Jerusalem — The most newsworthy aspect of the major annual meeting of the North American Jewish federations’ United Jewish Communities was not in the issues debated or resolutions passed over four days of programs this week. It was in the fact that the General Assembly (GA) was held here (for only the second time in its 72-year history), despite security concerns, and that an estimated 4,000 Jews from the U.S. and Canada defied warnings from the State Department — and, no doubt, from family and friends — and came to show Israel their support and sense of caring.
But while they were praised by some government leaders for their courage and steadfastness during this time of war, others sought to distinguish between support for Israel and for the policies of its government. A number of Israeli speakers warned North American Jewry that their enthusiasm on behalf of the Sharon government could hinder progress toward a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Speaking at a session Monday on whether Israel can remain both a Jewish and democratic state, Yaron Ezrahi, a Hebrew University political science professor, told the delegates
he was “deeply moved” by their solidarity, but cautioned that such solidarity does not have to carry over to approval of government decisions.
He accused Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of “speaking from both sides of his mouth,” indicating support for the “road map” for peace negotiations while not dismantling any illegal settlements. Such a strategy, charged Ezrahi, is geared toward keeping Sharon’s ruling coalition together “but is not helping Israel or shaping its future.”
Similarly, Major Gen. (Ret.) Matan Vilnai, former Israel Defense Forces deputy chief of staff, told the audience the main threat to Israeli survival is “not the Arabs, it is us.” He said that to prevent an Arab majority in the country in the next 10 years taking over the Knesset, “we must separate from the Palestinians” and give them statehood.
Both men called for vigorous debate and an end to what Ezrahi described as diaspora Jewry’s “impulse to create a united front.” He asserted that it is a mistake for Israel to “infantalize” North American Jews and expect them to be “cheerleaders” rather than serious participants in the discussion over the Jewish future.
Some of this criticism might have come as a shock to many diaspora Jews here who have rallied around Sharon and defended his policies at home, noting that a significant majority of Israelis support him and his government.
But it was just another indication that in many ways the gap between American Jewry and Israel is growing. After all, despite the hoopla surrounding the GA and a series of ads in Israeli newspapers leading up to the event featuring a timeline of Jewish history — including the birth of Abraham, receiving of the Ten Commandments, the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, and culminating in the GA in Jerusalem in 2003 — the vast majority of Israelis have never heard of the GA, and its deliberations mean little to them.
What’s more, some critics complained that the Israel the GA delegates are being shown is far removed from reality. Gideon Levy, writing an opinion piece in Haaretz on Sunday, said delegates to the event should feel “insulted” for being “treated like a fool” and being shown only the bright side of Israeli life, from biotech advances to the successes of immigrant absorption.
What they won’t see, said Levy, is “the source of Israel’s real problems” — the occupation that includes refugee camps, roadblocks, cities under curfew, and “soldiers abusing [Palestinian] residents who simply want to get home.”
Officials of the GA insisted, however, that they are providing a representative and accurate portrait of Israeli society — including 55 separate bus trips fanning the country on Tuesday — and not shying away from sessions exploring the Palestinian conflict and its consequences.
As for Sharon, his address to the 6,000 delegates — about 2,000 came from Israel, making it the largest GA ever — avoided details of the war or plans for peace, instead emphasizing tried and true issues like the strength of world Jewry, and the need for Zionist education and more aliyah from the West. “Our enemies have yet to understand the Jewish people cannot be broken,” he said, prompting a standing ovation, “and will never be broken.”
But overall the crowd’s applause seemed more polite than fervent, both when he took the stage of the International Convention Center at the opening plenary Sunday night and when he completed his 15-minute remarks.
Sharon’s theme was the word “davka,” Hebrew for “in spite of it all.” Israel and its supporters davka will carry on, he said, despite the current difficulties. The prime minister also emphasized the need for and strength of a united world Jewry, and said the most important thing Diaspora Jews could do is “be Jewish,” invest in Israel, visit Israel and settle in Israel.
One highly placed official told me that while public support for Sharon among American Jewish organizational leaders remains solid, the prime minister was told at a private meeting this week that he should know some of his policies regarding the Palestinians are considered problematic.
Concerns about the economic crisis in Israel and the pressure on North American Jewish federations — many of whose annual campaigns have been flat — to provide more social services both in Israel and at home, were an undercurrent of the GA. But the most major issue on delegates’ minds was the security issue and the outcome of the Palestinian war on Israel, now in its fourth year. Dan Kurtzer, America’s ambassador to Israel, addressed a GA session, asserting that the road map “still has life.” He and Justice Minister Tommy Lapid, who shared the platform with him, agreed that there is no one overall solution to the conflict, and that progress must be made gradually.
Later, in an exclusive interview, Kurtzer told me the next critical stage will be a first meeting, to be held in the next two weeks, hopefully, between Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Queria. “If the chemistry is good between them, they may be able to work toward a cease-fire,” he said. The hope is that a series of small steps could be taken on both sides to improve the climate, though it is understood that a major suicide bombing could unravel the process all over again.
The ambassador noted that while Palestinian Authority officials are not advancing the one-state solution — playing the demographic game and waiting until Arabs outnumber Jews in Israel — some Palestinian strategists and advisers are promoting it. “Unless you believe in transfer, this is a scary prospect,” he said, pointing out that one state with a majority of Arabs and minority of Jews would be neither a Jewish state nor a democratic state.
He believes it is in Israel’s best interest to work toward a two-state solution as quickly as possible.
Ehud Ya’ari, the well-respected Israeli journalist, told a session of Do The Write Thing, a seminar at the GA for American college journalists SPONSORED BY THE JEWISH WEEK, that the possible cease-fire is part of an attempt by the Palestinians to move toward national elections, the second phase of the road map, by bypassing the first requirement — namely the dismantling of the terrorist infrastructure. Queri, also known as Abu Ala, has made clear he has no intention of taking on Hamas and other terror groups. The plan, according to Ya’ari, could result in “runaway statehood” for the Palestinians in that it would give them provisional statehood without disarming the terrorists.
But for all the discussions about the Palestinian conflict, delegates came away with a sense of renewed solidarity with Israel and an appreciation for how Israelis go about living their lives as normally as possible in the face of constant threat of terror.
UJC leaders are hoping the delegates will come home able to convince family and friends that it is safe, and important, to visit Israel, and that tourism will increase as a result.
An emotional high of the conference was a solidarity march from the convention center late Monday afternoon to Zion Square. Along the two-mile route, an estimated 5,000 GA delegates marched with Israeli flags and banners proclaiming their home states. Shopkeepers in Machane Yehuda, the famous open-air food market, gave away fruits and vegetables and applauded the marchers, who in turn applauded the Israelis. It was a rare and precious moment when Israelis and diaspora Jews expressed appreciation, one for the other. That evening, the stores and restaurants along Ben Yehuda Mall, often empty as the result of numerous bombings in the last two years, were full of visitors happy to help the Israeli economy. It, too, was a lovely scene, but whether the comfort level the visitors felt here will rub off on others back home remains to be seen.l in the United States said those statements “were a bit of a stretch.”