, Diaspora Jews are refusing to show solidarity with Israel at this difficult time, Israeli officials charge.

Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh spoke Sunday of the “disgraceful” behavior of those “who for all these years have talked to us about the unity of the Jewish people over mounds of bagels and lox.”

In recent days, increasing numbers of athletes said they do not want to participate in the upcoming Maccabiah, nicknamed the “Jewish Olympics.”

Some 2,500 are still registered to participate, but cancellations are continuing.

Last week, the U.S. delegation — the second-largest, after the Israeli hosts — suggested postponing the games for a year because of the threat of Palestinian terrorism.

On Sunday, an Israeli deputy minister sympathized with the calls to postpone the Games.

Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel’s deputy foreign minister for Diaspora affairs, said he had just returned from a tour of Jewish communities in Europe and found that most delegations there would not attend the July 16-26 event.

That same day, Maccabiah leaders from around the world met to decide whether to hold the games as scheduled, but agreed to an Israeli request to postpone the decision until Friday.

With a postponement increasingly likely, many Israeli politicians say it would represent a slap in Israel’s face from world Jewry.

“Canceling the Maccabiah or postponing it is like granting Yasser Arafat the gold medal,” Knesset member Eliezer Sandberg said.

Sallai Meridor, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, said the Games should go on “to symbolize the solidarity of the Jewish People these very days.”

“It is a choice between two evils,” said former basketball superstar Tal Brody, who first came to Israel from the United States as a Maccabiah athlete — a choice between postponing the Games altogether or holding them with very few participants.

As cancellations mounted, Maccabi World Union President Jeanne Futeran announced at a new conference this week that there seemed to be no choice but to postpone.

“If we hold the Maccabiah under the present conditions, we could only have a couple of hundred of athletes,” she said, which would be “an embarrassment.”

“We need thousands,” she added.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Reform movement’s decision to cancel youth trips to Israel has come under fire.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform movement’s synagogue organization, announced the decision earlier this month.

Speaking to his board of trustees, Yoffie said he personally believed in making solidarity trips to Israel during difficult times.

“But what I do as an individual or what we do as adult leaders of this movement needs to be separated out from what we do with children who travel under our auspices,” he said.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert announced this week that he was suspending ties with the movement to protest the decision.

The outspoken leader of Israel’s secularist Shinui Party, Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, dashed off an angry letter to Yoffie.

“This is a painful surrender to terror and the enemies of Israel,” Lapid wrote. “We cannot expect more from American Jewry than a solidarity demonstration at Madison Square Garden, and I am sure beautiful summer camps will take place at the Catskill Mountains.”

The Reform movement in Israel also criticized the move, saying parents should have been given a choice whether to send their children.

“It’s important to note that we are not suspending all visits to Israel by all Reform Jews,” responded Emily Grotta, a spokeswoman for Reform congregations in the United States. “Many Reform Jews will be in Israel.”

Melchior was one of the few Israeli leaders to adopt a moderate tone.

“You have to know that condemnations won’t bring a single young person to Israel,” he said. “It will only distance them.

“Relations with the Diaspora must be based on a constructive dialogue,” he added.

In any case, many Israelis appeared indifferent to the cancellations.

“When so many Israelis are expressing a desire to leave the country at this time we can’t really complain to our fellow Jews,” said Tamar Golan, a telemarketing executive from Haifa. “If they want to stay at home, let them do so.”

Since the outbreak of violence last September, tourism to Israel has fallen to new lows, with hotels throughout the country reporting marginal occupancy.

Had it not been for Jewish tourists, however, the blow would have been much more severe.

According to Israel’s Tourism Ministry, the number of Jewish visitors between October 2000 and April 2001 fell by 5 percent compared with the same period a year before. The number of non-Jewish tourists dropped by 56 percent, however.

Since the violence began, some major airlines — including KLM, Lufthansa, Air France and Swissair — have changed their flight schedules so that crew members would not have to spend the night in Israel.

Jewish youth groups, who in the past showed solidarity with Israel at difficult times like the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, are now preferring to stay home:

About half the scheduled participants — about 350 kids — canceled their participation in an Israel-based summer camp affiliated with the Conservative youth movement.

A summer camp run under the auspices of West Coast Jewish federations, which was to be attended by some 600 youths, was canceled.

The Orthodox movement, Young Judaea and several North American Jewish Community Centers — along with Jewish organizations in Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela and the United Kingdom — also reported cancellations.

In one of the rare exceptions, the Lubavitch-affiliated Ma’ayanot movement announced that most of its scheduled 1,100 youths would come to Israel this summer.

And Birthright Israel, which brings young people from around the world on free trips to the Jewish state, postponed trips scheduled for early June but announced this week that some 5,000 students would come to Israel this summer.

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