Fearful of terrorist attacks, growing numbers of diaspora Jews are canceling planned visits to Israel this summer in a trend that is outraging the nation's political leaders and deepening its sense of gloom over the conflict with the Palestinians.
So many Jewish athletes have refused to come here for the Maccabiah Games, held every four years and scheduled to open July 16, that organizers pleaded with the government Sunday to postpone the event for a year.
"You can't have an athletic competition without any athletes," said Avi Vorshaviak, a member of the Maccabiah organizing committee.
But under pressure from Matan Vilnai, Israel's minister of culture, science and sports, organizers agreed to put off a final decision until Friday. Vilnai said the government will "certainly pressure" Jewish communities to send delegations so that the games can be held.
"The prime minister is putting all his weight so that they understand the importance of this not as a sports event but in the broad sense of world Jewry's support of the state of Israel at this difficult time," Vilnai told Israel Radio.
Thousands of competitors from around the world normally attend the Maccabiah Games, a major bonding experience for Israelis and diaspora Jews often referred to as the Jewish Olympics. But organizers say that although they planned for 5,000 athletes to compete this year, including 1,000 Israelis, only 2,500 were ready to come from abroad two weeks ago and more are dropping out every day.
The U.S. delegation--anticipated to be the largest foreign contingent, with 600 athletes--asked last week for a year's postponement.
In another blow, the U.S. Reform movement, the largest American Jewish religious movement, announced last week that it was canceling its summer youth programs in Israel. Politicians in Israel denounced the cancellations Sunday as an abandonment of the Jewish state in its hour of need by those who should be its biggest supporters.
"If at this hour Jews do not come visit here, what is the significance of their solidarity with Israel?" Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh said.
For months, as the world's media have reported the mounting body count in Israeli-Palestinian fighting, enrollment has been steadily dropping in various programs designed to bring Jews to Israel. Hebrew University, for instance, has reported a 50% drop in the number of students from abroad who will participate in its one-year study program beginning this fall. And even Birthright Israel, a program that gives college-age Jews a free, 10-day trip to Israel, has seen 30% of those signed up for tours this summer cancel.
The Reform movement, however, is the first national Jewish organization to formally cancel its trips. The decision came as a surprise to the movement's Israeli arm, which was not consulted by the U.S. leadership. Leaders of the movement here said the cancellation will hurt its standing with Israelis.
"There is no question that the impact is deleterious," said Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch, honorary life president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. "Everybody is criticizing us. It is inappropriate for world Jewry to say to Israel: 'You guys are living there. You fight your own battles.' World Jewry has always had a special affinity with and responsibility for Israel."
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert harshly condemned the Reform movement's decision, saying it was "spitting in the face of Israel." He added that he was cutting all relations with the movement. At the same time, Israel's Foreign Ministry sent urgent messages to its embassies, instructing diplomats to try to persuade other Jewish organizations to continue their programs here. Even left-wing members of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, called on the Reform movement to reverse its stand.
But Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the U.S. Reform movement, defended the decision, which the movement made after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 20 young people and himself outside a Tel Aviv nightclub this month.
"These are not our kids but other people's kids," he told Israel Radio. "The responsibility is a heavy one, and the parents are very worried, and they are asking us to vouch for the full and absolute safety of their kids, and this is something which is almost impossible to do."
According to figures supplied by Israel's quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, about 13,000 Jewish youths from around the world were expected to attend the agency's various summer programs here. The number now planning to come, the agency says, has fallen to 4,500.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is still holding its summer program here, said Marty Karp, director of the federation's Jerusalem office. But only 20 participants will attend, down from 90 last summer, he said.
The federation intends to go through with the program "because we feel that Israel is a very important building block for Jewish identity, and we don't believe that you can celebrate the whole concept of Jewish peoplehood without Israel," Karp said. The federation also decided last week to donate $120,000 to help victims of the nightclub bombing, Karp said.
By contrast, several Jewish organizations in the San Francisco Bay area jointly decided to cancel their summer programs here because of security concerns. The cancellations were announced in a letter dated June 5 from the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties; San Francisco's Israel Center; the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay; the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose; and the Koret Foundation. About 300 teenagers were expected to take part in those programs.
"We all remain deeply committed to the core value of Israel experiences for engendering positive Jewish identity in our teenagers," the letter said. But "we have concluded that it is no longer possible to assure the safety and security of the teenagers."
Paul Freedman, director of the North American desk for the Zionist Education Department of the Jewish Agency, said he is encouraged by the fact that the majority of overseas Jewish organizations are maintaining their programs here, despite the drop in numbers of participants.
"I'm gratified and I'm very proud of those organizations and people who are still coming," Freedman said.
"From my point of view, personally, it is sad" that so many have canceled, he said, because "every Jew who comes here is precious."
Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel's deputy foreign minister, said he can understand the fears that Jews abroad have about traveling to Israel now. He recalled that some Israelis panicked during the Persian Gulf War, when Tel Aviv was hit by Iraqi missiles.
"Here too, when the Scuds were falling, people didn't want to stay in Tel Aviv," Melchior said. "It's very hard to complain when parents who every day read the newspaper headlines about the situation in Israel prefer to delay the trips."
Melchior said Israel should accept a postponement of the Maccabiah Games if Jewish communities are too fearful to send delegations here.
"There's no doubt that terrorism has somewhat succeeded to scare people," he said, "and therefore we fight against terrorism and we do everything so that it will be no more."