Back to Israel in Troubled Times

In just a few hours, I’ll be leaving for ten days in Israel, bringing with me fifty members of my congregation, as well as my wife and the Educational Director of our synagogue’s Religious School. I can no longer remember how many of these trips I’ve led during the past thirty years, and that is a very good thing indeed. One of the things I’m proudest of in my rabbinate is having introduced many members of my community to Israel for the first time. There is a special joy in that for me, and the feeling never grows old.

There is, however, something fundamentally different about this trip, something that sets it apart from all the others.

As I write, Tunisia’s government has been overthrown, Egypt has just undergone a revolution that ousted its leader of thirty years, there are violent anti-government demonstrations in Bahrain, more in Yemen, and even a few in Libya.

I can only imagine that there have been a few sleepless nights for the leaders of Saudi Arabia, and because of that, there are also sleepless nights in Washington. Our so-called “economic recovery”- not to mention world peace and stability- goes the way of oil. If Saudi Arabia sees a serious revolt, it’s a whole new ballgame, with much higher stakes. Iran is threatening to run two warships through the Suez Canal, on their way to Syria. America, and Israel, are in uncharted waters. Scary times…

One might possibly say that this is not the best of times to be taking a synagogue group to Israel. Truth to tell, a few members of the group suggested exactly that, expressing concern about how the current unrest might- in the most physical and immediate sense of the question- directly impact our itinerary.

Important lesson number one for my fellow travelers: the answer to that question is, in all likelihood, not at all. We read headlines here about Israel and what goes on there, and those without serious experience with Israeli life in real time automatically assume that people there are running for bomb shelters and wringing their hands. That’s simply not true.

Of course there is concern about the implications of all these developments. How could there not be? But just as life goes on here in New York even when the Department of Homeland Security warns of enhanced terror threats, so, too, does day to day life go on in Israel even when the headlines are threatening. People go to work, children go to school, restaurants and hotels function as they usually do, and so on.

If my congregants were to learn nothing more about Israel than the fact that what they read and hear in American media outlets bears little correlation to Israel’s reality, the trip would have been worth its weight in gold.

But there is an important lesson number two, and even though it’s not operative right at this moment, it’s still important to consider.

I remember as if it were yesterday the days immediately preceding the first Gulf War in 1991, when tensions were mounting, and Saddam Hussein was threatening to attack Israel- which, of course, he did. As it happened, my sister in Israel was making both a Bar and Bat Mitzvah right at that time, and my parents and I were going to Israel no matter what might happen. We did- gas masks, sealed rooms and all.

Nothing was sadder and more depressing for Israelis than watching Americans bail out of their travel plans because of the impending threat. I’m not just talking about synagogue groups, where there were questions of insurance liability and the like, and many people had never traveled to Israel before. Other than a few hastily organized solidarity groups, everyone bailed. Israelis- and Israel- realized that, when the going gets tough, they are, ultimately, alone. All alone.

Thank God we are not in that place right now, and there is no immediate threat to Israel that would even remotely suggest postponing our trip. But it bears remembering the symbolic nature of American Jewish tourism to Israel. Every Jewish American who comes to Israel is making a statement- even if a subliminal one- that Israel’s existence is also of existential significance to us on this side of the ocean. And that is a message that we dare not compromise in this difficult time.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation. To read more "A Rabbi’s World" columns, click here.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.