It’s no longer the hardship it once was to make Aliyah. This being the case, it takes a lot for Jews in America to convince me of their sincerity and love for Israel. Mike Behar is one of the few who managed to win me over.
He did so during quick Facebook chats about his latest work on behalf of Israel during breaks from my own work at Kars4Kids and later on during longer conversations by phone. His quiet work on behalf of Israel shines in a region of the U.S. shrouded in darkness by its overt hate for the Jewish State. It takes fortitude to hold an unpopular view in the face of the overwhelming anti-Israel sentiment of the Pacific Northwest. Mike has fortitude in spades.
He works behind the scenes, going to meetings where Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) activists hold forth. He talks to activists that might be amenable to hearing a different, more truthful pro-Israel view. He writes letters to the editor of the local Jewish newspaper to protest the slanted coverage against Israel. As such, I see Mike as every bit a warrior for the state of Israel as those of us who live inside the Jewish State.
Michael Behar, age 51, has lived in Seattle all his life. His grandfather was the cantor and spiritual leader of Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, a synagogue founded by observant Jewish immigrants from Rhodes, Greece. “EB” is still at the center of Michael’s family life.
A product of the Orthodox day school and Yeshiva system, Michael studied in Israel at Yeshivat Beit El post high school in 1981-1982, during the evacuation of Yamit in the Sinai and the beginning of the first Lebanon War. These seminal experiences strengthened his love for Israel and the Jewish people. Michael married Carole in 1990 and the couple has four children.
Varda: Mike, in Israel we are hearing a lot about anti-Israel sentiment in the Pacific Northwest region of North America. There are the reports from Hen Mazzig, and your blog, The Mike Report. We have heard about the Jewish Voice for Peace JVP (an anti-Israel protest group), Linda Frank, BDS 101, and more. Why is it like this in Seattle?
Mike: There are two factors that make the Pacific Northwest a hotbed of Israel hatred: the universities, and the progressive culture of this area.
Seattle is a college town. College environments tend to be incubators of radicalism. Still, the University of Washington campus has historically been a “serious” college with a relatively subdued extremist contingent compared to other West coast campuses.
60 miles South of Seattle in Olympia, on the other hand, is Evergreen State College. Evergreen has been a center of radicalism for years. During the Iraq war, local activists shut down the port of Olympia to prevent supplies from reaching the US military. In March of 2003, Evergreen State College student Rachel Corrie was killed after standing in front of a moving army bulldozer during a military action in Gaza. Her death provided anti-Israel activists with the local connection they needed to connect a faraway conflict to the “Israel is evil narrative” they had attempted to peddle for years.
In the Puget Sound area, Corrie is considered a martyr, a glowing angel sacrificed in the cause of peace. Once Corrie’s name is pulled into the debate, open discussion is quashed. Corrie’s parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie stoke the coals of hate with ceaseless efforts to demonize the Jewish state. Corrie did not create the anti-Israel movement in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) but her death supercharged the anti-Israel movement here, especially on college campuses. Radical groups active on college campuses include International Solidarity Movement (ISM), Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights (SUPER-UW), Students for Justice in Palestine, and Jewish Voice for Peace.
The historically active socialist movement in Seattle also contributes to anti-Israel sentiment. There is a great deal of overlap between the radical socialist community and the radical anti-Israel community. Groups in this category with a strong presence here include the Palestine Solidarity Committee, Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, International Solidarity Movement, ANSWER, Code Pink, and Jewish Voice for Peace.
There’s also the religious factor. Established Churches like St. Mark’s in Seattle have energetically promoted ongoing anti-Israel activities and educational programs, affiliating with anti-Israel groups like Sabeel, Voices of Palestine, Mideast Awareness Campaign, Community & Middle East Peace Builders, and North Puget Sound Israel-Palestine Mission Network among others.
Seattle’s Jewish community is somewhat isolated from the rest of the Jewish world. Seattle is also a politically liberal town and the information people process is received through that filter. By the early 1980’s new Jewish organizations began to form in Seattle under the rubric of “Social Justice” like Kadima, a Reconstructionist community. The Judaism of these groups is always in lockstep with the current standards of progressive dictates. This worldview has permeated most synagogues and communal service organizations in the NW with the exception of the Orthodox community.
During the First Intifada, daily images of Palestinians dying at the hands of Israelis were uncomfortable for Seattle’s progressive Jewish community to process compared to the old “Arab states attacking Israel” narrative. When the Oslo accords were implemented in the early 1990’s the Seattle Jewish community embraced the hope for peace.
The Rabbi of my Orthodox shul at the time celebrated Oslo, explaining that giving up Judea and Samaria was not a cause for alarm. In the modern world, he said, brains not turf determine success. Israel could be the new Hong Kong.
With peace at hand, the organized Jewish community turned inward, Israel advocacy organizations like The Jewish Federation lobbying local legislature for things like more funding for old age homes and agitating for forward movement on “social justice” issues.
Oslo, even with the terror that accompanied it, realigned the community and the Durban Conference of 2001 gave anti-Israel organizations the legitimacy to carry on. The atmosphere accompanying the two Iraq wars and the war on terror bred new left-wing organizations like ANSWER, CODE PINK and ancillary anti-Israel organizations like, Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign (SEAMAC) and Jewish Voice for Peace.
When the Second intifada exploded in 2000 an anti-Israel rally was scheduled. The Jewish Federation had no response planned. In the absence of any organized response to this libeling of Israel in my own town, I organized a pro-Israel counter rally.
A Jewish “peace” group also had plans to attend the rally. A friend of mine begged this group to join us in support of an Israel under siege. The group refused. With the help of the Northwest Yeshiva High School ours was the largest contingent.
This was my introduction to Jewish “peace groups.”
My next exposure to Jewish anti-Israel sentiment was during the 2006 Lebanon War, when the Jewish community held a rally in support of Israel in a suburban park. Making their debut was the Jewish Voice for Peace. They carried signs reading: “I believe Israel Aggression Threatens the Safety of All Jews.”
“How the heck could this war be blamed on Israel?” I thought.
Meantime, as print media becomes less consequential, the Seattle Federation-owned JTNews under Editor Joel Magalnick struggles to maintain relevance. The paper seems to think this can be achieved through promoting “controversial” positions, mistaking conformity for courage as it champions the latest progressive cause du jour.
While the JTNews publishes plenty of articles promoting positive aspects of the Jewish State, the paper remains neutral when it comes to Israel’s survival. It feels like there’s no emotional investment in the idea that Israel should continue to exist.
I expressed that thought in a letter to the Editor in August of 2011 which the JTNews entitled “No More Criticism.” I wrote, “Week after week, month after month, in articles, op-eds, and letters, the very legitimacy of the State of Israel is battled out on the pages of the JTNews. Israel’s critics are granted more than sufficient ink in the Seattle Times, The New York Times and in every other major or minor news publication. Would it be too much to expect that Washington’s sole Jewish newspaper serve as an unapologetic advocate of the Jewish state rather than just another outlet for its demonization?”
Then, in January 2012, the JTNews published a full-color cover photo depicting three men with signs comparing Israel to the racist Apartheid South Africa regime and advocating for the boycott of Israel.
The accompanying article provided little context and no coherent defense of Israel, nor did it confront the absurdity of the allegation. The paper did not even inform its readers it was anti-Israel extremist Craig Corrie (father of Rachel Corrie) in the cover photo, though they did give Corrie plenty of unchallenged print space.
In discussions with the JTNews staff it was clear they had no comprehension of the obscene path they had taken. That motivated me to use The Mike Report, a blog I’d halfheartedly started a few weeks earlier to provide some context and depth to the superficial and irresponsible coverage offered by the JTNews.
I expected no response. In fact my impression was that the Pacific Northwest pro-Israel crowd was pretty burnt out. It turns out they just needed a flag to rally around. I think The Mike Report has played a small role in that regard both through education and through making Seattle aware of the single most robust, creative and responsive pro-Israel organization in the region, StandWithUs.
Varda: You mentioned Rachel Corrie. Tell us how her death a decade ago, still impacts Seattle.
Mike: Rachel Corrie is used as a bludgeon to motivate anti-Israel sentiment. Craig and Cindy Corrie haul her out all over the place and it’s very hard to rationally and sensitively challenge the lies of “grieving parents.”
Varda: We heard about Pamela Geller’s bus ads campaign. What did you think of that? Was there support for the campaign?
Mike: People are already exhausted by rounds one and two of the nasty anti-Israel ads campaign sponsored by SEAMAC. Pam Geller was round three. So it was just another bus ad to people. Geller’s ads mentioned the Palestinian demand for a Judenrein Palestinian state. The Federation put out a statement saying that Pam Geller’s ads were divisive taking place as they were during peace negotiations.
The attitude of the Federation was that if you can’t say something supportive of the peace process, don’t say anything. So the Federation made a statement condemning the pro-Israel Geller ads.
I see Seattle as a crucible, an experimental lab for American Jewry. This is where it starts. Unchecked it will spread and grow on radical college campuses.
Varda: How strong would you say are the pro-Israel forces within your community?
Mike: The Orthodox community is for the most part pro-Israel. Otherwise, it’s hard to gauge the percentages. If I had to characterize the established community’s stance on Israel, I’d describe them as experiencing Woody Allenesque angst. They’re pulled back and forth: it’s like a pilpul shiur.
That’s why these radical anti-Israel groups target the campuses. The young want to be idealistic. So they poison them: tell them Israel is evil and to be good you must fight the evil.
Varda: What do you think can be done to counter the smear campaign against Israel?
Mike: I don’t think there’s one answer. I’m not an expert. I’m just a guy. I stood up because there’s a vacuum. Hishtadel l’hiyot ish [“Strive to be a man,” Ethics of the Fathers (2:5)]. People have to stand up. No one else is going to do it.
Everyone brings something to the table, whether it’s getting more involved in the community or going to an anti-Israel event or anti-Semitic event and exposing what they’re doing: educating. You can’t stand by when your people are being attacked. You should not present the people who are trying to harm you with an empty playing field. Don’t leave them with an empty playing field. By doing nothing you are leaving an empty playing field. If they are going to try to undermine the one Jewish state don’t make it easy for them.
Varda: How do you see the future of the Seattle Jewish community? Will this city remain a place in which you would feel comfortable to raise a Jewish family?
Mike: It can be a difficult place to raise Jewish kids, but there are wonderful things about Seattle and about our Jewish community as well. You could cloister yourself and never see the politics. Don’t get the JTNews, don’t read the activist media and you’d never see it.
In terms of the anti-Israel forces in Seattle, I don’t know what the outcome will be and I’m not optimistic. But I do think that the communal leadership is finally taking seriously, the poisonous anti-Israel sentiment. They are realizing there’s an ugly underbelly and that it is both anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. I think what is new is that they’re waking up to it.
Varda: There is much debate about whether anti-Israel sentiment is a cover for Jew-hatred. What is your perspective on this issue?
Mike: I went to St. Marks for the Parent’s Circle family forum event. One older woman held up a picture of an Israeli coin and claimed its design represented the goal of a “greater Israel”. “Isn’t it true,” she asserted, “that Israel’s intentions are to seize all of the land from the Nile to the Euphrates? Isn’t it also true that Jews believe in messianic times that all the gentiles will serve them?”
At a Seattle screening of the documentary, “Five Broken Cameras” sponsored by JVP and SUPER-UW, the few Jews who challenged the film’s accuracy were peppered with obscenities and slurs and chased out of the room under threat of violence. Seattle’s Jewish community newspaper, the JTNews, then provided free unedited space for the sponsors of that event to whitewash what happened and toss out a few more anti-Israel calumnies onto the pile.
There’s no question that anti-Israel sentiment is mostly just a cover for anti-Semitism.
Varda: Are you aware of any Seattle Jews who’ve made Aliyah as a response to anti-Israel sentiment?
Mike: I don’t think so. But Aliyah has accelerated and just about everyone at least in the observant community knows several families who have made Aliyah. I think this proves there’s a much stronger connection between Seattle and Israel than there ever was.
About the Author: Blogger and mother of 12 Varda Meyers Epstein is a third-generation Pittsburgher who made aliyah at age 18 and never looked back. A proud settler who lives in the biblical Judean heartland, Varda serves as the communications writer for the nonprofit car donation program, Kars for Kids.
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