A Day to Just Lean Back and Smile

So Isaac summoned Jacob and blessed him; … May G-d grant you the blessing of Abraham to you and to your offspring with you, that you may possess the land of your sojourns which G-d gave to Abraham. (Gen. 28:1, 4) — a father’s blessing to his son

In my office, I have some 18 legal boxes and several lateral file cabinets filled with articles and fact-filled research I’ve done over the last 30-plus years on Israel and various Jewish topics, put together after my return to my Jewish roots. When you are blessed to turn 70, you have much to reflect on, and there is quite a history sprinkled with much emotion and love in those files. I grew up not knowing much about Israel or Jewish. It was the era of “becoming a good American … to fit in.” That I did, and shortly after my Bar Mitzvah, I hit the “delete” key and forgot what little I had learned.

Many years later, after a very late night in New York City, I found myself standing on “holy ground” in the architecture section of a bookstore called “Strand” on 13th and Broadway. A book with an orange cover and a black fist and Jewish star had purposely been misplaced in the unlikely Architecture section—and that became my “burning bush” moment. The book, Never Again! by Rabbi Meir Kahane zt”l, altered the course of my life – and it has been for a blessing.

To say Rabbi Kahane was misunderstood, perhaps. But he saved many lost Jewish souls, me included. If he had a fatal flaw, it was that he loved Jews too much. One of the first things he told me was that although the Torah commands us to love our fellow Jew, it doesn’t say we have to like them. Why would we need to be commanded? It didn’t take me long to find out. There are many reasons and rationalizations to reflect on, but second chances are very precious. And if you believe in a destiny of a people, being a Jew is not always easy – but rest assured, it is always an honor.

And so it was, as I looked through my files for what to write for the Chicago Jewish News issue for the Greater Chicago Jewish Festival 2016, a folder popped out which made me smile and in many respects reflected my own journey. It was a file on Yosef “Tommy” Lapid z”l, sometimes known as the “Archie Bunker of Israel.”

If you want to read a most wonderful book about the relationship between an Israeli immigrant-Holocaust-survivor father from the ghettos of Budapest, Hungary and his Israeli-born son, now a member of Knesset, read Memories After My Death, a memoir written by his son, Yair Lapid, in his late father’s voice. It is a joy that explains a father’s Zionist love for his new homeland, Israel.

But what brought me today to the liberal, uber-universalist “Tommy” Lapid, a religious rejectionist, was an article he wrote almost 20 years ago, in response to one of his Arab intellectual friends, about “Zionism.” The Palestinian-Israeli writer Anton Shamas had written, in the Independence Day edition of Tel Aviv’s weekly Ha’ir:

Ladies and gentlemen, the time has come, on this festive day, to admit with complete candor, without shame or downcast eyes, that the whole business has turned out badly. The Zionist adventure has been a total failure.

In response to that statement, Lapid, the secular, universalist Jew, wrote:

It’s a good thing Shamas came out and said it. Because an article like this, by an authoritative Arab intellectual, is a fine opportunity to express a few truths one hesitates to voice without a suitable pretext.

Shamas, my friend: Zionism is the greatest success story of the 20th century. Fifty years after the defeat of Hitler and the mufti of Jerusalem, Zionism is thriving in the heart of the Middle East, in a state of 4.5 million Jews [today, 6.5 million Jews] – Jews whose survival was, for a moment, in doubt.

The Hebrew language (one of Zionism’s wonders) has bonded sabras and refugees from the camps, Sephardim and Oriental Jews. Within half a century, the Zionists, starting with almost nothing, have forged a state which launches its own space satellites and provides the US Navy with pilotless drones. It exports sophisticated computer programs and teaches Latin Americans how to grow melons. [Israel is recognized as the foremost start-up nation.]

Every month this state exports goods worth a billion dollars and more [$4.5 billion per month in 2015] to Western Europe, the US and even Japan; it has an exemplary democracy, one in which cabinet ministers fear the state comptroller, and judges fear only G-d.

This state has produced an army deemed one of the world’s best; there is little violent crime, and many fine concerts. People of all religions enjoy freedom of worship, and non-believers are welcome too. Ten percent of the country’s citizens are new immigrants; and 89 percent think that, despite all the hardships – and the Jewish Agency – it’s a good place to live in.

This is a state in which an Anton Shamas is free, on a national holiday, to publish a virulent attack on everything that the Jews living in the state hold dear. Shamas might be able to forgive us for all this, perhaps. But what he cannot bear is the fact that, held up in the light of Zionism’s achievements, the Arabs’ failure appears so humiliating and depressing.

How many Palestinians are there, my friend? One million – two, three? And how many Arab states are there around you? Twenty? Twenty countries of kings and dictators, of terror and bloodshed. There isn’t a single Arab democracy, one with freedom of expression and civil rights.

You talk about the failure of the State of Israel. Compared to what? Algeria? Egypt? Iraq? [Syria? Libya? Yemen?] How many Arabs live between the Atlantic Ocean and the Persian Gulf? A hundred million? Two hundred million? And how many Muslims are there? A billion? All of them pray to the same Allah, in the name of the same prophet, Mohammed. And all of them together can’t solve Gaza’s sewage problem.

For 47 years you’ve been preparing for Palestinian independence, and yet you’re still not collecting the garbage in Jericho. With all the oil in the world, you can’t muster the Arab brotherhood needed to build a hospital in Deir el-Balah. And all the gold faucets in Saudi Arabia and all the jacuzzis in Kuwait aren’t enough to provide clean drinking water for Jabalya.

When all’s said and done, my friend, you know very well that if almost a million Jews lived in Gaza, surrounded by 20 Jewish states, Jewish Gaza would be paradise on earth. Palestinian laborers would be lining up at the Erez Junction facing the other way to get work in Gaza.

If there were a billion believing Jews in the world, Gaza’s Jews wouldn’t need handouts from the UN; the world’s Jews would have taken care of Gaza’s Jews, and they would long since have converted Gaza into the pearl of the Mediterranean.

You know all this, Anton Shamas, and that’s what’s eating you. Envy has led you into irrationality. Thus the time has come, with complete candor, without shame or downcast eyes, to conclude: It hasn’t worked out, this whole business: The Palestinian adventure has been a total failure.

Lapid may have been a staunch secularist, but he was a Zionist in every fiber of his being. He understood and appreciated the importance of a Jewish homeland. He ran for the Knesset, having formed a secular, anti-religious party called Shinui (change) in 2003. His campaign openly mocked religious Jews in terms that some Israelis found distasteful, even anti-Semitic; but the strategy worked. Shinui became the sixth largest party in the Knesset. Among the most politically incorrect politicians in Israel, memories of his father being murdered in the Holocaust focused Lapid on the importance of Zionism. And as much as he said unapologetically that he hated the ultra-Orthodox, he believed that “here and there you meet someone intelligent from their ranks, like former Shas leader Aryeh Deri, but mostly they’re a noisy bunch of self-proclaimed big shots without a touch of G-d in their hearts. … ‘The problem with you, Tommy,’ one of them said to me with a mixture of anger and wonder, ‘is that you speak out against Jews all the time but you’re one of the most Jewish people there is.’ I told him it was absolutely true.” (Yair Lapid, Memories After My Death, p. 296)

And Tommy, after his death, has me smiling with a warm understanding, for his words are filled with personal and reflective Jewish love. “Frankly, my death was meant to be something more than just a publicity stunt or a way of freeing Yair from the very heavy shadow of a dominant father.” (Ibid., p. 207) But not so fast, lover of Zion. You instilled in Yair your strong commitment and deep Zionist love – perhaps even a bit of a chip off the old block in a few important ways.

For although Yair might have drifted into the centrist camp of secular, liberal Israeli politics, your words gave him subtle direction. Could you believe that Yair would join a synagogue? As universalist as you were, could you believe that Yair would say of you, “He would be upset if his son would marry a non-Jew”? Or “Jerusalem shouldn’t be the capital of a Palestinian state” or “Israel should not change its policy regarding the building of Jewish communities in Judea/Samaria in order to revive the stalemated peace process.” “Judea/Samaria,” no less! Not the pejorative “West Bank”!

On the anti-Israel website Mondoweiss, the headline screamed, “Maximum Jews, minimum Palestinians – Yair Lapid is the pretty face of ultranationalism” (01/26/2016). What a badge of honor! It should make a father proud – and it makes me, on this reflective day, lean back and smile. Israel is for you, without a moment’s doubt, the most special place on the planet, a place where “the light unto the nations” truly shines for all to see, whether our enemies like it or not. Yes, the world was indifferent in those terrible years, but our G-d heard our people’s cry from Europe. No one could have imagined, in their wildest dreams, the Israel of today.

Israel is too happy, too content to concern itself with peace, claims President Obama. Is there something wrong with being happy? Something wrong with being 68 glorious years young, but in reality, 4000 years old? Mr. President, we gladly accept your warm wishes of mazel tov! But with gas chambers and crematoria tucked back inside our collective memory, along with the wars the smirking world believed Israel would lose in 1948, 1967 and 1973, the Israeli-Zionist psyche smiles at its enemies with a self-confidence Jews haven’t felt in 2000 years.

The self-confidence and inner strength of a heritage handed down from generation to generation – l’dor v’dor – reflected in a father who emerged from the hell of the world’s indifference and blessed his son with self-confidence, self- respect and a love of the most incredible place on the planet. “And I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” (Gen. 12:3) And He kept his promise. It just kinda makes you lean back and smile.

Am Yisrael Chai, and thank you, “Tommy” Lapid. Your memory is for a blessing and a smile.
Shabbat Shalom, 06/03/16

Jack “Yehoshua” Berger *

* Back issues are archived at The Times of Israel.com

About the Author
Educated as an architect with a Masters in Architectural History, Jack Yehoshua Berger became a practicing architect and real estate developer. In his late 30's he met a Rabbi who turned him on to the miracle of Israel and he began learning how the amazing country, against all odds, came to be the miracle of the modern world.