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Jewish Journal

Crises in Israel energize support from diaspora communities

by Brad A. Greenberg

July 5, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Gilad Shalit's somber voice sounded like a ghost's on the audiotape released late last month. It was the first anyone had heard from the Israeli soldier since Hamas militants kidnapped him a year before. Shalit's abduction in Gaza, however, was a prelude to the summer's tragedy that ensued three weeks later, not in the south but the north, when Hezbollah kidnapped two army reservists, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, on July 12, 2006, sparking the Second Lebanon War.

Fighting lasted until Sept. 8, with both sides declaring themselves the victor. Across the Atlantic, American Jews were generally shocked to have witnessed the usually brilliant Israeli military rebuffed by Iran's proxy in southern Lebanon. Frustrations among Jews grew even heavier last spring, when the Winograd Commission reported on major military and political failures that had occurred in the run-up to the conflict and during it.

This week, as we mark the first anniversary of the war, Israel's security appears no more certain than it was. With Hamas' recent expulsion of Fatah from the Gaza Strip and with the three Israeli soldiers still captive, expectations are cresting about the likelihood of another war.

"We cannot point to a date in the summer or the months afterward or in the years to come when there will be a war," Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch said. "But in the Middle East, when it comes to Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in the north and the involvement of Syria and Iran, we are watching very closely.

"The situation is changing entirely," he said. "We don't have a common border with Iran, but having Hamas in the Gaza Strip, it is like having the Iranians 10 minutes away."

And, of course, Iran represents that existential threat to Israel, the philosophical legacy of Hitler, as Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu ominously warned at the General Assembly in Los Angeles last fall. But if this summer's flare-ups burn into a full conflagration, would the American Jewish community respond as resoundingly as it did last summer? Would there be countless missions to Israel and hundreds of millions of dollars in aid? Or would American Jewry be overwhelmed by war weariness?

"There is a dispiriting sense of fatigue and apprehension, as if we were confronted by a 'No Exit' sign," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom. "Day by day, events are becoming more complex and frustrating, and neither the left nor the right has any answers. We are looking for someone to lead us out of our malaise.

"What do you do in a world gone wild?" Schulweis said. "What are our sources of faith in an insane world? In such a world, optimism is a struggle, but in Judaism, we have to believe in the potential of humanity, in the capacity of people to change in this life, not an otherworldly life."

Jews invariably differ on their feelings toward Israel, whether discussing its place in their hearts or the policies of the current government or the rightful borders of the nation. But nothing unifies quite like military conflict. War awakens Diaspora communities and arouses Israeli affinities.

"Crises historically have proven to be excellent catalysts in getting Jews to open their wallets and provide the community with a sense of purpose," said David N. Myers, a UCLA professor of Jewish history. "It is in such moments that The Federation leaps into action and assumes a position of leadership."

And last summer it did. Jewish federations across North America raised $350 million in the months after the war began -- including $20.5 million from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles' Israel in Crisis campaign -- money that went toward emergency aid kits, financial assistance for injured soldiers and temporary housing for those left homeless by rocket attacks.

Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya received $2.5 million and a pledge for $2.5 million more from United Jewish Communities (UJC), an umbrella of North American federations, including $100,000 from Los Angeles. The money was earmarked not for immediate services but for building a new emergency room.

"Our ER was not built for any kind of war or chemical events," said Dr. Moshe Daniel, the hospital's acting director general. "Our new ER will be built to protect against Katyusha rockets and any chemical or biological event.

"The government didn't have the money, but the last war gave us the push to start the plans from the beginning," he said. "Right now, all the plans are ready, and hopefully in three or four months, they will start to build the ER."

While much of the money was sent to Israel via UJC, some was hand-delivered by American delegations. Both Sinai Temple and Stephen S. Wise Temple sent leaders to distribute $1 million. Roz Rothstein, national director of StandWithUs, led a mission from Los Angeles that traveled to northern Israel to help evacuate children and visit wounded soldiers.

Here in Los Angeles, the Jewish community garnered public support for Israel unlike that seen in any other city. On a sweltering Sunday 11 days after the war began, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger rallied with thousands of Jews and other supporters outside The Federation's headquarters, under blue-and-white flags and the sounds of "Am Yisrael Chai."

"Israel needs the support not only of the Jewish community but of the population at-large," said Susan Gotlib, The Federation's executive vice president for financial resource development. "We as the conveners had an important role to bring the community together as a rallying point over the summer, and it was very significant, and it demonstrated to the community that Israel has widespread support inside the Jewish community and outside the Jewish community."

The Federation has not restarted crisis fundraising, but these days it is keeping an eye on southern Israel. "We are waiting and looking at the situation very closely," Gotlib said. "But of course, there are issues in Sderot that we are responding to."

Sderot is the city arousing the collective Jewish consciousness. It is the Gaza border town that's been targeted by more than 1,500 Qassam rockets since the pullout two years ago, and where in May, two Israelis were killed by rocket fire less than a week apart."I was in Sderot recently, and I was saying morning prayers, and the siren went off," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "By the time I turned around to verify what was going on, it had already hit a quarter-mile away. There was no time.

"I'm afraid that too many people in Israel and too many people here have a disconnected attitude about what is going on in Sderot," he continued. "And that is a disaster -- not only because that is not what Judaism is all about and not what Israel is all about -- but because it sends the message to her enemies that if Israel is not responding, it is because she is weak."

Danoch said Israel was being patient and expedient, not meek, in responding to Hamas' attacks on Sderot. "Israel will not allow Hamas to continue with this for a very long time," he said.

Meanwhile, Jewish organizations are creating funds for the city under siege. The Chabad Sderot Relief Fund, for one, seeks to provide aid and convince American Jews that Sderot's suffering is not part of an insignificant conflict but vital to the State of Israel.

"There is no question that when people sense crisis, they are willing to reach deeper into their pockets," said Rabbi David Eliezrie of Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen/North County Chabad Center in Yorba Linda. "That is human nature. When you see, for instance, this issue with Sderot, when you hear the stories and you see these people suffering, it becomes so much more to you.

"They are not on the front lines for themselves, they are on the front line for all Jews," he said.

When attacks escalated in May, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) reopened its Israel Emergency Assistance Fund to help the city build a psychological services center. So far, AJC members have donated $75,000 online.

"It doesn't resonate so dramatically in the way the war with Hezbollah did last year," spokesman Kenneth Bandler said. "Even during that war last summer, Sderot was getting pounded by Gaza and didn't get the attention it deserved.

"But this is a serious situation; they need the assistance," he stressed. "And now with Hamas taking over Gaza, it is an open question about what happens."

Also lingering are questions about the safety and future freedom of Israel's three kidnapped soldiers. Across the Jewish ideological spectrum, from the Progressive Jewish Alliance to the Republican Jewish Coalition, there is consensus that Shalit, Goldwasser and Regev cannot be forgotten.

"The continuing captivity of Wasserman and Regev, and earlier of Gilad Shalit near Gaza, is a rallying point for our students, as is the anger at much of the world's condemnation of Israel, rather than of Hezbollah," said Samuel M. Edelman, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism). "I see both positive and negative aspects of the war. Israel was successful in undercutting Hezbollah but wasn't able to get the captive soldiers back. We are now at a critical juncture."



Brad A. Greenberg is a staff writer for The Journal; Tom Tugend is a contributing editor.

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