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April 2, 2015 1:22 pm

A Different Perspective on the New Israel Fund Controversy

avatar by Stephen Rutenberg


The Temple Mount. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

On the morning of Tisha Ba’v, when I was a child, I remember sitting on the floor in the living room with my family reading about the catastrophes commemorated on that day. Tisha Ba’v, the 9th day of the month of Av in the Jewish calendar, is the day of fasting and mourning to recollect all of the calamities that befell the Jewish people and particularly the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians before the common era and again by the Romans in the year 70 CE.

Of all the terrible tragedies we read about, there was one story that affected me most deeply. The story as recalled by both the Talmud (Gitten 62) and Josephus Flavius (War of the Jews 5.1) tells of Jerusalem besieged by the Roman Legions. The Jews had revolted against the Roman occupation in about the year 67 CE. The Romans came back in force and laid siege to Jerusalem. At the time, Jerusalem was one of the largest and most fortified cities in the world, with the wherewithal to withstand a protracted Roman siege. In addition to its fortifications, Jerusalem contained such immense storehouses of food and wood that some sources indicate it would have allowed the city to survive for 21 years. It is likely that Rome would not have tolerated a siege of such duration.

Tragically, the fighting was not limited to outside the Jerusalem city walls. Inside Jerusalem, a bitter fight was raging as well. There were political differences as to how to deal with the Roman siege. Some wanted to pursue the possibility of a negotiated settlement with the Romans. Fearing that a long siege could allow the time for a negotiated settlement, certain Jewish zealots eviscerated any possibility for peace or even victory by forcing an immediate battle with the Roman legions. In an act, still unfathomable after two thousand years, these zealots set fire to and destroyed all of Jerusalem’s storehouses.

With all of the food gone and all of the fuel destroyed, a terrible famine overcame Jerusalem. After a short period of time the walls of Jerusalem were breached and three weeks later, on Tisha Ba’v in the year 70 CE, the temple was burned and the population massacred or taken as slaves. On this story the Talmud states that as a consequence of senseless hatred, the temple was destroyed.

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Greatly disturbed by this story, I dreamed about going back to ancient Jerusalem and warning these zealots. If only I could let them know the horrible ramifications of their unfathomable self-destruction. If only they could have known of the terrible famine, of the millions killed, of the never-ending exile, of the crusades, the inquisition, the Holocaust. Certainly, I thought, if they would have known the ramifications of their hatred they would not have needlessly caused such devastation.

During the last few weeks, I have been reminded of this childhood fantasy as I have seen the recent vocal and personal attacks on Alisa Doctoroff, the president of the UJA Federation of New York, for supporting the New Israel Fund (NIF) as well as attacks on others NIF supporters. Alisa and her family are anchor supporters of many Jewish and pro-Israel causes including being major supporters of AIPAC.

In addition to giving freely of their time and money, the Doctoroff family inspires many others to give and to be involved through their personalities and matching grants. Like the storehouses of food and wood during the Roman siege of Jerusalem, the Doctoroff’s are among the storehouses of our community today. In a world increasingly hostile to Israel and Jews such support is critical. Yet loud voices in our community have been insinuating that Alisa is not fit for a leadership role in the Jewish community due to her support of pro-Israel causes that aren’t to everyone’s liking.

Although the NIF does a lot of good, many of the projects which they fund in Israel are, in my view, at best misguided. Particularly problematic are the NIF’s collaborations with international organizations that are obsessed with Israel and whose attacks on Israel have little to do with Israel’s actual failings. However, many of the derided views of the NIF grantees, particularly with regard to the West Bank, are shared by a sizable portion of the Israeli population as well as by many true lovers of Zion and Jerusalem.

While there needs to a meaningful debate as to what the limits of acceptable projects for Jewish organizations to sponsor are, I have no doubt that if we lose this dream of 2000 years it will be due to infighting and not from having too broad a tent of Israel supporters.

The Talmud, after attributing the Jewish loss of sovereignty and the destruction of Jerusalem to hatred and infighting, asks why something so banal can cause such long term devastation. After all, this infighting isn’t a cardinal sin such as murder, idolatry, or sexual immortality. The Talmud explains that the perpetrators of senseless hatred did not realize they were doing anything wrong and therefore never found the need to change any behavior. The incinerators of the storehouses in ancient Jerusalem, as well as those attacking NIF supporters today, are certain that they are doing proper and possibly heroic deeds.

History may not judge us kindly, if we who were born into the most privileged time in recent Jewish history, with both a sovereign Israel and unsurpassed freedom in the Western world, senselessly destroy what we were given. Will our descendants sit on the floor during the Tisha Ba’v of the future wondering how we, who had so much, meaninglessly destroyed it all?

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