I can only imagine what my grandfather experienced as a Jew in the Ukraine before he immigrated to America in 1905. In my earliest memories he is very old; my mother was the last in a large family. In his musty Victorian house in New London, Connecticut, there were antimacassars on the stuffed chairs, a wood-burning stove in the kitchen, and a crank-operated washing machine. The attic offered cobwebbed curiosities to explore, and there was American history on the roof: A widow’s walk for a whaling captain’s wife to watch for his topsails.
On a New England summer day in 1954, my grandfather told me about Israel. I was 9 and discomfited by his unkempt white beard.
“In Israel, Jews fight. Jews win,” he told me, his eyes welling with tears of joy.
I quickly understood; in the world he left behind, Jews dared not fight and could not win.
Now I’m a grandfather with no illusions about my power to influence my own grandchildren. My grandfather probably felt the same about me. Yet his love for Israel is seared in my memory. The moral imperative for a Jewish state pulsed from him to me like a jolt of electricity.
It lives on. His generation sent the early pioneers to eretz Israel. I will give voice to the righteousness of their bold project as long as I live. With all my heart, I will play a part. Grandpa, you can count on me.
I am a member of speaker’s bureau for the pro-Israel activist group StandWithUs. I sell Israel to high school students. Omar is a Palestinian boy sitting in the front row, curly hair, and skin the color of a mocha latte. He’s friendly and well liked.
Understandably, after my talk, he is sullen. I’m not prepared for his sweeping accusation.
“Why did you steal our country?” he asks. “What country?” I reply.
He knows I have him, so he restates the question. “Why did you steal our land?”
To prepare myself for this task I have read everything from the scholarly arguments of Alan Dershowitz to the blogs of Richard Silverstein, and much in between. I’m conversant on UN Resolution 242, Oslo, Camp David and Taba; but I am unprepared for this question.
“Zionist pioneers bought the land,” I offered, but his eyes made it clear there was nothing I could say that would make a difference to him. Lawyers say there are three trials: The one you prepare for, the one you argue, and the one that plays in your head after it’s over. Selling Israel to 16-year-old high school students is no different. I have been thinking about Omar and the other 10th graders ever since.
How do you talk about Israel to a teenager raised in the leafy suburbs of Seattle, whose context for my presentation is likely nonexistent? Where do you start explaining the history, Torah, two Diasporas, the Mandate, five wars, and the futility of the UN?
Lincoln wrote, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”
In one clear sentence he renders pointless and immaterial all arguments for continuing slavery. In my mind, this is the key. I have no hope of selling Israel by reciting endless minutiae about refugees, settlements, and armistice lines. My only hope is to appeal to their sense of what is manifestly moral and immoral, so that even a 16-year old with a tabula rasa between his ears can feel it in his gut. I must make them choose. Not between rich and poor, strong and weak, but between right and wrong.
This is a monumental task. Our school children are cosseted young Siddharthas, Brahmans kept unaware of unpleasant realities. They have been taught that all people are basically good and all cultures equally valuable. They have learned to distrust the powerful and successful, who they believe, a priori, must have robbed some “oppressed” underdog in some colonial enterprise (how else did they get rich?). Life should be fair, and if it’s not, somebody must do something about it. I can only hope to shock them into rethinking how the world works.
Perhaps David Mamet, in his powerful new book, The Secret Knowledge, has asked the right question. Imagine you are stranded in a foreign airport just as World War III has started. You are given two choices: You can board an airplane for Israel or another for Syria. Who among you would choose Syria? Not Chomsky or Finkelstein, or the weirdly anti-Israel Jews in the BDS movement. No, you would fight with every shred of influence and argument you could muster to get yourself and your family on the plane to Israel. Now, ask yourself why.
If Israel, the nation that respects human life and hungers for peace, is not moral, nothing is moral.