The Human Spirit: Just one Jewish people

American and Israeli Jews are one in the same: A people with strong identification with the underdog, one that cares about human rights.

Elena Kagan 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Elena Kagan 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Driving the coast in California several weeks ago and before the arrival of the now infamous flotilla, I found myself laughing hard to a public radio satire about the possible appointment of Elena Kagan to the US Supreme Court. Conservative columnist Pat Buchanan had objected to her confirmation on the grounds that there were too many Jews on the court. “The last time I saw three Jews in robes,” said the Jewish comedian, “was at the mikve in Brooklyn.”
The skit was a reminder of how comfortable Jews feel in America, able to laugh at themselves (on public radio) as they know that three of their own may soon hold lifetime seats on the highest court in the land.
The feel-good moment soon passed. The next news item was a routine rundown about the Jewish state. A young eyewitness with a British accent is reporting from the fields of Gaza. Supposedly working alongside the innocent and peace-loving farmers, he tells of the hardships inflicted by the cruel Israeli people. Israel has demanded a buffer zone on the Gaza side of the border and it causes unbearable suffering. The noble farmers are just growing tomatoes, and the big bad Israeli soldiers are firing at them. At kids, too. The forces of evil once again at work.
The contrast between the abundance of Jews among American justices and the purported lack of justice among Israeli Jews in a single news program underlines the current fault lines in how each group is perceived. No one questioned the eyewitness on why the Israelis might be nervous about farmers plowing right up to the security fence. To that reporter the callousness of Israelis is obvious.
On one side of the Atlantic, we supposedly have a hyper-moral people who can decide on the constitutional and ethical issues of the greatest democracy in the world, far out of proportion to their numbers. A source of pride. On the other side we have a people castigated for its lack of humanity and goodness. A source of embarrassment.
BUT THE truth is that we are one people, with one set of values: A people with strong identification with the underdog, one that cares about human rights and righteousness. We send text messages that we’re about to target rocket launchers; we lobby for Palestinian patients to be able to take advantage of Israeli treatments for their genetic diseases.
Anyone who knows Israeli soldiers understands that they don’t get their kicks picking off teens planting tomatoes. It’s those planting bombs they risk their lives to stop. Terrorism isn’t funny.
When visiting the US, I don’t find Americans expressing much humor about terrorism either. There are even signs in American airports warning you about telling jokes. And we all know to cap our innate kibitzing when we’re inspected. American security agents are a taciturn lot. I’m often hassled at American checkpoints, the ones at airports, that is. I often have to raise my arms and get patted down. My hat is often a subject of debate. Millions of passengers go through this inconvenience and unpleasantness because a terrorist or two has snuck weapons onto an airplane. Try getting on an American plane with tomato juice and explaining that it’s just your peaceful farm product. After all, only one terrorist slipped liquid explosives on board.
On my flight two weeks ago from Las Vegas to Boston, I had to wait to deplane while four security agents first came on board to remove a passenger. He’d caused a ruckus on the plane because he urgently needed to use the bathroom. The bathroom area had been cordoned off while the pilot was using those facilities.
The security agents just weren’t at all understanding. The passenger had raised his voice, not a Kalashnikov. None of the passengers stood up for him, threw themselves before those hard-hearted security officers, or called them unjust or Nazis. If you’d missed the scene at the bathroom and watched the gray-haired man being escorted out, you felt relief that you’d landed safely with a dangerous person aboard.
Likewise, if you’ve experienced a terror attack, you’re more tolerant of creating a buffer to keep out terrorists, by land or by sea.
NOWHERE ARE the consequences of the constant attack on Israel’s moral position more worrisome than on university campuses. Every audience with whom I spoke in America confirmed this reality. Activist Jewish parents are less worried about the militant Muslim presence than they are by their own sons and daughters – concerned with social justice – turning against Israel. And I spoke to Hadassah audiences; women and men who are themselves committed Zionists.
Student objection to Ambassador Michael Oren’s speaking at Brandeis University should be a wake-up call to those who don’t understand that it’s code red on campus. And that was before the flotilla.
The American Jewish community is reportedly already investing some $200 million annually in the important college-age cohort, and trying to assess what will best make a difference.
More evidence is accruing about the importance of Israel programs working in conjunction with campus follow-up.
For example, at Sha’arei Tefilla synagogue in Newton, Massachusetts, where I attended services last Shabbat, two college students stood up after services and made a heartfelt plea for their parents and their friends to support a four-year-old Jewish program on their campus, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. One proof that it was successful, they quoted the rising number of gap-year-in-Israel graduates who are now attracted to this prestigious public university.
Just which elements of a visit to Israel that best translate into Zionist commitment may be counterintuitive.
A few anecdotal examples.
Not long ago, I interviewed a group of high-school students taking partin the Write-On for Israel program. These bright and talented kids wantto promote and defend Israel in the US media. They study for sevenSunday’s at Columbia University and then take a 10-day trip to Israel.I couldn’t have guessed that one of their prized experiences wasvisiting the Kiryat Shmona hesder yeshiva where they interacted withstudent-soldiers and met the grandfatherly founder Rabbi TzefaniaDrori. No bells and whistles there. But they got it that the yeshivahad been sitting on a dangerous border for 33 years and that thestudents had remained in town during the Second Lebanon War to help theelderly.
Then, I taught a writing course for Young Judaeans this year. One of mystudents on the Year Course wrote passionately about feeling part ofthe country only after he’d worked for three months in a felafel standin a development town.
Birthright Israel exposes hundreds of thousands of Jewish students totheir first trip to Israel. I recently interviewed college students whowere taking part in the post-college six-month Hadassah-WUJS program.More than half of them had met Israel for the first time on BirthrightIsrael and had changed their career paths to go back. What hadimpressed them most? Nearly all of them answered: the soldiers who wereon the bus with them.
These are, of course, the same soldiers guarding the Gaza border or intercepting threatening boats by sea.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who concentrates on the wondrous stories of modern Israel and its people.