On April 10, Gita Galbut heard that a massive pro-Israel rally was going to be held just five days later in Washington. By Friday, the Miami Beach resident, a member of the Orthodox Beth Israel Congregation, had chartered and filled a 173-seat Boeing 727 jet to fly to the event. Other Orthodox synagogues in South Florida also chartered private planes for the event.
Galbut's effort symbolizes what observers describe as a massive Orthodox mobilization on behalf of Israel. Though members of the liberal movements and unaffiliated Jews make up about 90% of the American Jewish community, Orthodox Jews were disproportionately represented among the 100,000-plus participants at the Washington rally. Even many ultra-Orthodox members of the non-Zionist Agudath Israel of America showed up, despite the organization's decision not to join most other major Jewish organizations in sponsoring the gathering. In addition, this week an estimated 50,000 worshippers turned out for a prayer vigil April 21 in downtown Manhattan organized by a diverse coalition of Orthodox groups, including Aguda.
Combined with the strong showing by the Religious Zionists of America in last week's elections to the World Zionist Congress, in which they did nearly twice as well as five years ago, these events are serving as testimony to the growing power of Orthodox groups to mobilize their supporters and shape the American Jewish polity.
"Someone was saying that history is made by a few movers in every society," said Mandell Ganchrow, the recently appointed professional head of the Religious Zionists. "In the Jewish community today, the Orthodox are the ones who are more involved, more interested, more active. They are the ones who are going to Israel, they are the ones who are sending their kids to Israel. So many of us have children, have homes, have relatives there. For us it is a no-brainer."
As the Religious Zionists gathered April 21 for their annual convention and to celebrate the organization's strong showing in the Zionist elections, Ganchrow announced that the group is set to launch a monthly magazine in time for next Rosh Hashana which initially will be sent out to 30,000 homes.
Several observers noted that Orthodox Jews tend to hold more hawkish views on Israel, growing out of a belief in a God-given right to the West Bank, territories they call Judea and Samaria. Their generally high level of Israel activism often pulls Jewish communal organizations to the right, these observers say, while obscuring the data showing that the majority of American Jews favor the eventual creation of a Palestinian state and the dismantling of some Jewish settlements in the territories.
"It gives the American Jewish community the appearance of being much further to the right than it really is," said Steven Spiegel, a political scientist professor at UCLA and a national scholar with the pro-Oslo accords Israel Policy Forum.
Spiegel noted that the national media coverage of the rally focused largely on the booing that greeted Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the most prominent Jewish hawk in the Bush administration, when he mentioned the eventual need for a Palestinian state and reminded the crowd that innocent Palestinians were also suffering.
"I talked to people who were at the rally who were not standing near Orthodox groups, and they didn't even hear or know about the booing," Spiegel said. "It shows what an organized, intensely involved group can do."
Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks countered by saying that most divisions within the American Jewish community and the Israeli public pertaining to the peace process have evaporated since the outbreak of the intifada 19 months ago.
"Everybody understands that Israel's survival is at risk right now," Brooks said. The key question in terms of evaluating the success of the rally, he added, was not which Jews turned out, but how many. "It had to be an impressive showing," Brooks said. "And it was."
Galbut, who said she had no trouble finding 170 other people to fly with her and help cover the $50,000 cost, was quick to note that she reserved 75 seats for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, which sent a religiously diverse contingent. National Reform and Conservative leaders, meanwhile, said that they were pleased with the performance of their synagogues in turning out participants for the rally on such short notice.
Still, during the past two decades, Reform and Conservative Jews have become increasingly disconnected from Israel, said Stanford University professor Arnold Eisen, who dealt with this trend in his 2000 book "The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America." For example, he said, while studying in Israel for a year has become a virtual rite of passage for Orthodox high school graduates, his research found that only about 35% of American Jews have visited Israel. Recent surveys put the figure just over 40%.
Others noted that the Orthodox are more likely to have family members living somewhere in Israel, particularly in the territories.
These factors, along with a greater religious attachment to biblical cities located in the territories, account in large part for the rightward bent of the Orthodox community, several observers said.
Even as a supporter of the Oslo process who thinks that an eventual settlement will require additional Israeli concessions, Eisen said he was grateful for the Orthodox community's strong support for Israel, especially at a time when the administration was trying to calculate exactly how much pressure it can afford to place on Israel in pursuit of a peace settlement.
"I am very happy to have people supporting Israel in the streets even if I don't agree with what they say or want," Eisen said. "I don't want the Bush administration putting too much pressure on Israel."
Meanwhile, Aguda leaders found themselves on the defensive this week after declining to sponsor the Washington rally. Unlike the Modern Orthodox, who are Zionist, the ultra-Orthodox, or charedi, world which Aguda represents does not fully embrace the idea of a Jewish sate on theological grounds. Aguda's main spokesman, Rabbi Avi Shafran, said the organization has a long tradition of refraining from endorsing public events when it does not have control over the content of the entire program.
Shafran said that Aguda members who called the office were told to consult their consciences and their local rabbis.
Aguda did take the rare step of sponsoring the April 21 prayer vigil in conjunction with several pro-Zionist Modern Orthodox groups — a move which clearly demonstrates his organization's deep concern for the safety of Jews in Israel, Shafran said. In order to secure Aguda's participation, the other groups agreed not to recite the prayer for the State of Israel or the Israeli army, instead sticking to the afternoon Mincha service and a recitation of Psalms in support of Jews living in the land of Israel and the rest of the world.
In another sign of a deep longing to join in a communal gathering in support of Jews in Israel, some ultra-Orthodox Jews from chasidic sects that did not endorse the downtown prayer vigil, including Chabad-Lubavitch and Satmar, also turned out. One red-bearded Chabad rabbi from the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn passed out fliers arguing that Jewish law forbids the turning over of territories to the Palestinians. When asked if he cared that Chabad leaders had not endorsed the event, he said, "No, because it's for the land of Israel."
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