My fellow American-Israelis,
Of the estimated 170,000 American citizens living here, approximately 30,000 voted voted in the recent presidential election (compared to 80,000 in the 2012 election). It is reported that the vast majority voted for Donald Trump for president. I can believe it when a mere 400 people turned out for a solidarity rally with the Women’s March in Washington, DC., on January 21.
Though I wouldn’t call politics my favorite sport, I believe in political discourse and the importance of advancing a culture of respectful debate. I live in Jerusalem for the past 12 years, since I made aliyah. When my husband and I returned to Israel in 2005, we debated where to live. I was very open – any place would be a great adventure for me. It was my secular, native Israeli husband, who grew up on a kibbutz in the North and a Tel Aviv suburb, who decided we should live in Jerusalem. In many ways, Jerusalem is a challenging place to live – it is a city fraught with tensions – between Arabs and Jews, between Ultra-Orthodox and everyone else. It is both an international city serving as a place of pilgrimage for three Western religions, and it is also a place of residence with diverse neighborhoods each with its own unique character.
There are, of course, many Americans who live in Jerusalem. With all of the tensions Jerusalem has heaped upon it, I have always felt and said that the southern neighborhoods of Jerusalem are the most pluralistic and tolerant areas in the entire world. I am a Reform Rabbi married to a secular Jew. In the four buildings we have lived in during the past decade, our neighbors have been secular Jews, traditional Jews, Orthodox Jews, and Arabs of all ages. They have been native Israelis, Palestinian, American, Italian, French, Moroccan, and British. I will take as an example the Orthodox neighbors we had – mostly Americans. We would come to their homes for Shabbat meals, our children would play together, and our Orthodox neighbor even came and slept in our apartment with our children when we had to go to the hospital late at night with the arrival of our third. When I would tell my secular Israeli non-Jerusalemite friends about this, they were often in shock – they couldn’t believe secular/Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews could get along, let alone be friends.
I believe that one of the important things which American olim have contributed to Israeli society is the sense of tolerance and pluralism. Americans know what it is like to live in a diverse society. They understand what a minority can feel like. Speaking for myself, I grew up in a neighborhood that was mostly Jewish but even still, there were black, Asian, Indian, and white Christian kids. The pervading culture was Christmas and Easter and Sunday was the “official” day of rest. Just going to the mall you interacted daily with people of all backgrounds (even some Israelis who worked the kiosks). In college, I made friends from around the world including Greece, China, and, yes, even Iran.
In the United States, people, by and large, get along. I was in New York on 9-11 and that very day we went downstairs to the Arab Muslims who own the minimarket below my apartment and we stood together against terrorism. When I would ride the subway and my magen david necklace would hang out, an Ultra-Orthodox white-bearded man says to me “Shalom.”
In Israel, people build walls, both literally and figuratively. To give one example that is symptomatic of the messages emanating from many sectors of Israeli society: When I met a group of native-Israeli Orthodox high school students from Beit Shean who were about to visit my native Cleveland last year that Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis sit together on local Boards of Rabbis in the United States, their answer is, “That’s because Jews are a minority in the United States. They have to stick together.” I cry out to them, “And here, in the State of Israel, in the Land of Israel, Jews don’t have to stick together? They have license to belittle each other and negate each other’s existence?” Have we forgotten Kol Yisrael arevin zeh l-zeh – All Israel is responsible for one another? Have we forgotten Derech eretz kadma l’Torah – Decency and kind behavior should precede Torah? (translation from the Orthodox Union web site)
My friends, have we not learned from history? What goes around comes around. When we Jews are the majority, when we have the responsibility of sovereignty, we have all the moreso the obligation to construct a society based on decency and kindness. We all read the same haftarah on Yom Kippur – (Isaiah 58:6-8) “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to deal your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor that are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him, and that you hide not yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth as the morning, and your healing shall spring forth speedily; and your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your reward.”
I have read that many Americans in Israel voted for Donald Trump because of his stated policies toward Israel and as a backlash against Obama’s policies. Trump will not hinder the Israeli government from expanding settlements in the West Bank/Judea and Samaria area. Trump will move the American embassy to Jerusalem, officially recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Referencing a Jerusalem Post article from October 24, 2016, one can find other reasons like identifying with Republican values and an utter dislike of both candidates so picking the least hated candidate.
This week, among other distressing actions, President Trump signed an executive order that, “for 120 days…bars the entry of any refugee who is awaiting resettlement in the U.S. It also prohibits all Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. until further notice. Additionally, it bans the citizens of seven countries—Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen—from entering the U.S. on any visa category. This appears to include those individuals who are permanent residents of the U.S. (green-card holders) who may have been traveling overseas to visit family or for work—though their applications will be considered on a case-by-case basis, a senior administration official said Saturday.” (source: The Atlantic.com January 28, 2017)
We, the generations of American olim, are the descendents of mainly European Jews who chose not to move to Palestine to build the Jewish State but rather moved to the “land of opportunity”, the United States. We are, by and large, the descendents of refugees. My great-grandparents were persecuted in pogroms throughout Eastern Europe and traveled by foot across Europe at night to reach the ship that would take them to America. Many Holocaust survivors found refuge in America. Imagine if Trump was the president of the United States then. He could reference the right-wing Lechi whose militant attacks were defined by many as terror attacks and say that all Jews are a danger to the United States and not have let our ancestors in. Perhaps it sounds ridiculous to us, but for how long do we laugh or shake our heads in disbelief as he signs one executive order after another? Can we truly say that the persecution and discrimination against other minorities is not our problem?
Our Jewish tradition teaches us that one who saves a life it is as if he has saved an entire world. Our tradition also teaches us that pikuah nefesh, the saving of a life, is the mitzvah that is performed before any other mitzvah.
I would like to remind my fellow American-Israelis what we are doing here in Israel. We did not come here the victims of persecution seeking refuge in the only place that would take us as Jews. We came here because of our ideology to join the dream to be a free people in our land. We have much to contribute, including our American idealism, problem-solving approach, politeness, value of hard work and perseverance to achieve success, history of struggle for equal rights for women and for minorities, and our sense of empathy knowing what it is like to be a minority in a society.
If we voted in the last presidential election, we demonstrated that we feel some connection to America and to the American democratic process. It means that we also have a responsibility for the results. American democracy is majority rules with minority rights. The United States of America is a country that was built by immigrants from its inception to this very day. Our ancestors were recipients of that opportunity – and not saying that they did not experience discrimination – but they were given an open door. Imagine if that door were to suddenly close today. Even to us.
Think it can’t happen?
The Trump administration dramatically and indiscriminately closed America’s doors to people from a small number of countries. Iraqis can’t enter America but Saudis can. People with green cards – permanent resident status – who happen to be this week abroad, cannot enter America. As part of their statement about this executive order, a senior Trump administration official was quoted by multiple news sources, including Time.com, “It’s important to keep in mind that no person living or residing overseas has a right to entry to the U.S.,” the official said.
Though news sources are saying that Trump’s recent executive order does not apply to American citizens living abroad, it sounds like a future one could. And that’s talking about us. It means that our children don’t get to visit their grandparents. It means missing family weddings and bar mitzvahs. It means possibly not being at the side of a loved-one when, G-d forbid, they fall ill.
When we allow baseless hatred to spread throughout the world, we can be sure that it will arrive at our doorstep. Our duty, as Americans, as Israelis, as Jews, as decent human beings, is to speak out against baseless hatred and discrimination. We need to speak up for liberty and justice for all. It’s there in the Torah, it’s good Jewish values, and our collective memory knows what it is like to be victims of baseless hatred. If we do not speak up now, than when?