Alan Rothenberg affirms JCF support for Israel Federation president apologizes for upsetting survivo

Taken to task by a group of Holocaust survivors, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's president expressed his regrets this week for upsetting anyone with his recent statements on Israel.

"I'm sorry people are misreading what we were trying to do," Alan Rothenberg said Monday. "I'm sorry we've angered some people."

In December, Rothenberg wrote a letter to top donors emphasizing that the federation "does not fund the Israeli government." By pointing out that federation money supports the people of Israel, not a particular government, he hoped to quell concerns of numerous donors unhappy with the Netanyahu administration.

But not everyone liked his approach.

In last week's Jewish Bulletin, 120 survivors, their relatives and their friends took out a full-page ad criticizing Rothenberg and the federation.

The ad read in part: "We strongly suspect that those so cavalier in their support of Israel — so embarrassed that they must claim as a response `we don't fund the Israeli government' — do not recall or choose not to recall the Spring of 1948 which saw a nation rise as a phoenix from our parents' ashes imbuing all Jews across the board with hope in the future."

This week, Rothenberg reasserted that he didn't mean to give an impression that the federation doesn't support Israel.

"We view as one of our most important tasks helping the people of Israel — and helping the people of the United States appreciate, love and respect Israel as our homeland," he said. "I think there is a miscommunication here that is really unfortunate."

Wayne Feinstein, the federation's executive vice president, echoed Rothenberg's words.

"There was a fair amount of confusion," Feinstein said. "We have never distanced ourselves from Israel. To the contrary."

Taking formal action, Rothenberg sent a letter this week to everyone who signed the ad, reiterating the federation's "continuing rock-solid support for Israel" and stressing that his "statement that our funds do not support the government of Israel was not intended to distance us."

But several of the individuals who signed the ad don't believe they misinterpreted the federation's original intention.

"To openly say, `We don't support the government of Israel' — it's really a slap in the face," said Annie Glass, a San Franciscan and a Holocaust survivor.

"How can they say, `We don't support the government but we support the people'? The government is the people, and the people is the government. The message is that Israel is bad…What do other people, the gentile people, say? It's not right."

Rothenberg disagreed with such sentiment, however.

"They are making a very narrow distinction — that by saying we don't fund the government that we are being disloyal to Israel," he said.

Gabriel Piotrkowski, another survivor who signed the ad, saw the federation as playing into the hands of Israel's enemies when it specifically pointed out that it doesn't fund the government.

"We cannot do a thing like that to the Jewish state…You have be careful what you say in the paper, like a diplomat," said Piotrkowski, who lives in San Francisco. "Sometimes you open your mouth too much."

Piotrkowski noted that survivors can be particularly sensitive to criticism of Israel because they knew what happened to the Jews before a Jewish nation existed.

"Nobody cared about us because we had no land, no power," he said.

Rothenberg's original letter was sent Dec. 9 to the approximately 2,000 donors who give $1,000 or more to the federation's annual campaign.

That letter read in part: "Every day we seem to be inundated with news stories about Israel that make us shake our heads and wonder if this is the same land of milk and honey that we looked to with such pride as our spiritual and moral compass."

Rothenberg said he wrote those comments in reaction to many donors' concerns about the battle over religious pluralism in Israel and, to a lesser extent, the stalled peace process.

Federation leaders have feared that such angst might translate into lower contributions to the annual campaign. Last year, the federation raised a record $19.8 million.

About 35 percent of that was sent overseas — mostly to Israel. Legally, those philanthropic funds cannot go directly to the Israeli government. Instead, the money goes to nongovernmental entities, such as the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Although the original letter was meant to ease the minds of donors, it ended up bothering a fair number of them.

Most of those who signed the ad are themselves federation contributors. Their opinions were mixed about whether the incident would affect their annual donations.

Harry Recht, a Holocaust survivor and a San Franciscan who signed the ad, said he is considering splitting his and his wife's federation donation in half, and sending the rest directly to Israeli organizations.

Glass now has mixed feelings about donating to the federation this year. But in the end, Glass said that she and her husband probably will write a check anyway.

"I don't want to hit back at the federation. I want them to think," she said.

Most of those who signed the ad are also members of Adath Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in San Francisco.

Rabbi Jacob Traub, Adath Israel's spiritual leader, wrote the advertisement's text at the request of his congregants.

He, too, was offended by Rothenberg's letter.

"The underlying tone of it was that `We don't want to fund the state of Israel' and that no one should be accused of being involved with the government of Israel," said the rabbi.

Traub already knew that the federation doesn't directly fund the Israeli government. What bothered him was that he saw an "anti-Israel attitude" between the lines.

"The tone behind the statement is that `We're angry at the government of Israel because they're not doing what we want them to do,'" Traub said.

Rabbi Malcolm Sparer, who for many years was president of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California and who currently serves as spiritual leader at San Francisco's Jewish Home for the Aged, also signed the ad. He saw an underlying "ill-feeling" toward Israel in Rothenberg's letter.

"It's not the words that are said. It's the spirit in which the words are said," noted the Orthodox rabbi whose late wife escaped Nazi Germany and served with the partisans.

Those who signed the ad saw Rothenberg's statements as violating a fundamental principle of any Jewish leader who purports to support Israel.

Some of it comes down to the long-debated question of whether American Jews should publicly criticize Israel.

Recht doesn't care what anyone thinks privately about the government. "But I don't think he has the right to say this in public," Recht said. "He has a right to criticize the government if he lives there and sends his kids to the front to fight."

Recht doesn't believe the federation should take stands to appease donors who don't like a particular government.

"I don't agree with what [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu does all the time either, but I still support the government," he said. "We didn't agree with the Rabin policy. Still, we supported the government, even though it was the Labor Party."

Not all Holocaust survivors agreed with those who signed the ad.

William Lowenberg, a former federation president and former vice chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's council, praised the federation and Rothenberg.

"Out of all federations, San Francisco has been one of the most loyal, most supporting and most caring regarding Israel," he said.

Lowenberg, who himself supports Netanyahu, said his fellow survivors who signed the ad didn't understand the point of Rothenberg's "appropriate, timely and necessary" letter.

The letter, Lowenberg said, was meant to let the donors know why they should continue to give, regardless of who is running the government.

"We have good politicians and bad politicians…but one thing we have no choice about is the survival of the Jewish people," he said. "If you penalize the poor and the sick and those who need education, it's horrible."