Far From Home

Julie August of Pikesville can’t help but get choked up when talking about her son, Josh. A soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, Josh, 20, will be transferred from his usual post in the northern part of Israel to a base near Gaza in the next day or two. The Augusts are one of many families from Jewish Baltimore with children serving in the Israeli army. Some like Josh, a Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School graduate, were already on active duty, while others are among the 40,000 reservists called up to serve as part of Operation Protective Edge.
“All the fighters, especially the lone soldiers [who do not have parents or siblings in the country] are showing incredible courage,” said August, who grew up in Israel and “understands and appreciates the desire to serve.”
But that doesn’t mean she isn’t worried.
“I’m fluent in Hebrew so I’ve been reading all the newspapers,” she said. And in recent days, the news from Israel has not been good.
Vito and Gail Simone of Summit Park don’t know yet whether their son Alex will be deployed. Vito Simone said Alex had recently been in Baltimore for a two week visit. “We just took him to the airport, and he just returned to Tel Aviv where he lives,” he said of the 26-year-old, also a Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School graduate, who immigrated to Israel three years ago.
“He has always been passionate about Israel and his Jewish identity. We are very proud and sometimes anxious,” he admitted. “Fortunately, we don’t have iPhones so we’re not getting red alerts on our phones all the time to drive us crazy.”
Simone said he has been disappointed by what he sees as local politicians’ lack of condemnation for Hamas, and the absence of strong support for families like his own who have children serving in the IDF.
“I would like to see elected officials — especially those who are Jewish — come forward and really encourage people to support Israel and our young people there,” explained the father. “There is a strong constituency of families in Baltimore and elsewhere in Maryland with children who are serving. The silence has been shameful.”
In contrast, he pointed out, he and his family have been grateful for the many friends and relatives who have contacted them to provide support and reassurance.
“They have even tried to thank us for his service,” said Simone. “I don’t know if I can take the credit. These kids are so excited to be part of the effort to defend Israel.”
Penina Eilberg and her family, formerly of Baltimore, learned that their oldest son, Pesach, 25, once a student at Talmudic Academy and Yeshivat Ram Bam, would be deployed while they were at a commemorative ceremony to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the family’s move to Israel. Despite her concern for her son and the fact that she has experienced violence and terror attacks — rocks thrown into car windows, drive-by shootings and Molotov cocktails — close to her home in the Nof Zion neighborhood near Jerusalem, Eilberg denied having any regrets about the decision to make aliyah.
“This is our land, our place and we have to make sure we have a safe place to live,” she said. “That’s not to say I’m not nervous, but the more of us who are here the better.”
Pesach Eilberg’s grandmother, Rachel Eilberg, who still lives in Pikesville, admitted she was tense.
“When I’m tense, I usually run out and buy myself ice cream and I’ve been doing that a lot. But look, we all have our duties. I’ll be back in Israel in September for a granddaughter’s wedding and I’ll hope for peace and quiet,” she said.
Rabbi Menachem Goldberger of Congregation Tferes Yisroel said that many of the families who were members of his congregation have made aliyah in recent years. Therefore, he knows many young people who are now active duty soldiers and reservists. Among the congregants who will be serving are Noam Orman, Dani and Aryeh Eastman and Avi Schamroth.
“We feel a number of things [about congregants serving in the IDF],” said Goldberger. “[We feel] pride in their courage and devotion to the Jewish people and also concern since they are out there in harm’s way. We have been saying extra prayers for them during services and individually. My wife has a tehillim

group and they have been meeting frequently.”
Goldberger said that although he has not spoken directly with the young men, he has been in contact with their families through email.
“I just hope God will watch over the Jewish people and that the Israeli government will have the determination to finish this so we do not have to live with this way any longer,” he added.

IDF Launches Gaza Operation

071114_israelFollowing days of rocket attacks from Hamas in Gaza, Israel on Monday launched a “continuous, methodical and forceful campaign against the terrorist group in the Gaza Strip,” according to a government announcement.

Dubbed Operation Protective Edge, the air campaign came as IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz requested the call-up of 40,000 reserve troops — on top of the 1,500 reserves already summoned Monday — to replace conscripted forces in the West Bank and the Golan Heights and allow them to be deployed to the Gaza border.

The goal of the mission is to “limit the impact and limit the capabilities of launching rockets from Gaza,” which jeopardize the safety and well-being of the State of Israel and its civilians, IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said Tuesday during a conference sponsored by The Israel Project.

“I’ve been asked numerous times today, ‘What will it change?’ And my response is, ‘What is the alternative?’” Lerner said. “We can’t let Hamas — this terrorist organization that is ruthless — dictate and keep a million people in Israel hostage. Hold them hostage and at their mercy. It’s something that a responsible government has to act upon.”

According to Lerner, in a 24-hour period, 130 rockets were launched at Israel. At almost the same time, the IDF attacked approximately 140 sites in Gaza, ranging from “rocket launchers, concealed rocket launchers, militants, their dwelling spots, where they hide out and where they carry out their command and communication for their operation.”

Lerner did not rule out a ground offensive in Gaza.

Hamas has approximately 10,000 rockets and the ability to reach Tel Aviv, Herzliya, Jerusalem and its periphery, Lerner said. As he was speaking, rockets aimed at Tel Aviv had been shot down by the Iron Dome defense system. It was the first Gaza rocket to reach Tel Aviv airspace since Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, according to the Jerusalem Post.

During the call, Lerner also received reports of five Palestinian terrorists entering Israel by sea on a beach just north of Gaza. Israeli forces killed all five.

Above Netivot and Ashdod, Iron Dome shot down 12 rockets. In Ashdod, residents fled for shelter, as rocket sirens sounded and eight people were injured. Beersheba — Israel’s largest southern city — and Ofakim were also subjected to Gaza rocket fire, with most rockets either striking open fields or intercepted by Iron Dome. Early warning sirens went off in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, but they were apparently false alarms.

Shortly after the operation began on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that it was time to “take off the gloves” against Hamas.

“We must be prepared to go all the way, and a ground offensive is also on the table,” Netanyahu said.

“This battle will not end in just a few days,” added Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

Students taking their English final exam in Beersheba on Monday had their test interrupted by sirens warning of an impending attack. Elisha Peleg, principal of Beersheba’s AMIT Wasserman High School, said both the high school students taking the test and sixth-graders who were in the school for summer camp “displayed remarkable resilience and acted responsibly.”

Classes at the Sapir College in the rocket-battered southern city of Sderot were canceled Tuesday and Wednesday, and Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba announced there would be no final exams on Tuesday. In Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gan Yavne and the surrounding area, gatherings at the beach, performance halls and any other places where the number of people could reach dozens were temporarily banned. Summer camps in Ashkelon and Ashdod were canceled until further notice.

Israeli residents have expressed their fears of a further escalation in rocket fire.

“It’s scary, you hear that terrifying sound a rocket makes as it flies over you,” said Sabrina Cohen of Netivot. “It conjures these horrible world-is-ending thoughts, and then suddenly the explosion, no less scary, when [the] Iron Dome [system] intercepts the rocket. Why does this have to be our routine?”

Amid the announcement of Operation Protective Edge, some Israeli government officials called on the IDF to retake Gaza, which Israel evacuated in 2005 under former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s controversial disengagement plan.

“The Islamist terror base [in Gaza], with its thousands of rockets pointed at us, didn’t happen by accident. It happened because of our mistakes, pulling out of Gaza and letting Hamas run in the [2006 Palestinian] elections,” Likud Knesset member Ze’ev Elkin, chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told Israel’s Channel 2.

In late June, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman advocated a similar position, saying at the time that only a limited operation in Gaza “just strengthens Hamas.”

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said he hopes the IDF enters Gaza on the ground so that the terrorist group, which had already claimed responsibility for the latest barrage of rockets, can kidnap Israeli soldiers.

“As long as the occupation attacks, we’ll respond, and it will pay the price for its crimes. Our will won’t break,” Abu Zuhri vowed, adding, “I hope the occupation makes this error and enters Gaza in a ground operation, so that we’ll have an opportunity to abduct soldiers.”

dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com

JTA News and Features and JNS.org contributed to this report.

‘Let Pollard Go’

An Israeli right-wing demonstrstor holds  a picture of Jonathan Pollard, a Jewish  American who was jailed for life in 1987 on charges of spying  on the United States, during a 2008  demonstration in Israel. (JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom)

An Israeli right-wing demonstrstor holds a picture of Jonathan Pollard, a Jewish American who was jailed for life in 1987 on charges of spying
on the United States, during a 2008 demonstration in Israel.
(JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom)

With a little more than a year until convicted spy Jonathan Pollard is eligible for parole, a group of 10 prominent legal scholars has sent a letter to President Barack Obama arguing for Pollard’s early release.

The group of nine scholars and professors at top universities, led by Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz and Irwin Cotler, a former Canadian justice minister, sent the letter on June 20 outlining why the president should release Pollard, a former American intelligence analyst who was given a life sentence in 1987 for selling classified information to Israel.

The letter calls for the commutation of Jonathan Pollard’s sentence to time served. “Commutation is more than warranted if the ends of justice are to be served, the rule of law respected and simple humanity secured,” they wrote, stating 10 arguments, both legal and humanitarian, why Pollard’s punishment is unjust.

“The sentence is immorally excessive,” Dershowitz said in a subsequent phone interview.

Pollard pled guilty to espionage in a bargain with the prosecution to avoid receiving a life sentence.

U.S. District Court Judge Aubrey Robinson sentenced him to life anyway after being presented with a “damage-assessment memorandum” by then Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.

Pollard sentence “is a violation of a plea bargain,” Dershowitz said, adding that “it’s important that the president know the facts, or that whoever is giving the recommendation knows the facts. So we wrote it basically as a mini-legal brief, and moral brief, so that the president or his surrogates can know the 10 reasons basically why legality, morality and just ordinary decency requires that he be released immediately.”

Shortly after the letter was delivered to the White House, outgoing Israeli President Shimon Peres, on a visit to the White House, presented the president with what he later called an “offer” about Pollard. Obama said he would direct the attorney general to study Pollard’s case.

Dershowitz said the public has been misled that Pollard committed treason, which is punishable by a life sentence or the death penalty under U.S. law. According to Dershowitz, the aiding of an ally, as in Pollard’s case, does not carry a life sentence and in cases where spies from other nations have been caught and tried by the U.S., the maximum sentence has been six-to-eight years, of which actual jail time averages between two and four years.

Dershowitz also pointed to the misinformation provided by the government and high-ranking intelligence officials, many of them Jewish, to scapegoat Pollard.

“Secretary Weinberger, who hated Israel with a passion largely because of his own Jewish heritage which he was embarrassed about and despised, allowed personal vendetta to get in the way and he committed perjury in his affidavit,” said Dershowitz.

Another high-level official who called for and remained committed to Pollard receiving a life sentence was Adm. Sumner Shapiro, then-director of the Office of Naval Intelligence.

Attempts by supporters and Israeli government officials to ask for presidential clemency date back to President Bill Clinton but have so far failed due to opposition from U.S. officials.

Dershowitz said that Jews in high government positions have long been sensitive to accusations of having dual loyalty to the U.S. and Israel. This caused Jewish officials to lean “over backwards to try to prove their patriotism.”

Other justifications against Pollard’s release include accusations that he sold secrets to apartheid-era South Africa. Dershowitz called it a “false and racist” charge intended to sway the trial judge, who was African American.

At the time of Pollard’s sentencing in 1987, federal law required parole eligibility for those serving life sentences after 30 years with good behavior. Now 59, Pollard is eligible for parole on Nov. 21, 2015. But, as Dershowitz said, Pollard’s release is not guaranteed.

A Divided House

Israel’s economy minister, Naftali Bennett, was one of five politicians who spoke at the annual Herzliya Conference last month. (Gideon Markowicz/FLASH90)

Israel’s economy minister, Naftali Bennett, was one of five politicians who spoke at the annual Herzliya Conference last month.
(Gideon Markowicz/FLASH90)

HERZLIYA, Israel — Naftali Bennett and Tzipi Livni don’t agree on much.

Bennett, Israel’s economy minister, sees the West Bank as an inseparable part of the Jewish state and wants Israel to annex its settlements there. Livni, the justice minister, says Israel can remain a Jewish democracy only by evacuating settlements.

But on one thing they agree: Israel must break its status quo with the Palestinians.

Bennett and Livni were two of the five politicians who presented a range of responses to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last month at the annual Herzliya Conference, an elite gathering of Israeli politicians, military officials and security experts weighing in on the central issues facing Israel.

Their debate exposes the cracks in Israel’s diverse governing coalition. But the biggest division in Herzliya wasn’t between hawks and doves; it was between the politicians who prioritized addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the military officials who all but ignored it.

The assessment of the military leadership differed little from last year’s conference, despite the recent collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the subsequent unity agreement between the Fatah faction of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas, which is regarded as a terrorist group by most of the West.

Those developments, which the politicians treated as major changes, were mentioned only in passing by military officials, who focused instead on threats emanating from Iran, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere.

“We’re in a Middle East that’s undergoing a jolt,” Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said in a speech that focused mainly on tensions on Israel’s borders. “Dramatic instability is a constant in this region, and we need to be ready.”

While the military officials were focused on missiles, strategic threats and regional alliances, the politicians were concerned mainly with Zionist values, domestic politics and international legitimacy. One after another, the leaders of five major Israeli parties put forward widely divergent proposals for how Israel should proceed following the failure of peace negotiations.

Bennett suggested partial annexation of the West Bank. Finance Minister Yair Lapid advocated staged withdrawal. Livni and Labor party Chairman Isaac Herzog called for a more aggressive approach to negotiations.

Each speaker criticized the others. Lapid and Bennett, once political allies, called each other’s proposals “delusional.”

“The era of Oslo has ended,” Bennett said. “Now the time has come to admit that it simply didn’t work. We need to think in a different way to create a better reality.”

Lapid said the absence of a two-state solution to the conflict could lead to Israel’s destruction and called for Israel to present a map of proposed borders ahead of resumed negotiations.

“There’s no reason to have settlements that won’t be in the territory of Israel in any final agreement or to invest millions of shekels in areas that will be part of the Palestinian state,” Lapid said.

The only politicians who weren’t especially bothered by the current state of Israeli-Palestinian affairs were Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and Interior Minister Gideon Saar, both of the ruling Likud party. Both dismissed the idea of territorial compromise and blamed the failure of the talks on the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

“I think we made a mistake with land for peace,” Yaalon said. “The conflict is not about the establishment of a Palestinian state. It’s about the existence of a Jewish national home.”

One issue of broad consensus among conference speakers was the need to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Speakers were skeptical that negotiations between Iran and world powers to scale back Iran’s nuclear program would succeed.

“It’s clear to us that this regime has not given up the option of a nuclear military capability and is striving toward it,” Yaalon said. “And it thinks it will succeed in this through negotiations with the West and a charm offensive.”

Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, a Likud member, said a nuclear-armed Iran constitutes a far greater danger than the stalemate with the Palestinians.

“If a difficult scenario comes to be 10 years from now, with Iran holding tens of weapons, all peace plans will be a total failure,” Steinitz said. “With a nuclear Iran, even [Israeli President] Shimon Peres will need to store away the peace plans.”

A Sobering Experience

Two inebriated teens in Tel Aviv sleep it off on a “blanket” made of bubble wrap by Parents Awake. (Provided)

Two inebriated teens in Tel Aviv sleep it off on a “blanket” made of bubble wrap by Parents Awake.
(Provided)

TEL AVIV — It’s midnight here and two balding men in blue vests are on the move. Someone has sprayed tear gas at a club two blocks away.
Outside a club known as The Mossad, located in a warehouse in the dilapidated Tel Aviv neighborhood of Florentin, groups of high school students mill about sporting stylish haircuts, revealing clothes and dazed expressions.

A boy in a black shirt and jeans lies passed out on the sidewalk, as a woman in a blue vest makes sure he has not suffocated on his own vomit. Nearby, two girls in black tank tops sit on the curb drinking water from plastic cups.

“How old are you?” another blue-vested woman asks one of the girls. “Where are you from? How are you getting home?”

Fifteen. From Modiin. She would be going home on the same bus that brought her here.

“When?”

5 a.m.

It’s the middle of a long night for the blue vests, members of a group of Tel Aviv parents who patrol clubs looking for kids who need help — anything from a cup of water to a call to emergency services.

Known as Parents Awake (Horim Erim in Hebrew), the group was founded in 2009 after four teens died in a drunk-driving accident on Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Freeway. In the Tel Aviv area alone, some 200 volunteers split into six patrols each weekend. There are 150 such squads across the country.

The squads typically patrol areas where they are likely to find groups of inebriated teens. But on nights like this one, when two clubs in the same neighborhood are holding massive parties for teens at the end of the school year, the volunteers converge on one spot.

“Stay in pairs,” Tzvika Koretz instructs a team of 18 parents, most of them middle-aged and graying. “We don’t want anyone alone in a dark alley. We’ve had someone stuck alone with a vomiting girl. That’s not healthy.”

Koretz, 50, is the founder of Parents Awake. By day he’s a north Tel Aviv lawyer. But wearing his vest and a no-nonsense expression, he looks like a beat cop about to break up a house party.

After Koretz’s pep talk, the parents split into two groups, each heading to one of the two clubs hosting parties that night.

Outside The Artist, a club housed in a gray brick building with steel beams and no outside marking, Koretz’s wife, Einat, cordons off a rectangular area with police tape and sets down her supplies. Next to her, three 16-year-old boys wearing matching T-shirts and identical haircuts with the sides shaved stumble around arm in arm.

“This is a banging party!” yells a boy named David, insisting he didn’t drink.

Soon, one calls the other a son of a whore, and they begin fighting.

No alcohol is served in the club — most of the crowd is under Israel’s drinking age of 18 — but Koretz says many of them drink en route to the party on buses organized by the clubs’ publicists. If they want a couple more drinks, they’ll step into an alley to polish off a bottle before heading inside.

In the club, a bass beat pounds so hard it vibrates up one’s leg. Neon strobe lights flash down on kids grinding against one another. A bar sells soft drinks, but it’s nearly deserted. In a room behind it, couples are making out.

After a quick trip to the bathroom, Einat Koretz says that couples have taken up the ladies’ room, doing more of the same.

“The problem is the whole culture of the atmosphere,” Tzvika Koretz said. “There’s not a lot of positive energy here.”

Ideally, Koretz tells the volunteers, police would have met the party buses as they arrived, located the alcohol and poured it out — standard operating procedure for nights like these. But the police presence in the area is thin, and teens arrive from outside the city with the alcohol already in their bloodstream and out of the cops’ reach. At the club, police only intervene when the situation grows violent.

While it unequivocally opposes underage drinking, Parents Awake is a volunteer group with no power to enforce the law. The group is funded by the city and the national Public Security Ministry, but it has no official legal standing and cannot force anyone to stay with them or even to stop drinking. The most they can do is call the police or paramedics.

Outside The Artist, David, the boy who an hour earlier insisted he hadn’t imbibed, is throwing up on the pavement. When he’s done, volunteers lay out a strip of bubble wrap for him to lie down on and offer him a cup of water. Now he admits having had “nine or 10 drinks of Finlandia” vodka.

Next to him, a boy stretched out on bubble wrap begins twitching
and drooling. Parents Awake dials an ambulance, and when the paramedics come, they call his mother to get permission to put him on a stretcher. Instead, she sends his grandfather to take him home, along with his 13-year-old brother, whom they extract from the club.

By 1 a.m., the teens have cleared out from in front of the clubs and some of the Parents Awake volunteers go home. At The Mossad, the only one left on the curb is the girl from Modiin waiting for her 5 a.m. bus.

“You know you helped kids,” Koretz said. “If you weren’t there, they would have been thrown onto the street without anyone to help them.

“But you also go to sleep with a stomachache. It’s not the most pleasant thing in the world. It’s hard to sleep after that.”

Israel needs security fence along Jordan border, Netanyahu says

In light of recent changes in the Middle East, Israel needs to construct a security fence along the length of its border with Jordan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday.

Speaking at the Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu said that in any future peace deal with the Palestinians, the Israel Defense Forces would be the entity protecting Israel in Judea and Samaria, including the Jordan Valley.

Israel “must stabilize the region west of the security line in Jordan,” Netanyahu said, adding that the territory of a future Palestinian state, up to the Jordan River, would have to remain under full Israeli security control for many years.

The prime minister said the Palestinians should have “political and economic control in the territories they control, but simultaneously there must be a continuation of Israeli security operations in these territories to ensure the disarmament of terrorist groups.”

U.K. Jewish group forming new pro-Israel Christian group

The Jewish Leadership Council, an umbrella group of several major British Jewish organizations, has announced that it is helping to form a new pro-Israel British Christian organization in order to give a “voice to Christian unity in support of Israel.”

Dubbed the United Christian Alliance for Israel, the new organization will be formed from “Bible-focused Christian communities, organizations, and Christian leaders” that will “proactively stand in support of the Jewish community in biblical support of Israel through a united positive voice.”

Additionally, the group will travel with JLC leaders to Israel and help promote an event called U.K. Night to Celebrate Israel.

The JLC, which was formed in 2004 by senior leaders from Britain’s Jewish community, is one of the top pro-Israel Jewish groups in the U.K. that actively works to strengthen the country’s Jewish community and support for Israel.

Brussels Jewish museum shooter to be extradited to Belgium

A French court has ordered that Mehdi Nemmouche — the suspected shooter at the Brussels Jewish museum last month — be extradited to Belgium, where he would be tried on murder charges, the BBC reported.

The May 24 shooting left four victims dead, including an Israeli couple.

According to French authorities, the 29-year-old French-Algerian terrorism suspect was arrested and found to be in possession of a Kalashnikov automatic rifle, which was wrapped in the flag of the terror group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), as well as a handgun.

Prosecutors say Nemmouche spent a year in Syria fighting with jihadists before returning to Europe in March.

World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder praised the French court’s decision, saying that he has “every confidence in the ability of the Belgian judiciary to conduct a fair and expeditious trial.”

Making A Stand

Passers-by look at Holocaust-related memorabilia left by citizens who are protesting the monument to the 1944 German occupation. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

Passers-by look at Holocaust-related memorabilia left by citizens who are protesting the monument to the 1944 German occupation. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

Budapest, Hungary — It isn’t every day that Jewish organizations reject funding for Holocaust commemorations.

But that’s what happened in Hungary this spring when Jewish groups refused nearly $1 million in special state grants to protest what they see as the government’s whitewashing of Hungarian complicity in the Holocaust.

“We wanted to send a very strong message to the government that we are interested in truthful, not symbolic, remembrance, and this is something money cannot buy,” said Andras Heisler, the president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, known as Mazsihisz.

Now a group of Jewish communities and cultural organizations are uniting in an effort that organizers say is unprecedented for Jewish groups in Hungary. They banded together into a fundraising alliance called Memento70 that is using crowdsourcing and social media in a bid to raise money on their own for their now unfunded projects.

The campaign went live in April, the 70th anniversary of the Nazi ghetto- ization of Hungarian Jews. The launch coincided with the official start of a special year of Holocaust memorial observances organized by the state but boycotted by much of the organized Hungarian Jewish community.

These are bold moves for a Hungarian Jewish community that remains highly dependent upon government funding. But the activist stance reflects potentially broader changes for Hungary’s Jewish community, which numbers as many as 100,000, most of whom are unaffiliated with the official communal bodies.

Heisler took the helm of Mazsihisz in 2013 and has outlined an agenda aimed at making the umbrella group a more respected, pluralistic representative body that can credibly lobby for Jewish interests at a time of growing nationalism and open xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

“We are not afraid,” Heisler said. “On the contrary, the Jewish community is reacting and finding itself. It feels alive.”

Mazsihisz is largely financed by the state’s funding of religious organizations and Holocaust compensation funds. The Memento70 boycott deals only with the Hungarian government’s special Holocaust commemoration grants.

In February, Mazsihisz had decided to boycott the government’s Holocaust year events because of issues that it said played down Hungarian involvement in the Holocaust.

The umbrella group objected to a planned memorial in Budapest to the 1944 German occupation that critics feel portrays Hungarians solely as victims of the Nazis. Mazsihisz was upset as well by the government’s refusal to share plans for a new state-sponsored Holocaust museum or to involve organized Jewry in developing its exhibition.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has rejected a call by 30 Jewish U.S. members of Congress to reconsider constructing the monument “against the wishes of the Hungarian Jewish community.”

It “is not a Holocaust memorial,” Orban said in a statement, but “a freedom-fighting people’s memorial of the pain of having its liberty crushed.”

In general elections in April, Orban’s center-right Fidesz party was re-elected, but one in five voters cast their ballots for the extreme right Jobbik party, notorious for its nationalist, anti-Roma policies and anti-Semitic rhetoric.

In May, Fidesz won more than 51 percent of the vote in elections for the European Parliament, with Jobbik finished second with nearly 15 percent. A recent Anti-Defamation League survey found that 41 percent of Hungarians hold anti-Semitic attitudes.

“My biggest problem is not Orban or Jobbik but reorganizing Mazsihisz and dealing with the weakness of the organization,” Heisler said.

As the main Jewish umbrella group, Mazsihisz officially represents the interests of Hungarian Jewry to the government and is responsible for the annual distribution of millions of dollars of government subventions and Holocaust compensation funds to Jewish organizations.

Critics have long accused the group of being undemocratic and unrepresentative, and called for a reform of its financial and administrative operations.

“The level of mistrust of Mazsihisz is high,” Heisler said. “We have to change this.”

Heisler said a recent operational review showed large-scale flaws in in the management of the organization, which employs nearly 1,000 people, and an economic audit revealed “very serious problems.”

He acknowledged, too, that he faced opposition in his hopes to “open the umbrella wider” to allow Hungary’s small Reform Jewish congregations, which are not recognized by Mazsihisz, to join.

“Mazsihisz is a big organization with huge infrastructure,” he said. “If these changes can’t be made, we are on a slippery slope.”

Most of Memento70’s 35 member groups are Jewish community or cultural groups that come under the Mazsihisz umbrella. They include most of the mainstream Jewish organizations that had won the government’s Holocaust commemoration grants.

The Memento70 campaign is raising money for projects including the construction of Holocaust memorials, cleaning up Jewish cemeteries, book publications, educational initiatives, and commemorative performances, exhibitions and concerts.

Many of the donations, Memento70 spokeswoman Antonia Szenthe noted, had come from donors with limited means who simply wanted to show support.

“There has never before been a fundraising alliance like this,” she said. “It is a very new thing. Fundraising as such has never happened here. Begging, yes. But not fundraising.”

Dangerous Crossroads

New Yorkers gather in front of the Israeli Consulate for a vigil for the three missing teens. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

New Yorkers gather in front of the Israeli Consulate for a vigil for the three missing teens.
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

ALON SHVUT — The group of several dozen seventh-graders had just finished school and were preparing to return to their homes in this bloc of communities near Bethlehem in the area Israel acquired in 1967. A few of the boys, their skullcaps blowing in the wind, stuck out their index fingers — the Israeli equivalent of “thumbing a ride.”

“Absolutely not!” yelled their teacher. “No hitchhiking! You’ll wait for the next bus.”

He then consulted his watch.

“It comes in two hours.”

The students let out a collective groan.

The mood is tense here among these post-1967 towns. It has been more than three days since a trio of teenagers were kidnapped on their way home from school late at night. Thousands of Israeli soldiers have surrounded the West Bank town of Hebron, about 10 miles from here, believing that is where the kidnappers are holding the boys, who studied at a boarding school in the area.

Many of the residents of these 20 communities know the kidnapped teenagers. Others see their own sons in them.

“I’m full of worry and anticipation, but I actually have hope,” Sharon Katz, a theater director who lives in nearby Efrat said. “The entire nation is praying for the recovery of these three wonderful boys. These three teenagers could have been anybody’s teenagers.”

Davidi Perl, the mayor of the 20,000 residents who live in Gush Etzion, said that the kidnapping has been devastating for many residents here.

“It’s like someone came into your house and took your children,” he said. “It’s like they hit our soft belly. We felt like we were safe here. We walk around, go jogging or bike riding at all hours of the day or night. But we weren’t really safe.”

Katz started her theater company called Raise Your Spirits at the height of the intifada, the violent Palestinian uprising against Israel that began in 2000. These days she volunteers at a hospitality stand for Israeli soldiers. She dispenses drinks and homemade cakes for several hundred soldiers each day. Many of those passing through today are going to the West Bank town of Hebron.

The hospitality stand was started in memory of Shmuel Gillis, a doctor from this area who was shot and killed while driving home from the hospital 13 years ago. His wife, Ruti, says the Palestinians in Hebron should pay the price for the kidnapping.

“I don’t want anyone to suffer,” the soft-spoken artist said, sitting at a table outside the hospitality stand. “But we should make life intolerable for the people there. We should cut off the water and the electricity and not let anyone go to work. Eventually, people will say to the kidnappers, ‘Give them back, we don’t want to suffer anymore.’”

These communities are just 10 miles outside Jerusalem, where many of the residents commute to school or work every day. There are buses that serve the area, but they are infrequent. All ages are represented here, but it’s especially the youth who commute by hitchhiking — either from bus stops or special hitchhiking posts.

“My mother is worried about hitchhiking, but I told her I’m more nervous about crossing the highway here than accepting a ride,” Noa Divo, 18, said as she waited for a ride. “Most people stop to offer rides, and it’s really a good way of life. Of course, my first reaction to the kidnapping was fear, but it’s much more convenient than the buses, and it saves money.”

There were fewer hitchhikers than usual, but those who continued said it was too much a part of their lives to quit.

“Hitchhiking is simply part of the fabric of life here,” said Perl. “There are buses to Jerusalem but no buses between the communities. If you want to get from one to the other you have to hitchhike or walk.”

The mayor said his own children frequently hitchhike. His 16-year-old son carries tear gas with him whenever he travels to Jerusalem, and his sons in the army have their army-issued arms. But children as young as 12 or 13 who can be seen trying to get a ride would be unable to defend themselves if attacked.

The Israeli army says it has foiled at least 30 similar kidnapping attempts in the past year. Theater director Katz said she lets her four sons hitchhike but not her daughter.

“I told my daughter when she started going to school outside of town that she is not allowed to hitchhike,” said Katz. “I told her, ‘No matter where you are, you are to call me, and I’ll pick you up.’ I’ve picked her up at all kinds of places at all hours of the day and night.”

Others say they simply have no choice.

Gillis said her daughter is finishing nursing school and has to be at the hospital in Jerusalem by 7 a.m. The only way to get there on time, she explained, is by hitchhiking.

The proper Israeli response to the kidnappings is also being debated here. Some call for harsher measures against the Palestinians; others call for more Jews to move here.

One possible reason for the kidnapping is that the teenagers were taken in order to exchange them for some of the 5,000 Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails. In 2011, Israel freed more than 1,000 Hamas prisoners in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The prevalent mood here seemed to be against any prisoner exchange.

“I am against any prisoner release,” said Perl. “The prisoners return to terror and do other acts against Israel. It doesn’t help and will never help to achieve peace.”

Even the seventh-grade boys waiting for the bus had an opinion.

“It would be a terrible thing if they did that,” Gavriel Gimpel, 13, said. “The last time they did that they took 1,000 for one. So if they have three they could take a lot more. We shouldn’t do it.”

Linda Gradstein writes for The Media Line.