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Not a Word About Politics

It is hard to believe but it is already a decade (or so) since the second intifada broke out and into our lives.  


I am using “or so” because the problem is that we were all blind to detecting and identifying this major political and security development. Unlike other wars, we couldn’t really put our fingers on the exact date of the intifada’s beginning or end point. For months, the terror attacks and the peace talks were intertwined. In retrospect it is common to say that the catalyst was the September 28, 2000, visit of then MK Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount and the terror incidents that followed in October.


Perhaps, but it took many more bloody days for everyone to understand what was going on and to take action. By that time a new English word was invented among the Jewish community to describe the situation: “The Matzav” (translated simply into "The Situation" and pronounced with a heavy American accent).


I am big fan of buzzwords and yet I have never liked this one. For me it symbolized a kind of paralysis, or acceptance of a new situation that was here to stay. Indeed, on many fronts (including the government of Israel, the IDF, and national Jewish organizations) people were waiting to see what would develop; some say they waited too long.


Less then two years before, I was asked to establish the MetroWest Israel Office in Jerusalem. For me, the evidence that I made the right professional decision (and one of the main reasons I am still around) is the rapid response that this one community, MetroWest NJ, gave to the Matzav and the way it chose to do it.


I recall as if it was yesterday a UJC MetroWest board meeting in which the issue on the table was whether we should give financial support to Jewish communities that are located behind the “green line,” (the settlements in the West Bank). Obviously this was, and still is, a highly sensitive and complicated issue. It involves many political, legal, and moral considerations. After a very hot (but for an Israeli like me), highly civilized debate, a historic decision was made that reflected the art of consensus building: on the one hand we decided that we couldn’t ignore Jews in need just because they lived in this region. On the other hand we were probably the first public entity to distinguish between the major blocks of communities that are consensual and the isolated settlements that will ultimately have to be removed under a "two-state solution."


Today, this distinction is almost common and serves as a basis for current negotiations, but at that time it was very courageous and advanced. We should take pride for leading the way for other Jewish communities, along with governments and administrations to come.


This precedent-setting decision came with some restrictions: one was that we would keep full reciprocity in our Israel emergency campaign between communities in need that were behind and within the green line. My job was to implement these sensitive decisions and restrictions without stepping on anyone’s toes. I remember an evening MetroWest leadership meeting in Jerusalem’s Hyatt Hotel at which we discussed how to go about it. In an intuitive decision I called two people that I didn’t know personally at that time, told them who we were, and asked them if they could meet with us that very evening in Jerusalem. Both of them, distinguished leaders of Jewish communities with security needs, one from within and one from behind the green line, made a “u-turn” on their way home and met with us later that night. They were Shai Hermesh, then mayor of Sha’ar Hanegev and current Knesset member, and Shaul Goldstein, who was then and remains the mayor of Gush Etzion. They were thrilled about our desire to support their communities and we fell in love with the concept. This was the night in which we started our partnership connections with Kibbutz Erez and the Gush. The rest is history.


Yahel Ben-Aris, former director of Kibbutz Erez, holding the plaque.
Yahel Ben-Aris, former director of Kibbutz Erez, holding the plaque.
MetroWest’s first community visit to Israel during the Matzav took place a few months later and also became a major national statement. Under the banner “We stand with Israel,” we brought a solidarity mission comprised of two buses loaded with concerned people, among them some 10 leading public officials from New Jersey. Dozens of other community leaders and politicians signed a plaque that demonstrated the wall-to-wall support for Israel during those harsh moments of terror. We prepared five such plaques to be handed to the leadership of all of MetroWest’s partnership regions which we were scheduled to visit, including our two new “family” members: Sha’ar Hanegev and Gush Etzion.


The visit in Kibbutz Erez, located on the Gaza border, was very moving and meaningful for both sides. The kibbutzniks were so happy to get to know us, receive our solidarity and greet and host us at their home during such a difficult time. When Senator Frank Lautenberg, together with then UJC president Steven Klinghoffer, handed them the plaque, they responded by saying that from then on the solidarity would go both ways and Erez was now a home-away-from-home for all MetroWest visitors.


Sen. Frank Lautenberg, former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, Carol Marcus and others view the events of 9/11 on TV in Israel.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, Carol Marcus, and others view the events of 9/11.
We left Erez with good feelings about the positive spirit and resilience of the residents that we found there. We were happy that we could show our solidarity with them in such a way. When we exited the kibbutz gate on our way to Ofakim, I asked the group in my bus if they had any questions. Gil Hoffman, the Jerusalem Post journalist who was traveling with us, surprisingly raised his hand. “It is not a question,” he said, “it is just a strange report that I am getting about two commercial airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.”


A few minutes later, when everything was still unclear and people in the bus were panicking, I received a call from the Kibbutz Erez leadership. They advised us that there was a major terror attack on the United States and it was their turn for solidarity. They repeated the phrase that they used only a few minutes before, perhaps during the exact moments of the attack, without knowing how symbolic it was: “Erez is your home-away-from-home, please turn around and come be with us during such horrifying moments for you.” While we decided to continue on to be with our “family” in Ofakim and Merchavim, we will never forget this visit and or telephone call.


Solidarity mission lay leaders and participants reacting to the events of 9/11 while watching television in Israel.
Solidarity mission lay leaders and participants reacting to the events of 9/11 while watching television in Israel.
One can not ignore the similarities between the situation we are facing now and the beginning of the second Intifada a decade (or so) ago. The twilight time between peace talks and terror attacks, the intensive political debate about the preferred solution. The political debate within Israel and the response of the world. One thing is clear, however, and we shouldn’t take it for granted: the solidarity between the Diaspora Jewish communities and Israel, between UJC MetroWest and its partnered regions, is one of the most important vehicles to keep us strong and united. No matter what security situations develop in the coming months, no matter what political viewpoints one holds, we need to find common ground and support each other.


Drishat Shalom,







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