Is Israel Strong Enough To Be Open and Hopeful?

osher-liberty-bell-parkMy eight year old son, Osher, and I had about an hour to spend together between running errands so I decided to take him to Liberty Bell Park, named after the replica of the Liberty Bell in the center of the park which the city of Philadelphia gave to Jerusalem as a gift of friendship. The park has several playgrounds and is one of the nicer public gardens in the city.

As those of you who follow me on Facebook know, I often check-in with Foursquare and post photos of where I am. On this day, I posted a picture of Osher sliding down the snout of a dragon sculpture. By the time I got home, less than an hour later, two friends had posted messages of concern informing me that there had been a stabbing in the park.

When I checked the news online, I saw the headline “Man stabbed in hand and back in Jerusalem’s Bell Park, hospitalized in serious condition” It had been posted as “Breaking News” less than two hours before we had arrived at the park. By the time we arrived, there was no sign of the earlier incident. The park was full of Arab and ultra-Orthodox families picnicing and playing.

Later that night I told my boys what had happened. I prefaced it by telling them that “I am not telling you this to scare you, but to make you aware so you know why we have certain rules.” I reminded them that we don’t go to public bathrooms alone, not in parks, not in malls, not in movie theaters. We had originally established this rule more out of fear of sexual predators than violent crime, but it was a good opportunity to remind the boys not just of the specific rule, but that rules exist to protect them and with good reason.

All of us have fear in our lives and that fear, like anything, can be used to enhance or inhibit our well-being. My grandmother had a cousin who, when I was born was about eighty years old and living in Queens, NY. We would visit her several times a year, but she rarely agreed to leave her apartment. She lived in fear. She would worry “What if I fall, What if I get mugged.” There was an endless list of what-ifs. She was frail, but in good physical health and lived independently, but alone in a small apartment rarely leaving it. She was that way for the two decades I knew her until she died in her nineties.

I have friends who live in fear. They live in fear of their cellphone and the radiation it emits. They live in fear of their houses being robbed when they are not home, of the neighbors gossiping about them, of people not like them – be they Arabs or Ethiopians or strangers. They hold on to anger, still not buying German products because of a war that was over decades before they were born.

My friends do not see themselves as living in fear, but protecting their family like a mother bear. Their world is framed by an “us versus them” mentality and it affects them on every level of their existence. I am happy to engage others who are not like me and am excited to learn about them and from them. The world is full of possibilities.

Slowly Israelis are moving from a mentality of the persecuted Jew who lived in an unfriendly Diaspora to the pride of the Start-Up Nation which others appreciate, admire and want to befriend. However, there are still many Israelis in all subcultures who carry with them the mentality of exile which has been part of our consciousness for millennia.

Last month, Rabbi Shalom Cohen, a member of Council of Torah Sages, said that non-ultra-Orthodox religious Jews were ‘Amalek’ (the arch-enemy of the Jewish people), essentially equating them to Haman and Hitler. This influential leader not only called national religious Israelis “Amalek,” but suggested that they aren’t really Jews. This fear-based xenophobia is not only an affront to any Jew not dressing in black and white, but a self-fulfilling mentality that has kept Jews in a fearful stance for thousands of years. One could argue that this is also what has preserved Jewish identity against assimilation. Rabbi Shalom Cohen is just protecting his family.
I was once in a meeting with a client in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Geula. A car came down the street broadcasting a Yiddish message from a megaphone. My client, an ultra-Orthodox rebbe whose website informs about Jewish medical ethics, started laughing. I asked him what they were saying. He said, “They are broadcasting that it is forbidden to use the Internet and here I am meeting with you.” I wonder how long it will be before he, too is called “Amalek.”

Ours is a time of social and professional networking, of interconnectivity in both the virtual and the physical world. We can cross boundaries online or on the ground with minimal if any cost and with hardly any time or effort. Last week I received a call from China from potential client who wants a Hebrew and English website in order to reach the Israeli market. For them, it was as easy as picking up the phone, but so many of us won’t make that phone call, won’t leave our apartment or our comfort zone. This is a mentality that must be challenged through education and exposure.

My friends and I both want to protect our families. Rabbi Cohen and my ultra-Orthodox client both want to protect their way of life. However the approaches we take to do this could not be more opposite. One is based on being closed and fearful, the other open and optimistic.

There is no denying Jewish history, but just as one can not become consumed by being a victim of a crime or an attack against one’s family, I do not believe it healthy to frame one’s existence through a mentality of victimization. I understand that we are not always able to love or even forgive, but we must move on and not hold on to old fears and memories. We must remember the past, but not live in it. Only by embracing the promise of tomorrow will we be able to built the world to come as a better place.

In our generation there may be no phrase as meaningful to contemporary Jewry as “Never Forget.” However this can be a call to be a light unto the nations, to reach out as an inclusive leader in the world protecting minorities and fighting injustice wherever it occurs and not to become an insular, self-centered people.

Isolationism did not serve the Jews in World War II and now that we are in a position of power, it will not serve us among ourselves nor among others. In the last month the Gay Pride Parade took to the streets of Jerusalem and once again 300 worshipers gathered on Rosh Hodesh with Women of the Wall. As Jews, we should be embracing these minorities and ensuring their rights are protected.

The best way to protect our family is to engage others, share our knowledge, build relationships and bridges with those who are different than us so that we may extend our network, helping, learning about and appreciating each other in a more stable and open environment. As peace talks resume, it is my hope that we will approach them with an open mind thinking of what we may gain and not with a closed mind consumed by a fear of what we may lose.

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