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Empty slogans don’t help Israel

By Mitchell Bard

June 15th, 2001

Chevy Chase, Md. — The President of the Reform movement recently announced the cancellation of its teen programs to Israel. Rabbi Eric Yoffie said the movement’s “religious and Zionist commitments run deep, but this movement never uses other people’s children to make a political or ideological point.”

This is perhaps the most concise statement of American Zionism I have read, but it is not quite accurate. What he should have said is that his movement, and all others in America, never use their children to make points. In fact, they do use children all the time: Israeli children.

I have always been the one telling friends and others that it is safe to go to Israel. It’s not that I’m particularly brave. It’s that the likelihood of being harmed in any way always seemed far more likely in downtown American cities than anywhere in Israel. As someone said to me recently, if you wanted to find the safest place to go in America, wouldn’t you once have chosen somewhere like the Federal Building in Oklahoma City?

Still, I have to admit that I was shaken by the recent bombing in Tel Aviv. I could see the Dolphinarium disco from the hotel I stayed in last year. I have a picture from my hotel room of the mosque that was stoned by angry Jews afterward.

Israelis undoubtedly are being more cautious, but they have not abandoned their lifestyles and holed up in bunkers. The Palestinians’ stated objective is to make daily life such a living hell that Israel will capitulate to all their demands.

However, as Israeli columnist Hirsh Goodman noted recently, even after bombs exploded near the center of Jerusalem, the following day the pedestrian mall was busy, the restaurants and pubs full. Yet, at the very time Israelis are showing their backbone, American Jews are looking like jellyfish.

The movie Pearl Harbor recalls that “Greatest Generation,” which did not hide under its collective beds in the face of danger. The kids who fought that war were scared to death, but they volunteered to fight.

A few years later, some of those battle-hardened men went to Palestine to join Israel’s fight for independence. Again, in 1967, many American Jews went to fight beside their brothers and sisters in Israel.

By contrast, the current generation of Jews did not stand with Israel in the Gulf War and is not coming to Israel’s aid in what has now become a war with the Palestinians.

American Jews mount campaigns declaring that “We are One” and telling pollsters of our love for Israel. We demand a say in the fate of Jerusalem because it is the capital of our homeland.

Yet we don’t have the guts now to visit it, let alone fight for it.

I was in Israel in January and I know how much the Israelis appreciated seeing the thousands of visiting Birthright Israel students. It was pitiful, however, that no one else was there. I traveled around the country and never saw another tour group. Restaurants I’d visited less than a year before were closed because of lack of business.

The solidarity missions of last fall and early this year were nice, but flying a group in to stay at the King David for a couple of days isn’t what Israelis need to feel we are with them.

They need to see us on our regular tours, traveling around the country and spending shekels in their shops and restaurants. They need to see that we are willing to send our children to Israel. Israeli children their age are under fire in Gaza and the West Bank, while our kids have no such responsibility to defend their homeland; even when they come, they are on Israel programs touring, partying and having the time of their lives.

The Reform movement made a terrible mistake. Participation would undoubtedly have been dramatically lower than usual, as is the case on the trips that are going forward, but it is up to Jewish leaders like Yoffie to set an example by showing a love and commitment to Israel rather than just talking about it.

This is not a Reform, Conservative, Orthodox issue: It is a matter of who we are. Are we checkbook Zionists and cowards, or proud Jews with a homeland we are prepared to defend by setting foot on its soil when it needs us?

No one expects American Jews to tour Ramallah or take up arms to defend settlements in the Gaza Strip. Israelis are asking us to stand beside them, not in plazas in New York City, but in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. Israel needs us. Let’s get on the planes — and take our children with us.

Mitchell G. Bard is a foreign policy analyst in Maryland. His most recent book is “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Middle East Conflict”. He is also the webmaster for the Jewish Virtual Library, http://www.JewishVirtualLibrary.org.