Rabins death underscores Israel-diaspora differences

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BOSTON — The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin cast a shadow over last week's General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations here.

The killing of Rabin, who had been scheduled to appear, underscored the evolving relationship between diaspora and Israeli Jews.

It was unclear whether Rabin's killing would inspire the conference's nearly 4,000 delegates to reassess Israel's flagging importance in the Jewish communal world or catalyze soul-searching about the nature of the diaspora's ties to Israel.

Menachem Revivi, director of the United Israel Office in Jerusalem, said the assassination emphasizes Jews "are at a turning point."

"As we in Israel are going through soul-searching about conflicts among ourselves and our neighbors, this should [trigger] soul-searching in regard to the relationship between Israel and the diaspora," he said.

The call comes as North American Jewry is painstakingly redefining its agenda, and Israel is the most vulnerable part of it.

"The killing has reaffirmed our emotional attachment" to Israel, but at the same time "it showed that the case hasn't been made" in recent years for Israel's needs as a budget priority, said Maynard Wishner, president of the CJF, the umbrella association for more than 180 local federations.

These federations, with the UJA, raise more than $700 million annually for local and overseas needs.

Federations across the country are focusing on energizing their local campaigns, which have been flat in recent years. They are also concerned about preserving local social service programs threatened by unprecedented federal budget cuts.

What is happening in Washington D.C., with a Republican-controlled Congress "is challenging the very nature of the governmental system which has been the safety net for people in need for well over 50 years," said Nancy Kaufman, director of Boston's Jewish Community Relations Council.

Also at stake are educational programs aimed at nurturing Jewish continuity, the community's newest priority.

As a result, the debate over how much money should be sent to Israel is central for the architects of a plan to merge the central fundraising structures.

The new entity is expected to consolidate the CJF, the UJA and the United Israel Appeal, which funnels campaign money to the Jewish Agency for Israel. The Jewish Agency itself is struggling with its own fiscal crisis caused, in part, by declining diaspora allocations and years of alleged corruption at the top.

The overseas portion of the annual UJA-federation campaign has declined in recent years from a high of about 60 percent to an average of 40 percent.

The sticking point for negotiators, who worked behind closed doors at the G.A., is how to ensure there will be a strong voice for advocates of strong funding to Israel.

For Jewish Agency chairman Avraham Burg, getting federations to commit to a "floor" of funding to Israel is critical to his sign-off on the merger. Burg is using the allocations to question the very stake diaspora Jews have in Israel.

"Jewish needs are not just defined by your home community," said Rabbi Brian Lurie, executive vice president of the United Jewish Appeal and a Marin resident who attended Rabin's funeral. "It's a mistaken concept which goes against the nature of the Jewish people."

Yet, the CJF's Wishner said, "There has been in the atmosphere a sense of the lessening need and relevancy of organized Jewry's historic responsibilities to Israel over the past couple of years."

Though Israel's importance in the diaspora has not changed, Lurie said, "there is a perception Israel doesn't need our dollars as much. The case for the need has not been made well enough and I blame us."

Signs of solidarity with Israel did appear. Brandeis University students led a rally in downtown's Copley Square to show support for the Arab-Israeli peace process — and it drew scores of G.A. delegates.

"I can't not be out here," said Michele Rosen, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. "Clearly we have to help the process forward and stand with the government of Israel."

The CJF board of delegates also approved an amendment strengthening a resolution for the peace process. The amendment states "in clear terms our unequivocal support for the government of Israel and the current peace process."

One of four parallel G.A. tracks of seminars was devoted to the Israel-diaspora relationship and drew about 800 of the roughly 4,000 delegates. But Israel was conspicuously absent at the seminar on Jewish identity and continuity, which drew close to 1,000 people and focused on spirituality and culture.

"American Jewry has been coming to grips with its own identity and asserting its independence from Israel," said David Harman, director of the Jewish Agency's Joint Authority for Jewish-Zionist Education.

Many Israeli participants were surprised that Israel did not assume a higher profile on the overall agenda. They said the assassination has torn their country's fabric apart and raises critical questions about Jewish peoplehood that they hoped to see addressed.

"The G.A. did a wonderful job in reflecting American Jews' dismay and sadness at the assassination of Rabin," said Avraham Infeld, director of the Jerusalem-based Melitz Centers for Jewish/Zionist Education.

"But I think it completely missed the point that what really happened in Israel was a result of a major battle in Jewish self-understanding and not an internal Israeli political issue."

The call by Rabin and other Israeli leaders for a closer partnership between Israel and the diaspora amid fears of a "major rift" intensified in the weeks before the assassination, according to Shoshana Cardin, chair of the UIA.

Sources said Rabin had been planning to address the gap and the need for unity in his remarks to the G.A. Instead, his close aide and speech writer, Eitan Haber, made that point.

"The house is burning," he said. "If the result of this tragedy is not a better understanding of one another, then we all betray the goals of the Jewish people and [Rabin's] legacy."

Prime Minister Shimon Peres also spoke via satellite to the delegates in Rabin's stead.

Although this G.A. did not demonstrate "the overwhelming expression of unity with Israel" that Cardin said she had seen at other meetings, interest has grown in the "Jewish Agency-federation partnership."

Indeed, an overflow crowd of hundreds attended a forum on the partnership, with the Jewish Agency's Burg, Cardin and others.

But one fund-raiser from Boston's North Shore said at the forum that he is stymied in his work by the "enormous indifference" of donors to Israel, who consistently hear about Israel's economic successes.

"I bust my chops as much as I can and I can't sell Israel," he said. Burg warned: "We are two sides of a coin. One side is mine, one side is yours. Without the two sides, there is no currency." "Is this the time to sell your share?"