Editor's Notes: 'Mr. Reassurance' sounds the alarm

American Jews are deeply worried about us, says Nachman Shai, the former IDF spokesman who is now the UJC's Israel director. And, Shai adds, they're right to be.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
Last year in Toronto, at the annual "General Assembly" of the United Jewish Communities (UJC), Israel was, to put it politely, not the dominant feature of proceedings. Sessions dealt with North American Jewish priorities - Jewish continuity, education, poverty, building communities, encouraging philanthropy. There was one event specifically devoted to Israel, which I moderated, entitled "Defining Ourselves after Disengagement." One of the speakers, former minister Rabbi Michael Melchior, was the most senior Israeli politician at the entire three-day event. Never mind the prime minister, there wasn't even a single serving Israeli cabinet minister in attendance. This year, the General Assembly is being held in Los Angeles and, in the planning stages, Israel was to have been similarly marginal. The intended focus, given the venue, was to have been rather Hollywood-y, with a stress on the "stars" of the North American Jewish Community. Instead, when 4,000 leading North American Jews gather for the 2006 GA next weekend, Israel will be at front and center, from Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's address at the "One People, One Destiny" grand opening, via opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu's "Challenges of the Jewish People at the Start of the 21st Century" session, through to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's "Facing the Future Together" address. Another four or five cabinet ministers, the Bank of Israel governor, several Knesset members and innumerable other Israeli media figures, educators, academics, business leaders and more will be popping up in-between. (Avigdor Lieberman is not among the invitees; his accession to the deputy prime ministership came after the program was finalized. "Next year," say UJC officials.) What happened to produce this remodeled agenda? "The war," says Nachman Shai, director-general of UJC Israel, simply. "North American Jewry is worried about Israel. They see signs of weakness... They sense a greater need to help." As the IDF Spokesman when Israel came under Saddam Hussein's unprovoked Scud attacks in the early weeks of 1991, and the nation spent hour after nervous hour, gas masks clamped on, holed up in sealed rooms amid fear of chemical attack, Shai was Mr. National Reassurance, telling the public what to do and not to panic, and that everything was going to work out fine. But today, speaking in the countdown to the now Israel-obsessed GA, Shai sounds anything but convinced that everything is going to work out fine. Growing poverty at home, the absence of a clear national agenda, and the bitter threat posed by Iran, he says, add up to the gravest challenges Israel has faced in its entire 58-year modern history. Make no mistake: Mr. National Reassurance is sounding the warning sirens. Why the changed orientation for the GA? The fact that the war with Hizbullah took a while, that it became so complex, created real concern within the North American Jewish community. There's been $350 million pledged for the UJC's Israel Emergency Campaign. But this is not just about the money. North American Jewry is worried about Israel. They see signs of weakness. They're worried about our future. They're asking: Why does Israel look so weak? We [at the UJC] focus on Israeli society, dealing with poverty, with new immigration and so on. And we see a growth in poverty, increased social strains. North American Jews feel that maybe Israel can't do more to alleviate those strains, so it deepens their commitment. They sense a greater need to help. But they are also more concerned: they hear of the falling educational standards, the impoverishment - and they're wondering what's going on. This is not the successful Israel they want to be proud of. This is my anecdotal sense, but there's no shortage of surveys to bear me out. And there are surveys, too, that give cause for unease about the wider Diaspora connection to Israel, about the extent of Jewish education overseas concerning Israel, and so on. How is the UJC trying to deal with all this? We in Israel have to work together with the Diaspora. We can't hide the reality from them. They're part of us. I tell North American Jews, "Let's have an impact where we can really make a difference." We can't rebuild the whole country. But we can really help the North after the war. What's the level of philanthropy and how does it compare to years past? The UJC has 600,000 donors. But 54 millionaires gave $1m. each to the Israel Emergency Campaign. So a few people are giving a lot and a lot of people are giving a little. There are problematic processes: The Jewish population is aging, people are marrying late and having small families, and the biggest problem is that about 50 percent are marrying out. But overall, the UJC raises about $900 million a year, and that's more than in the past. What proportion of that comes to Israel? Less than before: about 30%. I have to say, I think that Israel's single most important strategic asset is the North American Jewish community, because of its influence, power, financial resources, its status in the US. It actually has a growing ability to galvanize support for Israel in our challenges. There are more Jewish legislators than ever before, more key players in business, the entertainment industry, everywhere, even as Jewish numbers decline (from 5.7m. in North America a decade ago, to 5.2m.). What are you hoping to achieve at the GA? It's good that we were able to be so flexible as to remake the program so radically, so fast. The stress will be on what Israel went through in the war, on how the UJC helped, and to galvanize them for the next challenge - raising hundreds of millions to strengthen the North. Which specific projects do you have in mind? The North has undergone a trauma. People need help; they need encouragement and practical assistance so they don't leave. The economy is bad there. Job opportunities are scarce. We can help improve educational standards via better schools, with longer hours. We can provide scholarships at universities and colleges there. Small business loans. Funding for improved hospitals. Is the watching Jewish world right to be so troubled about Israel? I'm very troubled about the future. The government's agenda disappeared because of the war. What's our political direction? Nobody knows. Do we accept or reject Syria's overtures. Where are we going with the Palestinians? We're standing still and stalemate is bad. We were standing still between 1967 and 1973, and that led to a terrible war. The scariest aspect of all is the Iranian threat. Iran seems the most dangerous of all the enemies we have faced in the past 58 years. They are smart, determined and mobilized. They don't just talk, they act. They've built up an arms industry, introducing new weapons capabilities. They'll get the material for a nuclear bomb, I have no doubt. And they have the most extreme Islamic hatred for Israel. So, yes, I'm worried. I raised my kids here and I want to raise my grandchildren here. But no less worrying is the internal threat - the social and economic situation. The economy is strong, but for a limited number of Israelis. Most Israelis are getting more poor and vulnerable. In the UK and US, maybe they can handle this [kind of divide]. But we, under the pressures of war and threats, cannot afford to have so many Israelis living below the poverty line, so many Israelis who can't raise their children in reasonable conditions. The North American Jewish community can help on the external and the internal threats. Through philanthropy and influence, they can help persuade the government to allocate and prioritize - not to dictate, but to act as the kinds of outsiders who sometimes see more clearly than the insiders what really needs to be done. Why are you so certain that Teheran will "get the material" for a bomb? Nobody will stop the Iranians. They'll get the bomb. Our military options are very bad. After [Israel's bombing of Saddam's reactor at] Osirak, the Iranians, I presume, took no chances [in terms of protection and defenses]. If we are looking to the US and others, well, none of them is running to stop Iran. The US is trying to get out of Iraq and is sick of the Middle East. We have capabilities, but our problem is: can we deter them? We can't think about a second strike. We'd be gone. We have to deter their first strike. But when it comes to Iran I'm not sure [deterrence] will work. I don't want to despair. I hope they'll stop. I just don't see what will stop them. You say you don't want to despair, but that sounds utterly bleak. When people sat in their sealed rooms 15 years ago, and I talked to them and sought to provide them with a sense of security and faith - nobody did that this time - I tried to give the historical perspective. Jewish history is full of ups and downs, successes and setbacks. We've had the most terrible losses but we've always survived. Our history shows that we do survive. We will survive. We have to. We've been doing it for thousands of years. But the reality today is more challenging and threatening and scary than at any time in the past.