Editor’s Notes: Fighting the flood

By David Horovitz September 9, 2005

The capacity of the New Orleans Jewish community to survive this crisis, and maintain a semblance of normality amid the dislocation, has been immensely boosted by the remarkable outpouring of goodwill and practical assistance from Jews nearby, across America and even further afield

I met Adam Bronstone, the charming, easygoing director of community relations at the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, a few years ago when I came to the city to give some lectures. We had a couple of hours of down time, so he took me to one of the city’s finest music stores on a (successful) mission to find a guitar I’d been dreaming of getting for years.

I called him earlier this week to get his uniquely informed personal sense of the whereabouts and wellbeing of his city’s 9,000-strong Jewish community. He was, obviously, no longer in New Orleans. He had relocated to Houston, along with the majority of New Orleans Jewry, the rest of whom were redistributed, he said, pretty much to ‘the four corners of America.’

He was now busy rebuilding the community, virtually, by compiling an Internet database on the whereabouts of all of its evacuated members, trying to reestablish contact with those who had yet to touch base, and arranging housing and schooling and who knows what for thousands of uprooted families. His own home, indeed his entire Metairie district, where much of New Orleans Jewry had lived, he said, had been under a full floor of water.

Bronstone said he doubted he’d be going back long-term. Much as he loved New Orleans, he said, it would likely take at least a year until the city was livable again, and by then many, many members of the community would simply have rebuilt their lives, by force of circumstance, and moved on. This was the third time he’d been evacuated, he said, having briefly left twice before because of tropical storm warnings, and he didn’t think it was worth taking the chance of moving back again.

Amidst the chaos into which Hurricane Katrina had pitched his life, he told me all this calmly and precisely. And he told me it only after he had first asked me a question. I had telephoned him out of the blue. We hadn’t spoken for years. And yet his instant response to my voice on the phone had been: ‘Oh, hi David, how’s the guitar?’

I’m not at all sure I’d have had the presence of mind or, to be honest, the interest, in asking that kind of normal, friendly, question had our roles been reversed. Evidently, Bronstone is a man of considerable resilience and humor.

But as he would be the first to acknowledge, his and his flooded community’s ability to survive this crisis, and maintain a semblance of normality amid the dislocation, has also been immensely boosted by the remarkable outpouring of goodwill and practical assistance from Jews nearby, across America and even further afield.

Indeed, Bronstone accompanied his report on the status of the 9,000 with heartfelt messages of thanks to the communities, families and individual philanthropists who have thrown open their wallets and their homes to provide accommodation and resources. He told me stories about a premature baby boy flown to safety from a hospital neo-natal ward and the parents flown quickly out afterwards to be reunited with him. He described the instance of a non-Jewish community maintenance worker who’d been plucked to safety from a rooftop, temporarily cared for by the Houston federation, and then flown out to his family in Albuquerque. Bronstone himself, he told me, had been taken in for his first few days by his own Houston community relations counterpart, and was now working out of the Houston federation’s offices.

Across America, as of midweek, the UJC and partner agencies had raised $4.3 million in emergency disaster relief, with more on the way. Innumerable other Jewish organizations are also raising money and organizing relief work. As The Jerusalem Post has reported in the past few days, Jewish day schools across America are welcoming New Orleans kids and synagogues are preparing Shabbat meals and making more extensive plans for the High Holy Days. Brian Goodkind, who lost his own Miami home in 1992′s Hurricane Andrew, is a former victim turning provider for some 20-30 New Orleans families. Israelis are sending money, too, while our government is dispatching equipment, supplies and medical assistance, including specialists in trauma and infectious diseases.

In a separate e-mail to me this week, Bronstone wrote: ‘By Tuesday morning after the hurricane struck, we knew we had a monumental task on our hands in terms of turning our entire [Federation] operation into a disaster crisis management team. We needed to find our people, find out what they needed, rescue those left behind in New Orleans, and a million other items that, to be honest, we are not even close to being aware of…

‘We are flying by the seats of someone else’s pants,’ he added, ‘but we are getting great support for the local Jewish community and the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, United Jewish Communities and, to be honest, world Jewry. We have been flooded (to use a word) with calls for ‘How can we help?’ from across the country and Israel.

‘And we know,’ Bronstone concluded – and how right he is – ‘how blessed we are for being part of a much larger community of millions of Jews who, at a moment’s notice, have leapt into action to help us save our community. Truly, this is a time when the phrase Kol Israel Arevim Ze La Ze – all Jews bear responsibility for one another – means more than it ever has.’

* * *

Shimon Peres seemed to deal a fatal blow to the modern ‘big bang’ theory this week, telling the Post on Wednesday that he was not interested in a formal pre-election alliance with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

As so often before, the pollsters are providing Peres with the reason to believe that, however improbable given his track record, this time he really will win the premiership outright. And so, even if Sharon leaves the Likud and seeks to establish a new mainstream political party emphasizing a readiness to relinquish a considerable proportion of the West Bank, Peres is adamant that Labor would consider partnering him only after the election results are in, if such a coalition were the best way for Labor to take power.

Behind the scenes, though, some in Labor are still urging the ‘big bang’ – the establishment of an alliance of pro-Sharon ex-Likudniks and leading figures from Labor, Shinui and beyond – ahead of polling day. One of these advocates insisted to me this week that such an alliance was still on the cards, and said he personally would be prepared to simply discard Labor, and that Peres should too, in order to make it happen.

Indicating that he did not share Peres’s belief that his time had finally come, this Labor leader spoke of his hope that Peres, a range of other established politicians, and outsiders such as ex-Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter and Ben-Gurion University President Avishai Braverman would rally together behind Sharon on a centrist ticket that could sweep to power.

Although it is widely assessed that a new Sharon faction, Labor and Shinui running separately would garner more seats than an alliance running together, the devil is in the distribution: The whole point of bolting the Likud, for Sharon, would be to remain prime minister. If his new faction were to run separately, it would be truly remarkable for him to emerge after polling day with the largest Knesset faction and thus be tasked by the president with forming a new coalition. If, however, he headed a wide alliance, its prospects of winning more seats than a Binyamin Netanyahu-led pro-Greater Israel Likud would be more realistic.

In short, then, my source is trying to persuade his Labor party to get real, give up the illusion that Peres will next year become prime minister, and instead do its best to ensure that Sharon remains in the job – because only the new Arik, the man who relinquished Gaza, can get Labor’s policies implemented.

If Peres maintains his adamant opposition, this source made plain that he would remain with Labor and make the best of it. For Sharon, by contrast, remaining with his current party and making the best of it may not be much of an option.

* * *

Ever since Pakistan’s foreign minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri and Israel’s Silvan Shalom held a first public meeting in Turkey last Thursday, the Post has been inundated with e-mails from Pakistan and India expressing everything from delight to horror at the warming of relations. English-language message boards in Pakistan also reflect what our correspondent in Karachi reported in Sunday’s Post is the ‘mixed’ response to the prospect of Pakistani-Israeli diplomatic relations, with some contributors posting viciously anti-Semitic comments accusing Israel of all manner of crimes and conspiracies and others bemoaning the benightedness that has prevented normalized relations to date.

Still, last weekend, I was interviewed by telephone on Pakistan’s Geo TV about the diplomatic breakthrough, and the questioning was rather better than mixed. (It is impossible for Pakistanis to call Israel, so they e-mailed me and I called them back. It is also impossible for Pakistanis to travel here; their passports are marked as valid everywhere but Israel.)

The interviewer wanted to hear straightforward information about what Israelis knew about Pakistan and how prominently the meeting was being reported. But he also encouraged me to talk about the advantages of open contacts in breaking down stereotypes and fostering dialogue, and gave me time, too, to stress Israel’s hope that Pakistan’s would be the first step on a road to a wider normalization.

Our reporter in Karachi, Hasan Kazmi, now says that he thinks the Pakistani government will have to wait a while for any further warming of ties, and that local media have been running headlines disputing the official claim that the contacts with Israel have Palestinian Authority blessing. The PA had merely been ‘informed’ of the talks, it is now claimed, rather than backing them.

Nonetheless, the official word from Islamabad is that a government delegation will be traveling to ‘Gaza, Jerusalem and some other places’ as early as next month, and ‘interacting with whoever is there.’

Does this mean Israelis? Apparently so, because a Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Tuesday that the delegation, once in the area, ‘would also get in touch with the Israeli authority.’

Which leaves only the question of how an official Pakistani delegation will breach its own passport regulations.

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