The Human Spirit: Just One Jewish People
June 11, 2010
Barbara Sofer , THE
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 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
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.
A few anecdotal examples.
Not long ago, I interviewed a group of high-school students taking
part in the Write-On for Israel program. These bright and talented kids
want to promote and defend Israel in the US media. They study for seven
Sunday's at Columbia University and then take a 10-day trip to Israel.
I couldn't have guessed that one of their prized experiences was visiting
the Kiryat Shmona hesder yeshiva where they interacted with student-soldiers
and met the grandfatherly founder Rabbi Tzefania Drori. No bells and whistles
there. But they got it that the yeshiva had been sitting on a dangerous
border for 33 years and that the students had remained in town during
the Second Lebanon War to help the elderly.
Then, I taught a writing course for Young Judaeans this year.
One of my students on the Year Course wrote passionately about feeling
part of the country only after he'd worked for three months in a felafel
stand in a development town.
Birthright Israel exposes hundreds of thousands of Jewish students
to their first trip to Israel. I recently interviewed college students
who were taking part in the post-college six-month Hadassah-WUJS program.
More than half of them had met Israel for the first time on Birthright
Israel and had changed their career paths to go back. What had impressed
them most? Nearly all of them answered: the soldiers who were on the bus
These are, of course, the same soldiers guarding the Gaza border
or intercepting threatening boats by sea.