Jewish World: North toward home

Relations between Israel and the Diaspora took a turn for the better after the war with Hizbullah.

October 26, 2006 21:34
damage katyusha 88 298

damage katyusha 88 298. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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The Jewish Agency Board of Governors concluded its fall meeting in Jerusalem this week with an unusually raucous debate about how to use the oodles of money North America's United Jewish Communities raised to help Israelis hurt by the war in the North. But while the abundance of cash might have caused some discord among the fund-raising establishment and its beneficiaries, it helped unify Israel and the Diaspora. Moshe Theumim, a leading Israeli PR exec and philanthropist, capped the meeting's outburst with a presentation on how the campaign touched hearts here - literally. The advertising for one of the JA's five summer programs, funded primarily by the UJC - removing children from the North to summer camps out of harm's way - pictured a large heart to show that the children were being cared for. And the ubiquitous ads, an integral part of the JA outreach this summer, also emphasized the role Diaspora Jewry was playing. "It was the first time that the Jewish Agency was noticed dramatically ... by people in Israel [as well as] what was being done by world Jewry at that time," Theumim, whose firm created the ads, pro bono, told the gathering. "Many people are realizing now that world Jewry has been a major supporter of Israel." In fact, there's nothing like raising $300 million in three months to arouse attention and evoke identification. The fundraising was swifter and more emphatic than the American response to other emergencies in Israel. And the payoff came not just in the form of those helped by the funds, but in terms of improving the Diaspora-Israel relationship as a whole. The Americans - so used to doing the giving - are also getting something: respect. It's another benchmark in the transformation of the historic Israeli attitude of disdain toward their brethren across the ocean. But some say there's still one kind of "taking" Israel's doing all of - namely, taking the Diaspora for granted. They argue that the more things change, the more they stay the same. North American Jewry also raised around $300 million for the Israel Emergency Campaign, held during the second intifada, but it amassed that money over the course of several years and was only really galvanized to action a year and a half into the violence, when a suicide bomber decimated families at a Pessah seder in Netanya in April 2002. This time, the Jewish federations started an emergency campaign within days of the outbreak of this summer's war. The original goal of $300 million has long been surpassed and continues to grow, despite the cessation of the rockets. "It took American Jews a lot longer [than Israelis] to catch on to the mortal threats to Israel in the second intifada," notes American Jewry expert Steven Cohen, explaining why the earlier fundraising campaign took more time to gather steam and resonated less with Israelis. In contrast, the danger posed by Hizbullah was understood by American Jews immediately. "These events were perceived by both societies in a parallel fashion," itself a unifying experience, says Cohen, a former Hebrew University sociologist now with the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. "They can draw the conclusion that they're in sync." He says that Hizbullah and the Israeli government "were seen by American Jews and Israeli Jews in pretty much the same way: One was seen as irredeemably violent, and the other was seen as irredeemably incompetent." The latter helped the Diaspora play a more significant role than in past conflicts, according to Bobby Brown of the World Jewish Congress, since unlike the intifada - where the main job had to be handled by security forces - during the Katyusha onslaught there was urgent work to be done by Diaspora Jews. And that translated into greater esteem for what they did. "I think to some extent there's newfound respect - not by everyone, but by some - and also [appreciation] that even when the government cannot respond at the level that's needed, world Jewry is also there to give that kind of aid," Brown says. "The priority list of the donors and the priority list of the recipients are not always the same. In this case, the donors and the recipients felt the help was right on the button," he adds. "Israelis felt it was answering a real need." So, he concluded, "There's no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of the [Israeli] population felt that world Jewry was touched by their situation and felt the need to help." THE JA even has the numbers to prove it. Following this summer's massive, first-of-its-kind advertising campaign emphasizing the contribution of Diaspora Jews, the organization had respected pollster Mina Zemach conduct some surveys. These revealed that 76 percent of the population was aware of the projects run for residents of the North over the summer, and that 90% "highly appreciated" these activities. Theumim admits that the results were startling: "The awareness that was created and the appreciation toward world Jewry was amazing." It's not only the public that's seeing that, but the government. "The emergency campaign has made a major, major difference for Israel," says Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog, pointing to the cabinet's program to reconstruct the North. "That decision was dependent in large part upon the Jewish Agency [and] the Jewish communities. I believe this has gained major respect and gratitude from Israelis." Herzog is part of a five-minister delegation - headed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - slated to attend next month's General Assembly, the annual gathering of North American federations. That's a significantly better turnout than in the past, where showings of one or two ministers - or just a video feed - has been the norm. Many, including Herzog, say it's not just cash that's made the difference. "I think the ministers might have a greater appreciation of the role of the American Jewish community in the overall American-Israel relationship ... The money is just one of the manifestations of it," says former UJC CEO Stephen Hoffman of Cleveland, who adds that he felt a similar level of respect from Israelis for the UJC's efforts during the intifada campaign as the one this summer. Herzog describes the relationship as "evolving" positively due to greater understanding, particularly on the part of American Jews, who are now realizing that "the things you see from here you don't see from there." Jane Sherman of Michigan, who co-chairs the JA's Israel committee, also thinks American Jews' view of Israel has factored into the improved relationship. "I think they believe today more than ever that Israel's a strong place that make things better for them," she said. "The American Jewish community understands the importance [of Israel] to their well-being as Jews." Perhaps, but Hebrew University professor and cultural critic Gadi Taub says Israel is still very short on understanding when it comes to the Diaspora, and could use a lot more of it. "A little more interest would be a good start - to listen to the other side," says Taub, who describes Israelis as "condescending" toward American Jews. "The general Israeli attitude has been a kind of arrogance, that we're on the front lines, so give us money." If there's been a change, it certainly hasn't been sufficient in the eyes of Taub. "I see a worrying lack of a shift, because we tend to assume that if the relationship is based on contributing money when we need it, it will always be that way." "The narrowing of the relationship to 'Give us your money' is going to get on people's nerves," he continues. "I don't think it will last forever." But current UJC Chairman Bobby Goldberg doesn't seemed troubled by Israeli attitudes, positive or negative: "Whether they respect us or they don't respect us, we still have to do our job. We're not in it for the respect. We're in it to do what we think is right." And Brown of the WJC thinks that Israel has gotten the point. "The lesson that the government should learn from this [summer] is that these top-drawer plans that they keep for emergencies have to include one of Israel's strongest assets - the relationship with Diaspora Jewry. I'm not sure it always did in the past. I believe it will in the future."

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