Daniel Elbaum
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A tale of two taxis

I'm a proud Jew and a public Zionist, yet even I have been wary around non-Jews recently. Connecting with the Israelis volunteering in my community helps
Twin sisters Kayla and Taryn Megronigle, 19, sit on their friends shoulders wearing shirts that say "I love being Jewish" while attending a March for Israel rally Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023, on the National Mall in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Twin sisters Kayla and Taryn Megronigle, 19, sit on their friends shoulders wearing shirts that say "I love being Jewish" while attending a March for Israel rally Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023, on the National Mall in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

I discovered something about myself during two taxi rides that I took recently. I am not happy with what I learned.

The first ride was with two American Jewish friends from our hotel in Jerusalem to Ben Gurion Airport after The Jewish Agency for Israel Board of Governors meeting. We discussed our visit to the kibbutzim in the south, the fate of the Israeli hostages, and what we had seen in the country we loved.

The second ride was on the way to my house after arriving back in the US. As is my custom, I called my parents to let them know that I had found a beggar in Jerusalem to give the money that they had given to me. When they started asking me about my trip, I became intensely aware of the Middle Eastern name of my driver. I also realized that I had unconsciously moved my “bring them home” necklace under my shirt. As I gave them brief terse answers, my mother, the daughter of survivors, knowingly said to my father, “Let’s ask him later about Israel, he is in a taxi.”

According to a 2023 poll from the American Jewish Committee, I am far from alone. Nearly half (46%) of American Jews reported changing their behavior out of fear of antisemitism after October 7. This is a significant increase compared to previous years (38% in 2022, and 39% in 2021).

The same study notes that 63% of Jewish adults say the status of Jews in the US is “less secure than a year ago” – more than a 20% increase in just one year (and a 30% increase over two years). Further, 78% of American Jews report that the October 7 Hamas attacks made them feel less safe as a Jewish person.

Since October 7, we at The Jewish Agency for Israel have seen an increase of 85% in the opening of Aliyah files. Although there is traditionally a mixture of motives for the decision to explore moving to Israel, the decision to escape antisemitism has often played some role.

None of this is to suggest that all American Jews are afraid for our safety or are considering leaving the country of our birth out of fear. After all, just a few months ago the Jewish Federations of North America and Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations led the largest ever rally of American Jews in our nation’s history on the national mall. There have been hundreds of pro-Israel rallies and many American Jews have proudly defended the Jewish state.

Yet, denial is not a strategy and we gain nothing by pretending that a significant percentage of American Jews are worried that the war against Hamas makes them less safe. This problem is especially acute among younger Jews where the American Jewish Committee’s survey revealed that 44% of current or recent college students were affected by antisemitism during their time on campus.

Ironically, the answer lies in bringing Israel closer rather than pushing it further away.

History has shown us that we are stronger when united than divided. The overwhelming majority of Jews of all ages are Zionists and believe strongly in Israel’s right to exist. This does not mean that every Jew agrees with the decisions of the Israeli government – one certainly would not make that claim about Israelis. However, increased closeness to Israel as a collective makes us stronger overall and unites us as a people. It is no coincidence that the great period of Jewish prosperity and success in America directly correlates to Israel’s founding and triumph in the 1967 war.

The formula for how we attain this closeness is not complicated. We need to continue to encourage our kids to go to Israel and we need to bring more of Israel to them. At the Jewish Agency, we are doubling and tripling down on our Shlichim program of young Israeli emissaries who are spending time on our college campuses (known as the Jewish Agency Israel Fellows) and with our high school students. These Shlichim are some of the most remarkable human beings that I have ever had the privilege to meet. As their country is at war, with many having lost family and friends, they stay at their posts in the US and give courage to our American students of all ages.

Today in 2024, there should be only two types of Jewish communities in America. Those who have Shlichim working in their schools and those who are desperately trying to bring them in.

I’ve thought about that second cab ride a lot over the last few days and I understand why I did what I did. I am a proud Jew and Zionist, but not every situation calls for the exact same conduct. That said, the cab driver did nothing to suggest he had the slightest interest in my conversation and the fear that I had was mine and mine alone.

I don’t know if what I did was cowardly or cautious or perhaps some combination of both. But I do know one thing – Jews have tried the tactic of timidity for far too long. We need to be smart, but we also need to be proud of who we are. I personally owe our Shlichim nothing less.

About the Author
Dan Elbaum is head of North America at The Jewish Agency for Israel and the president and CEO of Jewish Agency International Development.