The Thing This American Jew Will Discuss

Today is September 11, 2019/11 Elul 5779 and the sky is blue here in New York City, like that Tuesday 18 years ago. I was in Cleveland on September 11, 2001, recovering from a traumatic summer in our Jerusalem home while preparing to move our family from Shaker Heights, one eastern suburb of Cleveland to Moreland Hills, a yet farther eastern suburb the next day. Early that morning, our Partnership 2000 Steering Committee met with our partners in Beit Shean City and the Valley via the new technology of videoconferencing. As the Second Intifada, the “Matzav” in Hebrew, was raging, we concluded our meeting with both wishes for a Shana Tova and expressions of solidarity in the midst of the unrelenting wave of Palestinian terror against Israel. Driving home to the Shaker house, Mom shared with me the news that the first Tower had been hit by a plane. By the time the piano movers had come to move the Steinway from the old house to the new, we were watching the Towers collapse on the little TV we had brought over in advance of our move. Immediately, I was overcome by the feelings of trauma from our terror-filled summer in Jerusalem. 

Looking for a local angle to the story of how to learn to live with the Trauma of Terror created by the 9/11 attacks, the Cleveland media reached out to the Jewish Federation of Cleveland to find a family that was familiar with what Americans were experiencing by virtue of their experiences in Israel. So it was that our family became the “poster children” for how to live with terror, featured in a front page story in the Sunday edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and a lengthy at home interview with a reporter for the local ABC affiliate, WEWS. The TV connection allowed me to further tell the story of being in Jerusalem during another time of conflict in November 2014, running into a shelter as the sirens wailed on a Friday evening.

I share this bit of personal history in order to explain my response to Matti Friedman’s piece published yesterday on the op/ed page of the New York Times, “The Thing No Israeli Wants to Discuss.” In his piece, Friedman looks to a new film, “Born in Jerusalem and Still Alive,” to explain the “durability of Benjamin Netanyahu, which outsiders sometimes struggle to understand.” The film is not about politics “but the repression of personal memory that has allowed us to move on while leaving  an unsettling sense of missing time.” Friedman suggests in his piece that this Israeli repressed trauma has created an unhealthy situation for the Israeli body politic. He understands the grave consequences of not having an open and honest public conversation about the impact of the Second Intifada.

So, if no Israeli wants to have a discussion about the ongoing psychological impact of repressing those painful communal  memories and how that “unsettling sense of missing time” feeds into the fear and anxiety that Netanyahu continues to stoke for his own political purposes, then this American Jewish Zionist will. 18 years ago today, my American Jewish Zionist identity became entangled with the Trauma of Terror. Today, reliving those traumatic times, I offer a perspective that may allow the situation to look different to those in Israel who just don’t know what to do on September 17.

Like the character in the film, there was a time when I could recall every terror attack during the Second Intifada. The day I remember most clearly is August 9, 2001. On that day in Jerusalem the Sbarro pizzeria was the target of a suicide bomber killing 15 people. Sarah and I had been blocks from that place on Jaffa Street just a few hours earlier, listening to Rabbi Daniel Gordis talk about his Rosh HaShana surgery in September of 2000 and how the world changed while he was under the surgical knife and recovering. That evening, while having an “al ha aish” dinner with Rhona in Talpiot, I learned that Dvir Reshef, z”l, the son of two Partnership 2000 activists and a P2K participant himself, had been killed in Tulkarm; I also learned of the pigua, the attack, outside the gates of Kibbutz Merav in our Region. With my head and heart reeling, the next evening, Friday, August 10, I hosted Senator John Corzine on behalf of AIPAC for Shabbat dinner. Our scholar at the table that night was my teacher and mentor, Avraham Infeld. In yet another “sacred synchronicity,” on the day after my soul experienced trauma via terror on multiple levels, I was given the gift of one of my most beloved teachers at my Shabbat table, along with the US Senator from New Jersey.

Since my first Shabbat in Israel as an activist with the UJA Young Leadership Cabinet in August of 1991, I have been a student of Avraham’s, often quoting him. In fact, he was one of the teachers who inspired me to create the Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project. In the SRSS narrative, I ask the question I first heard him ask that night at the Jerusalem Hyatt hotel, “What makes a state Jewish? Can you put a kipa on a country?” From that moment on, my involvement with the Jewish community became a quest to understand Jewish identity on both a personal/micro level as well as on that communal/macro level. Through my work with our partners in the Beit Shean/Emek HaMayanot region, my home in Jerusalem and my continuing adult Jewish education courtesy of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, I became the Israeli activist that I am today.

So it is that I return to Avrahahm’s core teaching about the 5 components of Jewish Identity to urge Israelis to reclaim the Memory of those painful years. As Avraham teaches, Memory has always been a key ingredient to meaningful Jewish Identity, not to mention Jewish survival. I can hear the voice of our Wexner teacher Rabbi Irwin Kula talking about the power of Memory to keep an idea alive until the time is right to create a new reality.

Yet, according to Friedman, Israelis are repressing the Memory of the Trauma by Terror that defined the Second Intifada, the “Situation”, haMatzav. Instead of actively remembering how life was defined then by pure fear and objectively assessing the security situation today, the repressed memories of this recent chapter of Jewish history have been swept under the proverbial rug. In addition, as Friedman explains, this has “helped the Palestinian leadership pretend that none of it ever happened, and few of the foreign journalists covering the country right now were here at the time. Why are moderate Israelis afraid to pull out of the West Bank? Why has the once-dominant left become a meager parliamentary remnant? Why is there a separation barrier? If you weren’t in Israel then and can’t access the national subconscious now, the answers will be elusive.” 

Mr. Friedman, I was in Israel then and I can access the national subconscious now, so far me, the answers are not elusive. What is elusive is why so many reasonable Israelis continue to think that Netanyahu is governing in their best interest, the interest of the State of the Israel and in the interest of the Jewish People. From where I sit, a National Unity government that empowers the moderate middle and finally takes power away from the Religious Parties is in the best interest of all concerned. To think that 4 former generals cannot keep the modern, nuclear-armed State of Israel safe is to give Bibi some type of superpower that only he can keep the Jews safe. Benny Begin, whose name is synonymous with the Likud Party, has declared he will not be voting Likud. The alliance between Bibi and Trump, the incompetent Demagogue in Chief, is unraveling before Bibi’s eyes as Trump looks to other parts of the world for his reality TV show.

Furthermore, that Trump attacked my loyalty to the State of Israel because I identify as a Democrat is fragrantly offensive to the core democratic values that my Home and my Homeland share. Presidents come and go in the American democratic system as do Prime Minsters in Israel, eventually. The alliance between the United States of America and the State of Israel transcends any President or Prime Minister. This relationship between Trump and Bibi represents the worst trends in both of our political societies. Finally, there is the core issue of how the government of the State of Israel views multiple expressions of Judaism in the Jewish State as well as around the world. The alliance with the Religious Parties stands in the way of a healthy relationship between All Jews and the Jewish State. I would hope that this issues matters to those who matter to me.

My stake in Israel’s future is personal as I know that Rachel and Raffi will be making Aliyah one day in the future. Of course, those summers that we spent in Jerusalem during the Second Intifada have had an impact on my children, especially Rachel. Unlike the Israeli public, my children have not repressed their trauma. Rachel knows that when she moves to Israel, there are certain places she just cannot live because of the anxiety that Trauma by Terror creates in her psyche. The thought of my daughter living in a constant state of anxiety is most unsettling to me. However, unlike Israelis, we discuss the issues. And as a believer in democracy, I continue to put out the possibility that maybe this time, the Israeli election will result in true change. We have seen that happen in Israel before; it is very possible that it can happen again. 

On Tuesday, Israelis will have the opportunity to imagine a different reality than the one currently on the ground. Like the Founders of the State of Israel, I continue to have hope that tomorrow can be better. Jewish history is filled with painful chapters, but remembering them is a key component of our shared Jewish identity. To allow the repressed trauma of our most recent past color our ability to clearly see the present and the future would be a failure of what it means to be Jewish.

In these final days of the campaign, may the conversation about the future of the Jewish State be informed by an Israeli psyche that is not afraid to look at the painful past. Just as Americans are reliving the trauma of September 11, 2001 today, may Israelis find the courage to relive the trauma of The Situation in ways that allow a new situation, a new reality to emerge on the ground. For the sake of my children and all the Children of Israel, with the hope that no mother will have to live with the pain that Terror and Trauma bring, may the Jewish People emerge more resilient than Bibi Netanyahu. 

About the Author
Francine M. Gordon is an artist/activist who maintains homes in New York and Cleveland. From November 2010 through November 2016, through The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project, she produced over 10 Concerts of Concern in the US and Israel. Since establishing her New York residence, Ms. Gordon has become a member of the New York Federation’s Israeli Judaism committee which focuses on exactly the same issues as SRSS. In addition, she has become a proud member of the Zamir Chorale which allows her to express her Zionism through song.
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