My cousin Daniel was eight years old when I graduated high school and left my home in Vancouver. As I set off on my journey toward adulthood, he was still a child. The years passed, he was bar mitzvahed, he started high school, and is now well into his teens.
This past Shabbat, I met Daniel again. Now 17, Daniel is a quirky, self-confident, self-aware, bright, critical thinking teenager. This summer, Daniel is a participant on an NCSY summer program called TJJ Ambassadors. The program takes students around the country so that they can encounter the land, its people and its history through an Israel advocacy lens, preparing them to become active advocates for Israel when they return back to their communities.
Over the weekend, Daniel and I spoke about many of the topics he has been exploring on his program. Our conversations ranged from the political and historical, to the religious and philosophical –pretty impressive for a 17 year old.
On Saturday night, like a good older cousin, I brought him to Ben Yehudah Street in Jerusalem. Some of his friends from the program would be there, and I didn’t want to deprive him of seeing them.
During the course of the night, we bumped into a girl from his program, who was sitting with a group of other girls. This girl told us that another teen from the program might be heading back to the States due to her parents’ concern over the security situation. Daniel (and I) asserted that she was pretty safe on the program in Israel.
At this, another girl at the table scoffed, “Hah. Safer than America? Right.”
The impassioned olah chadasha roared within, eager to jump down this girl’s throat and berate her for saying such a thing. But, the responsible adult said, “No, Nicole. She is a teenager. Don’t make her cry.”
As we walked away, though, I couldn’t help but think about this girl’s exclamation, “Right, like Israel could be safer than America.” As if this country were a wasteland, overwrought with chaos, violence and anarchy at every turn.
Admittedly, with a war going on, some places are chaos and violence at every turn as our soldiers fight night and day to keep us safe. And yes, Israeli cities have to dig in their heels right now to bare the barrage of rockets being fired from Gaza. And thankfully, we have the Iron Dome, which in my opinion is the fusion of man’s ingenuity and the hand of God, keeping us safe.
Then, I think about the stories coming out of Jewish communities around the world — stories of anti-Semitism masked in anti-Zionism — where protestors rally not in front of the Israeli Embassy to notify disagreement and anger against Israeli policy, but rather in front of synagogues to symbolize that this really isn’t a new wave of anti-Israel protestors; it is a renewed wave of anti-Semitism – the always adapting, shape-shifting force that seems to accompany us on our journey through Jewish history.
And, just as an alcoholic swears he will never touch another drink again after a particularly bad night, the world, which swore off anti-Semitism a short 70 years ago, is indulging again. Across Europe, in Germany, Greece and France, in the UK, and in Italy, anti-Israel demonstrations are turning violent with Jews as targets.
And, even in America, anti-Semitic incidents and hate-speech are on the rise.
Which brings me back to the irksome teenage girl. Why did her comment get under my skin?
Because while we may be fighting a war on the ground here, and while we need to be extra vigilant at the moment as far as security goes, the main difference between today and the 1930s is that we have a Jewish state. We have an army fighting to protect the Jewish people. We have a government that keeps the safety, security and continuity of this nation as a core value guiding its decisions. We have a safe harbor and homeland to call our own.
As we approach the eve of the Ninth of Av, it behooves us to remind ourselves of our history. And as we see the familiar tropes of that history repeating themselves yet again, it’s time to recognize our past mistake of being lulled into a false sense of security in the comfort of the Diaspora.
As Daniel and his cohort of TJJ Ambassadors continue on the final week of their journey, I can only hope that one thing becomes clear to them as Israel advocates. Israel is our home; it is our birthright, and no matter which cities they return to at the end of the summer, their home –our home—and the future of the Jewish people, is Israel.