“The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight … on critical global issues … and engage[s] the public to explore ideas that will shape our global future,” according to its mission statement.
In truth, it is better described as a left-leaning, pro-Arab think tank hypercritical of Israel, poorly disguised as even-handed when it comes to the Middle East. Because I often enjoy hearing the arguments of those with whom I generally disagree, I joined the Council at the “presidents” level, which usually allows me the opportunity to ask questions of the various honorees. I’ve had much fun at a number of their events, challenging their hardly-fair-or-balanced speakers.
But not long ago, the featured speaker was C. Raja Mohan, an economic advisor to the Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His topic was the future of India’s economy. Addressing Dr. Mohan later at the Q&A, I asked: “Recently an economic delegation from India spent several weeks in Israel in advance of your prime minister’s scheduled visit to Israel to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Since the focus of your presentation was India’s economy, in what areas do you envision Israel and India working together?” Smiling, he answered:
As China’s economy is in decline, India is going through a rising economic transformation. India is a country of 1.2 billion people and we need to be prepared to move into a 21st century economy for our people. You ask what Israel can assist us with. Let me list a few areas: water, environment, food, high-tech, security, education, medical research and technology, healthcare, cyber-technology, weaponry development, and defense. I could go on. There are many, many areas where we look to work as partners with Israel. We have much in common, and we believe Israel will be an important resource for the future of India.
Both of my grandfathers came to America at the turn of the 20th century, one from Berlin, the other from Kiev. The dream of a Jewish state was just that: a dream. Neither was observant, but from what I’ve been told, both were captivated by Herzl and his dream and, like many other European Jews, became dreamers themselves. Chased out of their mother countries by pogroms and overt anti-Semitism, they chose to begin new lives in America. Palestine was no place for Jews accustomed to the comfortable lifestyle in the cities of Europe.
A well-known Jewish organization’s recent mailing read, “Israel needs the Diaspora.” Really? In Israel, they read Hebrew from right to left, so perhaps the ad should have read, “The Diaspora needs Israel.” While Arnie Eisen, head of the Conservative Movement, whines about how unfairly his movement is treated in Israel, it’s about time he got his man pants on and faced the fact that in Israel Conservative Judaism is a failed movement, unequivocally rejected after all these years by the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis. And as for Rick Jacobs, his most important mission seems to be getting his Reform rabbis to forget their babble about separation of church and state and preach from their pulpits the importance of voting for Hillary Clinton for president, as if he had to remind his “Zionistically challenged” Reform flock to vote Democratic. The Pew survey has shown that the vast majority of secularized Jews in America have joined the largest Jewish denomination, called “Unaffiliated.” And as many have sadly come to realize, the future of American Jewry is not bright.
Within the next generation, the number of Jews who will become Jews by choice (Jews from birth whose practice of Judaism goes beyond eating bagels) is projected to dwindle from the current “big tent” of 5 million, to less than 3 million, with almost 50 percent likely to be Orthodox. It will no longer be your grandparents’ Jewish-American experience. “Ask your father and he will tell you. Ask your grandfather and he will explain it.” (Deut. 32:7) Those days are coming to an end in the non-Orthodox world of today’s Americanized Jew. Non-Orthodox rabbis’ berating of Israel and exhortations to Americanize Jewish Israel are falling on empty pews of “Jewless Jews.” In their institutionalized arrogance, they dismiss the reality that Israel is indisputably central to the future of the Jewish people. Every day I look on a wall in my office and smile at a framed full-page newspaper ad run by TV Guide in July 1988, declaring Israel – in bold letters – “THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL STAR ON TELEVISION.” And so it continues, regardless of how uncomfortable it makes liberal Jews.
At a talk I gave a number of years ago, a woman exclaimed, “Look how good America has been for the Jews!” And after a pause, I suggested she rephrase her statement: “Look how good the Jews have been for America!“ We wouldn’t even have an America if it weren’t for Haym Salomon who single-handedly financed George Washington’s army when no one else believed in his mission, and died destitute. In every nook and cranny of America’s history, you will find a Jew. President Obama, in one of his more delusional moments, claimed that Muslims were somehow instrumental in the development of America. That was about as accurate as his statement that he visited 57 states and had several more to go – or “if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor…” Muslim pirates made their “contribution to society” off the shores of Tripoli—but here, they didn’t exist.
Jews, on the other hand, have been integral to America’s history and success — from Emma Lazarus, at the base of the Statue of Liberty, to Moses gracing the rotunda of the Capitol Building in Washington … from the great motion picture studios to music and literature. In medical research, business and entrepreneurship you find the creativity and industriousness of the Jew. If the walls of Carnegie Hall could talk, they would speak with a Yiddish accent. Jews have helped build an economy of businesses and world-renowned department stores such as Macy’s, Gimbels, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdale’s, not to mention Levi-Strauss and his iconic blue jeans. Before Israel became widely known as the “start-up nation,” it was American Jews who created a veritable start-up nation, against incredible odds, right here in American even before there was a modern state of Israel! Where would America be without the dreams, creativity, determination, ingenuity and risk-taking of its Jews? How many businesses would never have been developed … skyscrapers never built … books never written … medical breakthroughs never achieved … and lives not saved!
During our Days of Awe, when our people separate in time from secular participation in everyday America, even the least religious among us shuffle into a synagogue to hear the sounding of the shofar and recitation of the unetaneh tokef – who will live and who will die. Too often hidden deep within our fellow Jew is the undeniable connection to a relative who stood at a place called Sinai to experience the word of G-d. And what is profoundly amazing is that 3,300 years later, Jews gather each year to hear those words again.
As uncomfortable as the reality may be, our Days of Awe represent a time for us to declare our own BDS movement – to “boycott” the mundane, “divest” from the galut of everyday America, and “sanction” the all-too-many groups these days whose agenda is to undermine the Jewish State. We are a people who shall dwell apart and not be reckoned among the nations (Num. 23:9). Again this year in our synagogues, we will affirm the words of Abraham to Ephron the Hittite in the fields of Mamre in a place called Hebron, near a cave called Machpelah: “I am both a resident and a stranger.”
Most Jews eat three times a day, some even reciting the Birkat HaMazon, our grace after meals. “When the L-rd will return the exiles of Zion [as He did in 1948], we will have been like dreamers. Then our mouth will be filled with laughter [in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Hebron and Efrat] and our tongue with songs of joy [Hatikvah, Hava Nagila, Yerushalayim shel Zahav]; then they will say among the nations, ‘The L-rd has done great things for them.’ From Zion shall come our Torah and the word of G-d from Jerusalem.” For a Jew living in 5777 or 2016, look at the great things our G-d has done for us.
In these days of reflection, we remember our days and our people’s 2,000 years of sitting by the rivers of Babylon and many other places, and we remember our captors and transient friends demanding from us songs – “Sing to us songs of Zion!” And sadly, our people too often answered, in word or thought, “How can we sing the song of the L-rd on foreign soil? If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I will not remember Jerusalem during my greatest joy!” — Not New York or Los Angeles … not Paris or London— Jerusalem!
Today there is much turmoil on college campuses – American institutions of higher learning have become cesspools of anti-Semitism. Has much changed? Reflect well, my dear Jewish brothers and sisters, on an earlier America of anti-Semitism and exclusion. Louis Brandeis was not Orthodox, but neither was he assimilated. His self-respect made Harvard uncomfortable:
The room was hushed as Louis Brandeis came forward. It was a dramatic moment, the first time the exclusive Harvard Honor Society had ever accepted a Jew. For Brandeis it had not been an easy road. For the past three years, other students had sat next to him – uninvited – as he had his lunch, saying things to him like, “Brandeis, you’re brilliant. You could end up on the Supreme Court—except that you’re a Jew. Why don’t you convert? Then all your problems will be solved.” Brandeis had listened but not responded.
Finally, in his senior year of law school, his preeminence could not be denied. Jewish or not, he was invited to join the exclusive honor society. On the evening of the official induction, tension filled the auditorium. All eyes were on him as he walked to the lectern. Slowly he looked around the room and began softly: “I am sorry I was born a Jew.” And with that, the room erupted in an explosion of applause and cheers. They had convinced him! They had prevailed upon him at last.
Brandeis waited for silence and began again: “I am sorry I was born a Jew, but only because I wish I had the privilege of choosing Judaism on my own.” This time there was no applause, no cheers. This time there was respectful silence. The members of the society listened attentively, awed by his strength of conviction and character. When he finished, he was given a standing ovation. [As retold by Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, Park Avenue Synagogue, New York City.]
Being a Jew is a privilege. There is nothing the State of Israel or our people have to apologize for. Our people have been and continue to be ohr l’goyim – “a light unto the nations.” G-d has blessed those who bless us and cursed those who curse us. The distinctive separation of our people on these holy days is about honoring our past, appreciating in our present the gift of returning to our homeland, Eretz Yisrael, and safeguarding the future of our people there.
This New Year, resolve to give your children the gift of experiencing Zionism in our homeland – the land given to Abraham in a covenant 4,000 years ago. Diligently teach your children to be strong, courageous and committed Jews. Give them the gift of self-respect as part of a miraculous history, and instill in them an appreciation for the gifts our G-d has bestowed upon our people. And in the background, you might hum a most beautiful melody – “Hatikvah” – in gratitude that it is no longer just a hope.
Shabbat Shalom, 10/14/2016
Jack “Yehoshua” Berger *
* Back issues are archived at The Times of Israel.com