When the United Jewish Communities unveiled its “Israel Now and Forever” program several months ago, a key component was a very public expression of solidarity in the shape of a massive Sept. 24 rally in New York.
But Sept. 11 dashed those plans to stand up for Israel as it confronted a year of Palestinian violence and terrorism.
With the United States and New York transfixed by the search and rescue at Ground Zero, the rally was viewed as logistically impossible and politically sensitive.
Today, with Israel drawn into America’s war on terrorism, the quandary affecting American Jewry’s political wing also reverberates within the Jewish federation world: To what extent should American Jews publicly rally for Israel while the Bush administration is trying to maintain international — and Arab — support for its anti-terror coalition.
So the UJC, the federation system’s umbrella organization, is instead focusing its attention on the other elements of the Israel Now campaign: keeping the community well-informed, solidarity trips to Israel and fund raising.
“We’re living in complicated times,” said Karen Shapira, chairwoman of the UJC’s Israel and Overseas pillar.
“We’re not afraid of public expression; our concern is knowing the right time to make that expression.”
Shapira added: “In considering the best ways for American Jews to help Israel today, one of the most meaningful ways historically and culturally has been to support Israel financially.”
The UJC announced in early October that the federation system had raised $66 million for the 2001-2002 Israel Now campaign, much of it committed before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Federations have since asked their donors to dig deeper, and have raised an additional $19 million through this week.
In all, then, the North American federation system has so far raised an extra $85 million for Israel, according to Michael Fischer, a UJC assistant vice president.
Israeli diplomats, for their part, seem to appreciate the fine line American Jews are walking.
“The community has been extremely responsible and measured in its public responses to everything that has happened since Sept. 11,” said Alon Pinkas, consul general of the Israeli Consulate in New York.
“American Jews are first and foremost American, despite the tremendous importance that Israel plays in their lives. As Americans, they not only experienced and felt Sept. 11, but their collective response has been American, in terms of supporting their president and feeling that they have become as vulnerable as others.”
The spending priorities for Israel today are a mix of the traditional and the circumstantial.
American Jewish money has long gone toward making up Israel’s shortfall in spending on social services, due to heavy investment in military and defense; financial and psychological assistance to victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict; and absorption of Jewish immigrants.
Nowadays, the Jewish Agency for Israel and others are also asking for cash to bolster security for certain Jewish communities on the front lines of the yearlong Palestinian intifada.
This would come in the form of armored vehicles for public transportation, bulletproof ambulances and bulletproof windows in places like Gilo, which regularly comes under fire from neighboring Beit Jalla.
Meanwhile, as Israelis continue to ask Diaspora Jews, “Where are you?,” the UJC and others continue to urge Americans to visit Israel and show tangible solidarity with the Jewish state.
In one of the year’s larger missions, organizers expect some 400 activists scheduled to attend the upcoming UJC General Assembly in Washington to fly to Israel once the five-day event ends on Nov. 13.
At the G.A. itself, the Israel Now campaign will be “inextricably intertwined,” said UJC President Stephen Hoffman.
Several major sessions are slated to deal with Israel, including “A Year of Intifada”; “The Social Costs of the Matzav [Situation] in Israel”; “U.S.-Israel Relations in a Changing World”; and “Advocating for Israel During Crisis.”
Still, some in the community believe enough time has elapsed since the Sept. 11 tragedy, and the needs of American Jews are well tended to; Israel must now return to the top of the communal agenda.
Some in the community still believe that public rallying for Israel is the way to go.
The reasons behind the Sept. 23 rally, they say, are just as valid today: to tell Israelis “We are with you,” to notify Washington that a vocal segment of the population demands continued U.S. support for Israel, and to provide Jews a venue to express their frustration.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, national president of AMCHA — The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, is planning to lead an interdenominational group of rabbis, spanning the religious spectrum, in a Nov. 11 prayer vigil near the United Nations.
Weiss said he expects to draw thousands to the event, which will coincide with the opening of the U.N. General Assembly.
Weiss’ message will be both pro-Israel and anti-terrorism — and emphasize the belief that Jerusalem and Washington share the same foe.
Meanwhile, the UJC sees education as another way of supporting Israel and its policies.
Shoshana Cardin, a veteran communal leader and former chairman of the United Israel Appeal, said, for example, the UJC, through its Web site, should provide analysis from experts on the reasons behind Israel’s reoccupation of Palestinian territory and Arafat’s failure to arrest terrorists.
The community, Cardin said, must be able to respond effectively to media errors in observation or fact: “Israel is in a war of words, as well as a war of terrorism.”