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Why We Are Going To Israel

12/24/2023 09:03:01 AM


Bruce Alpert

They say that to keep the romance alive in a marriage, one has to be willing to try new things.  Well, Terri and I have been married for thirty-seven years and next Tuesday, we are going to do something together we have never tried before.  We’re going to walk into the Duty Free shop at Newark Airport and buy all the cigarettes we can carry.

Neither of us smokes nor have we the inclination to take up the habit.  We’re buying them to bring to the soldiers we hope to meet when we travel to Israel next week.  Cigarettes, we have been told, are what they most want.  

Traveling to Israel has been on our minds since October 8th - the day after the pogrom that Hamas unleashed upon the Jewish State.  We concluded that - in those early days of the war - we would only be a burden on those whom we hoped to visit.  But with war now the everyday reality with which Israelis live, we feel like the time is right for us to go.  I would like to tell you why.

Horrified as we were by what happened in Israel on October 7, we were not shocked by it.  We were not surprised to see that Hamas is as committed to sadism as it is to terrorism.  What surprised us was what happened here in the United States: the 31 Harvard student groups that blamed Israel for the pogrom; the Cornell professor who told a pro-Hamas rally that he found the massacre of Jews exhilarating; the masked George Washington University students who projected “Glory to Our Martyrs” on the side of the school’s library; the trio of university presidents who needed to know the context before labeling a call for Jewish genocide hate speech; and the endless demonstrations taking place seemingly everywhere with people chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” - an explicit call for Israel’s destruction.  These horrific incidents only highlight a massive generational schism that is opening up in this country where younger people have turned decidedly against Israel.  Unaware of the history, they question the very legitimacy of a Jewish State.

You all know my feelings about Israel, but given where our dialogue is these days, I will make two very brief statements about its legitimacy.  First, the Jewish ties to this land are longer and deeper than those of any other people to any other piece of earth.  Our holiest texts, dating back a thousand years before the common era, and written in our own, ancient language, testify to that truth.  And second, the persistence of antisemitism shows us that, for the survival of the Jewish people, the State of Israel is an existential necessity. History proves again and again that Jews cannot rely on the good graces of others for their safety.  These two facts are to me so incontrovertible that I don’t know how any reasonable person can take issue with either of them.

And yet, here we are, with more than half of the young people in this country thinking Israel is to blame for a war that Hamas started by its sadistic murder of 1200 innocents and its heartless and shameless abduction of more than 200 others.  And I find myself wondering, can it get worse?  Can this antisemitism that seems to be taking over our youngest generation - particularly those attending our finest schools - become the norm in this country?  I can’t imagine being a committed Jew on a college campus right now.  Could that feeling spread to the point where Jews are permitted but unwelcomed in America?  It has happened in other places.  Indeed, the US is the only place where it hasn’t happened.  Yet.

Israel right now is facing an existential threat.  That threat isn’t military.  Israel has the power to defeat all the enemies it faces - including Iran - and survive.  No, the existential threat Israel faces is from delegitimization.  This is how Hamas is fighting this war: by building its military operations underneath its densely packed civilian population. It does so to maximize civilian casualties.  It’s a strategy that cynically relies on the world’s latent but ever present antisemitism to label Israel’s legitimate war aims as the crimes of a colonialist power against a poor, beleaguered and displaced indigenous population.  And for at least one generation in this country, that strategy is working.

So Israel is fighting an existential war against delegitimization, and yet Israel itself is an existential necessity for the Jewish people.  And that means that Israel’s war is our war too.  That is why we are going: to let our friends who are on the battlefield, and our friends whose children are on the battlefield, know that this fight is ours as well.  

Israelis know what is going on here in America.  They watch us - especially our Jewish population - very closely.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some survey showed that Israel is the nation where the highest percentage of its citizens know the name of the president of Harvard.  Terri and I feel that they need to see Americans, especially Jewish Americans, in their midst right now, before the fighting has ended.  In this hard and increasingly lonely time, they need to see at least a few of us, in the flesh, standing with them.  Terri and I have been telling folks that we are going to Israel to hug our friends.  We will do that.  But, for at least a few days, we will stand with them as well.

Terri and I both feel strongly about our need to do this.  We have weighed the risks.  Our greatest concern is that the war will widen while we are there. Our greatest fear is that something will happen to only one of us.  And our greatest hesitance is the anxiety we are causing our loved ones, especially our children.  

For me, a singularly precious moment was the look on our Hebrew school students' faces when I told them we were going.  They looked shocked, and then they each uttered that two word prayer we have all said so many times in our lives: “Be safe.”

We intend to be safe.  Eyal Mahal, our tour guide on both synagogue trips, will be with us for most of our time there.  For those of you who know Eyal, enough said.  For those of you who don’t, let me assure you that he is the one guy you want with you in a fox hole.  And on those few times we aren’t with Eyal, we will be surrounded by friends - good, caring people whose like makes Israel such a warm, vibrant place - a place for which every Jew should feel enormous pride.  God forbid we were unwilling to be with them in troubled times.

Terri and I are going to Israel next week because we have to go.  We will carry with us cigarettes for the soldiers we meet, and toys for their children at home.  And we will carry something more: the love of this community for a country and a people that are so essential for Jewish survival.  I pray that, by going, we will leave those we meet just a little bit stronger for their long fight ahead.  And I pray that when we return, we will come back to a community just a little bit stronger for having stood at the side of our good and noble brothers and sisters.

Wed, July 24 2024 18 Tammuz 5784