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Agency Meeting Has Familiar Theme: Time for Jewish Solidarity with Israel

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At the annual assembly of the Jewish Agency for Israel this week, one word emerged as a mantra: solidarity.

“We are not equal with the citizens of Israel when it comes to the State of Israel,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman for the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “But American Jews are part of the strategy, and we have a responsibility to make a difference.”

Another word that cropped up with nearly as much frequency was “hasbarah,” that quirky Hebrew term that denotes information, public relations or propaganda.

Hasbarah has become the all-purpose term to discuss Israel’s dealings with world media during the nine-month-old Palestinian uprising — and it has to be the tool to unify Diaspora Jewry behind Israel at this trying time, Jewish leaders told the assembly.

In a poll of 1,600 Americans released in May — commissioned by the Conference of Presidents, United Jewish Communities, the Anti-Defamation League and the World Jewish Congress — 37 percent of respondents said they believe Israel is the most important foreign policy issue for the United States, and two-thirds held favorable views of Israel.

Despite that, Israel needs a more “rapid response network,” Hoenlein said. “Everybody knows how to do hasbarah better; now we have to see some” practical “results. We’ve become lazy, complacent. Unity is our goal; our words count.”

His message was warmly received by the 1,200 assembly participants, an animated, mostly middle-aged and older crowd from the United States, Europe and South America.

They broke into enthusiastic applause when former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the podium.

In a typically smooth speech, Netanyahu talked about how to resolve the current conflict and reassert Jewish rights to the Land of Israel.

“You cannot achieve a military victory unless you have a political victory to accompany it,” he said, “and you cannot achieve political victory unless you win a victory in the arena of public opinion.”

At the same time, no hasbarah effort can “offer better pictures than reality already offers,” countered Shlomo Avineri, a political science professor at Hebrew University and former director general of the Foreign Ministry. “Every government act doesn’t necessarily take into account how it will appear on CNN.”

During the three-day assembly, Jewish leaders repeatedly said the main challenge for the Israel-Diaspora relationship is creating concrete examples of solidarity.

In public and private, many participants denounced the poor attendance expected at next month’s Maccabiah Games, as well as the U.S. Reform movement’s recent decision to cancel summer youth tours to Israel.

“That’s the real threat, when people read that the Maccabiah might be canceled or that the movements aren’t holding summer tours,” Avineri said in an impassioned speech.

He called the assembly delegates “ambassadors of existential solidarity with the State of Israel,” urging them to go home to their families, friends, children and grandchildren, and “make sure they come this year to Israel.”

“It isn’t easy,” Avineri said. “We are in harm’s way in this country. Please join us.”

Avineri’s plea was echoed several times during the conference.

“The kids are losing a lot by not going on these tours, and that’s part of the hasbarah process,” Hoenlein told JTA. “But we need a period of quiet, otherwise we’re going to keep experiencing this backlash.”

Not all the news was discomforting, however.

At the opening session Saturday night, the chairman of the Jewish Agency’s executive, Sallai Meridor, said 5,000 adults have visited Israel on solidarity tours since Palestinian violence began in September. During that period, he added, 20,000 youths have come to Israel for long- and short-term study programs, including 14,000 on Birthright Israel.

In the lobby, however, delegates discussed the difficulty of sending a teen-ager to Israel during a violent period.

“I didn’t give a second thought to coming to Israel,” one American delegate said. “But I’m just thankful it wasn’t my daughter’s turn to come to Israel this year, so that I didn’t have to make that decision.”

It was a disquieting topic for the participants, considering the Assembly’s theme of solidarity.

At the opening session, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called for a campaign to encourage Jews to visit Israel — and to make aliyah.

“It is time for the Jews to stand behind Israel,” Sharon said. “It is time for tens of thousands of Jews to visit Israel. The solidarity of the Jewish people must be seen.”

Around 60,000 Jews made aliyah last year, and 50,000 are expected this year, Meridor said, adding that 36,000 have immigrated since the violence began.

The Jewish Agency currently is focusing on aliyah from France, Argentina and South Africa, as well as on improving absorption efforts for Ethiopian immigrants.

Continuing the unity theme, the UJC announced a solidarity mission — called Israel NOW — to educate and advocate for Israel.

There are also plans to offer financial subsidies “to get as many people to Israel as quickly as possible,” said Joel Tauber, chairman of the UJC executive.

During the UJC’s upcoming “Solidarity September” program, a national media campaign will seek to educate American Jews about the current conflict, culminating with a Sept. 23 rally in New York.

The UJC also is encouraging American rabbis to focus their High Holidays sermons on solidarity with Israel.

Other Assembly issues included immigrant absorption, Zionist education and ensuring that Israel remains a central part of the agenda of the Jewish people.

In another development, Meridor succeeded in pushing through a resolution to restructure the Jewish Agency.

In a vote by the Zionist General Council, which was approved by a majority of 65 percent, one-third of the seats on the executive and two-thirds of the agency’s Board of Governors will be reserved for well-known Jewish figures not closely affiliated with political parties.

The resolution will ensure that people of vision and influence will lead the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency, devising long-range strategies for the benefit of Israel and the Jewish people, Meridor said after the vote.

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