NEW YORK, July 3 (JTA) — On the heels of the Reform movement’s controversial decision last month to cancel its summer youth trips, the upcoming 16th Maccabiah Games have assumed even greater symbolic value.
And to that end, Israeli government officials and American Jewish leaders may have twisted some arms to persuade the U.S. delegation to participate, according to a letter of complaint obtained by JTA.
In a June 24 letter to the Maccabi USA leadership, 22 board members, organizing committee members and coaches charged that “political pressure” and threats of “potential financial consequences” — such as restricted funding for Maccabi USA — had helped to secure U.S. participation.
The group, known as MUSA, had been pushing for a postponement of “the Jewish Olympics,” which will run from July 15-23, but reversed its decision June 14 after talks with Israel and U.S. Jewish organizational officials.
A handful of Executive Committee members resigned as a result of the decision, said Bob Spivak, MUSA president.
The MUSA leadership went on to explain the reversal to its delegation in a June 20 update that, according to the letter signatories, contained “a variety of inaccuracies, omissions and misstatements of facts.”
America’s involvement in the games had been considered critical, as it boasts the second largest delegation of athletes, after Israel’s.
At this point, some 355 of 550 U.S. athletes will compete; overall, only 2,000 of the 5,000 who had originally registered worldwide will attend.
Just last week, the Maccabiah canceled the triathlon and marathon.
The Maccabi USA dispute seems to be more than an internal issue.
It also appears to be a microcosm of the situation confronting many Jewish organizations and institutions: whether symbolic “solidarity” derived from visiting Israel should trump concerns for safety and security.
Said one Jewish leader whose organization continues to send solidarity missions to Israel, “Anyone who tells you they have absolutely no worries about it, I think they’re lying to you. But what we’re saying is that the value and significance of sending groups now sends a message to Israel that outweighs any potential concern that people might have about travel to Israel.”
With attacks on Israelis no longer restricted to the West Bank and Gaza but targeting Israel proper, U.S. Jewish leaders striving for absolute solidarity seem to be struggling to hold the line with skittish Jewish groups.
And for those groups that “err on the side of caution” and cancel trips, their defection is being portrayed as a sign of disloyalty to the Jewish state.
The first significant breach was by the Reform movement.
On June 2, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations announced that it had cancelled its summer youth trips.
The UAHC could not ensure the safety and security of their young charges, said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, its president.
The UAHC was roundly denounced for handing a “victory” to terrorists aiming to isolate Israel internationally.
Some critics also proclaimed solidarity as a gauge of commitment to Israel — and charged that the UAHC had failed the test.
In their letter, the 22 MUSA signatories indicated that they, too, have had their loyalty called into question.
They also complained that the decision had become politicized.
“The infusion of the ‘solidarity’ issue into the discussions about our participation has angered and hurt many people associated with MUSA who feel that, as a political issue, it is not relevant to what should be our primary focus, that is, the safety and security of the U.S. delegation,” said the letter.
“Any implication that a decision to not send the delegation reflects negatively on our commitment to Israel is offensive and unwarranted.”
Spivak rejected the notion of political pressure. “I don’t feel there was. People were expressing their views and telling us why they thought it was important to be there.”
The signatories, citing the controversial State Department warning about Americans in Israel being potential terrorist targets, said that “it would be best if we had erred on the side of caution in this matter.”
In phone interviews with JTA, several of the dissenters declined to elaborate on the letter, saying that “it speaks for itself.”
“This dispute is an internal matter; it wasn’t intended for you, it wasn’t intended for public consumption,” said Jim Bronner, a MUSA Executive Committee.
“We don’t think that it’s beneficial for the organization to be discussing it publicly,” said Bronner, who declined to explain why he and five others had recently resigned.
Spivak described the dissenters as “a group in the minority who are angry about our decision.”
The MUSA reversal came about, Spivak said, because of “a tremendous influx of parents and athletes who said, ‘Let’s go.’ “
The June 24 letter offers a glimpse at the anatomy of the decision — albeit from the perspective of 22 dissenters.
In the letter, the signatories said they felt compelled to write “at the request of many athletes and parents” to voice their disagreement with both the decision and the procedures MUSA used to carry it out.
They said that for months, they had believed the violence in Israel would subside and that the security of the athletes would not be an issue.
At the same time, American Jewish leaders were criticizing the U.S. State Department’s travel warning for all of Israel as unfounded, emphasizing that the violence against Jews occurred primarily in the territories.
The signatories then itemized the 22 most serious terrorist attacks to have occured within Israel proper, culminating with the June 1 bombing outside a Tel Aviv disco that killed 21 Israeli teen-agers.
In particular, they highlighted the attacks in Netanya, a suburb north of Tel Aviv, which has “traditionally been one of the cities where scores of Maccabiah athletes have been housed.”
On June 2, the 30-plus members of the MUSA Executive Committee convened in Philadelphia and voted to ask that the Maccabi World Union, which governs the Maccabiah Games, postpone the games until 2002.
According to the letter, the committee also voted “off the record” to warn that if the games went on, it would be without a U.S. delegation.
Meanwhile, MWU officials from around the world met in Israel and agreed to postpone the games.
Soon after, said the letter, the Israeli government intervened and asked that the MWU delegates return to their respective countries and ask their constituencies to “reconsider their decision.”
In the United States, the Executive Committee — whose members live across the country — convened via a June 14 teleconference call.
The dissenters say they were surprised to learn that a number of prominent American Jewish leaders were also in on the call.
According to the dissenting group’s letter, “They said, without exception, that participation by the United States in the Maccabiah Games would be a victory for the solidarity of Diaspora Jews with Israel and urged the Executive Committee to reconsider its decisions.”
Meanwhile, some of the dissenters “were either excluded” from the discussion or “not on the call,” the letter stated.
Another vote was taken among the committee members on the call, which numbered in the “low 20s,” Spivak said.
By a “strong majority,” Spivak said, they voted in favor of a reversal and to participate, though he wouldn’t divulge the precise vote count.
Spivak did not take issue with the chronology of events outlined in the letter, but he did dispute that any pressure was applied or that people were excluded from the decision-making process.
“This is a very democratic process,” he said.
“We had decided we would request a postponement. When we came back from Israel, there was a reconsideration.”
One Jewish leader who participated in the conference call denied that pressure — or a guilt trip — was applied.
“There was clearly no coercion or anything of the kind; there was a discussion, where various people had the opportunity to express themselves,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“I said the games should go on, but that it was a decision they had to make. I’m confident Maccabiah Israel would not allow the games to go on if they couldn’t address the security concerns. To cancel would be a victory for those who perpetrate violence in order to discourage visitors to Israel.”