Real Zionists Face Test

The President of the Reform movement announced the cancellation of its teen programs to Israel. Rabbi Eric Yoffie said the movement’s “religious and Zionist commitments run deep, but this movement never uses other people’s children to make a political or ideological point.” This is perhaps the most concise statement of American Zionism I have read, but it is not quite accurate. What he should have said is that his movement, and all others in America, never use their children to make points. In fact, they do use children all the time, Israeli children.

I have always been the one telling friends and others that it is always safe to go to Israel. It’s not that I’m particularly brave, I’m not, it’s that the likelihood of being harmed in anyway always seemed far more likely in downtown Washington, D.C. than anywhere I would visit in Israel. As someone said to me recently, if you wanted to find the absolute safest place to go in America, wouldn’t you choose somewhere like the Federal Building in Oklahoma City?

Still, I have to admit that I was shaken by the recent bombing in Tel Aviv. I could see that disco from the hotel I stayed in last year. I have a picture from my hotel room of the mosque that was stoned by angry Jews afterward.

Israelis undoubtedly are being more cautious, but they have not abandoned their lifestyles and holed up in bunkers. The Palestinians’ stated objective is to make daily life such a living hell that Israel will capitulate to all their demands. As Hirsh Goodman noted in his recent column, however, even after bombs exploded near the center of Jerusalem, the following day the pedestrian mall was busy, the restaurants and pubs full. At the very time Israelis are showing their backbone, American Jews are looking like jellyfish.

The movie Pearl Harbor reminded me of that “Greatest Generation,” which did not hide under their collective beds in the face of danger. Those kids, yes, they were mostly kids, were scared to death but they volunteered to fight. A few years later, some of those battle-hardened men went to Palestine to join Israel’s fight for independence. Again, in 1967, many American Jews wanted to fight beside their brothers and sisters in Israel. By contrast, the current generation of Jews did not stand with Israel in the Gulf War and is not coming to Israel’s aid in what has now become a war with the Palestinians.

American Jews mount campaigns declaring that “We are One” and telling pollsters of our love for Israel. We demand a say in the fate of Jerusalem because it is the capital of our homeland and yet we don’t have the guts now to visit it, let alone fight for it.

I was in Israel in January and I know how much the Israelis appreciated seeing those thousands of Birthright students. It was pitiful, however, that no one else was there. I traveled around the country and never saw another tour group. Restaurants I’d visited less than a year before were closed because of lack of business.

Those solidarity missions a few months ago were nice, but flying a group in to stay at the King David for a couple of days isn’t what Israelis need to feel we are with them. They need to see us on our regular tours, traveling around the country and spending shekels in their shops and restaurants. They need to see that we are willing to send our children to Israel. Israeli children the same age are under fire in Gaza and the West Bank while our kids have no such responsibility to defend their homeland; they are on Israel programs touring, partying and having the time of their life.

The Reform movement made a terrible mistake. Participation would undoubtedly have been dramatically lower than usual, as is the case on the trips that are going forward, but it is up to Jewish leaders like Rabbi Yoffie to set an example by showing a love and commitment to Israel rather than just talking about it. This is not a Reform, Conservative, Orthodox issue, it is a matter of who we are. Are we checkbook Zionists and cowards or proud Jews with a homeland we are prepared to defend?

No one is asking American Jews to tour Ramallah or take up arms to defend settlements in the Gaza Strip. Israelis are asking us to stand beside them, not in plazas in New York City, but in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. Israel needs us. Now who is with Israel? Let’s get on the planes — and take our children with us.