The lack of reaction among American Jews to the Passover seder massacre in Netanya has been called the `absenteeism of the Jewish leadership’.

New York – Three days after the deadly Seder night attack at a Netanya hotel, a senior Israeli representative in the United States received an urgent telegram. His counterpart in Jerusalem asked him to report on what the Jewish community was doing. He sent a two-word response: “Not much.” In a conversation at the end of last week, the Israeli officials said: “Today I would respond `almost nothing.'” As evidence, he picked up a document from his table – a faxed invitation to an “emergency meeting” called by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “They set a date for a meeting one week later and call it an `emergency meeting,'” he complained.

The silence of the Jewish community was conspicuous against the background of reports of suicide bombings in Israel, accompanied with horrible pictures that were broadcast almost nonstop in the American media. The few demonstrators participating in demonstrations organized by marginal organizations or activists that were aimed at expressing solidarity with the people of Israel only underlined the lack of massive identification and exposed what the senior Israeli official called the “absenteeism of the Jewish leadership.” Sunday ostensibly marked a turning point: about 10,000 people demonstrated in support of Israel at the United Nations building in New York, a demonstration whose numbers were not impressive for this city or, especially, for New York Jews.

But it was this very demonstration that exposed how disconnected the Jewish community is from its leadership and the ineffectualness of the Jewish leaders. The demonstration was organized by an ad hoc group of right-wing activists – Betar, Rabbi Avi Weiss from the Bronx, Americans for a Secure Israel. Shai Rubinstein, Betar’s central emissary in North America, who was among the organizers, said on Sunday that the demonstration was also an indirect protest against the impotence of the Jewish leadership. The Jewish public waited in vain, so we set out to organize the demonstration, he said.

Bridge holiday

Due to the time difference, when the Jews of New York sat down at their seder tables, they already had heard about the massacre in Netanya. But their behavior, which bordered on indifference, could be summed up in the following words: “The Jews of American are on their holiday vacation; please don’t interrupt.” During his sermon on the concluding festival day before the Yizkor prayer, an Orthodox rabbi in Brooklyn cried out that “the Jews of New York will be called to judgment for their silence during this hour of distress for Israel.”

Israel’s consul general in New York, Alon Pinkas suggests a toned down version: “The situation in Israel weighed down on the holiday vacation of American Jews and their leaders, but not enough to cause them to interrupt it.”

Indeed, while the Jews stretched the holiday vacation to bridge another weekend, thousands of Palestinians and immigrants from Middle East countries took to the streets of New York last Friday and held a series of mass demonstrations. Thousands gathered opposite the Israeli consulate building and at Times Square, carrying placards denouncing Israel, which “is conducting genocide against the Palestinian people,” and shouting derogatory chants about Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The silence of the community in Israel also applies to the outbreak of violence against Jews in Europe and the burning of synagogues in France and Belgium. Besides a statement of condemnation issued by the Anti-Defamation League, there was no organized Jewish activity to protest the attacks against Jews in Europe. A Jewish activist who asked the head of a central organization why he didn’t convene a press conference and protest the torching of synagogues in France, received the response: “And what will I say to a reporter who asks for my reaction to the IDF’s actions in Ramallah and Bethlehem?”

Alon Pinkas prefers to maintain his working relations with the leaders of Jewish organizations. Unlike his predecessor, Colette Avital, who served in New York during the first Oslo agreement and debated with and even scolded Jewish leaders who were hesitant tover the passive behavior of the Jewish leadership in the confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians. But lately, in internal discussions, he has spoken harshly against the representatives of the organized Jewish establishment, arguing, “All they know to do is convene meetings and listen to briefings on the situation in Israel.” Pinkas is especially angry that “even in the information campaign directed at the American media, Jewish involvement is not being felt.”

The information effort required from representatives of official Israel in New York is enormous, especially after the attack in Netanya and the beginning of Operation Defensive Wall. During the Gulf War, CNN was the only network to broadcast news 24 hours a day. Today, there are five networks broadcasting non-stop news and commentary. These networks operate independently of their parent networks, producing their own news programs, with special correspondents in Israel.

On a single day, March 29, Pinkas appeared in 14 interviews broadcast on national and international networks. “As long as I am confronting Palestinian representatives, I have no problem,” he explained. “When I’m invited to appear opposite an American Arab like James Zogby, the head of the Arab American Institute in Washington, I ask myself why there is no American Jewish leader to appear opposite him.” On the other hand, when the television broadcasts show lines of tanks in the streets of Ramallah and IDF soldiers with their guns cocked in the streets of Bethlehem, the leaders of Jewish organizations call to complain about the deficient Israeli information campaign.

With notice of only half a day, the Satmar Hasidim in Brooklyn can mobilize 5,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews to demonstrate against Israel opposite the consulate building in Manhattan. It took great efforts by three Jewish umbrella organizations to convene about 500 Jewish leaders for a special meeting during the week before Passover. The address by the head of the Conference of Presidents, Mortimer Zuckerman, was broadcast remotely from Las Vegas, where he was vacationing.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who addressed the participants at the meeting via a videotaped speech, outlined a vision of a million immigrants coming to Israel. When Sharon said that he wants Jews from France, Argentina and South Africa to immigrate to Israel now, the leaders of the Jewish organizations responded with applause. When he mentioned that he would also like to see U.S. Jews make “aliyah,” the sound of chuckles could be heard in the audience. “The prime minister spoke about a million immigrants at a time when the Jews of America avoid setting foot in Israel, even as tourists,” said an Israeli observer.

When the meeting ended, a conversation developed between Pinkas and one of the heads of a large Jewish organization. “Why doesn’t your solidarity take expression in three jumbo jets taking off for Israel full of Jews?” Pinkas asked. One of the Jews responded, “It’s a logistical nightmare.” Pinkas did not let this go unanswered. “The establishment of the State of Israel was also a logistical nightmare, and it’s good that you weren’t among those advising Ben-Gurion what to do.”

Sharon’s lack of tact

Since September 2000, the community has acted passively, with the organized leadership preferring to lay low. It’s not an exaggeration to state, as several Jewish spokesmen here have already said, that the period since the eruption of the Al-Aqsa Intifada will be remembered as one of the ugliest hours of the local Jewish community; in a metropolis which is home to about a million Jews, it could have been expected to see 100,000 take to the streets and demonstrate their support for Israel.

The passive behavior of the Jews and their leaders in the face of Israel’s distress is generally attributed to the lack of an authoritative leadership. But recently, another argument has been added: “The contradictions in the policies of Prime Minister Sharon makes it difficult to formulate an accepted public response by the organizations,” contends Seymour Reich in a conversation with him. According to Reich, a former head of the Conference of Presidents, “The Jews in America are in a tough position. They support Israel’s war against terror but are taken aback by Sharon’s lack of tact in his public declarations, such as his statements about spilling Palestinian blood.” Nonetheless, Reich believes that the main factor blocking the full mobilization of the community in expressing support and solidarity with Israel is “the feeling common among Jews that Sharon is not aiming for a political-diplomatic solution.”

The director of the ARZA organization of the Reform movement, Rabbi Ami Hirsh, speaks about “mixed feelings in the community.” He argues that the moral perspective in the current struggle is not clear enough. Jews oppose terror and support a war against terror, but at the same time, there is an increasing awareness among them of the injustice of occupation and the acts of humiliation against the Palestinians.

Abraham Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, admits: “In regard to the question of what to do and how exactly to respond, the Jewish leadership has become paralyzed.” But, he adds, “This doesn’t mean that the American Jew doesn’t care.” Foxman notes that after September 11, there has also been a concern about large gatherings, and this is another reason for not holding a mass demonstration in support of Israel. “The police and other groups advise not to bring together a large number of people in one place,” he says. But it seems that on Sunday, this argument was not longer valid, especially after the sight of thousands of Palestinians streaming toward Times Square.

While the main umbrella groups showed the full extent of their confusion, quiet activities were afoot among groups outside the recognized establishment. A new movement is expressing solidarity with reserve soldiers refusing to serve in the territories. A full-page advertisement was published in the New York Times last week, the first of its kind, which listed the names of rabbis and Jewish activists who support these “refuseniks.” The advertisement was the initiative of Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine.

At the last moment, a group of Jewish activists decided not to send a personal letter to Sharon. The letter was signed by 11 men and women who charged that “the refusal of 313 officers and combat soldiers is an act of conscience and moral courage that should be respected.” The letter ended by declaring: “Prime minister, we stand behind these officers and soldiers who are demanding moral integrity.”

The heads of Jewish organizations do not attribute much importance to such expressions of support for these “refusenik” soldiers. In their view, the refusal issue provided the extreme liberal branch of the community with an easy excuse for criticizing Sharon. But some Jewish officials believe that these quiet protest efforts are liable to proliferate.

The assessment is that the rightward swing identified among wide parts of the community in recent months, including among those known as moderates, has been halted. According to this assessment, the continuation of the conflict with the Palestinians will strengthen the liberal segment of the community.

This article ran in Ha’aretz on April 9th, 2002