Pointing to the lessons of history, apolitical Jews spring to aid of Israel

chicago | Jim Hiller was in a jovial mood on a recent Sunday morning.

“I’ve got a herd of picketers outside two of my stores,” said the 56-year-old Detroit grocery-store owner.

The picketers were protesting Hiller’s decision to feature Israeli products in his six-store chain. Rather than back down, Hiller seemed to take pleasure in digging in in what has become an increasingly public demonstration of his support for Israel.

Concerned about the economic price Israel had been paying since the start of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000, Hiller began stocking Israeli produce, cheeses and canned goods in his store.

“You cannot imagine a person who would be less likely than me to do this,” Hiller said while protesters handed out leaflets to shoppers. Until a few years ago, his main connection to Israel was what he calls a “perfunctory” annual gift to a local charity that supported the Jewish state.

Now he sells some 1,000 Israeli products to his mostly non-Jewish customers, and he’s a hero in the Jewish community.

Across the country, many Jews have sought ways to show their support for Israel as the country’s security and diplomatic situation has deteriorated since the peace process collapsed.

The outpouring has been dramatic, often coming from the least-expected sources. Countless American Jews have been deluged by e-mails forwarded by people who never seemed to show any interest in Israel prior to the intifada.

Petitions, links to articles, dire warnings, heartfelt appeals — cyberspace has opened the door to a new world of involvement that allows people who in years past might have remained passive to get involved with just a few clicks of the mouse.

Many American Jews have rallied in more active ways. Letter-writing, demonstrating and fund-raising are but a few tools in the arsenal of today’s pro-Israel activists. The common thread is passion and a sense of mission, spurred by a feeling of connection to the Jewish state and its inhabitants.

But how significant is this spate of activism, concern and advocacy? Is the underlying relationship between American Jews and Israel actually changing, or are we witnessing a temporary upswing in the activity of a small, even shrinking, activist core?

Are the efforts of a few concerned Jews masking a larger phenomenon of growing distance and ambivalence among the majority?

Like Hiller, not all of today’s activists came from the traditional core. John Carey, a designer from San Francisco, is one such newcomer.

Until recently, Carey, 39, was an apolitical person who says he “had no opinion on the subject” of Israel. But the self-described “typical Berkeley liberal” was jolted by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and he began to read in order to understand what was happening.

His reading list included Thomas Friedman, David Shipler, Kenneth Pollack and Leon Uris, and he got hooked on Commentary magazine.

“All of a sudden, I was ‘neo-con man,'” he said.

Carey and his pro-Israel friends lamented Israel’s poor public relations efforts.

“Each time the Israelis brought out another general” to speak on American television in thickly accented English, Carey said, he thought that there must be a better way.

Carey began to design posters and bumper stickers to press Israel’s cause. He worked with people at U.C. Berkeley, at the time a hotbed of anti-Israeli activity.

Now Carey has created BlueStar PR, which has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money to improve Israel’s image. Carey says his activities on behalf of Israel also help him and other Jews live more secure lives in the Bay Area, where anti-Israel sentiment is prevalent.

But he’s bothered by a sense that too many other people have remained silent.

“The stuff that’s out there has not worked,” he said. “Am I the first person to think of this?”

But Carey is just one example of this awakening.

For some, the turning point was the October 2000 lynching of two Israeli army reservists in Ramallah; others say the August 2001 bombing of Jerusalem’s Sbarro’s pizzeria prompted them to take action. Still others cite the attacks in March 2002, including the Passover massacre of 30 Israelis who were sitting down to a Passover seder. Still others say Sept. 11 prompted a new sense of connection with Israel.

Whatever the trigger, many American Jews have sought meaningful ways to stand up and be counted. Interviews with activists yield a crop of similar sentiments: People point to the lessons of history, including the Holocaust, and say they can’t stand by silently.

Some see a clear link between the terrorism aimed at Israel and America’s own war on terrorism. Israel, they say, is the world’s canary in the mineshaft.

Some never before had paid much attention to Israel. Others say their sense that Israel had been on the road to peace and prosperity enabled them to step back and focus on other issues, but they felt compelled to get involved when they saw how rapidly the dream of Middle East peace evaporated.

Many people expressed their concern by writing checks to their local federation or other charities that support projects in Israel. Through 400 local campaigns, the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations, raised $360 million in its Israel Emergency Campaign.

Jehuda Reinharz, president of Brandeis University, lamented the absence of research about American Jews’ connections to Israel.

“People say all kinds of things about what is going on and what the relationship is, but there is very little data,” he said.

Last year, after studying the scholarship that existed on the relationship between American Jews and Israel over the past 20 years, Reinharz issued a report called “Israel in the Eyes of Americans: A Call for Action.”

In it, he notes that American Jews tend to claim to support Israel — but, for the most part, that’s not backed up by an understanding of the country or the issues it faces.

“I would not want to guess how many American Jewish leaders really understand Israel,” said Reinharz, who came to the United States from Israel in 1961.

“Very few American Jews go to Israel. Their knowledge is peripheral, and as time passes the young generation knows even less.”

The impact of the current threat to Israel can be compared to other tense moments in the Jewish state’s history — but there’s a major difference in the response of American Jewry.

Steven Bayme, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Dorothy and Julius Koppelman Institute for American Jewish-Israeli Relations, noted that the weeks preceding the 1967 Six-Day War were a seminal moment that brought Israel and diaspora Jews closer together.

He asks whether the collapse of Oslo and Sept. 11 served as a similar moment for this generation. His answer: maybe not.

The difference, Bayme said, is that assimilation has rendered many American Jews unconcerned with developments in the Jewish realm.

“I don’t think you can make the argument about 2004 that is made about 1967,” he said, because “an awful number of Jews do not care.”

Only one in three American Jews has ever visited Israel, Bayme noted, and far fewer actually can connect with Israelis in their own environment.

The concern about weakening Jewish identity is not new, nor is it limited to the Israel-diaspora paradigm.

Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, noted Jews long have feared that younger members of the community will not share the older generation’s commitment.

When Solomon became chief operating officer of the UJA-Federation of New York in 1986, he said, he read minutes from board meetings dating back to 1917.

“The one theme that came through in each of the past 75 years was, ‘Will the next generation be here in our seats? Are we the last generation?'” he recalled.

Solomon, who has commissioned extensive research about the attitudes and interests of young American Jews, says he is not surprised by the large number of start-up pro-Israel groups since 2000.

He says younger Jews are more attracted to entrepreneurial approaches to Jewish and Israel-related issues, as opposed to the larger, established communal frameworks that have prevailed for so many years.

Israel in the Ballpark