CHUTZPAH

Back in the late ‘70’s, President Carter extended an invitation to dozens of American rabbis to join him at the White House. Part of the visit included being personally introduced to the President. A handshake followed. Upon being announced, one prominent New York area Rabbi decided to air his feelings. “Mr. President,” he said. “I voted for you in November 1976. Given your shameful attitude toward Israel, my having supported you is something I have regretted ever since.”

I recall discussing the comment with Jacob Sodden, a rabbi in the neighborhood. Rabbi Sodden was outraged at the sheer chutzpah of his outspoken fellow clergy. “If you are upset with the President, you write a letter. You refuse the invitation to the White House and explain why. You stand across the way from the other Rabbis lined up to meet with the President and you hold a placard expressing your feelings. But how dare you show up as a guest and spit in the face of your host!” exclaimed Rabbi Sodden.

Rabbi Sodden has long since been taken from this world, but his words to me rang loud and clear, as I read an article about Birthright Israel participants who make it a point to walk off the program to meet with “poor” Palestinians as a form to protest the “one-sidedness” of Birthright  Israel. “Sheer Chutzpah! ” I exclaimed. If twenty- something- year-old American Jews wish to visit with “poor Palestinians” to hear their side of the story, that is their prerogative. I wish them the very best and instinctively, I lapse into Yiddish and say “gay gezunterhayt”(go visit them in good health.) But do so at your own expense and not as a participant of Birthright Israel.”

Walking off a Birthright trip to Israel to visit “poor Palestinians” is no different than accepting an invitation for a Shabbat dinner and then in the middle of the meal abruptly getting up from the table and walking out of your host’s home, so that you can resume your Shabbat meal elsewhere. To make matters worse, you show up again for dessert at the home of the host  who originally invited you and then proceed to act as though nothing happened.

If that weren’t sufficient chutzpah, the one who walked off is reported in the article as having explained  “Judaism is about love and kindness.”  Indeed, it is! Judaism is also about respect. And that’s one area where those who walked off from Birthright fall woefully short. Judaism is also about being proper guests. The same Judaism that teaches love and kindness, also teaches : “Whatever your hosts tell you, do,” (Talmud, Pesachim 86b. A variant reading adds “except walk off.”) In the words of a mentor of mine who purposely misquoted a popular, but totally incorrect proverb: “You don’t take your cake and mash it in your host’s face.” And that’s precisely what those who walk off  Birthright Israel are doing. As one who has arranged for a goodly number of Jewish young adults to participate in the program, I know for a fact, that Zionism is the agenda of Birthright Israel, not Middle East politics.

And that brings me to the epitome of chutzpah. According to that same article, those who walk off Birthright Israel and visit with “poor” Palestinians, do so at the urging and encouragement of a network of Jewish activists whose goal is to end Jewish American support for the occupation of Palestinians. Groups such as “J Street” and “If Not Now” that do have a political agenda, have every right to exist and promote their agenda. They also have every right to compete with Birthright and promote all-expense paid trips to Israel for American Jewish youth. I would however expect these groups to have the integrity and veracity to be upfront about their agenda. To interfere with the agenda of Birthright Israel, to approach participants and lure them away with their agenda – even if it’s for a few hours – borders on “gneivat da’at”  (stealing of one’s mind.)  After all, those who sign up with Birthright Israel, do so with the expectation of experiencing Israel. There ought to be no expectation of becoming involved with politics.

Let Birthright Israel continue to do what it does so well. Let those who are concerned with the “poor” Palestinians go over to the West Bank, as well as other Palestinian enclaves, and lend a helping hand at improving the lives of those Palestinians. Perhaps if they are truly occupied with helping others, they won’t have any time for chutzpah toward their own.

IF NOT NOW

If Not Now is an American Jewish progressive activist group opposing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The If Not Now movement consists of young Jewish Americans who demonstrate against politicians, US Government policies, and Jewish institutions perceived to support the “apartheid” behavior of Israel toward the Palestinians, primarily through direct action and media appearances.

If Not Now was founded four years ago to protest American Jewish institutional support for Israel’s actions during Operation Protective Edge, where following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, Israel set out to destroy the tunnels Hamas built in Gaza with the sole aim of infiltrating into Israel. If Not Now’s first action was to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, for all Palestinian and Israeli victims of the war outside the offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in New York City.

Regardless of my feelings toward If Not Now, the group has every right to exist and promulgate their views. So too, for that matter, does Lehava, a group from the other end of the political spectrum have every right to exist, however odious its views. For the record, Lehava sees Christians as “blood-sucking vampires” and maintains that “Christmas has no place in the Holy Land.” Recently Camp Ramah found itself in an imbroglio when it included If Not Now in its camp curriculum. Facing enormous pressure to remove If Not Now from its programming, Camp Ramah recanted.

Lest they commit another egregious and unacceptable faux pas in the future, Camp Ramah’s leadership would do well to ask itself whether Jewish parents send their children to summer camp for the purpose of gaining an understanding of Palestinian suffering rarely, if ever, addressed by the American Jewish establishment. I may be totally off base, but it seems to me that in addition to being with friends and not having to worry about dietary laws, a good many Jewish parents send their kids to summer camp for swimming, boating, bonfires, and color wars. When all is said and done, parents send their children to summer camp to escape boredom that usually descends upon teenagers and pre-teens by the end of the first week of summer vacation.

Providing a forum for the wrongs and atrocities (I’m being facetious) committed against the Palestinians by the Israelis opens up a Pandora’s Box. If it’s kosher to include discussion/study about Palestinian victims, shouldn’t it be equally kosher to include discussion/study about German victims of the Holocaust? In the German city of Dresden, well over 20,000 Germans were killed within a 24 hour period in February 1945, as close to 4000 tons of high explosive bombs and other incendiary devices were dropped over its skies by the RCAF and the United States Army Airforce. Surely, many of the victims were innocent Germans. Perhaps at the next Yom HaShoah commemoration, Kaddish should be recited in memory of the innocent Germans who lost their lives in WWII. Better yet, with Tisha B’Av being observed in the very midst of camp season, isn’t it time that in addition to mourning the destruction and loss of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem, that we also mourn the deaths of innocent Jews, as well as the deaths of innocent Babylonians (First Temple) and the deaths of innocent Romans (Second Temple), in that there was a high likelihood that casualties were borne by innocents on both sides? Why must the memories of innocent Germans of WWII, innocent Babylonians and innocent Romans of first and second Temple period be obliterated, as we champion the poor Palestinians?

Eight weeks of summer camp is an extremely short period of time to infuse Jewish teaching into the minds of children and adolescents. With a plethora of subjects available to its educators, ranging from ancient Midrash to Jewish American Biographies, one would think that the staff of Jewish summer camps has a challenge of cramming so much into such a limited time. If political viewpoints are of such critical importance to the curriculum of a summer camp, better the campers should learn about the political differences that raged among Jewish leaders as Jerusalem was besieged by the enemy.

Once upon a time, Camp Ramah was the single most successful story of the Conservative Movement. In eight weeks of summer, its counselors imbued more Judaism in their campers than the vast majority of Conservative rabbis imbued in their congregants week after week, year after year. Perhaps controversy and politics should be avoided at all costs; perhaps practice and ritual should be incremented at all costs. The results may very well be priceless.