Dear Holy Brother,
I write to you in advance of Tuesday’s election in Israel, with the hope that I may convince you to vote for the chance for the Moderate Middle to govern. I speak to you from the place of our shared past, our vibrant present and dreams for the future.
I remember that your first trip to Israel was in that remarkable summer of 1976, right before your senior year of high school. My first trip to Israel was in the summer of 1979, just before my senior year of college. I am sure you remember that winter of 1979 when our hometown encountered tragedy and trauma. On February 4, the small Jewish community of Akron lost two young people, in separate tragic accidents. So it was that on February 6 we buried my cousin Vicki in the morning and our friend Jennifer’s brother Jimmy in the afternoon.
Looking back at that time, it’s as if we were being prepared for a defining aspect of our adult Jewish lives, your’s as an Israeli and mine as an Israeli activist, death as a fact of life. Like so many in Israel who have suffered tragic loss, our lives, our families’ lives and the lives of many of our peers were marked by the loss of young, vibrant Jewish life. And in the same way that Israeli society is bonded together by virtue of these shared losses, so are we, those who came of age in Akron during a certain time period. Many of us who knew and loved Vicki and Jimmy have made a commitment to live life with fierce passion. You followed your Jewish heart and soul in the early 1990’s, making Aliyah, finding a wonderful American olah to marry and have a family with and throughout various careers, being a vital part of Israeli society.
So it is that on the eve of the Israeli election, I write to you, as family. While not blood, our Jewish roots were planted in the same rich soil of northeast Ohio. Our grandmothers, z”l were very good friends and loving Jewish matriarchs. As the oldest and only boy in your family, I know you looked up to my brothers, Scott and Barry. Following their lead, we dove into USY and we’ve been swimming in the sea of Jewish life together ever since. It is one of those “sacred synchronicities” that your Aliyah coincided with the beginning of my regular travels to Israel. We’ve celebrated life cycle events, holidays, Shabbat meals both in Israel and in the US. You know that my children view you and yours as our Israeli family.
However, your family lives in one of those neighborhoods that creates anxiety in Rachel. And while I totally respect your decision to have made a home in an eastern suburb of Jerusalem, I also share with you that whenever there is news of a terrorist attack in the Gush, I have more than a moment of concern, knowing that my family is at risk.
However Brother, these days, it feels like we too are at risk here in the US. Since you made your move to Israel, American society and politics have changed dramatically. In the wake of the anti-Semitic attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway, the reality of gun violence that has infested our general society has infected the American Jewish community. There are guards at our doors on Shabbat and we go through metal detectors at our JCC’s. Donald Trump has unleashed a wave of racism and hatred that we thought we left behind last century. Since September 11 the fear of Islamic terrorism has masked the unrelenting tragedy of domestic terrorism in our public places. In other words, there is a very ugly current of racism and violence running rampant in America and it now emanates from the President of the United States. When we were students at Firestone High School, did we ever think we would see American democracy so challenged? Similarly, as we learned about the miracle of the State of Israel in Hebrew School and USY, did we ever think we would see a situation where a blatantly racist party, Otzma Yehudit, could become a part of the government of the modern Jewish democratic state?
In a week when there have been a lot of shocking headlines, today’s story about Itamar Ben Gvir, the head of the extreme-right party Otzma Yehudit, demanding a Cabinet seat in exchange for his party being a part of Netanyahu’s coalition, was truly distressing. What was once considered out of bounds in Israeli politics, racism and political violence, now seems to be acceptable to enough of the population to give this successor to the Kach party seats in the Knesset. This racism exploits the fear, anxiety and uncertainty generated by the repressed trauma of the Second Intifada that I wrote about in my recent blog. Brother, the Jewish People are so much better than that. We, who have been the subject of so much discrimination, cannot tolerate racism in our public leaders. This flies in the face of what it means to be Jewish. Yet, I understand how fear and racism go hand in hand. As I wrote the other day, it is time for the Israeli public to face the repressed trauma of the Second Intifada years and find the courage to move on from those dark and fearful days.
On the other hand, the stories highlighting one of the central issues of the campaign, “just how Jewish – and whose idea of Jewish – the Jewish state should be” have been more than validating. Nine years ago I identified exactly this issue and asked a series of related questions, through music, in “Sacred Rights, Sacred Song.” Remember how we sat together for coffee that morning, 1 Av 5770, just after I had been at the Women of the Wall Rosh Hodesh Minyan? You listened intently as I shared my first hand account of the police abuse of Anat Hoffman. How our past, present and future whirled together on the patio of Mamilla that beautiful Jerusalem morning. I told you the my Rosh Hodesh Av story and you listened, sharing insights from your experience as an Israeli.
Brother, you do realize that if Netanyahu puts together a government, it will be with the Religious Parties that just don’t care about my status as a Jew, right? You are aware that the population from the FSU is fed up with being told they are second class citizens by the religious establishment? Have you noticed that despite being granted the right to pray at the Western Wall in a court case in 2013 decided by Judge Moshe Sobel, the ultra-Orthodox community continues to protest the Women of the Wall’s guaranteed right of religious expression? Doesn’t it bother you that Jews have less religious freedom in the Jewish State than we do in other places in the world? I know that we share that “First Amendment” gene. I am asking you to remember that the modern Jewish democratic State requires those who understand this and other core values of democracy to weigh their vote on Tuesday very heavily.
Brother, I remember a Friday night at your small Shabbat table in one of your first Jerusalem apartments decades ago when you expressed your deep fear about the threat posed by Iran. Over the years we have disagreed on how best to deal with that threat but we have never disagreed on why the threat must be contained. We always found a way to listen to each other, even as our views and our lifestyles morphed and evolved over the years. In many ways we represent the best of Israel-Diaspora relationships. Our deep love for our People and our Story and our State have always bonded us, just as our common memories of days in Akron, those filled with sorrow and those filled with joy. Do you really think that given Israel’s military capabilities, Netanyahu is the only one who can keep the State of Israel safe?
It’s only a matter of time until Rachel and Raffi follow your footsteps, establishing a home in Israel and raising their children there just as you have raised yours. The big question before us Holy Brother is this: What kind of Israel will our children and grandchildren be living in if Netanyahu is given yet another chance to lead the government of the State of Israel? What kind of society allows a coalition that embraces the racist Otzma Yehudit party? What kind of Jewish State disregards the spiritual civil rights of a majority of both Jewish Israelis and Diaspora Jews? What kind of nuclear-armed modern Jewish democracy ignores the demographic realities of a Palestinian population that has been so misled by its own leadership? Wouldn’t a National Unity government, one that empowers the Moderate Middle to set the course for the future of Our People, our Jewish State, our families be better?
I end this letter by tweaking the words to one of the songs we sang so often back in our USY days. Having had the honor of spending time with the late Ehud Manor on a trip to Vilnius and Minsk, I don’t think he would mind if I made one minor change. Having gotten to know Nurit Hirsh who wrote this timeless tune, I trust she won’t mind that I’m changing the lyric to offer a hope that change for the Greater Good will come THIS YEAR, 2019, and not some year in the future.
Od tireh, od tireh, kama tov, yiheyeh, bashana, bashana……HAZEH
You will yet see, you will yet see, how good it will be THIS year.
With much love,