General Assembly Draws Record Numbers to Jerusalem Meeting

By Elli Wohlgelernter

Published November 21, 2003, issue of November 21, 2003.
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JERUSALEM — With 4,000 delegates from North America and another 2,000 from Israel, this week’s General Assembly of Jewish philanthropic federations was the largest in history. The numbers tell the tale: 14 hotels in Jerusalem were fully booked, totaling 40,000 hotel nights. Some $15 million was injected into the Israeli economy, including $3 million spent on El Al tickets. Participants came from 165 federations and 400 independent communities. The largest delegation was from Boston with 364 participants, and the smallest from Reading, Pa., with one. In case of rain, 4,050 umbrellas were ready to be distributed. But it never rained.

Demonstration One: Two groups of activists made the most noise pushing their causes. Inside the Jerusalem Convention Center, Reuven Merhav, director of Israel’s National Ethiopian Project, spoke of the demands of Israel’s growing immigrant community. But outside the King David Hotel and opposite the Prime Minister’s Office, demonstrators protested that Jews still in Ethiopia aren’t getting the same medical or food assistance as other Jewish communities, and that Israel was not doing enough to bring that remaining community members to Israel.

Demonstration Two: Activists in support of convicted American spy Jonathan Pollard leveled a similar charge of negligence. Hundred of protestors gathered outside the opening ceremony on Sunday night, holding signs that read “Pollard = Dreyfus” and chanting “Free Pollard.” Not content with the street demonstration and an earlier prayer service at the Western Wall, a dozen protesters disrupted Prime Minister Sharon’s speech from the audience, screaming “Bring Pollard home now” while delegates booed. Inexplicably, security officials allowed the protesters to remain; after sitting quietly for three minutes, they interrupted Sharon’s speech a second time before organizers removed them from the hall. Some of the delegates sitting in their section helped out by punching the protesters as they made their way to the door.

Opening Salvo: The opening ceremony itself was met with much criticism, though not for the technical incompetence that eventually became comical, with repeated attempts to get a microphone to work in an adjoining hall. More problematic were the program choices, which many viewers found dull and interminable. An indoor fireworks display scared many in the audience, who thought they were under attack. The entertainment by singer Achinoam Nini, better known as Noa, hit a sour note when she injected a partisan political note into her performance by praising the dovish peace initiative formulated by Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh and former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon. Some said they would have preferred a Russian, Ethiopian or Argentinean musician to highlight the themes of UJC’s work. Many were offended as well by the use of images and facts about terrorist bombings in a musical collage. “It was dancing on their blood,” said one disgusted observer.

Keep on Coming: The huge influx of visitors was a heartwarming display of support for Israel and Israelis to show that they are not alone, but one Jerusalem cab driver wondered aloud what it was worth. “Is this a one-time shot?” he asked. “Will they be coming in December, too?” One initiative to bring more people, similar to the pledge cards passed out in synagogues over the High Holy Days, was the distribution of pledge cards to the graduates of Birthright Israel, the nation’s largest single tourism group, with each former participant pledging to sign up another student. “Eighty percent of the students we bring are through word of mouth,” said Gidi Mark, Birthright’s director of marketing and development. “It’s the only way to explain the success of the program and their overcoming their fears to travel to Israel.”

Hello from Jerusalem: Outside in the hallways, delegates wandered among the various exhibitors who were pushing their respective institutions and organizations. But the most crowded area was the one featuring 24 Internet-access computers that allowed delegates to email friends and families back home. Not having chairs to sit on while typing failed to deter the many who waited on line to connect back home.

Shoah Data: One of the exhibition booths belonged to Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, which unveiled a project that will eventually give Internet users access to biographical information on more than half of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. The largest such database in the world, it will allow anyone to enter a name, date and place of birth and occupation, and then sift through the museum’s vast files on victims. The project will be fully operational in June, and Internet users will be able to add new names and new information to existing files, and correct any mistakes the files may contain.

Jewish Clout?: It was probably just a coincidence, but a day after a survey of 316 delegates showed that France is considered the most antisemitic country — at least when American Jewish philanthropic leaders are asked — French President Jacques Chirac met with his nation’s chief rabbi, Joseph Sitruck, to discuss the growing wave of antisemitism there. The survey found that 91.1% of assembly delegates voted for France as the most antisemitic country, followed by Russia with 38%. Poland, Argentina and Germany were next in order, in a survey conducted by Market Watch, a company specializing in public opinion polls and sponsored by the Israeli Tourism Ministry.

Know Thy Brother: The Ministry of Education mandated last week that a one-hour class be given to explore the connection between Israel and the Jewish communities in North America. Teachers were told to teach students that they belong to a worldwide Jewish nation, and that they should have a collective sense of belonging and commitment. The ministry issued general guidelines for the class discussions, but individual teachers were responsible for directing the conversation that ensued in their classrooms. No word yet on whether the students were moving to form Jewish federations in Ra’anana and Safed.

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