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JDC Deflects Criticism of Ads Raising Money for Hungry Israelis

June 5, 2003
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The passage of an Israeli government resolution criticizing fund raising that depicts Israelis as poor and hungry has outraged one of American Jewry’s chief charities.

Steven Schwager, executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, sent a memo to federation leaders and the JDC’s own board of directors Wednesday, rejecting the notion that the group has used propaganda about hungry Israelis as a fund-raising tool.

“Let me state for the record that this is not true,” Schwager wrote in bold, underlined print.

“The public debate on poverty has recently focused, in part, on the issue of insufficient food among the poor,” he said, adding that the JDC, which helps needy Jews around the world, is researching the issue at the Israeli government’s request.

“Several national initiatives have been launched with JDC-Israel as an active partner to promote the involvement of the Israeli voluntary sector in addressing the needs of its poorest poor,” he wrote.

The debate raises the issue of Diaspora Jewry’s role in helping Israel during times of crisis.

It also highlights the complicated relationship between the JDC and the Jewish Agency for Israel, a quasi- governmental body that handles immigration to Israel.

The Jewish Agency, which has raised the fund-raising issue in the past, is the main overseas beneficiary of North American Jewish federations, competing with the JDC for the federations’ overseas funds.

Schwager’s comments came after Cabinet ministers were given copies of a JDC brochure as background for a government resolution criticizing Diaspora attempts to raise funds by portraying Israelis as hungry or poor.

The resolution, which passed Sunday, did not single out the JDC or any other organization.

“The government views with great severity the phenomenon in which various bodies in Israel and abroad attempt to raise funds among Diaspora Jewry by presenting the State of Israel as hunger-stricken,” the resolution said. “These attempts, while well-intentioned, cause severe damage to Israel.”

The JDC brochure sent to Cabinet members, titled “Jews in Crisis,” features an elderly Argentine Jewish woman, an Israeli boy and an elderly Russian man, implicitly lumping Israel together with other welfare cases.

The section of the brochure on Israel focuses on JDC measures to protect Israelis from terrorist attacks, but also refers to hot meals provided for 27,000 Israeli children “as growing numbers face poverty at home.”

The brochure begins with the sentence, “Feeding and taking care of the world’s poorest Jews is JDC’s priority.”

Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency’s executive, met with Sharon the day before the Israeli Cabinet discussed the resolution criticizing the fund-raising efforts.

Following passage of the resolution, Meridor and Alex Grass, chairman of the Jewish Agency’s board, sent a letter to federation leaders.

“As true friends of Israel, we are confident that you will cooperate with the Government’s call, and through your partnership, strengthen Israel and ensure the future of the Jewish state,” Monday’s letter stated.

UJC, the federation umbrella, had no comment on the issue.

While some point out that poverty and hunger in Israel are serious issues for Jews to address, others say Diaspora Jewry must respect Israel’s responsibility for handling its own ills.

“This is a very delicate kind of a balance,” said David Sarnat, executive vice president of the Jewish Agency’s North American division, who praised JDC’s contributions to Israel.

“There are now two major centers of Jewish life in the world,” he said. “Each of them has its assets and each of them has its deficits, and we have to treat each other respectfully.”

In a meeting of World Zionist Organization members two weeks ago in New York, Meridor was more forceful, relating the issue to the pride, strength and future of Zionism.

Meridor, who implicitly referred to the fund-raising brochure, urged American Jews not to present Israel as a “charity case for the Jewish people.”

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