CHICAGO — THE progress toward Middle East peace has heightened a paradox in the American Jewish community.
The easing of tensions in that region has spread stateside, allowing American Jews to affirm their cultural and religious identity with Israel and assess relations with other peoples in a calmer, healthier atmosphere, say Jewish leaders.
On many university campuses, for example, Jewish and Muslim groups are engaged in more dialogue than usual, says Rabbi Richard Marker, regional director for the Hillel Foundation of Illinois.
However - and this is the paradox - only half of American Jews now give to Jewish philanthropy, much of which traditionally has gone to Israel. Jewish leaders say trends even suggest a coming decline in total giving as the older generation gives way to the newer one. Although 73 pecent of Jews over the age of 65 give to a Jewish cause, less than 35 percent of Jews under the age of 35 do so, according to a recent Brandeis University study entitled, ``Israel and the Changing Character of Fundraising.''
Moreover, Jews are increasingly earmarking their contributions for projects at home - such as for religious education - rather than for Israel and Jews in other places abroad.
Although total giving rose from 1990 to 1993, the amount of funds collected by the UJA and sent to Jews overseas has declined from 50 percent in the mid-1980s to 43.7 percent last year, according to UJA. ``Even before the peace process appeared as if it might be successful, the appeal of annual crisis fundraising for Israel was losing its power,'' says the study.
Jewish organizations are more eager than ever to attune US Jews to the peacetime imperatives for aiding Israel.
Their top leaders say the issue goes deeper than funds: Middle East diplomacy is offering American Jews an unprecedented ``peace dividend,'' a chance to strengthen their religious identity through a deeper understanding of Israel, say American Jewish leaders.
Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, comments: ``We don't need blood in the streets of Israel to be the only reason why we support Israel.''
The sense of redefinition among some Jews in their attitude toward Israel may just be part of an adjustment in attitudes as the impulse to support Israel shifts from what the Brandeis study calls ``crisis, threat, and survival to stability, cooperation, and growth,'' the leaders say.
Seeking to sustain giving even as Israel appears increasingly secure, the UJA and the Israeli government have recently hailed mutual benefits from contributions by US Jews to Israel.
In a recent open letter to UJA's Lurie, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin wrote, ``the initiatives you have put forward are essential to our future.
``Some opinions I have heard expressed about Israel no longer wanting or needing American support or commenting on the notion that Israel is less of a `hot button' than it used to be fly in the face of reality,'' Mr. Rabin wrote.
Lurie has sought to strengthen the relations of US Jews to Israel and to promote giving to overseas Jews by building a ``living bridge,'' especially among youth.
The UJA is establishing a $30-million fund to send 50,000 Jewish teenagers to Israel for visits. This year it began a program called Partnership 2000 in which it pairs American Jewish communities with neighborhoods in Israel. Moreover, UJA and other Jewish organizations have sought to deepen relations in business and other fields.