Leaving Israel in times of crisis is never easy, for all the obvious reasons. The natural concern over The Situation in general (Israel’s geo-political situation and critical interests) and the safety of loved ones first and foremost, but not only, often make a trip abroad in the middle of a war, or even a limited military operation, or such an operation that might escalate into a war, a very nerve-wracking experience.
I will never forget one such trip in particular, at the height of the first Intifada in the late eighties, when quite a few vehicles travelling on the road between our home in Efrat and Jerusalem had been attacked by terrorists with lethal consequences. The tension was palpable on practically every trip to and from work and the prospect of a trip abroad was ostensibly something to look forward to, as an opportunity to get away for a few days. Only my destination on this trip was Poland, and more specifically the death camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek, as the scholar-in-residence for a delegation of adults participating in the March of the Living.
Luckily, I had already been to both places and was therefore ostensibly prepared for the sights, but the poignancy of the timing of the visits added to the emotional strain while the irony of getting a break from Palestinian terror by visiting Auschwitz, did add a touch of humor that helped lighten the tension for me personally. In those days, we were not glued to our computers and iPhones, nor did we have mobile phones, so we could concentrate on what we were seeing, and the trip, despite its emotional experiences, was a real break from the daily events at home.
Last week, I also had to travel abroad for work, only this time not to Auschwitz or Majdanek. I had been invited to address a conference of experts on genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity convened by Interpol at its headquarters in Lyon,France. Interpol, whose record during the Holocaust was utterly shameful, has come a long way since then. Events at home were naturally always on my mind and an Israeli working at Interpol gave me updates periodically and it was not pleasant to hear about the continuing barrage of rockets, including attacks on Tel Aviv and closer to home on Gush Etzion.
Interestingly, almost no one at the conference, except the Israelis and a French Interpol staff member who had worked in Jerusalem for two years, said anything about the ongoing conflict, and it did not appear to interest the average European in the four countries I visited last week. As far as the media was concerned, however, the exact opposite was true, and watching the televised reports from CNN was infuriating at times, especially when the photos shown of the two sides were totally lacking in symmetry. In Gaza, it was of destroyed buildings and aerial bombardments, whereas the scenes from Israel were of Israeli soldiers in waiting for a possible land invasion, not of the damage done by the rocket attacks on civilian centers.
After the conference, I headed to Budapest to help produce a movie on the case of Hungarian Nazi war criminal Laszlo Csatary, who had played an important role in the deportation of more than 15,000 Jews from Kosice, Slovakia to Auschwitz in the spring of 1944, but it was hard to concentrate on the task at hand. Luckily, I had a totally unplanned opportunity to do something on Israel’s behalf besides working on a Holocaust-related film.
Before travelling abroad, I had contacted a friend who is one of the young leaders of the Hungarian Faith Church, a new Protestant charismatic church which has been very supportive of my efforts to get Hungarian Nazi war criminals prosecuted in Hungary, and is known for its staunch support of the State of Israel and the local Jewish community. I told Andras that I would be happy to make time to perhaps update some of the members of the church on the situation. Imagine my surprise when I was invited to address the approximately 2,500 people who came to this past Wednesday’s evening service at the Faith Church’s sprawling Budapest campus.
Since I did not have a prepared speech ready, I thought that the best approach would be to speak from the heart and begin by telling them about Friday night’s air raid in Efrat, and then explain the difficult dilemmas Israel faced in combating terrorist attacks on our cities from a terrorist organization that did not play by the rules of the Geneva conventions. Quoting from the chapters of Genesis which we had read as weekly portions at recent Shabbat services and the trials and tribulations of the Patriarchs in then land of Israel also found a receptive ear in this sympathetic audience, whose unflinching and incredibly enthusiastic support for Israelis primarily based on their religious beliefs.
But the most rewarding part was the response of the audience to my call to them to show up the following day (last Thursday) at a demonstration to show support for Israel to be held in front of our embassy. As I explained, “No one is asking any of you to rush to Israel to enlist in the IDF, but now more than ever, we need your help to win the war of the media and public opinion.”
This issue had became particularly important in Hungary because that day the notoriously anti-Semitic political party Jobbik, which won about 17 percent of the votes in the most recent parliamentary election and currently has 45 members in the parliament, had staged a demonstration of as many as two hundred people at the exact same place to protest Israel’s actions in Gaza. They claimed that Israel was committing genocide against the Palestinians and defending itself by murdering children. In addition, Jobbik party president Gabor Vona demanded that the government register all Israeli investments in Hungary, that it clarify whether it signed an agreement to accept half a million Jewish refugees from Israel in case of emergency and if so, cancel the treaty immediately, and condemn Israeli aggression, among other outrageous demands.
It therefore became particularly urgent for Israel’s supporters to show that the overwhelming majority of concerned public opinion in Hungary fully supported the Jewish state and its right to self-defense. That goal was achieved this past Thursday afternoon at a beautiful event organized by the Jewish community and the Faith Church. Close to approximately three thousand Hungarian citizens of different faiths came together, including some from outside Budapest, to show support for Israel and to express their outrage at the attacks from Gaza on Israeli civilian targets.
Hundreds of Israeli flags of all sizes were waved time and again as Israeli Ambassador Ilan Mor thanked the demonstrators for their support and local speakers expressed their love and admiration for Israel. On a personal level, it was incredibly gratifying to have been able to lend a hand in some small way and to help organize the counter-punch to Jobbik, which was acknowledged by many people who came over to thank me and bless me.
For once, an overseas trip during a crisis was not only about worrying, but also had a positive aspect to it as well. That night, all the major Hungarian media carried reports about the large-scale demonstration in support of Israel, and I boarded the plane home, knowing that something important had been achieved.