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Jewish Journal

Olmert downgrades aid from American Jews

It's important, he tells visiting reporters, but not necessary

by Brad A. Greenberg

August 9, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Recent Steve Greenberg editorial cartoon

Recent Steve Greenberg editorial cartoon

[JERUSALEM, Aug. 8] "You are not to directly quote the prime minister," Ehud Olmert's press handler told a group of American Jewish journalists I've been traveling with this week.

This directive came today as we sat in a conference room in Olmert's Jerusalem offices. It seemed a ridiculous rule, but the prime minister's fears made more sense once the meeting was over.

When Olmert walked confidently into the conference room, he shook some hands, said 'Shalom' and posed for a photo with a few journalists. Dressed in a navy suit and red tie, he sat tall, speaking in fluent English as he cracked jokes and invited our questions -- and that's when the meeting went south.

Asked about the hundreds of millions of dollars sent by American Jews to help Israel during and after last summer's war with Hezbollah, Olmert responded that the donations were very important -- but he stopped short of calling it "necessary."

If a giver wants to give and the receiver wants to get, Olmert said, God bless that situation.

And as we've seen this week, God -- or human resourcefulness -- has blessed a quick reconstruction of northern Israel. But Olmert's comments seemed particularly ungrateful because he spoke not only to the American journalists, but also to some top officials of the United Jewish Communities (UJC).

Through the UJC's Israel Emergency Campaign last summer, North American federations sent $360 million to Israel. UJC is also the sponsor of this media trip, which was designed to show reporters and editors how American donations have been used. UJC officials have shuttled our group, including editors and writers from major Jewish publications in Washington, New York, Philadelphia and L.A., to show us the pain inflicted by war.

They arranged this forum with the prime minister to allow him to speak to the most philanthropic Diaspora community -- and this is what he says?

Nachman Shai, senior vice president and director general of UJC Israel, wouldn't directly respond. "UJC is extremely proud of the work we have done with our partners and the government of Israel both during and after the war," he said in a statement prepared after the meeting.

It could be that Olmert didn't want to show Israel's hostile neighbors any sign of weakness by suggesting that the country cannot survive without Diaspora money. But given the past 60 years of American Jewish support for Israel Bonds and emergency aid during wartime, this was probably not the best audience for such high-handedness.

Olmert's popularity already is insanely low. Last month, the newspaper Yediot Ahronot reported his approval rating among Israelis has fallen to 8 percent, next to which President Bush looks like the coolest kid in school. Olmert has been heavily criticized for myriad mistakes in last summer's war, and even now, 12 months after the ceasefire, he appears oblivious to the situation on the ground.

I've spent the past three days in Northern Israel, near Haifa, Nahariya, the Galilee - and most everyone I've met has talked at some length about the lingering and traumatic affects of having been bombarded by Katyusha rockets for 34 days last summer.

Take, for instance, Shiri Havkin, who lives in the town of Rosh Pina. Havkin runs a small business, Drora's Herb Farm, out of her home; it was started by her mother, the Israeli singer Drora Havkin, and the younger Havkin took over when her mother died in 1995. She nearly lost it all last summer when tourism stopped -- her savings shriveled and she bounced so many checks the bank froze her activity.

She only stayed afloat thanks to a low-interest loan from a small-business development center that was supported by UJC. Another war, though, might be enough for Havkin to give up on the Galilee.

"If there will be another war, I will have to sell my house," she said. "I'm sorry to say but I cannot stand another war."

Olmert dismissed such sentiments as isolated and insignificant.

There is no trauma, he said: Nothing is collapsing; the north is booming; income is higher than ever; employment is higher than ever.

And, in fact, his claims are partially true. Israel's economy is once again going gangbusters. People have returned to the north, and the most visible remnants of war are a few blackened trees on the hillsides close to the border. Nahariya's streets and boardwalk are filled day and night with young revelers.

But that doesn't account for the emotional wreckage inside many Israelis.

Numerous psychologists and social workers told our group that post-traumatic stress disorder is a public-health crisis in northern Israel. One to-be-published study by Rami Benbenishty of Hebrew University found that 10 percent to 11 percent of children in Nahariya are in "critical, immediate need" of psychological treatment. They suffer not from war fatigue, but concussion paranoia. Debilitating fear is literally a sneeze away for some.

But what did the leader of Israel say when told many psychologists would not agree with his analysis of how war has affected his citizens? He said it was time to change the psychologist.
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