A few years ago I was a guest at a meeting in the U.S. of some lay and professional Jewish community leaders. In some concluding remarks, the chairwoman of the meeting made a passing comment about how the Israeli government paid no mind to the opinions and sensitivities of the American Jewish community, and that hopefully someday it will.
Tuesday, May 18, 2021
Remember this moment
Most of the attendees either nodded their heads in silent agreement or did nothing at all. No one objected.
While no fan of the then-current Israeli government, or of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, I nonetheless could not let this off-the-cuff, almost flippant comment go by. As the chair was about to close the meeting, I raised my hand and said "excuse me." I then went onto say something like this:
"This is a two-way street. While American Jews may feel that Israelis are insensitive to them and ignore their views, Israelis have similar feelings. They feel American Jews are not there for them when it really counts. Two examples:
"1) During the Second Intifada that started in 2000, after Arafat's rejection of the Clinton/Barak proposals for a Palestinian state and the resort to violence, American Jews were a rare site in Israel. The busloads of Christians kept coming, but the Jews? To the Bahamas and Hawaii, one might speculate. Certainly not to Israel.
"2) Israelis saw the Iran deal as an existential threat. Yes, Prime Minister Netanyahu was the face of the opposition to the world, and, yes, one can certainly argue with his approach. But the view that the deal presented a serious, life-and-death threat to Israelis and their children was a position held across the political spectrum.
"Israelis were up against a popular American President, President Obama, whose Administration resorted to less than admirable strategies to paint those opposing the deal as warmongers. On occasion, they hearkened back to thinly disguised, old tropes used against Jews for centuries.
"Where did most American Jews come down? With President Obama, not Israel. From the perspective of many Israelis, these two incidents told them American Jews are fair-weather friends. When the going gets rough, American Jews aren't there."
The meeting adjourned. I saw one or two faces with indicating appreciation, nodding understanding.
The rest: silence.
Here in Jerusalem we can see the demonstrations in the U.S. by those that would love for Israel to disappear. But we do not see the demonstrations of years gone by, of proud, public, unafraid Jews in places like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco.
Yes, there are a few brave, lonely, determined voices. But nothing organized by the major American Jewish organizations. Nothing like the tens and hundreds of thousands of years gone by.
It seems like American Jews have become timid, without confidence, when it comes to supporting the only Jewish-majority nation in the world, a nation that has its challenges and that makes mistakes, but that has been miraculous in what it has accomplished and, under extraordinarily trying conditions, is generous in its conduct towards its enemies.
A nation that seeks peace but refuses to not defend itself in the face of rampant aggression against its people. A country that changed the perception of all Jews in the world, and that made Jews strong and proud.
In the face of that nation suffering over 3,100 missiles fired at its civilian population, a population that would have been devastated but for its defensive systems and its shelters, American Jews are, as my former rabbi in Sacramento put it, the Jews of silence.
We've seen this movie before. We saw the Pittsburgh Platform, wherein the budding Reform Movement rejected Zionism and the concept of the Jews as a nation and asserted that Judaism was simply another religion whose adherents would meld comfortably into the countries of which they were citizens, in this case the United States, the Promised Land, the Golden Medina.
We saw the timid, silent American Jews of the 1930's and 1940's, those that counseled against demanding strong measures to rescue the condemned, to not rock the boat, to not pressure, all out of fear of irritating the Roosevelt Administration and of calling into question their loyalties.
We saw major American Jewish organizations and so-called leaders of the American Jewish community cringe and criticize as Hillel Kook (a.k.a. Peter Bergson, Revisionist Israeli leader) who organized loud and very public rallies and marches and pageants demanding American action aimed at saving Europe's Jews, to little avail.
We saw the early days of the Soviet Jewry Movement, when the Jewish "establishment" warned that protestors were upsetting the Nixon Administration's rapprochement with the Soviet dictators, assured us that they knew how to get the job done quietly and diplomatically, when in reality they were fearful of being charged with putting Jews before America and with losing their invitations to Washington dinner parties.
We know who in these instances have been judged heroic and who have been judged cowardly. We know who we now admire and who we do not respect.
We know who stood proudly when the lives and limbs of their brothers and sisters were under dire threat, and who were concerned for their status with those they look to in the general community for acceptance and legitimacy.
American Jews and American Jewish organizations will not be proud of this moment in Jewish history or in Israel-American Jewish relations.
The next time American Jews complain that Israelis are not considering their feelings and taking into account their opinions and needs, remember this moment. Be assured that Israelis will.
(Originally published in The Times of Israel)