Local Jewish leaders returned from a 37-hour solidarity trip to Israel this week strengthened in their resolve that, as UJA-Federation executive vice president John Ruskay put it, "We’re all in this together."
He added that Israelis seemed committed to "stand firm, particularly after the prime minister had made such an offer for peace" this summer at Camp David. But Ruskay also sensed "an undercurrent of despondency. The choices are difficult and limited, and that’s what makes this a crisis."
James Tisch, president of UJA-Federation, stressed Israel’s military restraint, despite negative media coverage in some quarters. He said it was important to understand that ìthe Israelis are not provoking any of the hostilities but rather are responding in a measured way to provocations.
"The two New Yorkers were part of a national delegation of about 80 diaspora leaders, mostly from America, who put aside partisan politics and personal agendas on their visit to show support and bring Israel’s message back home. Most participants came from UJA federations around the country and from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
"I think they are feeling isolated or abandoned," Tisch said of Israelis, who he noted were most grateful for the show of support at a time when so many tourists are canceling trips.
He and Ruskay agreed that the American Jewish community plays a vital role in explaining and interpreting to the rest of the country what is happening in the Mideast.
Spending time with the group as they were briefed by Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Ehud Barak, army personnel and agency leaders, and when they visited trouble spots to meet with local residents, one sensed a shift rightward in the political viewpoints of the participants. Former advocates of the seven-year Oslo peace process were stunned by the dramatic and violent turn of events that has been described as the new intifada.
Several Israeli officials stressed that the wave of violence against Israel is an assault not just on the Jewish state but on Jews worldwide.
"This is an attack on Israel’s very existence," said Sallai Meridor, chairman of the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency for Israel. "We’ve now seen more than 200 attacks on Jewish communities worldwide. We need to realize that it’s not only Jews living in remote areas who are subject to attacks."
But participants seemed resistant to the idea that their home communities were physically under attack as well. Some felt any incidents were isolated.
"It’s too early to know if it’s systematic," said Ruskay.
Mendel Kaplan, an official from Keren HaYesod, told a press conference in Jerusalem that kicked off the mission: "The concept of dividing Jew from Israeli doesn’t exist. We are one people under attack."
Participants agreed that the fate of Israeli and diaspora Jews are inextricably tied and shared what many felt was the Israeli people’s sense of betrayal over the past few weeks’ violence.
Carole Solomon, immediate past campaign chair of United Jewish Communities, termed the violence a "loss of innocence" and "a reality check" on the Oslo peace process. "I am much more pessimistic," she said. "The sense of partnership appears to be much more of a belief and investment on one side than the other."
"People had such faith that the Palestinians were the same as us and wanted the same thing," said Susan Sher of Northern New Jersey, "but all this was seething under the surface."
"There’s a unanimity that Israelis have done everything humanly possible to reach peace and [the Palestinians] rejected it," concurred Tisch.
"Your responsibility is not less than ours," Likud opposition leader Ariel Sharon told the group. "Don’t think that if Israel is weak or, God forbid, destroyed, that you’ll be able to live the lives you’re living now."
Although the group met with officials from all ends of the political spectrum, the message they received was one of unity, albeit a pessimistic version. Those on the right who long had been critical of the Oslo process avoided I-told-you-sos, and those on the left warned of a long haul.
"We need now to reassess our policies, maybe even our worldview," dovish acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami said.
"If we get into bloody crisis with our neighbors, we come with clean hands," he said. He termed Israel’s offer at the failed Camp David summit ‘the outer limit of any capacity for compromise."
Now that that offer wasn’t accepted, he said the Jewish nation is finding itself under fire. "In times of crisis, our most solid ally is the Jewish people," Ben Ami said.
The world Jewish community "has never been as united as we are today," said Ronald Lauder, president of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.