Nervous But United

In a speech that was the centerpiece of the North American Jewish federation system’s gathering in Chicago this week, Israel’s prime minister recalled being a small child when he heard of the United Nations’ 1947 vote to partition Palestine.

That period – when the Jews’ willingness to split the land was rebuffed by Arabs, precipitating Israel’s difficult but triumphant War of Independence – parallels the situation of the Jewish state today, said Ehud Barak.

Again, he told more than 4,000 flag-waving Jews on Monday at a rally intended to show solidarity for the embattled state, Israel feels its efforts at compromise have been rebuffed and that it may face another war.It was against this backdrop – and perhaps because of it – that this year’s General Assembly drew 4,500 participants, the first sell-out in recent memory, organizers said.

With Monday’s large solidarity rally, unprecedented security measures, about 100 Arabs demonstrating outside and a bevy of Israel-related programming, this week’s gathering of Jewish leaders from around North America was not a typical G.A., as the gathering is commonly known.

Security was unusually strict at the sprawling downtown hotel where the assembly took place. Police stopped approaching vehicles, searching under them as well as inside the hoods and trunks. Inside, guests were frequently asked to show their nametags.

Amid intense fighting between Israel and the Palestinians – shooting attacks by Palestinians this week killed two Israeli soldiers and two civilians – the heightened security was clearly intended as a precaution against any terrorist action against Israel’s top leaders and a major Jewish gathering.

But despite the threat of war facing Israel, Barak’s message to North American Jewry was one of peace and solidarity.

Israel must be “liberated from the crushing burden of never-ending war,” said Barak, whose speech was preceded by a multiracial Israeli youth choir that sang folk songs about peace.

“We derive great strength from knowing that we in Israel are not alone,” he said.

Despite his repeated message that there is no alternative to peace, Barak also squarely blamed the Palestinians for the violence and outlined several conditions – including a “Jerusalem broader than it has ever been in history” – for a peace agreement.

A speech early Tuesday morning by opposition leader Ariel Sharon had a somewhat different tone.He outlined his own plan for peace, but without mentioning Barak’s name, criticized the prime minister for asking President Clinton during their meeting on Sunday to help bring about a reduction in, rather than a cessation of, the violence.

After years in which the G.A. had been dominated by debates about religious pluralism and hammering out details of the newly formed United Jewish Communities (UJC), issues of Jewish solidarity and Israel ruled the day.

The UJC, formed by a merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal, is the Jewish community’s central fund-raising and social service system.

But despite Israel’s starring role, it did not – as some had initially feared – crowd out all other issues.For the first time, the Jewish Outreach Institute sponsored sessions, many well-attended, on outreach to interfaith families. There were sessions on Jewish education. And the top professional of the UJC delivered a speech that focused more on the institutional changes federations need to make than it did on Israel.”Our infrastructure needs to be majorly overhauled if we’re going to continue to be relevant,” said Stephen Solender, UJC’s president and chief executive officer, citing the need for more designated giving opportunities for donors, upgraded technology and collective responsibility for maintaining and enhancing a central fund-raising and funding system for local, national and overseas needs.