Jewish National Fund - We Only Have ONE ISRAEL

Letter From A Solidarity Mission

by Raphael Rothstein

As a veteran over the years of several hastily organized missions comprised of North American Jews who journey to Israel in times of trouble, I've learned that despite the brevity of the stay Israelis genuinely appreciate the affirmation of connection and expressions of sympathy and concern.

Social psychologists say that beleaguered people need to know that they are not alone, that in some fashion, no matter how distantly, others share knowledge of their plight. This consciousness helps them endure. For the participants who come for two and a half days it is a question of being what in Hebrew is called shutaf lainyan - a partner in the experience.

As fleeting and evanescent the emotions and responses are during the packed days and many meetings - formed and informal - a shared sense of am Yisrael emerges.

It's always hard to predict what parts of a mission's itinerary will be the most affecting, but encounters with young people are invariably moving.

Such was the case at JNF forest in Drom Hasharon near the green line, which was recently torched by arsonists identified as coming from a nearby Arab village. A teenage girl spoke of the pain of seeing the woodland destroyed and then the delegates at her invitation, gingerly walked over the charred acres and placed small green flags amid the stumps as symbols of the determination to replant and rebuild.

For many of the 200 or so participants on our Presidents Conference-JNF-Israel Bonds mission it was what is nowadays often referred to as a "defining moment," making vivid and real the anxiety of vulnerability to terrorism and bewilderment over where things are heading. Another such vignette crystallizing emotion and empathy was meeting with relatives of the soldiers lynched in Ramallah.

In a rare spasm of inter-organizational coordination, those responsible managed to unite the Canadians, Americans and European solidarity missions and the Jewish Agency Board of governors at key gatherings with President Katzav, the Prime Minister and the Mayor of Jerusalem. The first evening a large and receptive audience in the impressive city council chamber heard Ehud Olmert declare that the current wave of violence is nothing less than the battle for Jerusalem. And the next night, Ehud Barak beamed as he made his entrance to the Jerusalem Theatre, cheerfully shaking hands and reciting "shalom, shalom" to the obviously delighted participants who together with Israeli guests filled the hall as Israeli TV cameras broadcast the spirited event live at the top of the 8pm news.

For these few days contentious issues, such as Conservative and Reform enfranchisement, were muted and the meetings were decorous. The minor exceptions were one delegate's irritated retort to U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk's welcome. "How is it," the questioner demanded, "you welcome us when your State Department tells us to stay away?" And, at the President's residence, the head of the French-Jewish Community was roundly booed when he mentioned Jacques Chirac's "efforts for Mideast peace."

Reports of large-scale tourist cancellations and over-all economic dislocation hardly prepare the visitor for the reality of empty hotels and restaurants and the generally gloomy atmosphere.

Lunchtime at the Minaret, a popular downtown Jerusalem restaurant featuring tangy Mideastern salads and skewers of grilled lamb and chicken. There were barely half a dozen customers in the newly opened, spacious dining room. We schmoozed a bit with one of the owners, the scion of a long-standing Jerusalem-Arab family. Lamenting the current strife, he firmly rejected any notion of future separation, saying that the Jews and Palestinians were like "two fish in the sea - remove one and the other dies." Maybe something lost in translation, but we got his drift.

Back at the hotel, more briefings with the serendipitous element of surprise guests, some of them quite well known like former U.N. Ambassador Dore Gold and Raanan Gissin, the ubiquitous Israel Army spokesman whose energetic clarifications are a mainstay of CNN coverage.

The demands of the volatile situation make it difficult for government officials and others to adhere to fixed schedules and so there were many last-minute cancellations. Malcolm Hoenlein of the Presidents Conference was instantly on his cell phone resembling nothing so much as a desperate mountain-resort impresario whose stellar holiday weekend program is falling apart at each moment.

That he succeeded in finding qualified, expert replacements was a tribute to his personal connections and the considerable media attention the mission received soon after arrival.

The much-maligned Jewish Agency, buffeted in recent years by charges of redundancy and so-called post-Zionist revisionism, still has the knack of staging public rallies complete with bands and school children, flags and signs with such quaint and dated slogans as "Zionism will win!" (as if it hasn't).

We gathered with hundreds of Israelis on Mount Zion for a march to the Western Wall where once again Ehud Olmert would address us. While waiting, an unaccounted for brown paper bag was spotted on the ground and the security forces in a well-practiced drill cleared the area, probed the bag and then shot it, presumably to disarm any charge that might be inside.

The incident passed without mishap and one wag sighed and said, "another lunch bag bites the dust."

A few hours later, the good-natured group again experienced the overall tension when a visit to Gilo, at the southern end of the city, was cancelled because of continuing sniper fire from the neighboring village of Bet Jalla.

Some speakers wear well and such was the case within Natan Sharansky who made a second appearance at our farewell dinner. Despite his years in politics, the popular Sharansky remains an original and thoughtful speaker. He reiterated the importance of Israel knowing that she is not alone and asked that we bring back a message of the nation's firm resolve.

"Well," said one exhausted participant as she looked around the jammed ballroom, "we can at least thank Arafat for bringing Jews together."


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