All gone to look for America – Part II

We might want to start practicing some of the tolerance that has become a pillar of US society in order to mend the rift between us.

12 Angry Men 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
12 Angry Men 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In my previous column, I talked about the misguided effort by a group of MKs who traveled to the US with the aim of comprehending the growing rift between Israel and American Jewry. This matter, which many see as a key foreign policy issue, is not one that can be explained so easily, but I have a good idea of where to start – 12 Angry Men, the movie directed by brilliant Jewish-American filmmaker Sidney Lumet, who passed away last month. The film has been shown quite a bit over the past few weeks as a tribute to Lumet, and there’s one scene in particular that struck a chord.
In the movie, a jury of 12 white men is deliberating the fate of a teenager accused of murdering his father. The evidence seems overwhelmingly in favor of a guilty verdict, and only one man, played by Henry Fonda, believes there is enough reasonable doubt for acquittal. As the story develops, questions are raised about the evidence. At no point in the film do we know the names of the jurors, or even who the teen on trial is – only that he lives in a “project.”
As the tide turns for acquittal, juror No. 10, played by Ed Bagley, still convinced of the teen’s guilt, goes off on a tirade in which he says, “You know how these people lie. It’s born in them. I don’t have to tell you. They don’t know what the truth is! And let me tell you, they don’t need any big reason to kill someone either. No sir! They get drunk. They’re all real big drinkers, all of them. You know that! And bang! Someone’s lying in the gutter! Nobody’s blaming them for it; that’s the way they are by nature. They’re violent! Human life doesn’t mean as much to them as it does to us... [By this time, most of the jurors around the deliberation table have gotten up and turned their backs on Bagley.]”
“Sure, they’re some good things about them too; I’m the first one to say that! I’ve known a couple that we’re OK, but that’s the exception.... These people are dangerous. Listen to me.”
Then, one of jurors who has heard him out says, “I have. Now sit down and don’t open your mouth again!”
When the picture came out in 1957, outright prejudice was a big problem in American society – even in New York, where the film was set – and this was a powerful statement against bigotry. Of course, we don’t know whom this rant was targeting. Juror No. 10 could have been talking about Blacks, Hispanics, Catholics, Asians or Jews. It doesn’t matter. These opinions and the actions that inevitably follow are unacceptable.
SO WHAT does a movie produced more than half a century ago have to do with Israel and American Jewry? Well, it’s important for Israelis to understand that most US Jews are liberal. Perhaps not as we define it in 2011, but certainly the way it was back in 1957. Most Jews, sick and tired of decades of bigotry, supported the message of 12 Angry Men. Many also backed the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s because, at the end of the day, all minorities – not just African Americans – were fighting for equality. These and other movements laid the groundwork for the “hate crime” law in the US.
The foundation of equality is simple: No race, color or creed will be deemed better than others, and no one gets preferential treatment. I’m not saying there is no prejudice in the US. It’s always rearing its ugly head across the country, and there are many organizations that call the public’s attention to it. The price public figures pay for out-and-out bigotry is more often than not a heavy one.
On this day in which we remember the victims of the Holocaust in Israel, it’s important to understand that this also the reason there are so many Holocaust museums and centers across the United States.
Tolerance is now a pillar of American society. The Holocaust and the study of it has become part of the curriculum in so many schools because it was the most brutal act of intolerance the human race has ever seen.
TOLERANCE MIGHT be embedded in the American mainstream, but Israel has become increasingly intolerant, especially over the past two decades. It’s bad enough that many religious leaders point to the goyim in our country as the root of our problems, try to pass laws to bypass their rights, and incite against them, but there is true animosity among the Jewish population.
It is unacceptable to American Jews when a group of Israeli rabbis try to determine who is a Jew, what’s the legitimate way to get married, or which kinds of conversions are acceptable. Who gave anyone the right to say that their way is better than others? It’s incomprehensible to an American Jew that the State of Israel would pay a portion of the population to attend yeshiva, or that taxpayer money would go to rabbis performing functions that in the United States are funded by the community.
Israel is the Jewish state; it was founded by, and for, Jews. The US was founded by and for Christians but the Americans, even back in the 18th century, were smart enough to separate between the church and politics, understanding early on that the relation was toxic.
While it might be time for us to separate synagogue from state, we know that in Israel, that’s easier said than done. What we must consider changing is the way we think, and it has to start from the top. Tolerance is based on the premise that there are always win-win options in which all parties go home reasonably happy. Compromise is the key, but the rules of equality cannot be broken under any circumstances. We need creative solutions to mend the rift with American Jewry – ones that highlight the things we have in common and marginalize the minorities who think they can control the destiny of our country.
The problem is that while even the most vicious of the 12 Angry Men were eventually convinced to do the right thing, I’m not sure our elected officials in Jerusalem will be able to do the same.
The writer, an independent media consultant, is a former producer at the Fox News Channel in New York.