Editor's Notes: Building our own Jewish identity

A plea for funding to send our kids to Poland, for a focused message on Iran, and for some common sense in the governance of Jerusalem.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
Among the thousands of Israeli high-schoolers who made the traditional "fly the Israeli flag in Poland" trip last year were 30 from a school in Ashkelon. Regine Davidovich, whose daughter Or was one of them, recalls meeting her at the bus on her return. Or, she says, "had been transformed, truly, in the space of a week. She had grown up. There was a new pride in her Judaism, a desire to help, to volunteer, to serve the country. She told me, 'We were at the gas chambers and suddenly I understood the tragedy, the disaster that our people have suffered and the need for Israel.'" Having visited Auschwitz, Treblinka and the Warsaw Ghetto, and seen sites where Jews were gunned down in the forests, the group as a whole, says Davidovich, came back matured - more tolerant of each other, more aware of the dangers of racism, intent on doing useful army service, more committed to Israel. The only problem: While that group of 30 internalized the essential need for a viable Jewish state by visiting the scene of our people's genocidal abandonment, 70 of their friends from the same school, who had wanted to make the trip as well, were left behind. Their families simply couldn't afford the $1,100 fee, and there were insufficient scholarships and stipends available to them. On Sunday in Ashkelon, Yedid (the Association for Community Empowerment) is holding a conference to protest what is a nationwide problem - hundreds if not thousands of 11th graders are being denied the possibility to make that Poland visit because they lack the financial means. I know of cases in Jerusalem where families faced similar difficulties and where, although there was some supplementary funding through the schools, it was insufficient or they were not deemed poor enough to qualify. "It's intolerable that we are perpetuating the social gap even in an area as central to our children's Jewish identity as these trips to Poland," laments Davidovich. The goal of Sunday's gathering and the broader campaign, she says, is to press local government, and by extension the Education Ministry, to end the financial discrimination. And, she stresses, they don't want handouts. Kids who receive financial assistance, she says, would be required to "pay it back" via volunteer activity - looking after Holocaust survivors, helping other students, and so on. It's an admirable campaign, and a necessary one. At a time when Jewish philanthropists have finally realized how central a visit to Israel can be in bolstering Jewish identity among Diaspora youngsters, and are donating millions upon millions for such vital programs as birthright, it is foolish and self-defeating that funds are lacking for a program that helps instill core Jewish and Zionist values in our own, Israeli, youngsters. I doubt the government will have the sense to respond constructively to the Yedid campaign, but would love to be proven wrong. And perhaps one or other Jewish philanthropist might read these lines and be stirred into action. I'd be happy to help make any necessary connections. The president's dilemma As Iran, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, was this week found to have sailed smoothly and terrifyingly into larger-scale uranium enrichment, debate in the higher reaches of the Bush administration is becoming ever-more acute. Unsurprisingly, according to a Washington insider deeply familiar with the workings and personalities of this US government, everything ultimately will come down to the president, whose every instinct is to thwart Teheran's nuclear drive but who is balancing a wide range of interests and imperatives. The State Department, predictably, is horrified by the very notion of a last-resort American strike at Iran's nuclear facilities. However improbable, indeed absurd, it might seem from here, State under Condoleezza Rice is still hopeful of fostering some kind of Israeli-Palestinian progress, despite the extremism of the Palestinian political leadership, despite the weakness of our government and despite the fact that Rice is no Kissinger - lacking his capacity for manipulation, not to say duplicity, and the nature to expend every ounce of personal commitment in the search for a breakthrough. If anything, according to this insider, some in the Pentagon are still more implacably opposed to American military intervention, and George Bush would have to brace for resignations if the order came down to strike at Iran. In terms of Republican interests, conventional wisdom has it that Bush would face wide opposition from his own party to a strike against Teheran, amid the perception that such an act would compound the unpopularity stoked by the ongoing losses and sense of failure in Iraq. But Bush's political advisers, said my contact, may be giving him a very different message, to the effect that a short, successful intervention against well-chosen targets, substantively setting back the Iranian nuclear program, would revitalize the Republicans, branding them and their president as people of action, protecting America and its interests. The vice president, Richard Cheney, would be prepared to hit Iran tomorrow, my source said, or to set Israel on Teheran. And as for Bush himself, this insider said, the president in principle both recognizes a need to thwart Iran and wants to have his presidency regarded differently from that of his father, whom he feels is seen as having been a nice guy, rather than a decisive one. At the same time, I was told, a body of opinion is emerging in Washington that holds that Israel will eventually have to reconcile to the fact of a nuclear Iran - the fait accompli mindset, which presupposes that our second-strike capability will deter the ayatollahs. This, of course, runs precisely counter to the message that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, at the price of partisan intervention in American politics, has been striving to articulate, and counter to the overwhelming Israeli political and public consensus. Nonetheless, while Israel may understandably not wish to be seen as spearheading a push for America to confront Iran, it evidently has more work to do to impress upon Washington that a nuclear Teheran is anything but tolerable. Mundane matters A close relative of mine, not so young anymore, has become progressively less mobile with the years and, while still able to drive capably, qualifies for a disabled parking permit because even walking short distances is a struggle. Last week, he made his way to central Jerusalem to collect some medicines from a pharmacy in the Clal Building, and, leaving his permit in the windscreen, parked in one of three spots directly outside that had always been marked for disabled drivers. Making his way slowly back to the car minutes later, he found he had a parking ticket - with a NIS 250 fine. He hadn't spotted the change, but one of the three parking spots - the one in which he had unwittingly left his car - had been changed, and was now marked as a no stopping zone, while the other two were still designated for disabled drivers. There's been a lot of agonizing this week about our failure to elevate Jerusalem to a genuinely viable and unified city 40 years after the Old City and eastern neighborhoods were captured in the Six Day War. The city is indeed, still, two distinct halves, inequalities rage between them, and friction flares where they interact. The erection of the security barrier has, ironically, exacerbated some of the demographic concerns even as it played a crucial role in changing our daily reality. No longer can terrorists easily stroll across a nonexistent line into sovereign Israel, subjecting us to the strategic terrorist onslaught that turned life in the capital into a grisly lottery a few short years ago. But fear of exclusion from the job opportunities and municipal services available to Jerusalem residents has prompted an influx of tens of thousands of Palestinians into the city, pushing rents up so high (a reported $800 for an average apartment in the Arab neighborhoods) that the new trend is for east Jerusalemites to look for homes to rent in some of the much cheaper Jewish neighborhoods (about $400) built since 1967. As Palestinians pour in, and Diaspora Jews buy up holiday homes and (in the case of some European Jews) potential bolt-holes, many longtime Jewish Jerusalemites, notably those who are secular and modern Orthodox, look for homes elsewhere in the country - where house prices are lower, job opportunities wider, park space greater, schools better funded, and city taxes less onerous. It cannot be easy being the mayor of a city that, ideally, strives to be the harmonic symbol of peaceful interaction between the adherents of the three great monotheistic faiths, when the reality is one of constant political divides and religious tensions, when the populace is relatively impoverished, and when, as a member of the ultra-Orthodox demographic, you are constantly pulled by the conflicting demands of your home community, on the one hand, and your home city, on the other. But sometimes it is the more mundane matters that make Jerusalem so frustrating to live in - aspects of daily life where enlightened local governance really can easily make a difference. Things like cleaning the litter out of our contracting Sacher Park. Things like allocating a little more money to improve schools infrastructure, and stopping playing favorites with schools that appeal to the leadership's religious sensibilities at the expense of those that don't. And things like making the city plain traversable - using some common sense in keeping the economically desperate downtown businesses accessible to residents rather than constricting and blocking every access route; fixing the potholes that saw another of my relatives tear ligaments in her ankle when she slipped two weeks ago; and giving the parking inspectors some lessons in basic humanity. That way, they might think twice about hitting disabled pensioners, for whom daily life is enough of a struggle, with whopping, unwarranted parking fines.