Flag Day

What a weird week.

The presidential race, instead of focusing on the best energy policy, the best Mideast policy, the best health care policy, wasall about moose and pigs and pitbulls. The financial companies that once defined stability have teetered or collapsed. The stock market is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a hurricane ate our Gulf Coast refineries and, by the way, is anybody noticing that Pakistan is imploding?

Meanwhile, over at the Israeli Consulate, they’re planning a massive, pull-out-the-stops effort to … raise the Israeli flag?

That’s right. On Sunday, Sept. 28, thousands of people are expected to rally outside the Israeli Consulate on Wilshire Boulevard to watch as the blue and white national flag is raised permanently in front of the building.

You would think there are more important things to focus on right now. To be honest, when Consul General Jacob Dayan first told me his idea, that was my gut reaction — which I kept to myself. The world is going nuts, and that’s what you want us to do — raise a flag?

But I’ve let the idea percolate; I’ve turned it over in my head, and sure enough, I’ve changed my mind. It’s the perfect thing to do. It’s brilliant.

Neither Dayan nor the building’s owner, Jamison Services, will discuss why until now no Israeli flag has been allowed to stand in front of the otherwise nondescript office tower at 6380 Wilshire Blvd.

But let’s hazard a wild guess: security.

Building owners and Israeli ambassadors themselves regularly cite concerns over protests and terrorism as the primary reasons so few Israeli diplomatic stations display their country’s flag.

It’s not an unreasonable concern. From 1969 to the present there have been at least 30 attacks on Israeli embassies, according to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (The ministry actually lists and details the attacks on its Web sites, which could not have made Dayan’s job convincing his landlord any easier). The most recent one occurred this past February, when a group calling itself “al Qaeda in the Magreb” fired shots at the Israeli Embassy in Mauritania, wounding three local residents.

It’s a fact of life: Israel’s blue and white is a red flag for the fanatics. Wave it, and they are likely to charge.

Sometimes, the reaction is horrific, as at the El Al ticket counter several years ago, when a man opened fire by the flag. Sometimes, it is boringly predictable, as at those Hezbollah rallies in Lebanon, where they actually have to make their own Israeli flag just to destroy it. Sometimes, it is pathetic: In the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem last spring, a 50-year-old Orthodox Israeli man waving his flag on Israel’s Independence Day was set upon and beaten by members of the anti-Zionist Naturei Karta Jewish sect.

Given these reactions, it’s only wise and natural to be cautious, to fear the fanatics and abide by their rule: Don’t you dare display your flag.

And now, Dayan is offering his response: tough.

In his book, “A Case for Democracy,” Natan Sharansky offers up a test to determine whether a society is truly free and democratic. He calls it his Town Square test:

“If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society. We cannot rest until every person living in a ‘fear society’ has finally won their freedom.”

I suspect the default reflex of Jews is to rest inside a fear society. Centuries of persecution have conditioned us to cut our losses and accept a base level of fear and intimidation, so long as our families and livelihoods are not immediately threatened. Our mental public square has always been inhabited by thugs: We have grown comfortable with them.

The establishment of the State of Israel was supposed to have freed us from the physical ghettos in which Jews found themselves and from these psychic ones, as well. A free people in a free land could not be bullied, need not live in fear.

The physical and psychic shackles cracked in 1948, when the Israeli flag was first raised over the independent, sovereign Jewish state, and they broke in 1967, when the country swept to victory in the Six-Day War and the flag flew over a united Jerusalem.

But that was then. Now, with terror at our doorsteps and Israel still in peril, most of us are content to lay low. It turns out we are less butterfly than hermit crab. Survival teaches us that rather than float free, better to run from shell to shell.

But if we let our city fail the Town Square test, we delude ourselves in thinking we can forever be safe off the square, in our synagogues, at our schools. Whether we fly the flag or not, those who would do us harm will find us anyway.

In the Age of Google, there is no way to hide. We can be better or worse targets, but we are still targets.

The vast majority of us want to live in a world where disagreements don’t demand violence. We don’t want the crazy few determining how we live our lives, demonstrate our loyalties, express our identity. We want a thousand flags to fly (including, yes, the Palestinian one). We want to be free.

That’s why I love Dayan’s vision. He saw reality and raised it — hell, he went all in. Once he received approval to fly the flag, he could have just quietly run it up one morning and left it at that. But no: He has arranged to close off Wilshire Boulevard between San Vicente Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. He has invited schools, synagogues and churches to come out and show their support. There will be a stage, speeches (short, he promises), dignitaries and performance by a recording artist Macy Gray.

The Israeli flag is going up on Wilshire Boulevard; attention will be paid, and I, for one, will be there.

Earmarked for Israel

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has launched a Crisis Fund campaign designed to raise $12 million in emergency relief to address the deteriorating situations in Israel and Argentina. The announcement came just as Federation President John Fishel and Chairman Jake Farber returned from a two-day visit to Israel, as part of an emergency 40-member delegation assembled by The Federation’s parent organization, United Jewish Communities (UJC).

During their short stay in Israel, Fishel and Farber, on behalf of The Federation, pledged $1 million in advance of the $10 million in funds that will be devoted to Israel. The figure is Los Angeles’ segment of a national $300 million UJC goal.

The $10 million raised for Israel through The Federation’s campaign will go toward providing the following: mobile emergency units, increased security at schools and on buses, grief counseling, trauma centers and financial assistance to victims of terror and their families

The Federation has rededicated itself to “help Israel at this critical juncture beyond what we normally do,” Fishel said at an April 12 press conference upon his return,

“The situation in Israel is indeed very dire, and the people in the state of Israel are under siege,” he continued. “I had a chance to view with my own eyes [at the targeted Netanya Park hotel] the incredible power and damage done by a suicide bomber in the middle of a religious ceremony and happy Passover ceremony, that killed 28 people.”

In addition to fundraising, The Federation hopes to energize and mobilized Los Angeles Jews over the next few weeks by co-sponsoring local solidarity events, such as the April 17 block party that was held on Landfair Avenue in Westwood, co-sponsored by Los Angeles Hillel, and the 54th Annual Israel Independence Day Festival at Encino’s Woodley Park on April 21.

While there is no formal deadline to reach the Crisis Fund’s fiscal goal, Fishel would like to raise the money before summer’s end.

“They are asking for the solidarity of American and world Jewry and for people interested in preserving democracy and freedom,” Fishel said.

While it is not The Federation’s policy to offer political commentary, Fishel himself spoke of the necessity to support Israel’s right to protect its citizens from Palestinian aggression, such as the rash of suicide bombings that have claimed over 100 civilians in just the last two weeks.

“Unless you’re there, you can’t imagine what it’s like to get on a bus every morning and not know whether it’s going to explode or commute to work and not know whether a sniper’s going to fire at you,” he said.

While in Israel, Fishel spoke to “those who lost loved ones” that were “senselessly murdered.” He also spoke of “a very sobering experience” he had conversing with a 45-year-old Ukrainian single mother who, in 1994, was the only survivor of a suicide bombing rampage that killed eight people. The tragedy left her with burns over 70 percent of her body.

“There is a link between the terrorism afflicting the United States and afflicting Israel,” Fishel said. Of the $12 million being raised for the Crisis Fund, about $2.25 million will be set aside to help Jews in Argentina recover financially and/or make aliyah to Israel.

“This is a community that has been thrown into poverty,” said Fishel of Argentina’s Jews.

For more information concerning The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles Crisis Fund to aid Israel and Argentina, please visit www.jewishla.org .

Federations Answer the Call

In a campaign reminiscent of one undertaken during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel’s survival was at stake, the North American federation system is hoping to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for Israel in the coming months.

Robert Schrayer, chair of the United Jewish Appeal Federation Campaign of the United Jewish Communities (UJC), said the situation in Israel now “may be even more drastic than things were in 1973.”

“It’s different because it’s a different kind of conflict, but just as serious, if not more so,” he said.

The UJC’s board of trustees is expected to vote Sunday to approve an emergency campaign for various needs as Israel engages in its war against terrorism. The funds are expected to aid victims of terrorism, rebuild infrastructure damaged in terrorist attacks, and support crisis management and other social services. Most of the UJC’s existing $42.5 million campaign for Argentine Jews will be folded into the new campaign, dubbed Israel Emergency Campaign, with most of the money going to resettle Jews who immigrate to Israel as a result of Argentina’s economic crisis.

The campaign will officially be launched with a special leadership mission to Israel leaving Monday. Another UJC mission will be leaving for Argentina at the same time.

The new campaign, unanimously approved by the UJC’s top leadership, comes on the heels of a relentless spate of suicide bombings and in the midst of a major Israeli military initiative to root out Palestinian terrorists.

Officials say the Israel Emergency Campaign will be larger, more centralized and more forceful than UJC efforts on Israel’s behalf that started earlier in the 18-month-old intifada.

The previous effort, called Israel Now, has raised $90 million since September, with each federation deciding independently whether to do extra fund raising for Israel and how to allocate it.

UJC leaders are in ongoing meetings with officials at the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Israel’s Ministry of Finance to determine how the new dollars will be allocated, Hoffman said.

However, while national leaders are forcefully pushing for full participation and a centralized allocations approach, it is not yet clear whether every federation will agree to participate.

In recent years, issues of “fair share” — or how much each federation is obligated to contribute for national and international needs — have been a major sticking point in the functioning of the UJC, which is an umbrella for more than 189 Jewish federations.

Hoffman said he does not expect federations to object to participating in the campaign. He also said he thinks their fundraising goals will likely be exceeded.

As for collective decisions about how to spend the emergency money raised, Hoffman said, “At the end of the day, every community is always entitled to decide how it wishes to allocate funds, but we’re going to give them some very compelling options.”

In addition to fundraising, the campaign will also includes efforts to mobilize American Jews to advocate on behalf of Israel. Several major federations, including ones in Washington, New York, Boston and Los Angeles, have already intensified their fundraising efforts for Israel in the past few days.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is calling for Jewish unity in Israel’s struggle against terror. In a conference call with Diaspora leaders on Monday, Sharon said the "unity of the Jewish people" is Israel’s "primary strategic asset."

"Each and every Jew" is "now required to make a supreme effort to contradict the claims made by those who question our right to the land of Israel," he said.

"In these times, we need you more than ever. We need you to express your public support for Israel," he said.

"Join us here, demonstrate your love and support," he told those on the call, which was sponsored by the United Jewish Communities, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish Agency for Israel and Keren Hayesod.

"This struggle is going to be long, difficult and complex," he said. "It requires unity, determination and faith in the justice of our cause. — Rachel Pomerance, Jewish Telgraphic Agency