Funds Flow South as Sderot Flees

Olmert in Feud with Tycoon Over Private Relief Aid

By Rebecca Spence

Published November 24, 2006, issue of November 24, 2006.
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As Qassam rockets launched at Israel from Gaza continue to terrorize residents of Sderot, the slow trickle of charitable dollars that previously flowed into the Jewish state’s poverty-stricken southern region is poised to become a tidal wave.

Last week, Russian Israeli billionaire Arkady Gaydamak set a high bar for philanthropic giving in Israel’s south when he evacuated inhabitants of Sderot, the desert town hardest hit by rocket fire, by bus to Eilat. It was a repeat performance from this past summer’s war with Hezbollah, when Gaydamak set up a tent city in the port town for northern residents. Gaydamak’s more recent gesture raised hackles from such Israeli government officials as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who derided the tycoon’s efforts as a stunt to gain votes in future elections.

Meanwhile, in North America, the American Jewish Committee announced that it was earmarking $300,000 of the more than $2 million that it raised in emergency funds during the month-long war in Lebanon to build a trauma center in Sderot. At the same time, the central body of American Jewish federated charities is considering whether to assign to the south some of the more than $340 million it has raised since July through the Israel Emergency Campaign, which framed its appeal around the needs of the battered north.

While Qassam rockets have been fired into Sderot on and off for the past six years, it is only in recent weeks that the increased barrage of attacks has brought more widespread attention to the problem. Public opinion reached a boiling point last week, following a rocket barrage that killed a 57-year-old Sderot resident, a Muslim woman from the former Soviet Union who had settled in Israel with her Jewish husband. Two others were maimed, including a security guard assigned to Peretz’s home in Sderot.

With Israeli military raids into Gaza, from which the Jewish state withdrew troops and settlers in 2005, proving largely ineffective in halting the fire, Israelis are growing increasingly frustrated with the government’s inability to protect its citizens.

In response to the continuing rain of rockets from Gaza, Israel’s deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, announced last Tuesday that the government would decide in the coming weeks which of four anti-rocket systems it would install in communities bordering Gaza.

The recent crisis also echoes an ongoing debate in Israel over the government’s role versus that of the nonprofit and philanthropic sector in caring for inhabitants of the Jewish state. That controversy erupted during last summer’s war with Hezbollah, which many Israelis said laid bare the government’s incompetence not just in fighting a war, but also in providing for and protecting its own people.

In his November 21 column in the daily Ha’aretz, commentator and former left-wing Israeli politician Yossi Sarid wrote: “What happened in the north is being repeated in the south, exactly the same sense of abandonment and betrayal. And if there is no change on the home front, there is no reason to believe there will be a change at the front.”

In North America, some Jewish philanthropic leaders are calling on the federated charities network, United Jewish Communities, to funnel dollars into the south. “I would hope that through the UJC process they would give serious consideration to the fact that the area is being shelled,” said John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation-Council of Greater Los Angeles, referring to the southern region. “On behalf of one major federation, we hope that we can address those needs that need to be met.” Fishel also said that during a tour of Israel this past July, it became clear to him and to other federation representatives that the south, like the north, was in dire need of assistance.

The town of Sderot, situated in the northwestern Negev desert, has a large population of new immigrants from Ethiopia and from the former Soviet Union. Hundreds of impoverished residents clamored to board Gaydamak’s buses, though not all made it on, according to Israeli news reports. Some residents are now refusing to leave Eilat and return to Sderot, reports said.

While some charities are only now turning their gaze toward the southern region, the AJCommittee began its work there this summer. In July, the New York-based membership organization initiated a project to erect a center that could address the psychological impact of the ongoing rocket assaults.

A spokesman for the AJCommittee, Kenneth Bandler, said that the timing of the announcement of the project was not intentionally linked to the recent attention focused on the needy area. “It’s purely coincidence,” he said, adding that it is “an unfortunate coincidence that emphasized why the money to build such a center is so needed.”

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