Israel crisis lights a fire under Jewish communities


WASHINGTON, Feb. 27 (JTA) – Prompted by concern over recent violence, Jewish communities and college campuses are mobilizing for Israel in ways they have not done in years.

The relatively stable situation in Israel during the past decade had made many local communities and national organizations complacent. Now, they feel they have been caught off guard by the recent outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.

“We were resting on our laurels,” admitted Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Jewish groups are now looking for a way to educate their constituents about the situation and to counter the coordinated effort of Arab groups that use the media to promote public sympathy for the Palestinians.

Hoenlein and other national leaders told those who attended the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ annual conference this week that they must counter Arab attacks on the Jewish claims to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.

“We have to go back to basics and explain what Israel is all about,” said Shula Bahat, associate executive director of the American Jewish Committee. Bahat thinks local groups need to “retool” their efforts and divert some of their resources to focus on Israel advocacy.

Bahat said “truth and justice” are on Israel’s side – even if some Israeli policies are wrong.

Some lay leaders from St. Louis and New York said they were worried that some Israeli policies, like the “excessive force” being used against the Palestinians as the U.S. State Department’s annual report on human rights put it, make it difficult for them to make the case that Israel should be supported.

Hoenlein countered that Israeli soldiers were fighting in Palestinian-initiated incidents.

Local groups were urged to use the Web sites of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the American Jewish Committee to develop ads, letters to the editor and other strategies that best suit their communities.

Community relations councils are feeling the pressure to respond to well-organized Arab and Muslim groups who use the media to their benefit.

In the Detroit area, which has the largest Arab American population in the United States, the sophisticated advocacy efforts of Arab groups are spurring a change in programming, said David Gad-Harf, the executive director of the JCRC of Metropolitan Detroit.

As part of the council’s solidarity mission to Israel last month, participants not only learned the issues, but learned how to go back and teach the Detroit Jewish community how to be better advocates for Israel.

Gad-Harf said the council is rebuilding its infrastructure but is waiting to take cues from Israel on what specific it should convey.

While Israel remained on the radar screen in Chicago over the last decade, some communities thought Israel was not relevant, said Jay Tcath, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

The Chicago community maintained its political advocacy and media monitoring but recent events have pushed the community into higher gear, Tcath said The council has increased the number of missions to Israel, and sends updates on current events to teachers and alerts households by e-mail about the situation in Israel.

The current crisis has brought Israel to center stage on campus, according to University of Pennsylvania students Andrew Joseph and Gabrielle Sirner who were attending the B’nai B’rith Hillel Forum on Public Policy, which is held in conjunction with the JCPA plenum. More than 400 students participated in this year’s student activist conference that focused on hunger, homelessness, illiteracy and the environment.

Fred Lotwin, a senior at the State University of New York at Albany, said a Muslim student group’s “misinformation” campaign prompted his pro-Israel group to distribute information that showed their side of the issue.

But the Jewish students felt like they were caught off guard and had to work to get the information out to the largely apathetic student body, Lotwin said.

Richard Joel, president and international director of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, said it is difficult for Jewish students to confront the Arab point of view because the Jewish point of view is not monolithic and the situation in Israel is complex.

Through the Birthright Israel program, which sends young North American Jews on a free trip, students are able to build a connection to the Jewish state, which makes them want to learn more about the region, according to Joel.

The vast majority of Jewish students on campus now have never visited Israel, Joel said, and they grew up with Israel being a “non-issue.” Hillel’s goal is to buttress the students’ Jewish identity as much as it is to support Israel, Joel said.

The difficult situation in Israel does allow for a more amicable and united front on Israel issues from the groups that make up the JCPA, an umbrella organization of 13 national organizations and 123 community groups.

The unity was evident during the discussion of the public policy resolutions. While the resolutions have sparked long and protracted debates in the past, those debates were almost absent from the plenum this year.

The two resolutions on Israel, one expressing support for Israel and the peace process and the other for Jewish-Arab coexistence projects in Israel, prompted some discussion but no arguments.

The proposal to further Jewish-Arab coexistence projects, including bilingual education, employment counseling and cultural and social programs, caused some disagreement within the JCPA community, but by the time it came up for debate at the plenum there was not a lot of difference of opinion.

The resolution commended the Israeli government’s decision to establish a commission to investigate Israel’s response to Israeli Arab rioting.

“We believe that increasing the economic opportunities available to Israeli Arab citizens, and addressing their civil rights concerns, will help to reduce the level of tension within Israeli society and strengthen Israel’s security,” the resolution states.

The resolution kept controversial language that noted the recent violence demonstrated that “legitimate grievances of the Israeli Arabs should be addressed seriously and systematically.”

The other Israel resolution is on the Middle East peace process. It expresses support for Prime Minister-Elect Ariel Sharon’s peace efforts and appreciation for outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s contributions.

Plenum participants added in language that referred to Jerusalem as the “eternal, undivided capital of Israel” and called for the relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

It was the first plenum since the mid-1980s that there were no arguments on political or religious issues in Israel, according to Orthodox Union representative David Luchins.

“There’s a sense of relief that we can put that aside,” Luchins said. “We don’t have the luxury to argue.”

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