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November 28, 2003

The Irish Times

Diverse views of the Jewish diaspora

Thousands of Jews from around the world are gathering in Jerusalem, writes Nuala Haughey

Was Jennifer Barhan worried about her safety as she marched through the heart of Jerusalem yesterday alongside thousands of other North American Jews to show solidarity with Israelis?

"People ask me aren't you scared to come to Israel. But isn't that the point?" said the 33-year-old from Washington DC, before setting out on the walk down Jaffa Road, the site of numerous deadly suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks. "I'm here because there's a saying that the only thing to fear is fear itself." If safety in numbers is any comfort, then Jennifer could be reassured. She and her parents are among more than 4,000 US and Canadian Jews who defied official domestic travel warnings to come to the seat of Jewish life for a four-day Jewish convention, the largest of its kind.

A further 2,000 Israelis are expected to attend the general assembly of the United Jewish Communities of North America, an umbrella organisation that donates more than $ 200 million annually to Israel. The city's traders, suffering from a severe slump in the past three years of the current intifada, are delighted that the delegates will inject some E15 million into the local economy.

However, the event has been criticised by some in Israel for being little more than a feel-good propaganda session for deep-pocketed Diaspora Jews, side-stepping unpleasant issues such as the hardships faced by Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

Others in the secular Jewish community here, including writers Amos Oz and David Grossman, have appealed in prominent newspaper advertisements in the English press for this gathering of the leadership of the largest Jewish population in the world to reach out to non-religious or cultural Jews, who are the rapidly growing majority in the Jewish community. But such skirmishes were a side show for delegates who packed the International Convention Centre yesterday for inaugural day sessions on the involvement of gay Jews in Jewish community life, strengthening Jewish identity, immigration and the war on terrorism.

A huge crowd gathered in a morning session to hear the US ambassador to Israel, Mr Daniel Kurtzer, predict that there is life yet in the US-sponsored road map for peace.

"The challenge to move forward in the road map is going to be whether or not the two sides can find a way to flesh out the content," he added.

The Minister for Justice, Yosef (Teddy) Lapid, from the secular Shinui party, received a standing ovation for his moving account of surviving the Holocaust in a Hungarian ghetto as a child. He cautioned that there was no "one big solution" for an end to the current conflict.
"When the Europeans come here and look down at us because they have lived in peace only for 60 years and here you have these wild tribes in the Middle East who don't know how to adjust to human norms, I remind them that they fought for 2,000 years before they found peace. I hope it will not take us 2,000 years," he said.

Out in the foyer, delegates noisily milled around the dozens of stalls promoting Jewish immigration to Israel, tourism and local support groups. At the Americans for Peace Now stand, a worn banner advocated Israeli withdrawal from the occupied (Palestinian) territories. This politically charged notice was like a red rag to a bull for delegates in search of a good argument. Mr Jeffrey Berkman, a middle-aged local government official from upstate New York, was one. A firm supporter of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, Mr Berkman said he found his way to Zionism through experiencing Irish nationalism in Belfast in the early 1970s. "I'm certainly an advocate of peace as soon as possible between the parties, but you can't have one-sided peace while the Palestinians arm children with bombs," he said emphatically.

Mr Elad Jacobs, an Israeli-born 26-year-old history student from Tel Aviv, was disappointed that the North American delegates appeared to be largely singing off the one hymn sheet, in support of Israel. "They shouldn't be so homogeneous," he said. "They should try to put pressure on the Israeli government in all aspects of the current situation The solution to the current situation will not come about only by solidarity but by the actions of the Israeli government."

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