Monday, June 11, 2001

Is Israel Being Abandoned?

I am writing these lines in a three-quarters or more empty Jerusalem hotel, near the end of a working trip that previously took me to a spa in the north of the country. That place was packed, overwhelmingly with Israelis, while the prestigious and far less expensive Jerusalem lodgings are primarily used by foreigners and they aren’t coming. The economic consequences of the present Intifada are devastating.

What is already very bad may become a lot worse before long. The crucial summer tourist season is at hand and the cancellations are piling up. They come from Jew and non-Jew, individuals and groups. A columnist in Ha’aretz notes that Hebrew University’s Board of Governors has decided not to meet in Israel and that thousands of expected participants in July’s Maccabiah Games will stay away. Although it is understandably putting an upbeat spin on the numbers, Birthright Israel has lost about half of the collegians who signed up. In perhaps the harshest blow of all, Reform Jewry has just cancelled all of its summer youth activities in Israel.

Many Israelis want the Arabs to keep their distance – to stay away – and instead that’s what American Jews are doing in droves.

The Reform decision has evoked ferocious criticism from governmental officials and the media, as well as by leaders of the movement’s small Israeli operation. A Jerusalem Post editorial excoriated the Reform and particularly Rabbi Eric Yoffie for this decision and other actions, including sharp criticism of what Israel has done to combat Arab terrorism.

For all of the resulting economic harm, the question of trips to Israel under present conditions cannot be easily determined by fervent litanies of how important it is to support Israel at a time of crisis. The fact that there is a crisis raises practical and moral issues that need to be addressed by the persons who were planning to come to Israel or their parents. While coming to Israel during the Intifada is certainly a virtue, the decision not to come is not necessarily a vice.

I know parents who are not permitting their children to study next year in Israeli schools and I would not for a moment criticize them. They have a right, probably an obligation, to worry about their children’s safety and if they believe that being in Israel may put their children in harm’s way, we must respect their feelings. I happen to believe that Israel is safe territory, certainly if prudence and caution are exhibited throughout one’s visit here, but this belief does not give me the right to determine what others do.

As a practical matter, the Reform decision was dictated by the parents of the youngsters who were slated to go, they being the persons who through hundreds of individual cancellations made it nearly impossible for the movement to go ahead with the summer activities that had been planed. Likely, the more tenuous commitment of Reform Jews to Israel, as compared to Conservative and Orthodox families, had much to do with the outcome, but this factor does not alter the moral equation.

Where the Reform movement went astray was in its handling of the announcement. Intended or not, there was gusto to the public statement, as if Rabbi Yoffie and his colleagues were socking it to Israel. They were, in effect, telling everyone else to stay away and this has to have an adverse impact on many other prospective tourists, especially those who are not Jewish.

There seems to be a subtext, again perhaps unintended, that Reform leaders want to send a message of disapproval of Israeli policies, much like American organizations have sent a message when they cancelled conferences in states that fly the Confederate flag. Whatever the intent, it is evident that here, as in other recent decisions, Rabbi Yoffie has overreached. He has a tendency to preach all over the place, to seek publicity on issues that are peripheral to his movement. For good reason, his style is being compared unfavorably with that of the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, his much-respected predecessor, who wisely understood that at times leadership means not taking a position.

Hopefully, the Reform and other Jewish groups that have cancelled will compensate by vigorously organizing trips for adults. We need to recognize that it is safe to come to Israel and the right thing to do. As others have pointed out, how can we expect Israelis to sacrifice and suffer so much emotional and other pain if American Jews are unwilling to undertake a brief trip under controlled conditions that ensure the safety of those who come.

Because they can be justified in many instances, cancellations – except by leaders – do not constitute an abandonment of Israel. Yet it is also true that Israel has been largely abandoned by American Jewry during the past year. Our response to the virtual declaration of permanent war against Israel has been unfocused, even tepid. In previous crises, American Jewry was well-organized and committed and though we did not go to Israel, our support was real and effective.

Now, we are distant and not merely geographically. There is no sense of urgency, no special campaigns. Perhaps this is a reflection of divisions among American Jews regarding relations with Arabs and the response to the Intifada. Another explanation - and it is the one that I believe to be dominant – is that support for Israel is one more victim of the extraordinary Judaic losses and abandonment that American Jews have experienced. When commitment to Judaism is thrown overboard, so is the commitment to the Jewish State.