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American Jews seem to be more united in their backing for Israel than at any time since the Six Day War, according to Jewish leader Malcolm Hoenlein.
Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, was speaking at a press conference in Jerusalem Sunday at the start of a three-day solidarity tour. But even as he and other Jewish groups come on solidarity missions, donate funds and rally in support of Israel, North American Jews are cancelling plans to visit Israel.
"You always have people who postpone trips because of a [violent] situation. It's not just true in Israel. It's true anywhere where a conflict situation arises. It's understandable, but it's containable and I hope that we can reverse the current trend," he said. "The goal of solidarity missions [is to] get others to follow and understand that it's safe to come to Israel."
He has brought 50 people, including conference chairman Harold Tanner, along with him on one of several missions of international Jewish leadership coming to bolster Israel while it's under attack from Hizbullah.
Some two dozen representatives from the European Jewish Congress and EU countries also arrived Sunday, along with a 70-member group from the United Jewish Communities.
The UJC is just one of many Diaspora Jewish organizations to raise money for beleaguered Israelis in northern Israel. The umbrella group has already allocated $10 million to the cause and expects to commit more, in addition to having started a $1.5 million campaign with American synagogues to cover the cost of air conditioners and televisions for bomb shelters up north. The American Jewish Committee has, to date, raised $200,000 in an emergency fund-raising drive, and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, The American Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency and others have set up special programs to help residents up north, particularly children.
On Sunday, Hoenlein announced an initiative to help sustain the tourism sector in the north, which has been shut down since the violence broke out. The "virtual tourism" plan, being run in cooperation with the Prime Minister's Office, Galilee Development Corporation and Israel Hotel Association, encourages foreigners to pay for nights in hotels and bed and breakfasts throughout northern Israel. Instead of reserving specific dates, however, customers simply receive a voucher which they will be able to use any time in the next year. The concept is to allow hotels and B&Bs to continue to receive income to avoid closing even if their guests won't arrive until much later on.
Raphael Farber, vice president of the Israel Hotels Association, said the initiative was a "great idea" - so long as hoteliers received adequate rates for their rooms. He accused American solidarity missions of often demanding rock bottom prices at the hotels they stay at.
"Solidarity missions are a nice wording for 'taking advantage,'" he said. "This is not solidarity. This is just going to Israel cheaply."
He also said that, "To our sorrow, the Jews are the first to cancel. [We need] major research to understand why Jews are afraid to come to Israel. I don't understand. This is the time to show their empathy to the State of Israel and the people of Israel. And really there is no reason to be afraid."
But Mark Feldman, managing director of Zion Tours, which has a large North American clientele, rejected the notion that American Jews cancel first.
"It's not that true a stereotype because in the last intifada, so much was pushed onto Americans that they have to come support us," he said. "The cancellations run across the board."
But cancelling they are. Feldman said 60 to 65 percent of his North American customers have cancelled, while he gave the number of new reservations as: "Zero."
He explained that tourists planning vacations don't want to feel confined to just the parts of the country where rockets haven't fallen.
"Honestly, most of us in this country understand it at this stage," he said.
He added that he had been contacted by American Jews looking to help Israel rather than exploit the situation. "There's already an outcry of individuals [asking], 'What do you need? How can we help?' Nobody's trying to take advantage," he said.
The support isn't limited to financial measures. The Jewish community in Britain held a thousands-strong rally in London Sunday to show support for Israel. Israeli Ambassador Zvi Haifetz and Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks were among those on the list of speakers. The event followed a large anti-Israel protest held earlier Sunday.
Demonstrations have already been held in cities through the United States and more are scheduled, according to Hoenlein.
"We're seeing broad-based support for Israel among young and old, perhaps more than at any time since 1967," he said. "There's a broad mobilization of support."
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