Sept. 1, 2006
Showing their support for Israel
Vancouver couple on WZO mission tours sites most affected by war
KATHARINE HAMER EDITOR
Mark Weintraub and Rory Richards were midway through a vacation
in Ontario's cottage country early last month when they got the
e-mail. Mercaz, the Conservative movement's Zionist wing, was seeking
North American Jews to join the three-day World Zionist Organization
(WZO) Solidarity Mission mission to Israel right in the middle
of the war against Hezbollah and Hamas.
Recognizing the importance of visiting the Jewish state as it faced
one of its biggest threats in years, the couple immediately cut
short their vacation to join more than 100 other Jews from around
the world on a tour of the areas most affected by the conflict.
Though Richards and Weintraub are both deeply involved with the
Vancouver Jewish community (Weintraub is chair of Canadian Jewish
Congress, Pacific Region), this was an expedition they felt it necessary
to take as individuals, rather than as representatives of any organized
"I hadn't been to Israel for several years," said Weintraub,
"and I know how easy it is to lose perspective when you just
have your connection with Israel through the media. So just to be
there and realize that this is an extraordinary country, an extraordinary
people, just gives it a different perspective and balance."
With the help of the Jewish Agency, 150 Jews lay people and
community leaders from 18 countries, including Canada, the
United States, Uruguay, Romania, South Africa and Great Britain
took part in what Weintraub said was one of the first missions organized
during the war.
"It was wonderful," he said, "to be with Jews from
so many different countries who were so committed to being in Israel
at that time."
He said that among the trip's objectives were to offer spiritual
and financial support to the country. "Israelis feel the need
for tourists to continue to come to Israel," said Weintraub.
"It's very critical for the economy. The fact that you're in
hotels and buying food and gifts, that's considered to be absolutely
vital by Israelis. I think more importantly, though, it was psychologically
important for Israelis to know they're not isolated during this
"There were signs up in windows saying thank you for your support
and courage in coming to visit us," Richards observed. "Shopkeepers
and taxi cab drivers and the civilian population that we interacted
with, there was just nothing but gratitude expressed for you being
there, which was quite unlike any other time visiting Israel.
"I think that those [Israelis] who interact with the tourist
population were definitely humbled to know that we'd travelled all
this distance for 72 hours just to show solidarity with Israel.
I think that one of the motivating factors of the tour and
one of the important parts is having the leadership that
travelled there just be really informed and briefed on the situation
and be able to come back and tell our own communities and our friends
what's really going on there."
One of the important messages to relay, said Weintraub, was that,
"The donations that we give through CJA have a direct impact
on the health and well-being of [children affected by the conflict].
We don't appreciate how directly the economy has been affected by
this war. It's been a hugely expensive war; where is that money
coming from? It's got to be diverted from other parts of the military
and from the social welfare budget.
"It's important that our community know that there's a correlation
between the raising of funds for the emergency campaign and these
monies going to the Jewish Agency and employing counsellors and
paying for the time that these children would have away from the
In less than three days, the group travelled to Haifa, where they
met with the city's mayor and with the president of Haifa University,
toured bomb shelters and some of the sites that were hit by Katyusha
rockets and went to displacement camps in the middle of the country.
Richards and Weintraub were two of just three Canadians on the trip.
Some of the more high-profile participants included the chief rabbi
of South Africa and Zionist Federation directors from half a dozen
Visiting Haifa clearly resonated with the group.
"What a terrible, terrible impact on a city which is known
for its wonderful relations between Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis,"
said Weintraub. "Arab Israelis were killed as much as Jewish
Israelis, and what we were hearing in Haifa was really the angst
of the fact that so much effort had been put into creating a city
of wonderful tolerance and here these missiles were coming in and
attempting to disrupt that really great model that so many had been
One of the most insightful briefings they received, said Richards,
was from Prof. Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, president of Haifa University. "He
said, 'I want to address the idea that we're overreacting.' He said,
'I reject that criticism because it goes on the premise that killing
is OK; that if you kidnap two of our soldiers, we can kidnap two
of yours. If you kill 10 of our civilians, maybe we can kill 10
of yours. Killing's not OK; murdering's not OK. What's important
to look at is the intent. The intent of Hezbollah is to wipe Israel
off the map; is calling for a genocide of the Jewish people and,
in that context, our reaction is completely proportionate. Our intent
here is to protect our civilian population and to protect our right
to exist, not just in Israel but as human beings, as Jews.' "
Among Israelis, there was, Richards observed, "some resentment
over some of the reporting ... just the naïvete of the international
media, not being able to differentiate between a terrorist group
and a civilian population. And just being so hoodwinked by a lot
of [Hezbollah's] propaganda. I remember seeing [CNN's] Anderson
Cooper reporting there from inside Lebanon and they were showing
pictures of dead bodies and one of the corpses got up! That kind
of thing happened all the time."
"When we were touring Haifa," Weintraub added, "and
there had been a missile attack, there was very little to see, because
they would try to move as quickly as possible to repair the damage.
And that of course, doesn't make great TV, but it was a municipal
decision to try and create as much normalcy as possible."
It was in Haifa, too, that the pair found themselves in the middle
of an air raid. "We had to get off the bus, up against a wall,"
Richards recalled. "We saw people running, getting into the
closest shelter. We were kind of caught in awkward space because
we were on a bus with 40 people. There wasn't anywhere big enough
around, so we just had to make the best of it.
Still, she said, "I didn't feel nervous at any point, actually.
I felt really that it was up to fate, that if anything happened
while we were there, that's how it should be."
Although, since the ceasefire took effect, there has been some protest
within Israel against the way the war was handled, Richards said
that was not a sentiment the group noticed at the time. "I
guess if you really got into it, they were [critical of the war],"
she said, "but I think the feeling was solidarity. The right
and left, politically, in Israel were completely on the same page.
God only knows when the last time that happened."
For Weintraub, it was the face of a little girl in Nitzanim, the
"tent city" that played host to 6,000 refugees from northern
Israel, that captured the spirit of the country best.
"[She] came up to us with just a beautiful smile and we asked
her what it was like," he recalled, "and she just in a
very wise and mature way said, 'Look, this is war and this is what
we do at this time and it's good, it's fine. We're alive, I'm with
my family.' You see the face of Israelis who've endured this, the
unpredictability, on a daily basis.
"We were very moved when we went to Sederot, which is the town
across from Gaza, and we met with the mayor and he told us about
2,500 missile attacks and how the missile attacks have increased
since Israel has pulled out. And his point was that Israel really
hasn't stopped fighting the 1948 War of Independence. That yes,
there are Palestinians who want peace, but the leadership, those
who control the military infrastructure, have not let up on their
desire to win the 1948 war.
"He was very proud of the fact that, notwithstanding that 75
per cent of the children are suffering from post-traumatic stress
syndrome because of constant bombardment it's huge psychological
damage he said, 'none of our residents have left. We are
not going to be driven out of Sederot. Where are we going to go?
Are we going to go to Ashkelon? Well, the missiles can reach Ashkelon.
Are we going to go to Jerusalem? Well, they blow up buses in Jerusalem
this is our land and we're going to stay here, we're not
going to leave.' "