After 35 years of confining its Israel-designated funds to within the Green Line, the primary fund-raising arm for the American Jewish community has changed its policy. In an historic move, the board of trustees of the United Jewish Communities, meeting Monday in Chicago, unanimously “adopted a broad interpretation of the UJC charter to permit the organization to provide assistance to Jews around the world, irrespective of where they live,” according to an official statement.
“We are changing the process,” said UJC president and CEO Steve Hoffman in an interview Tuesday, though the group is not changing the wording of its charter, which dates back to 1960.
Acknowledging “the environment has changed” since the outbreak of the Palestinian violence in September 2000, with the need for human services growing in the Jewish communities of the West Bank and Gaza, Hoffman said his group felt the need to “re-examine our charter and our practice.”
He said he consulted with attorneys recently who concluded “it would be within our charter to provide relief and rehabilitative services to Jews anywhere.”
The board action came in response to increasing criticism from some quarters that UJC was providing social services and humanitarian relief for Jews all over the world – except for those 200,000 or so living in Jewish settlements beyond the 1967 borders in the Holy Land.
The disapproval has increased over the last 20 months as more than 100 Jews living in those areas have been killed by Palestinian terrorists and hundreds more wounded. Critics charged that some of the Jews most in need of relief services were not being provided for because of the politics of the situation.
UJC launched an Israel Emergency Campaign in October that has raised more than $265 million, the largest campaign for Israel since the Yom Kippur War in 1973. But the fact that the emergency campaign did not provide armored buses, bulletproof vests or medical or psychological services directly to communities in the disputed territories, though many have been under attack, raised troubling questions within the Jewish communal world.
There was also uncertainty because some individual Jewish federations provide funding beyond the Green Line and others do not. Adding to the confusion, UJC maintained that even though its services did not cross the Green Line, it was open to all, as long as people came into Israel proper to avail themselves of the help offered.
All that should change now, according to Hoffman.
“I don’t want people to have to think who is worthy [of receiving social services] and who isn’t, depending on where they live,” he said. “And I don’t want our campaign used for political purposes. What we want is for services to be determined by need.”
Until now many felt that UJC was hostage to liberal politics for several decades, and some major donors opposed to the settlements had threatened to withdraw or decrease their donations if funds were distributed, through the United Israel Appeal, beyond the Green Line. But a UJC official noted Tuesday that the mood of the American Jewish community has shifted rightward as a result of the terror attacks on Israel and the U.S.
“The Jewish community is less liberal now, particularly after September 11, and we don’t think there will be a significant backlash to our decision,” the official said, adding: “We are going to deliver services where they are needed. We simply feel it’s the right thing to do.”
UJA-Federation of New York, long resistant to funding or sending missions across the Green Line, played a key role in the UJC shift this week.
John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the local charity, said that in recent months “there was increasing recognition” that regardless of where terror incidents took place, “we wanted to reach out to those Jews and their families and provide support, wherever they live.”
Toby Klein Greenwald, a journalist living in Efrat, a settlement south of Jerusalem, wrote an opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post last week highly critical of the UJC’s longstanding policy. The article recounted her “disturbing” conversation with Hoffman in which she questioned him closely about not giving money directly to communities in need.
Hoffman countered with several arguments, including one about concern for the organization’s IRS tax status, though that was proven to be a red herring 14 years ago.
Contacted after hearing of the UJC statement this week, Greenwald welcomed it as “wonderful,” though she cautioned “the proof will be in the tachlis [practicality]” in whether there is “a positive response to requests for services in a timely and forthcoming way.”
Greenwald said “the whole country is traumatized” and there is a great need for psychological counseling. Just last Friday night a substitute teacher in her 12-year-old son’s school was murdered, she said, and when she spoke with the youngster about his feelings, he said, “it’s not the first time.”
The original funding policy came when UJC’s predecessor, the United Jewish Appeal, interpreted its mandate of providing dollars for Israel to mean within internationally recognized, pre-1967 Israel. That is how the matter remained until now. Over the years there were times the policy was questioned internally, but there were concerns about angering the State Department, which is opposed to settlements, and perhaps prompting a challenge to the organization’s tax status.
In hindsight, officials acknowledge that the ideal time to have made a change would have been when the UJA was reconstituted as UJC several years ago and the charter could have substituted the phrase “the Jewish people” instead of “Israel” as the beneficiary of funds.
“That would have solved the problem quietly,” a UJC official noted, “and avoided all this controversy.”
This ran as a front page article in the Jewish Week of NYC on June 14, 2002