Birthright must transcend fear of attacks at the Kotel

We’ve just recently finished celebrating Hanukka, the holiday that commemorates the Maccabees’ brave victory over the seemingly insurmountable forces of the Hellenized Syrians.

ULTRA-ORTHODOX MEN walk past soldiers at the Kotel in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
ULTRA-ORTHODOX MEN walk past soldiers at the Kotel in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
During World War II Winston Churchill emboldened the British people to courageously endure daily aerial bombings by the Nazis while Britain battled the existential threat posed by Hitler’s war machine. Likewise, FDR fortified his people with the famous proclamation in his first inaugural, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It is a lesson the Jewish community should bear in mind as the Israeli people face daily and deadly terrorist attacks.
Last Friday’s Jerusalem Post headline stated that Birthright Israel had formulated a new policy banning participants from visiting the Kotel – the holy Western Wall – on Shabbat. While trips to the holy site will continue on weekdays, when groups can be transported there by bus, on Shabbat, when buses are not available, walking to the wall has been deemed too dangerous.
On the face of it, given the terrorist attacks and heightened security situation in Israel currently, this new policy is understandable. Yet I would respectfully argue that it needs to be reconsidered.
For one, the Jewish people have been praying for over 2,000 years that God would one day return them to their land and allow them to worship at the Western Wall which historically was a privilege experienced only by the small Jewish communities that managed to remain in the land following the Roman exile. When our people were finally able to return to Israel and declare an independent state in 1948, they were denied access to this holy site for nearly 20 years by the Jordanian forces occupying Jerusalem.
Then in 1967 Israel was attacked by the forces of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, who were supported in the fighting by the PLO and eight other Arab nations.
Just before the war began Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser laid out the goals of the war, stating, “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight.” Similarly Syria’s president Hafez Al-Assad proclaimed, “I as a military man believe that the time has come to enter into a battle of annihilation.”
The Jewish state faced the possibility of a second Holocaust and against all odds, contrary to the predictions of military strategists and government experts across the globe, Israel unanimously defeated its enemies and retook the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The courage and tenacity of the Jewish people was manifest for all the world to witness as Jews were finally allowed to return and pray at the Western Wall again.
So here we are nearly a half-century later and the Jewish people are now again under attack. And yet, this time, Palestinian terrorism is swaying Jews from visiting their holiest site on the holiest day of the week.
We would be wise to heed the words of past presidents in these matters. Just after 9/11, president George W. Bush stated, “Now, the American people have got to go about their business. We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop.”
And that was for shopping! And just last month after the Paris attacks, President Barack Obama said, “We cannot give them the victory of changing how we go about living our lives.”
Clearly, the best course of action is to ensure that we maintain our routine and daily practices, especially when it comes to visiting the holy land.
In my book Face Your Fear, I distinguish between fear and caution. Fear is an hysterical reaction to an imagined threat. But caution is a calculated response to a real and present danger.
That’s how we should be approaching this.
The truth is if you take this fearful policy to its logical extreme, we should probably not visit Israel. After all there is always the possibility of a flare-up in the North, Hamas rockets from the south, or terrorist attacks from the east. And really, we may as well also avoid Paris, San Bernardino, New York, London and Madrid while we’re at it.
With its world-class, expert security Israel is one of the safest countries on earth, and the Western Wall is one of the most heavily protected locations within Israel. The trips to the Kotel on Shabbat must continue.
My son who is an IDF soldier recently got engaged, thank God. We held the engagement party in Kidmat Zion in east Jerusalem among the dedicated inhabitants of the neighborhood. It was beautiful. But some friends, and even close family members, refused to come, saying it was dangerous. One family member complained that the neighborhood was not safe and missed the celebration.
Two days later, right in front of him in a suburb of Tel Aviv, a terrorist tried to murder a passerby. He would have been safer in Kidmat Zion.
Furthermore, anyone who has lead a Birthright trip knows that the walk to the Kotel on Shabbat does wonders for young Jews who have never had experienced the joy of Shabbat in the holiest place on earth. There is nothing like being at the Kotel on Shabbat. Nothing.
Removing this important element from the trip would be a terrible blow to the program. Fear must not stop us from visiting the holiest site on the holiest day.
I know many in the Birthright leadership, from donors to leaders, and they are extraordinary individuals devoted to the State of Israel and the Jewish people.
Over the years, they have brought over 500,000 young people to Israel and instilled in them a pride and love for their Jewish heritage and the Jewish state. They have only the most positive of intentions and want nothing more than to preserve the security of young Jews visiting from the Diaspora. And still I strongly believe that this policy should be reconsidered and reversed.
We’ve just recently finished celebrating Hanukka, the holiday that commemorates the Maccabees’ brave victory over the seemingly insurmountable forces of the Hellenized Syrians. We should look to their example.
They fought with all their might to ensure that the Jews survived as a people and continued to live without fear. We must take the torch of the Menorah and use its light to dispel the dark shadows of fear so that we Jews never allow our enemies to incarcerate us again.
The author, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 30 books, winner of The London Times Preacher of the Year Competition and recipient of the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. He will shortly publish The Israel Warrior’s Handbook.