Friday, August 23, 2019

Disloyal Jews

          The great Israeli novelist Amos Oz, who died this past December, was born and grew up in Jerusalem but his parents had fled from Germany to what was then Palestine. As Oz showed in his memoir “A Tale of Love and Darkness” (made into a Hebrew-language movie by Natalie Portman), his parents never really adjusted to life in Palestine and continued to feel nostalgic for the life they left behind in Germany.

            Recalling what his father had told him about life in Germany before the Shoah, Oz wrote: “Out there, in the world, all the walls were covered with graffiti: 'Yids, go back to Palestine,' so we came back to Palestine, and now the world at large shouts at us: 'Yids, get out of Palestine.’”

            I had actually heard Oz tell this story in speeches even before he published his memoir, but this week it resonated with me more deeply than ever before. In pre-war Europe, Jews were condemned for not living in “Palestine” and today we are condemned for doing so. Here in the United States, we have a Member of Congress, Ilhan Omar, who said in a speech in March: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country [Israel].”  And then of course earlier this week the President said that Jews who vote for Democrats are either “disloyal” or “ignorant”.

            This type of language, whether from a first-term Representative or from the President, needs to concern us. The point is not whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, whether you generally support the President or oppose him. Everyone in the United States has a right to support the party and candidate of their choice without being called "disloyal" or conversely being accused of dual loyalty. This kind of statement is antithetical to American values.

            In the wake of these comments, as well as last week’s controversy where the President successfully pressured Israel to deny entry to Representative Omar and Representative Rashida Tlaib, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin phoned Speaker Nancy Pelosi. After their conversation he tweeted: "I spoke today with@SpeakerPelosi about the importance of strong US-Israel relations and I thanked her for her commitment," Rivlin tweeted Wednesday. "The link between us is between peoples, based on historical ties, deep, strong friendships and shared values, not dependent on the links with either party."

            President Rivlin is absolutely correct. A number of years ago in a previous congregation I served, I organized a discussion between two congregants who explained why they were members of the particular political party they supported. The Republican presenter, one of my closest friends in the congregation, said that one of the reasons he was a Republican is that he recognized that the majority of Jews were Democrats and that it was important that there be Jews in both parties. If not, this would be detrimental to Jewish interests because Republicans could ignore Jewish concerns on the theory that Jews won’t vote for them anyway, whereas Democrats could ignore Jewish concerns on the theory that Jews will vote for them anyway. With Jews in both parties, neither party could ignore our concerns or take our vote for granted. I found, and still find, his point to be very convincing.

            Whether you are a Republican, Democrat, or an independent, if you consider yourself pro-Israel you should not want Israel to be just another partisan issue. The political pendulum in the United States swings back and forth, and at some point there will once again be a Democratic President guiding foreign policy and a Democratic Congress determining the amount of military assistance Israel receives from the United States. Support of Israel is widespread today among both parties, even if there may be disagreements with specific policies of the Israeli government. Last week 41 Democratic representatives and 31 Republican representatives traveled to Israel with AIPAC. It is not in Israel’s best interests to become too closely identified with one side of the American political divide.

            The injection of the “loyalty” of American Jews into public discussion is simply toxic and should be out of bounds, whether it comes from the left side of the spectrum or the right. Many Americans have roots in other countries, celebrate those roots, and support policies favorable to their ancestral homes, and American Jews are no different in this regard. We love and support Israel but our loyalty, which is a legal and political concept, is to the United States.

            By all means advocate for the policies you consider to be in the best interests of the United States and in the best interests of Israel. But let’s do so with love and respect and a recognition that despite whatever differences we have, we are one community and one nation.

Friday, August 16, 2019

A Couple of Current TV Shows Worth Watching

           Every now and then I recommend television which I think is worth watching, and I’m going to do so again today.

            The first program is the movie “Red Sea Diving Resort” on Netflix. It tells the true story of how a small group of Israeli undercover agents worked to bring approximately 8000 Ethiopian Jews through Sudan to Israel. Recall that Sudan is an Arab country, but it borders Ethiopia and is on the Red Sea and thus accessible to the Israeli port of Eilat via ship. In order to cloak their efforts, the Israelis actually rented an unused dive resort from the Sudanese government and used it to stage their efforts and house the refugees who had walked hundreds of miles from Ethiopia to Sudan. When the effort was threatened with discovery, the United States stepped in and President Reagan authorized several military airlifts to get the remaining refugees from Sudan to Israel.

            The movie has received some criticism for focusing on the Israeli rescuers and not the Ethiopian Jews themselves, but for whatever reason this is the story the filmmakers (led by Israeli director Gideon Raff, creator of Homeland), chose to tell. But the film reminds us why Israel exists and how American administrations of both parties have worked closely with Israel to ensure its security and its status as a haven for those who need it.

            The second is a much less happy story and that is the ten part series “Our Boys” on HBO. First of all, in watching this I was reminded how accustomed I have become to watching streaming on-demand television and being able to binge watch all or most of a series. But “Our Boys” is being shown by HBO one episode at a time, with a new episode each week, and so I have only been able to see the first two episodes.

            “Our Boys” is based on the events of the summer of 2014 in and around Jerusalem. As you recall, three Israeli teenagers, Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach, and Naftali Frankel, were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas. Shortly after their bodies were discovered, some extremist Israeli settlers kidnapped a Palestinian teen, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, and killed him by setting him on fire while he was still alive.

            The first two episodes focused mostly on the family of the Palestinian teen, their anguish while he was missing, and the Israeli Security Services’ attempt to find him. At the point where the second episode stops, the body of Mohammed Abu Khdeir has been found but his parents have not been notified. The police say that it’s unthinkable to them that any Jew would have done such a thing, but the Shin Bet officer assigned to the case knows differently (as, of course, do we).

            Some of this is painful to watch. The treatment of the Abu Khdeir family by the police was not always courteous or respectful. The series shows documentary footage of angry Israeli mobs rampaging through Jerusalem shouting “Death To Arabs.” I was not in Israel when these particular events happened. (I did go, as you may remember, a few weeks later when the war to which the events of earlier that summer led broke out.) But I was in Israel after a major terror attack in 1994 and witnessed at that time the same type of mobs and the same chants.

            But we also know that Israel did find, prosecute, and convict the three men who murdered Mohammed Abu Khdeir. Beyond that, as I was watching the show, which was written and produced by both Jewish and Arab Israelis and is in Hebrew and Arabic with subtitles, I was reminded of the fact that for all its flaws, Israel is a democracy with freedom of expression and a thriving creative community which by and large leans to the left politically.

            It’s hard for me to imagine that any Arab country would have permitted the creation of a television series that humanizes Israeli Jews the way that “Our Boys” humanizes Palestinian Arabs. Israeli movies and television are great in part because they tend to show the full truth of Israel, warts and all; the good parts and the not-so-good parts, the parts which fill us with pride (a la “Red Sea Diving Resort”) and the parts which are troubling. A true democracy has nothing to hide.