I am generally not in the habit of responding to critics. As Martin Luther King famously said in the greatest American missive of the 20th century, Letter from Birmingham Jail, “If I sought to answer all of the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would be engaged in little else in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work.”
Zev Shandalov’s open letter to me in The Times of Israel last Monday is different. It is a moving and passionate call for me to make aliyah, move to Israel, and make my home in the Jewish state. As such, while others may construe it as criticism, I read it as a sincere and moving call to action.
To quote King again from the same letter, “Since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.”
Here, in this response, I plan on doing the same.
I am an American Jew. I love the United States. I love everything it stands for.
America is the beacon of freedom and democracy to all humanity. It is the earth’s great hope. It is no coincidence that America is Israel’s foremost friend and protector. America stands up for righteous and struggling democracies throughout the world. It is the noble guardian of truth and the gallant defender of human rights. It follows that America would see in Israel a kindred spirit, a righteous nation wrestling to be free and protecting the dignity of all.
My attachment to America runs deep. When I sing the Star-spangled banner I focus on the words as if it were a prayer. “Land of the free and the home of the brave.” I love every inch of this great land and have taken my children in an RV to see most of it.
But love of America alone would not explain why I do not live in Israel. I lived outside the United States for about fifteen years, beginning with Israel, then Australia, and then eleven years as Rabbi at Oxford University in Britain. In all that time, I never felt detached from America. And if I moved to Israel I would perhaps feel even more attached to my birthplace, seeing as it would be for me an extension of my American identity, helping to build a majestic democracy in the earth’s most despotic region.
Indeed, Prime Minister Netanyahu made this argument to me directly when I was running for Congress and brought my daughter Chana, who was serving in the IDF, to his office. The Prime Minister had twice met Chana as a small girl when he visited with us at Oxford. When I mentioned to him that, as a congressional candidate, I was being criticized for having a child in a foreign military, he told me: “Tell them your daughter is not only fighting to protect Israel. She’s fighting to protect America. Israel is the front line in the war for freedom.”
I could easily add a dash of red to the white and blue of Israel just as countless American Jews now do as dual citizens of both great democracies.
So why do I as a Jew not follow my roots back to my ancient homeland and dwell in the Jewish state? The question tugs especially hard given the indescribably deep love I harbor for Israel, an unquenchable thirst to drink in its air, roam its granular sands, and bask in its spiritual light and glory. My hunger for Israel is best captured by paraphrasing Freud’s words about his inexplicable attachment to his own Jewishness. Many dark, mystical feelings the more powerful the less they can be expressed in words.
My attachment to Israel is mystical, magical, and infinite.
The question is augmented by the fact that I do have a child who already lives in Israel and served gallantly in the IDF.
Here I have to address a number of points related to the issue, not as arguments as to why I haven’t made aliyah but rather to dispel erroneous notions.
The first is that only the Jewish community in Israel matters and diaspora Jewry doesn’t. I could not disagree more.
Firstly, Israel needs Diaspora communities for its very continuity. Yes, America is a phenomenal friend of the Jewish state because the two nations share similar values. But let’s never discount the integral role played by six million American Jews in sustaining that relationship.
The UK, for example, which has only 250,000 Jews, is turning increasingly hostile to Israel.
Moreover, Diaspora communities are needed to advance and promote the light of Judaism globally. I have forever been a Jewish universalist and believe that Judaism should be a light unto the nations. I have devoted much of my life to promoting Jewish values as a solution to many of America’s social ills, from high divorce rates to depression to materialism and narcissism.
Insularity is anathema to a religion responsible for most of the world’s most formative ideas, from the belief in one God, to the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath, and the creation of humanity in God’s image.
My teacher, the great Lubavitcher Rebbe, devoted his life to strengthening diaspora communities and insisted that his emissaries continue to live even in Islamic lands like Morocco. The Rebbe sought to build Judaism as a global faith that illuminates the earth.
I seek to do the same.
But this too would not explain why I do not live in Israel, given that the light of Judaism can easily – and perhaps most effectively – be spread from Israel, where it all began and where it flourishes most.
Rather, I choose to live in the United States because it is the best place to serve the Jewish people and the American nation.
The Jews today are under global assault. Not since the holocaust have we seen greater hatred of our people and more unfair double standards applied to us.
America is the front line. Not because anti-Semitism is worst here. It is not. That would be Europe and the Middle East. But rather because America is the nation with the most influence and the greatest power of any on earth.
Sustaining America as a friend of Israel is critical. It can only be done by advocating for American values at all times and exposing how Israel lives by them while its enemies betray them.
Israel cannot be strong if we lose American campuses to anti-Semitic foes. Israel cannot be strong if organs of American media are allowed to malign the Jewish state with impunity. Israel cannot be strong if elected members of Congress are allowed to sign letters that fraudulently accuse Israel of starving the residents of Gaza – as did J Street’s infamous Congressional “Gaza 54” letter of January 2010 which was signed by my Congressional opponent – when in truth Israel is fighting Hamas, a genocidal foe committed to global Jewish annihilation.
The United States is home to headquarters of the UN, an institution of increasing political darkness which has become a haven of radical anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment. Israel cannot be strong if its antagonists in the UN are not confronted head-on.
But Israel can also not be strong when an American administration pressures it to make peace deals that are not only inimical to its interests, but are an affront to American ideals. What is beneficial in Israel signing an agreement with Yasser Arafat that leads to more than 1000 Israelis murdered in terror attacks? What is beneficial in the United States weakening its resolve to confront terror by rewarding terrorists with political autonomy?
Is it right for President Obama and Secretary Kerry to pressure Israel to make concessions on, say, building in Judea and Samaria while Mahmoud Abbas renounces all vestiges of Palestinian democracy and suppresses press and political freedoms? Should pressure on Israel be the focus of American efforts? And is it truly beneficial to the Palestinians to have US policy overlook the tyranny to which they are increasingly subject?
These are points that must be made from a uniquely American perspective and American soil. My voice, along with every other, matters in this country. By speaking, writing, commenting, and fighting for Israel here in America — I can make a difference.
Just as Zev argues that I cannot fully understand Israel without the full immersion of living there, no one can fully fight for Israel unless they live on the front lines. And those lines are outside of Israel.
The same is true of promoting the infinite value of human life from American soil. If America doesn’t stand up to genocide in Darfur and the Central African Republic, the slaughter of Islamic girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and the annual forced marriages of thousands of ten-year old girls in Iran, then who will?
Over the past few years, I have shifted so much of what I do toward Israel’s defense. I came to be known to some through my work at Oxford and my relationships books, especially Kosher Sex and my most recent work, Kosher Lust. My TV show Shalom in the Home brought me to an even wider audience. But I now spend most of my time debating for Israel at Universities and on TV, writing op-eds, and especially running large press campaigns on Israel’s behalf in the world media. I tell audiences that while I believe in “Make love not war,” seeing how the Jewish state is under mortal threat I have embraced the fight. I will not shirk from it.
This is an urgent moment in the life of the Jewish state and the Jewish People. Israel is embattled from all sides, as is so much of World Jewry, as we’ve been seeing in Europe. The situation at hand demands that each of us do our part to fight for Israel against the haters.
We must dispel the idea that the only way to serve Israel is to move there.
My dear friend Ambassador Ron Dermer grew up in America and made aliyah after his time as my student President at Oxford. But now he lives in Washington, DC, on his second diplomatic tour.
Why does he live outside of Israel? Because he serves the Jewish state from the outside.
The same is true of my friend Ron Prosor, Israel’s Ambassador at the UN, Ambassador Ido Ahroni, the Consul General in New York, and Ambassador Daniel Taub in Great Britain. All live outside Israel and defend the Jewish state from without.
I recognize that their situation is very different to my own, given that they are Israeli citizens who have made their homes in Israel and have been sent by the Jewish state to represent it abroad.
Nevertheless, the principle remains: you don’t have to live in Israel to serve the Jewish people.
You can do it from wherever you are most needed.
And right now my Jewish soul and my American heart require me to be in the United States for the benefit of both.
But God has a plan for each of us and it may change and fluctuate as he sees fit.
Like anyone else, I await the gradual development of that plan.