The American Reform movement became the primary target of Israeli outrage after leaders last week decided to call off the movement's entire summer youth program in Israel, the oldest and largest teenage youth program operating here for high school students. The decision to cancel the high school program was made just after the bloody June 1 suicide bombing of a Tel Aviv discotheque in which 22 Israeli teenagers were killed.
"Our religious and Zionist commitments run deep and are known to all. But this movement never uses other people's children to make a political or ideological point," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, in announcing the cancellation of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) summer program that last year brought 1,500 students to Israel.
Yoffie's statement prompted an immediate backlash in Israel, where politicians ranging from Yossi Sarid, leader of the left-wing secular Meretz Party, to Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh, of the centrist Labor Party, condemned the Reform decision.
In particular, critics said Yoffie's statement would harm the Reform movement's search for religious equality in the Jewish state.
"Jews in the diaspora have become complacent. They have forgotten the meaning of the expression, 'Every Jew is responsible for one another,'" said Bambi Sheleg, a liberal Orthodox Jewish publisher and commentator.
Meanwhile, Jerusalem's hardline Mayor Ehud Olmert announced he was "suspending all contacts with the American Reform movement" in the wake of Yoffie's announcement.
"For years the Reform movement has been demanding full equality in the country even though the movement hardly exists in Israel," said Olmert in a statement. "Yet now, in a moment of need, when the State of Israel needs more than ever a show of Jewish solidarity, this movement rises up and decides to cancel its trips to Israel."
The American Reform movement decision also left Israel's tiny, homegrown Progressive (Reform) Movement in a corner, as local officials sought to distance themselves from the moves of their American affiliate.
"We are very angry at the decision. We denounce it completely," said Rabbi David Ariel-Joel, director general of the Progressive Movement in Israel. "It has created a lot of image problems for us and lowered the morale of the communities here."
But Reform movement leaders here said their group unfairly caught the flak for what was in fact a broader trend of cancellations.
This summer's scheduled Maccabiah Games, an international gathering of Jewish sportsmen and women, also is likely to be postponed for a year following widespread cancellations by young athletes.
"We have to be honest in recognizing that the picture is much more complex than it seems," said Rabbi Uri Regev, who heads the Progressive movement's Religious Action Center in Jerusalem.
"One might want to bear in mind that Israeli school groups also have long ceased coming to Jerusalem this year on organized visits. And whenever there are tensions on the Lebanese border, Israelis cancel vacations up north in the Galilee.
"The recent events raise the need for an honest, heart-to-heart extension of our dialogue, to address the realities of our mutual responsibility and relationship in times of urgency and times of pressure," he added. "But the extremity of the reaction here is still totally off target. The decision on the summer school programs doesn't represent the total commitment of the Reform movement."
A number of big, high-level delegations of American and world Jewry are still expected in the coming weeks, said Michael Jankelowitz, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency here.
Those delegations include the 500 Jews from around the world who will be arriving next week for the annual meeting of the Zionist General Council. Later in June, the annual Jewish Agency Assembly is expected to draw 1,000 visitors to Jerusalem. A number of solidarity missions of Jewish lay leaders and professionals are arriving at the beginning of July.
"The problem has been mostly with the high school kids, but the adults and the college-age kids are still coming," said Jankelowitz.
Indeed, Israel's biggest Jewish youth tour operation, the new Birthright program, is bringing some 4,500 college-age students here in just the next few weeks, program officials say. Birthright, a joint initiative of a group of private Jewish philanthropists and the Israeli government, aims to offer a free trip to Israel for any Jewish young adult who has never yet visited the Jewish State.
College-age students are generally less subject to parental pressures to cancel trips to Israel than high schoolers are, noted Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former government minister and chairman of the executive committee of Birthright Israel.
"You can always look at the glass as half-empty or half-full," said Melchior.
"Thousands of students who have never been to Israel are coming here for the first time in their life--and in these days," he added. "So let's not idealize what was before. Most Diaspora Jews didn't rush to Israel during the 1967 Six Day War or the 1973 Yom Kippur War either."