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Special Interview Bernstein: Main Danger in Period Ahead–complacency About Israel

October 8, 1975
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As the United Jewish Appeal sets out on its 1976 campaign, forecasts look good. initial signs are promising, current cash returns are encouraging–and the campaign leadership is hopeful of a successful year in which the $600 million target figure will be attained. Irving Bernstein. UJA executive vice-chairman, is, nevertheless, by no means complacent.

In fact, as he sees it during an early morning breakfast, with the Jerusalem sun streaming into his hotel room, complacency is the main danger facing the UJA in its work ahead. Not complacency about fund-raising, but complacency about Israel. “Too many people–out of their intense longing for peace–seem to feel that peace is right around the corner, now that the accord with Egypt has been signed.” Bernstein says.

The large sums in aid, moreover, which Israel hopes to procure from the U.S. government give rise to other misunderstandings which could adversely affect the UJA’s efforts. The aid sums, after all, are incomparably more than those which UJA raises in one year, or over several years, he notes. People could become disenchanted–and argue that UJA donations do not really make a dent in Israel’s needs, or indeed in Israel’s income.

Press reports and comments in the U.S. highlighting the “massive aid package” which Congress is to be asked to approve for Israel make matters worse. The press rarely points out that almost all of this aid is money for arms which will be spent on procurement inside the U.S. Almost none of it actually reaches Israel and is available for the country’s internal needs–the needs which UJA and Keren Hayesod funds help meet. This, says Bernstein, must be driven home to American Jews, and to the broader American public.


The UJA leadership must explain, too, to contributors and potential contributors, that the Sinai agreement, while significant, is a far cry from “peace around the corner” and that, therefore, Israel must keep its military guard up–at the enormous cost that this implies. “Once you have to explain,” Bernstein says thoughtfully, “you are on the defensive. This is the problem we need to face and overcome.”

There is a strong psychological undercurrent, he feels, which can help UJA state its case convincingly and which, indeed, is probably responsible for the upswing in cash collection in recent months and the bright campaign forecasts. This is what Bernstein calls “Jewish unease” at the political and economic power of Israel’s enemies.

“Oil economics are eroding decency and truth,” says Bernstein. The Jewish “response” is to make pledges to Israel, and honor promptly pledges already made–despite the still unhealthy state of the economy.

With American Jewry not called upon at this time to take vigorous political or lobbying action, Jews seem to feel that giving what they can to UJA is their best and only outlet at present for their feelings of concern over Israel’s battle against the odds in the international arena. Bernstein states. Steady cash flow is one important indicator of a good response. Heightened participation in missions to Israel is another, he adds.


Bernstein himself is here with the annual UJA Study Mission which includes some of UJA’s top givers. Simultaneously, three other missions are in the country. The biggest ever UJA Women’s Division Mission is due soon, and in mid-November 1000 persons will attend the UJA’s Koach Mission.

Mission members pay their own way–and they do not reduce their pledges because of expenses incurred on a mission, says Bernstein. Many come through Rumania or Iran, to witness the work of the Joint Distribution Committee in those Jewish communities. Some pass through Poland, visiting the graveyard of one of Jewry’s greatest-ever communities–and then moving on to “the vineyard: Israel.”

Sometimes, three generations of Jews–grandfathers, fathers and sons–attend separate UJA missions to Israel during one year, demonstrating that UJA has become what Bernstein calls “a generational way of life.” The executive vice-chairman very strongly subscribes to the view advanced by Prof. Moshe Davis of the Hebrew University and other socio-historians of Jewish life–that UJA has transcended the fund-raising gambit and broadened into a vehicle of Jewish commitment and identity.


The UJA, says Bernstein, provides American Jews with the opportunity not only to help Israel and Jewish causes at home and abroad, but also “to learn, to meet, to identify, to talk to people about Judaism, Jewish needs, Jewish history.” The UJA also offers missions for the committed, seminars, retreats, weekends, study circles, straight solicitation–all these efforts to reach the “pintele Yid.” as Bernstein says.

There was always this effort at diversification and broadening of UJA activities–but observers say it has intensified since Bernstein took over in 1971. There has been an important diversification, too, in UJA’s approach, Bernstein states. Tear-jerking oratory is by no means good enough in these sophisticated times. The UJA, moreover, seeks to embrace academic and intellectual and professional circles as well as the business community. Bernstein notes in this connection the flourishing “faculty program,” headed by respected Harvard Sovietologist Marshal Goldman. “People want more substance.” Bernstein says.

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