In 1944, my grandfather Yechiel Lipshitz and his brother, Avraham, were on the second-to-last transport to leave the Lodz Ghetto as the SS finalized its liquidation. They spent the following year moving between a number of concentration camps until their liberation from Bergen-Belsen in April 1945.
With their parents and sister murdered, the Lipshitz brothers had no home to which they could return. So they settled in Hanover, Germany, and started rebuilding their lives. My grandfather Yechiel got straight to work, trading tobacco and coffee on the black market. His older brother got married and spent time working and studying. Already before the war he had made a name for himself as a distinguished Torah scholar.
After two years in Hanover, the brothers decided it was time to leave. Through the Joint Distribution Committee, they received papers to move to America. The question was where exactly to go?
The decision was made by chance. A few months before their scheduled departure, another Holocaust survivor, a man with the last name Frankel, was leaving for America. Avraham asked Frankel to send a postcard once he got settled in the US. “We’ll go where Frankel ends up,” he told his new bride, Hela, and his younger brother, Yechiel.
Within a few weeks the postcard arrived. Frankel had ended up in Chicago. “It is a great city,” he wrote Avraham. “There are Jewish schools here, synagogues and butchers. A real Jewish community.”
Avraham and Hela decided: they were going to Chicago. A few weeks later they arrived in the Windy City and settled into their apartment on the West Side. With the postcard in hand, Avraham set off to look for his old friend.
He tracked down the apartment building Frankel had listed on the postcard and went inside. He knocked on the ground floor apartment. “Yiddish?” he asked the man who opened the door. “No,” he replied.
Avraham climbed the floors and knocked on every apartment looking for either Frankel or someone who spoke Yiddish. Finally, in the last apartment he found a man who spoke Yiddish. “I know Frankel,” he told Avraham. “He left for Los Angeles three weeks ago.”
This story has always amused me. Under different circumstances, I could have grown up in LA. Not cold Chicago, where Avraham and my grandfather settled because of a man named Frankel and his postcard.
I have been thinking of Avraham since two weeks ago, when at the age of 95 he passed away. The story of his life – the challenges he overcame and the achievements he accomplished – are important to recall these days when once again the fate of refugees hangs in the balance.
When Avraham reached Chicago in 1948, he didn’t know a word of English, but that didn’t stop him.
He went back to school, studied English, and eventually – when he was already in his mid-50s – earned a doctorate in Biblical Exegesis from the University of Chicago. He taught for several decades at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, and penned numerous books, making a name for himself as a world-renowned expert on Ibn Ezra and other 10th-century biblical commentators.
Avraham succeeded not just because of his talent and determination, but also because of the country he was privileged to immigrate to – the United States. America was then a country that provided people with endless opportunity. It was a place where the impossible became reality.
Avraham proved that with his academic career. My grandfather proved that by founding a successful business without ever having finished elementary school.
The executive order President Donald Trump issued last Friday to temporarily ban Muslim immigration to the US denies people those same opportunities.
I am not saying there shouldn’t be restrictions on who gets to enter America and who doesn’t. Every country has the right – and even the duty – to set rules and criteria for immigration, especially when it comes to people who come from places like Syria, Iran or Iraq.
Israel, for example, has a clear immigration rule known as the Law of Return, which allows Jews – even those who don’t meet the halachic definition – to automatically receive citizenship upon arrival in the country. We can argue the merits of this kind of law, but it does provide clarity.
The problem with Trump’s executive order was the way it was done – leaving people stuck in airports and on planes. It demonstrated prejudice and callousness to human suffering. It was a clear example of how policy is not meant to be set.
John Kelly, secretary of Homeland Security, reportedly was briefed on the new order for the first time as Trump was signing it into effect. Basically, the man tasked with enforcing the order was not consulted on how it should be implemented.
That’s not to say that if Kelly had been part of the process things would have been different. But issues as sensitive as these – with the potential to wreak global havoc – need to be regulated responsibly.
Signing an executive order that leaves people stuck in airports and on airplanes does not create policy. It creates anarchy.
Another place that could use a little policy these days is Israel. Take the evacuation on Wednesday of the illegal outpost of Amona. Wherever you stand politically, the residents evicted from their homes deserve sympathy. They were sent there by their elected leaders and were repeatedly provided state funding to build homes, roads and other infrastructure.
All of that though doesn’t whitewash the illegality of the outpost. Once the High Court ruled that the outpost was built on private Palestinian land, it needed to be evacuated. Israel is a state that abides by the law. We should want it to remain that way.
The problem is that the Amona affair should never have reached this conclusion. A small outpost of just a few dozen families, its removal will have no impact on the overall settlement enterprise which has almost doubled in population since the first time Amona was evacuated 11 years ago.
But Amona is just a symptom of a larger problem. Nearly 50 years after Israel conquered the West Bank, the country has yet to decide what it really wants there. Does it want a Palestinian state on 90-plus percent of the territory, or does it want a single state for all of the people in the country? Or is there a possible third option, something like autonomy-on-steroids for the Palestinians that some government ministers talk about? The announcement this week that Israel will build 3,000 more housing units in the West Bank is an example of how this policy vacuum works.
The announcement was made on Tuesday night, just hours before the Amona evacuation began. It was basically a way for the government to save face among its right-wing constituents. Yes, we are evacuating an illegal outpost, but look at the prize – 3,000 settlement homes!
The need for clear policy could not be more important than it is today. In less than two weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will enter the Oval Office for a meeting with the president. Trump is the third US president Netanyahu will work with, but more important for the prime minister, he is the first Republican, and one who Israelis seem (or want) to believe is more pro-Israel than all of his predecessors.
That remains to be seen. What is certain is that no US president will be more right-wing than the Israeli prime minister. What Netanyahu asks of Trump on February 15 will be the starting point for whatever decisions follow. If, for example, Netanyahu says he favors a two-state solution, Trump will not say: No way, I want a one-state. And if Netanyahu says: I want to annex the West Bank, it is possible Trump will say: Okay, let’s make a deal.
Within foreign diplomatic circles, there is expectation that Netanyahu will push Trump to give him cart blanche to build in the settlement blocs. This will be something similar to the letter Ariel Sharon received from George W. Bush in 2004, in which the president acknowledged that the blocs would remain part of Israel under a future peace deal with the Palestinians.
But if that is true, what will Trump want in return? What will the quid pro quo be? Trump has shown that he is transactional not just in business but also in foreign policy. He is unlikely to simply give Israel something without expecting something else in return.
For policy to be set in Israel, the government needs to set politics aside. That is unfortunately unlikely to happen. Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett can spend dozens of hours working harmoniously together to try and find a solution for Amona, but in the end they will fight over the credit as part of their endless battle over who is the true king of the Right.
Why should we care? Because ultimately the people suffer. When there is no policy there is no direction, and when there is no direction, there is stagnation. Israel succeeds despite lacking a clear strategic vision. On February 15, we will find out if that is going to change.