WASHINGTON (May. 16)
Hearing President Bush re-commit himself to Israel’s security was welcome but hardly revelatory for most of the people packing the American Jewish Committee’s centennial this month. For a select few, however, the sensation was not just pleasant — it was novel.
Students from an array of small Jewish communities around the world said it was a relief to stop playing defense when it comes to Israel.
"Having senators, congressmen and the president– all these really significant and important leaders of your country — backing Israel and talking about how important it is for Israel to be secure was amazing," said Deb Levy, 21, of Auckland, New Zealand. "It was such a relief."
Flanked by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Bush said: "America’s commitment to Israel’s security is strong, enduring and unshakable."
AJCommittee brought about 70 young adults from partner organizations for the centennial. In Washington, they joined about 140 American students and young professionals.
"If we’re going to talk about the Jewish future we need to be talking to younger people," said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. "Since so many of the issues facing Jewish people are transnational, having young people from around the world fosters a much more vibrant and complete conversation than simply talking to ourselves."
The two days after the five-day centennial celebrations were given over to a leadership conference where the young guests shared their impressions of being Jewish here and at home.
Arielle Herzog of Geneva was taken aback by the support for Israel and Jews among Americans.
"In Switzerland, we have to battle the government just to get them to admit something is anti-Semitic," said Herzog, 26, who now lives in Brussels, where she is development coordinator for the European Union of Jewish Students. "It was so nice to see government officials talking about how the Jews have made such a great contribution."
Herzog said she feels frustrated because people don’t distinguish between European Jews and Israelis.
"As a Jew in Europe, the moment you’re known as Jewish, people will stop listening to your opinions about Israel," she said.
Herzog said many of her Swiss friends hide their Judaism. "You try in some way to not show that you’re Jewish because people can react very badly. You don’t walk in the street with a kipah."
Levy of New Zealand said it was a relief just not to have to deal with the seminal issue of whether Israel should exist or not.
"Here, it’s not even a question of existence," she said. "It’s about showing how they will back and support Israel, and will not deal with Hamas." Like many of the international students who complained about a poor public image of Israel, she blames what she said is an intensely pro-Palestinian national media.
"My first reaction when I hear anything about Israel in the news is what am I going to have to do when I get back to university to react to this," she said.
Simone Mortara, 26, of Milan also said the media — and ignorance — contributed to an Italian culture generally hostile to Israel — a problem compounded, he said, by the lack of respect for diversity in Italian culture.
"Italians don’t understand that differences of people makes the collectivity of the society greater," Mortara said.
Alon De Lieme, 23, said that in the Netherlands, Israel is used as a vehicle to target Jews. "In Holland, you have imams demonizing Israel, and when I say demonizing, I don’t mean just being critical, but saying horrible things about Jews" he said. "Of course this is not the majority of Muslims, but the majority is silent."
In the United States, he said, such remarks would be widely condemned. Others said they felt comfortable discussing Judaism, if not Israel, in their homelands.
Semi Asal, 22, of Izmir, Turkey, said he does not often openly discuss his support for Israel, particularly in regions where militant Islamists have made strides.
However, he said, open identification as a Jew is not a problem.
"As Jews living in Turkey, we are living peacefully and we are proud of our Jewish identity as much as we are proud of our Turkish identity," he said, joining a panel on Muslim-Jewish relations.
Alexandar Melamed of Sofia, Bulgaria, said support for Israel was par for the course.
Melamed, whose grandfather was rescued from the Nazis by his fellow countrymen, said the country’s pride in saving the Jews during World War II and its strong relationship with the United States helped foster a cordial relationship with Israel.
"Bulgarians see Israel as a people fighting against extremism," said Melamed, 23, who studies at McGill University in Montreal. He said his Jewish friends in Bulgaria hardly encounter anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses. "They see Jews and Israel as a friend."
Just the exchange of such views makes going back home better, said Herzog of the students union.
"It feels so good to talk to people who can understand our situation," she said. "It gives us strength and confidence as we go back to Europe."