If the threat to Israel fades, will its friends still be as generous?
The Ties That Bind
If the threat to Israel fades, will its friends still be as generous?
When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told a gathering of Jewish leaders in Montreal last month that it was “time to rewrite the covenant between Israel and world Jewry,” most observers took it as a typical speech on Jewish kinship, the sort of thing favored by Israeli officials when they hit the fund-raising trail. But insiders in North American Jewish fund-raising circles understood something else, which Rabin’s top advisers later confirmed: the blunt-talking Israeli leader meant exactly what he said.
“He is very serious,” said Shimon Sheves, director general of Rabin’s office. “There is going to be a re-examination of Israeli-diaspora relations.” The reason: Israel’s Sept. 13 peace accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). With Israeli-Arab peace a real possibility after a century of warfare, Rabin voiced the conviction of many in the Jewish community that the old ways, from lobbying on behalf of Israel to raising funds for its survival, are becoming obsolete. As Rabin put it: “Now that the threat to our existence is being considerably reduced, a vacuum may be created in the place of that support.”
Rabin’s new covenant, as outlined in his Nov. 18 speech to the Council of Jewish Federations, would replace “struggle for survival” with a new Israeli-diaspora partnership in economic, cultural and religious affairs. That approach could spark new enthusiasm for Jewish causes.
The U.S. United Jewish Appeal, using hope instead of doom in its fund-raising campaign since September, collected more money than at any time in the past three years, according to executive vice-president Brian Lurie.
But many Jewish leaders express concern that an end to the Middle East conflict, however welcome, could deprive them of their most compelling sales point. Fundraisers say that they do not know if donors will dig as deeply for Jewish causes when Israel no longer appears to be fighting for its life. And Jewish lobbyists say they are not sure their supporters will rally as fiercely if Israel is no
longer surrounded by enemies. “We haven’t thought through what our message ought to be in an era of peace,” said Steve Ain, executive vicepresident of the United Israel Appeal, Canada’s central Jewish fundraising body. “If the peace process goes ahead, and we pretend that things are the same as they were, we’re going to be left behind.”
The defence of Israel currently plays a huge role in Jewish life. Jewish charities, grouped under the United Jewish Appeal in New York City and the United Israel Appeal of Canada in Toronto, raise more than $1 billion a year, largely on the strength of Israel’s beleaguered image. Half goes to Israel, while the rest stays in North America for Jewish services such as old-age homes and religious schools. Hundreds of mil-
lions more are raised by groups affiliated with Israeli universities, hospitals and museums.
In one sense, the Israeli-PLO agreement has made their job easier by improving Israel’s image. “It’s had an impact,” said Chaviva Hosek, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. ‘There’s a greater comfort with ideas of working towards peace.”
The vast majority of North America’s estimated six million Jews—5.7 million in the United States, 350,000
in Canada—appear bullish on the peace process. Surveys of U.S. Jews immediately after the September accord showed that 85 to 90 per cent approved in principle. (Smaller percentages approved of the pact’s specific measures, such as autonomy in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.) Most observers believe the mood in Canada is similar. “By and large, the community supports the peace initiative,” said Jack Silverstone, executive director of the Canadian Jewish Congress.
At the same time, however, Silverstone cautioned that “there is a considerable amount of concern among certain elements of the community that are worried about the security of Israel.” That concern borders at times on outright opposition to the accord—something of a novelty in Israeli-diaspora relations. Traditionally, said Silverstone, the Canadian Jewish community “supports the duly elected government of Israel.” He added: “We don’t purport to interpose ourselves in the democratic process of the state of Israel.” Lately, however, Israeli diplomats have become concerned about the extent of Jewish opposition to their policies. The negative mood is particularly unsettling, they say, because it appears strongest among those Jews who in the past were Israel’s most ardent backers, including active synagogue members, Orthodox Jews and Holocaust survivors.
Observers say that opposition to the accord has grown steadily in the months since it was signed—largely in response to the mounting Israeli death toll from terrorism. “Any kind of euphoria that somebody might have felt several weeks ago has by now just been ebbed away,” said Frank Dimant, executive vice-president of B’nai Brith Canada.
In fact, some major Jewish organizations are now working at cross purposes to Israeli policy, even as they proclaim their support for it. In Toronto last week, B’nai Brith Canada announced a campaign of support for Jewish settlers in the West Bank, whose militant opposition to the peace accord Israel’s attorney-general, Michael Ben-Yair, recently termed “seditious.” Said Dimant: ‘We support the government as our general policy. But we’re very much concerned about the settlers.” And in New York City, the powerful Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has offered to host speeches by no fewer than five senior members of the right-wing opposition Likud party in the past month. One, former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, used the occasion to call for Rabin’s resignation. Although some Israeli diplomats were left fuming about that incident, they acknowledge that opposition to the accord among some North American Jews strengthens their hand in negotiations with the PLO.
The stakes are highest in the United States, where Middle East diplomacy is centred and where the Jewish lobby is strongest. “Jews in the United States are much more influential in American politics than Jews in Canada are in Canadian politics,” said political scientist Harold Waller of McGill University in Montreal. One result: Canadian Jewish organizations have begun a dialogue with Canadian Arab groups to end their mutual hostility and seek ways of encouraging Middle East economic development. In the United States, by contrast, Israeli diplomats have discouraged such contacts, urging American Jews “not to get ahead of Israel on this,” in the words of one U.S. Jewish leader.
With the promise of peace in the Middle East, Canadian and American Jews alike face a daunting challenge. “The North American Jewish community is going to have to rethink itself,” said Montreal philanthropist Charles Bronfman, co-chairman of the Seagram Company Ltd. ‘There’s going to be a new relationship with Israel. It won’t be based on philanthropy. It’s going to have to be based on confidence.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.