UJC steps up for Gaza evacuees

NEW YORK, Feb. 6 (JTA) — In November 2005, a few months after some 10,000 Israelis were removed from their homes in Gaza and the West Bank as part of Israel’s unilateral disengagement plan, Lee Wunsch went to see the evacuees’ living conditions firsthand. Nearly 80 percent of the families were living in hotels rather than homes. “Not one of them were hotels any of our federation missions would stay at,” said Wunsch, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston. “And they were filled with families and kids. Instead of two or three people in a room, there were parents with three, four or five kids.” Eighteen months after the evacuation, the situation isn’t much better. “Unfortunately, while most American Jews supported the disengagement, they’re not aware beyond the political issues of the gravity of the needs that existed for evacuees right after the disengagement and now,” Wunsch told JTA. “It captured the imaginations of American Jews for a week when it was on CNN 24 hours a day, but now there is no news and people are not into it.” Some groups such as Americans for a Safe Israel have heaped heavy criticism on the United Jewish Communities and the federation system for not stepping in to help Jews in need. The UJC is hoping a resolution passed at its annual governance meetings in late January is a step in the right direction. Even though the evacuation was handled with “extraordinary grace,” the two-page resolution says, 90 percent of the evacuated settlers still haven’t been resettled in permanent housing. The resolution calls on the federation system, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Israeli government to examine the situation further. It calls for the Jewish Agency and the JDC to “monitor the situation, develop expertise in the needs so that the system is appropriately informed, and to help ensure that a concerted effort is maintained to enable this population to successfully restore their lives in Israeli society as quickly as possible.” It also calls for UJC to support the government in caring for the needs of evacuees. “The resolution itself is an indication that UJC and the federation system take seriously the fact that the former residents of Gaza and northern Samaria have been underserved,” Doron Krakow, UJC’s vice president for Israel and overseas, told JTA, using the Hebrew term for the West Bank. The UJC and individual federations have provided about $2 million for the evacuees. Some $400,000 of that came from the UJC’s $250 million annual overseas budget to pay for trauma counseling. The rest of the money came from Jewish federations in New York, Chicago, Toronto, New Jersey, Houston, Portland, Ore., and other cities to fund specific projects. Some federations, including some that gave of their own funds, have been pushing the UJC to aid evacuees. But Krakow said the resolution was not passed due to outside pressure. The UJC most likely will give more as evacuees’ requests for help continue to grow. “It’s fair to say that we anticipate additional funding at least on the same magnitude” as the $2 million the federation system already has given, Krakow said. The resolution comes after internal publication of a three-month UJC study into the evacuees’ plight. That study says SELA, the Israeli government’s relocation agency, claims 75 percent of the evacuees have re-entered the work force and 85 percent should rejoin by the middle of this year. But the Gush Katif Committee, made up of ex-settlers, says only 55 percent of evacuees have found work. It could be several years before the evacuees fully integrate into their new communities, according to Talia Levanon, director of the Israel Trauma Coalition, an umbrella group of approximately 50 nongovernmental agencies that provides counseling and other services after disasters around the world. The coalition received the $400,000 in UJC money to help residents removed from their homes and $100,000 from the Chicago federation before the evacuation to help Gazans move burial sites. According to Levanon, many evacuees say the trauma of eviction is causing their families to disintegrate. Teenagers are having difficulty fitting into their new environments, and evacuees who haven’t found permanent living quarters report a pervasive sense that everything is temporary. Many are spending their energy fighting the government instead of rebuilding their lives. Krakow said additional UJC funds most likely would go for more trauma counseling, small business loans and to help evacuees while they wait for the government to come through with compensation. But Krakow said the UJC does not have the capacity to provide the millions of dollars it will take to get the settlers situated in new homes. Some consider the UJC resolution too little, too late. Buddy Macy, a health supplies wholesaler in Little Falls, N.J., was on the executive board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton-Passaic until February 2006, when he quit to protest what he calls UJC’s inattention to the evacuees’ plight. Macy, 50, started a campaign that has raised $12,500 that was sent to American Friends of Gush Katif, a group that advocates for the evacuees. “If this had happened in any other country, let’s say if Poland had uprooted 1,000 Jewish families, the UJC would have sent millions of dollars to help,” Macy said. “But this is 18 months after the fact and they still do not have anything concrete set up to raise money for the settlers.” UJC rejected the charge that it has remained aloof. “UJC and the federations are committed to assisting the former residents of Gaza and northern Samaria deal with needs that are current and urgent, and supporting them as they move forward with their lives,” spokesman Glenn Rosenkrantz said. “We are confident that our resources will make a difference.” □

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