One week before the Iran nuclear deal in Geneva, an Israel advocacy conference was held in New York City. Organized and chaired primarily by Gershon Mesika, head of the Shomron Regional Council, the event sought to educate advocates of Israel, particularly of Yehuda and Shomron, about the latest international diplomacy efforts by the Shomron leadership.
When I arrived at 76th Street to attend the conference at the West Side Institutional Synagogue, I was greeted by dozens of protestors outside, marching and holding signs in the rain castigating Israel and denouncing the Israeli “occupation.” Co-sponsored by Jews Say No! and Jewish Voice for Peace NY, these were fellow Jews carrying placards saying “No to [Israel’s] expansionist, racist policies” and “No to their Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism.”
Though Gershon Mesika and other conference speakers spoke passionately about our biblical rights to the land of Israel and the dire significance of maintaining every inch of Yehudah and Shomron, it was alarming to see Jewish protestors against Israel compete with Jewish supporters for Israel.
I saw many familiar faces at the conference. Too many familiar faces. These are the staunch diehards, the regular rally-goers, the mostly older and Orthodox activists one can count on to attend an event like this. They are also the very ones who don’t need to attend a conference on advocacy for Israel.
True, this was the first conference of its kind and the next one will hopefully attract newer and younger faces. And the ZOA dinner one week later energized many of the same crowd. But as the threats to Jews in Israel and the Diaspora intensify, the silence from the Jewish masses only serves to escalate those threats.
Only 26 years ago, 250,000 Jews demonstrated on the National Mall in Washington. It was an unprecedented display of solidarity with Soviet Jewry and played a significant role in facilitating the release of Soviet Jews. The demonstrators were Jews of all stripes and from all across America, Orthodox and non-Orthodox. I know, because as a young student I was there.
In April 2002 there was another public gathering in Washington, as 100,000 Jews assembled to express their solidarity with Israel and protest the near-daily attacks by Palestinian suicide bombers during the second intifada. We Jews who attended that rally, many of us Orthodox, recognized our inherent obligation to “not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” Even my children’s yeshivas bused in students to attend a protest they recognized to be centered on pikuach nefesh.
More than ten years later we Jews face increased challenges of pikuach nefesh from Iran and from pressure to relinquish land in Israel that safeguards Jewish lives. These threats are real and they are immediate. Where is the outcry?
As a somewhat committed rally-goer myself, I have witnessed an apparent waning of interest among Jews from across the spectrum. This trend seems to reflect the frightening findings in the recent Pew Research Center poll on Jewish Americans. With the rise of assimilation and the decline of non-Orthodox Jewish attachment to Israel, the pool of committed Jewish advocates is shrinking. With statistics pointing to an increasing number of Jews alienated from Judaism, it is not surprising that the decline of Jewish activism coincides with an upsurge of Jewish identification with leftist anti-Israel and anti-Jewish ideology.
Though the Pew study points to immense growth among the Orthodox, the fact is that many in the haredi community prefer a path of more passive resistance. Indeed, some groups avoided the 2002 Washington rally altogether and opted for a tefillah rally instead.
The power of tefillah can never be underestimated. And in times of crisis in Israel, when many anxious non-Orthodox Jews shun trips to the Holy Land, the Orthodox can be relied on for continued visits. But it is especially imperative in these times of crisis that all our voices be heard. When the world turns its collective back on Israel, signing deals with Iran while simultaneously pressuring Israel to negotiate with enemies in its own backyard, we cannot afford to adopt a ho-hum attitude.