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U.S. Jewish Community Launches New Solidarity with Israel Initiative

March 13, 2002
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As Israel grapples with a war of spirit and terror, the organized Jewish community is launching a new plan to show solidarity with the embattled nation.

“Jews in the United States need an opportunity to give expression to the broad-based support and solidarity they feel with Israel at this difficult time, and I think the people of Israel need to know and have it reaffirmed that American Jewry is standing with them,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The program is the initiative of the Conference of Presidents, which is partnering with the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of the federation system.

The cornerstone event is slated for March 24 under the billing “We stand with Israel.” The flagship event will be held in New York, with simultaneous gatherings in 50 to 100 communities across North America.

Although still in the planning stages, the gatherings will include a satellite broadcast that organizers hope will feature Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other top Israeli politicians, along with terror victims and American political leaders.

As the Palestinian intifada intensified last fall, Jewish communal leaders had planned a major pro-Israel rally in New York. But with the date set for soon after Sept. 11, it was canceled for security reasons.

Organizers say the March event will be “very different” in part because it is meant to be a somber event, in part because of security concerns.

For one thing, the gatherings will not be public events, but will limit the numbers in attendance, with member organizations issuing tickets to their constituencies.

In addition, rabbis from all religious streams are being asked to devote their Shabbat sermon before the event to a message of unity with Israel and to incorporate a prayer on behalf of Israel into the Passover yizkor, or mourner’s service.

The Conference of Presidents was also preparing a statement of unity this week to be signed by all of its member organizations, but had not yet gotten the approval of its member agencies by late Tuesday.

Nearly all of the more than 50 Jewish organizations in the conference are behind the initiative, which is intended to be nonpolitical.

The solidarity statement, currently in draft form, relates to “the fundamental principles in which there is a clear consensus,” according to Hoenlein.

Those principles, according to those familiar with the document, include a condemnation of terrorism, a statement of solidarity between American Jews and the Jewish state, and a belief in Israel’s right to defend itself.

The language of the document is still being fine-tuned, but most Jewish leaders say there is little debate about its content — or the focus of the gatherings.

Arthur Naparstek, director of the UJC’s overseas pillar, which is helping to coordinate the local events, says there is “tremendous consensus.”

He said that no one is objecting to a speech by Sharon, whose approach has been questioned by some in the Jewish community, or debating the nitty-gritty of Israeli policy.

The “point of this rally is not to make a political statement, but to show support for the people of Israel,” he said.

“I think the whole idea of having communities together on one day in support of Israel couldn’t be more important than it is now,” said Naparstek, who canceled a business trip to dedicate himself to the project.

He described a “real sense of urgency” for American Jews to show support for the Jewish state, express themselves and show that position to their political leaders.

Betty Ehrenberg, director of international and communal affairs for the Orthodox Union, echoed the sentiment of urgency and broad-based support for the plan.

“I don’t know if this is a time for distinctions between Jewish groups as far as support for Israel is concerned,” she said and described an “obligation” to participate in “Jewish peoplehood by doing as much as we can to support Israel at this time.”

That could mean visiting the state, meeting with political leaders or prayer, she said.

Both the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America slated Wednesday for special prayers and fasting for Israel.

Despite the general consensus, a couple of the member organizations aren’t convinced that any language on the subject can rise above politics.

Americans for Peace Now has expressed reservations about the initiative because it appeared to be “more of a blank check for the Sharon government,” said the group’s spokesman, Lewis Roth.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of the America, said that unless the rallies bear the explicit themes of Israel’s right to defend itself with ” whatever means necessary” and “exposing the lie” of Israeli occupation, “it won’t have nearly the political impact to help Israel.”

But David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said, “You’re never going to achieve full consensus in an organization that spans such a broad spectrum of organizations from the left to the right, from the religious to the secular.”

But, he said, he was “confident there are core principles that can be articulated and agreed upon by most, if not all, the member agencies.”

“Israel is faced with an unprecedented situation, and American Jews should stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel today as never before,” he added.

“And everything else flows from that.”

For their part, Israeli officials are welcoming the initiative.

“Every expression of solidarity with Israel is welcome by the people of Israel,” said Ido Aharoni, spokesman at the Israeli Consulate in New York.

“And in this time of difficulty and terror, every display of support is highly appreciated by Israelis.”

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