On a beautiful Sunday morning in May, I was driving south on the West Side Highway in New York City, heading towards the Israel Day Parade. As my car made its way along the mighty Hudson River, I marveled on how awesome this city is. I saw myriads of joggers, happy barbecues taking place on well-tended Riverside park lawns, and of course, the imposing, surreal, gigantic skyscrapers that adorn this world-capital metropolis.
I travel often to New York to promote a stronger connection between North American Jews and Israel, and to encourage aliyah, and every time I go I am struck by the thought: How is the aliyah idea going to compete? This place just has too much of a magnetic pull and Jews have everything here – financial success, the best of world culture, freedom to worship, and all in relative safety, in the shadow of this great city.
While I was pondering this, I saw an airplane flying low over the Hudson River, at first thinking it was a WWII relic. But then I realized it was one of those propeller planes that tow a sign for people to read at the beach. I could make out the first letter was a “J” and so I guessed it was Christian advertising promoting Jesus. “New York is still a non-Jewish town, and Jews will never feel fully comfortable here” I thought. But as the plane got closer, the sign said something else, something very Jewishy indeed.
It read: “Judaism rejects Zionism and the State of Israel - NK, USA.”
Yup, Neturei Karta rented a plane and flew an anti-Zionist sign from the Rockaways all the way up past Manhattan – all in an effort to push back against the Israel Day Parade. Now I felt totally dejected, because I realized how doubly hard it will be to detach Jews from New York. Not only is the city tantalizing, but there is a conscious effort being made to disconnect Jews from Israel.
You may argue that Neturei Karta is an extremist group and is unrepresentative of American Jewry, and that is true. But they are not the only ones mounting a distance-yourself-from-Israel campaign. On both ends of the Jewish political spectrum there are movements which seek to disengage Jews from Israel.
For some in the Progressive movement it has been in vogue to see Israel as immoral, repressive, racist, as an apartheid state, and even equivalent to the Nazi regime. In a recent article featured on Tikkun Magazine’s website, reprinted from Haaretz, the writer asserts:
“The practice of denying the Palestinians their basic civil rights in the occupied territories under the army’s colonial regime – exemplified by the scandalous policy of administrative detentions and the disappearing of people in Israeli prisons for years because of their opposition to repression and humiliation – is frighteningly similar to the persecution practiced by the dark regimes of the 20th century against their opponents.”
More alive than ever before
These Progressives may believe they are helping Israel through their criticism, but the real effect is that Jews who come in contact with them are distanced from Israel. Israel is decidedly not their country because it does not meet their progressive Jewish moral standards, or in other words: Their Judaism rejects Zionism. "Forget it man, Israel is a mess,” says the liberal-minded Jewish student on campus.
The ultra-Orthodox haredim may come from the polar opposite world view, but they too have a Jewish moral reason to get some distance from Israel: Israel is not religious enough, not Torah enough. According to this doctrine Israel was built as a secular state by those antagonistic to Judaism and today is still run by those antagonistic to Judaism. The coercive secularism of Zionism is at the root of the real Israel, and the advent of Yair Lapid only proves that nothing has changed.
Hamodia, the self-described, “Daily Newspaper of Torah Jewry,” had this as the opening line of a recent article: “Secular politicians in Israel — not all of them, but those who are leading the campaign for an ‘equal sharing of the defense burden’ — want to deal the haredim a crushing defeat.”
How ironic. Both of these Jewish groups could see Israel in a totally different light if they only chose to.
For example, when it comes to Tikkun Olam (a liberal Jewish value), the Jewish state, while far from perfect, is the only country in the region which practices tolerance, educates, gives upward-mobility to minorities, dispenses health care and creates jobs for thousands of non-Jews daily. Opportunities to make a difference in terms of social justice and poverty alleviation are numerous in Israel and always in need of participants. One can even help shape public policy, if you are so inclined. Engaging in building the Jewish state fits perfectly with the Tikkun Olam outlook that is a core focus of Progressive Jewish circles. But this engaged attitude towards the building of a Jewish state, which seems to fit perfectly with the Tikkun Olam outlook, is rarely heard in these circles.
For the haredim worldwide, the big issue is the IDF draft. And yes, in this political climate more Ultra-Orthodox students will end up going to the army or national service. But other than the contentious army issue, haredi Torah Judaism in Israel is thriving – not receding as some haredi newspapers would have us believe. Has anyone seen the haredi neighborhoods and cities like Jerusalem or Bnei Brak or Beit Shemesh or Beitar lately? Building and flourishing! Today, Israel is the center of Torah scholarship, and countless yeshivot support the constant study of our ancient texts.
While it is a fact that if you want to be a highly-observant Jew, Israel is the place to do it – that is rarely heard in American haredi circles. Recently, I bumped into my grade school teacher who now works for a haredi institution in New York. She said that the first question that they asked her was: “Are you a Zionist?” When she replied in the affirmative they told her it was fine, as long as she kept silent about it.
In my travels I have seen this phenomenon metastasizing in parts of the American haredi society: Taking down the Israeli flag in synagogues, speaking derogatorily about the State of Israel as being anti-Torah, and of course, not recognizing Israel's Independence Day or Yom Yerushalayim, nor attending the Israel Day Parade. Anything that smacks of Zionism or associated with the state is pas nisht or trief. And of course, this attitude negatively impacts on aliyah, and therefore it is not only the State of Israel which suffers, but the land of Israel which will continue to be bereft of her children.
Why is this happening? Could it be that the leadership of certain parts of Jewish society (be they self-defined as haredi or Progressive) are trying to subdue a positive perspective on Israel in order to consolidate their power and keep their community from flying the coop? I’m not sure, but it is clear that the ideological extremes in the American Jewish community both seem to be in agreement that Israel is antithetical to their values.
So there I am heading down the West Side Highway thinking about all this: The magnetism of New York which seems to want to embrace Jews forever, the Neturei Karta flying a banner that Judaism rejects Zionism, the Progressive Jewish disappointment with Israel, and the haredi public assessment that the State of Israel is anti-Torah. So now I am left wondering: Who is left to attend the Israel Day Parade?
To my surprise, however, I saw myriads of brightly clad youth marching with strong Israel pride and a burning love of Jerusalem. I saw an innumerable mass of empowered Jews lining 5th Avenue, religious and non-religious together, loudly cheering every float that came by. I saw the half-million strong Jewish New York coming out and showing their love for our homeland. And I took that energy one step further, signing up people for a free drawing to win two free tickets to Israel with the caveat that participants will get information about aliyah. And the Jews gobbled it up.
In the streets of New York I saw that Judaism resoundingly embraces, and in no way rejects Israel and the movement to return to Israel, that is, Zionism.
To be sure, many diseased thoughts try to enter the collective conscious of our people and we will have to work hard to root them out. But thank God, there is a natural resistance to the illness; some unseen mechanism, like a gyroscope, that gets us right back up. This is why, in the end, no NY magnetism, no anti-Israel rejectionist-theories, no New York Times cynicism, and no jihadist fear mongering, will subvert the truth, which is that we, as a nation, are heading towards Jerusalem and we are living in the amazing times of the ingathering of the exiles and the building of the Jewish state. Despite many efforts to the contrary, the nation of Israel, at its core, is alive and well. In fact, with the rebirth of Israel, we are more alive than ever before.