There are times that one must look at the American Jewish community and say that it is deeply troubled, and Monday night at Temple Emanu-El’s Skirball Center was one of those times. I was sitting in the lavish sanctuary of the Reform synagogue off Central Park, surely one of the richest temples in the world, surrounded by 500 other Jews almost all of them my age and older (old), and on the stage a famous Israeli leader was attacking President Obama’s Iran deal, criticizing American Jews for assimilating and abandoning the “Jewish future,” calling on rich American Jews to stop giving money to universities where the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is active, because just about any criticism of Israel is anti-semitic, and never saying the word Palestinian all night, let alone speaking of Palestinian conditions– and Natan Sharansky was repeatedly applauded. And at the end of the speech he got a standing ovation.
The biggest human rights concern all night was: Why can’t Reform Jewish women worship at the Western Wall in Jerusalem?
This is the state of the American Jewish establishment. It shows utter contempt for Palestinian human rights in a senior citizen prom of narcissism.
Sharansky demonstrated complete hypocrisy himself. The former human rights activist who was imprisoned for nine years by the Soviets and then allowed to emigrate to Israel in 1986, at age 38, spoke with glee of the “destruction” of the Soviet Union. Used the word twice. Then his host David Harris of the American Jewish Committee joined that glee when he said that Sharansky is “dancing on the grave” of the Soviet Union.
So a man who was persecuted by a system has the perfect ability in a New York temple to celebrate the “destruction” of that order.
But now Sharansky is the chair of the Jewish Agency, which promotes Jewish emigration to Israel and to the occupied territories, where these colonists take over Palestinian homes and lands; but when the Palestinians say they are persecuted by Israel and they want to end a regime of Jewish supremacy that is Zionism– well, they are in the view of Israelis, “part of a grand strategy to delegitimize Israel and ultimately to destroy the Jewish state.” But that destruction is anti-Semitic.
“This campaign of delegitimization, of singling Israel … that’s classical antisemitism,” Sharansky said.
It reminded me of the end of Orwell’s Animal Farm, when the pigs have turned into men and the men to pigs. This guy spent nine years in a Soviet prison as a persecuted minority and now he persecutes a minority (that may even be a majority) and has no compunction dismissing their complaints of persecution as anti-Semitism.
Again: there was not a word all night about Palestinian conditions. In a temple filled with 500 privileged Jews my age and older (i.e., we’re headed for the dustbin of history, and not a moment too soon).
Sharansky acknowledged that young American Jews are turning against Israel. Half the 40 demonstrators at an appearance he made at Brown University in January with Michael Douglas were Jewish. But these must be assimilating Jews! The head of the Jewish Agency gave a lecture against assimilation. He said that the whole time he fought for Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, he insisted that those Jews should go anywhere they wanted, not just Israel; but Moshe Arens, an Israeli politician who had spent a lot of time in the U.S., said that if those Jews went to America they would assimilate. Moshe Arens said: “Let’s look historically. Jews in America are assimilating. Jews who come from Russia to America, They will all be assimilated. So all this struggle is not for continuing the future of the Jewish people. Guaranteeing the future of the Jewish people, they have to come to Israel.” And Sharansky disagreed. But now he thinks Arens is right, and he tells the Russian Jews in the U.S., they have a “special responsibility” not to assimilate.
(Because my grandfather who came out from Russia 115 years ago did such a shitty job of guaranteeing the Jewish future because he failed to warn me about shiksas enough).
Then a woman in the audience said what is Israel going to do to counter the anti-semitism of the BDS movement, and Sharansky said, Wait, this is an American problem, so this is your responsibility, as American Jews. He talked about the donors:
This is something that is having great influence on your children and grand children. It has to be at the center of attention of American Jews. I have to say that in many universities where BDS movement is strong, the major donors to these universities are respectable members of the Jewish community and not always they agree to use their influence on them. So it’s something to think about first of all, for American Jews.
You rich Jews have to turn the screws on the universities, or you won’t be respectable in the Jewish community anymore.
If you missed the point, David Harris of the American Jewish Committee then stepped in to explain the obligation of American Jews to be in Israel’s army.
In our estimation there are three fronts: the Israeli military and authorities fight on one front to defend Israel, the Israeli civilian population has become a second front because of the acts of terror, and the third front are places like the campuses around the world, and that has to be our front. And organizations like AJC and others are focusing specifically on that front, and everyone in this auditorium, it is our obligation first and foremost to insure that we successfully meet the challenges on that front.
A few years ago Eric Alterman called out Ruth Wisse for fostering dual loyalty with just such an argument at the Center for Jewish History: American Jewish students have to serve in Israel’s army on campus.
Now here comes a major Jewish leader — who opposed President Obama’s Iran deal proudly — saying that American Jews have to serve on the battlefront for Israel in the United States.
Do these people have any idea that they are fostering anti-Semitism? A wealthy Jewish audience of 500 gathers to talk about Israel, and their obligation to fight for Israel, and not a word is said about Palestinian conditions but people are wringing their hands about access to the Western Wall for American Jews, and the richest people in the crowd are exhorted to put pressure on universities through their donations to shut down free speech against Israel on campuses. From a guy who once called on American Jews to pressure the Soviet Union on behalf of Jews when he was in prison.
That was the one moving moment of the night. A little girl (I guess there was one young person) asked if Sharansky had gotten her mother’s letters when he was in prison, and everyone laughed, but Sharansky said it was a great question. He never got the letter, but the Soviet authorities did. And that American Jewish pressure kept him from dying during a hunger strike of 110 days; but a fellow prisoner died a year later because he wasn’t famous (I believe a reference to Anatoly Marchenko), and American Jews didn’t write a lot of letters to the Soviets.
There are thousands of Palestinians in Israeli prisons right now, fighting to end a system of ethnic discrimination against them. And a lot of young American Jews know this and are on their side. Some day we will dance on Zionism’s grave.