Jonathan Russo

Shalom, Shin Bet: I’m coming to Israel

I am not Peter Beinart, but I wish I were. I have read Peter’s writings for years and once got the chance to have dinner with him. As I told him then, he is my “intellectual hero.” I only wish I had a modicum of his knowledge, intelligence, wit and writing skills.

Not that I don’t try. For the past 12 years I have been writing about China, foreign policy, economics, politics and, most of all, Israel and the Mid-East. I have had some success — I blog for The Times of Israel; The Observer published several articles, a few of which were selected by Real Clear World. The Huff-Post took some blogs. I share Peter’s concern about Hebron.

I now make an annual visit Israel. Often I am jet-lagged and Ambien-befuddled on arrival. So, if I were lucky enough to be important enough to be on Shin Bet’s radar, I would like to answer their questions as coherently as possible. Thus, I thought I would publish this in advance to speed up the “right of return” process at the airport.

As usual it will not be as articulate as his account.

Shin Bet (SB): We see you are very interested in Israel, have lots of opinions and offer lots of advice. Why this intense interest.?

Jonathan Russo (JR): That is true, I am obsessed. The Zionist enterprise has fascinated me since I spent two months in Israel when I was 14, 53 years ago. I read a lot of history and the Holocaust is an area of intense study. As is the founding of your country.

SB: So why have you not made aliyah? You have family here?

JR: Good question. Yes, I have family here, but I have serious language-learning problems. I struggled in Hebrew school. While I am proud to be an American Jew, religion and religious identity was never my defining identity.

It was also the luck of the draw. I have many relatives here because one of my Turkish grandparents got on a boat to America while his siblings came here. I had no say in that process. I could have been here, they in America.

SB: So Israel has changed a lot since you first came in 1964. What do you think of the changes?

JR: They’re beyond belief. When I was here in 1964 I was taken to my four family groups in the back of a Willys windowless Jeep/truck used for work. Not one of my 20 relatives had a car! They were based in Kiryat Shalom, you know, basic housing built by the government for the new arrivals. Life was simple, and very family-oriented.  There were donkey carts in Tel-Aviv, everyone got around on an Egged bus. Afula seemed like the crossroads of civilization. That’s not how it is today.

SB: Why do you think you get to discuss Israeli politics and comment on its policies? You don’t live here.

JR: No I don’t, but I get a say because before Bibi and all his swagger, from Ben- Gurion on down, all the prime ministers thought the Diaspora Jews, and the American ones in particular, were vital to Israel’s interests. When Bibi came to address the US Congress about Iran, wasn’t he basically treating it as an extension of the Knesset? If he can meddle in our politics why can’t I in yours? He has opinions lots of them and feels free to express them. Also, as I wrote in “A She’elah to King Bibi,” if he is king of the Jews then he is my sovereign and I can petition him. That’s Biblical law 101.

SB: Moving on, We see you’re very clever. We read that you are against BDS, think we were not tough enough on Gaza, are very critical of the government on other issues.  We also see you are an investor in a lot of Israeli technology companies.

JR: Wow you read my articles. Thanks that’s great! I need all the clicks I can get! Yes, focusing on the BDS moment is a  distraction from the global evils in the world. Yes, calling Hamas “terrorists” was a huge mistake. They are a sovereign enemy and yes I am critical of Netanyahu. I like the Mayor or Akko much better.

Israeli tech shows the flower of Jewish brilliance. Who would not want to participate in that upside? I have never seen as much innovation as demonstrated at the annual Viola investors conference. I was an early on investor in OurCrowd the equity crowdfunding platform.

SB: We see you belong to The Interagency Task Force. Why do you care about Israeli Arabs? We see you give scholarships to Israeli-Arabs and East Jerusalem Arabs to attend the Hebrew University Urban Studies clinic, what’s up with all this?

JR: Call me naive but I believe it is always worth a try to co-exist with your neighbor. My Turkish family lived for 500 years under the protection of the Muslim Ottoman Sultans at a time when the world’s Christians did nothing but unleash wave after wave of pogroms against its Jewish minority. I think it makes Israel stronger if all its citizens participate in both civil and economic life. My interest in these organizations stem from that. Labor could win a Knesset majority anytime in the near future and the whole focus of your government could change. Don’t think today’s policies will be tomorrow’s?  Democracies are volatile.

SB: Explain how you see the new nation state law.

JR: My reading of the founding of Israel is this. Israel was founded as a state that allowed Jews to practice their religious beliefs free from fear. It was not the founders dream to induce fear about your religious practices, Jewish or non-Jewish. The Zionist founders did not envision Israel as a theocracy. Frankly, as a rational human being, I do not trust anyone wearing a hat to govern me. Promoting a religious/ political ruling class is not going to strengthen Israel. Including all its citizens; Arabs, Druze and non-orthodox is in the nation’s interest. I support your 2016 law to boost the economic development of the Arab sector.

SB: How do you spend your time in Israel?

JR: Aside from time with my family, friends, business meetings and article research, I experience a lot of good old Biblical awe. I’m moved while observing Shabbat services at the Yemenite shul in Ein Karem. I can’t believe we have created a safe place for these worshipers to practice after thousands of years of exile. Then I walk a block away, and there, having coffee, is a Jewish motorcycle club. They are all decked out in their touring gear, after getting off their top of the line BMW bikes. Same country, same religion everyone fee to do as they please. The next day I might go to East Jerusalem and see how under a Hebrew University program teenage Palestinian girls are using computers to help plan a community school. The sight of these young people engaged in learning and modernity, even if they are in traditional dress, is one of hope. I see countless examples of small miracles like these every day.

SB: OK that is all the time we have for you. You may go now.

About the Author
Jonathan Russo has been observing Israel and its policies since he first visited in 1966. He is a businessman in New York City.