Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Column: A Memorable Meeting

Almost 20 years ago I had a conversation with a man who was at the time an important figure in the Jewish community in the United States.

I met with him while on a visit from Israel where I was studying in a yeshiva or rabbinic seminary. Friends and family were anxious that I stay in New York. I received a job offer or two -- some of my old buddies who were doing quite well while I was to all appearances merely growing some whiskers. My parents were still living in Lawrence and my brothers were still in the area -- everything was open to me if only I would choose to stay.

In an effort to show me that my idealism towards Israel could find a worthy outlet in America and perhaps to "put me in my place" a meeting was set up with the aforementioned VIP. I went to see him in his home on a warm summer day and we sat and talked.

At his invitation I told him about the yeshiva I was learning in and about my studies and routine. He told me also about his activities on behalf of the Jewish people which were very impressive. There were others present and they were all looking at me when he finished telling me about all the good deeds he did. I got the very strong feeling that they were all waiting for "the coin to drop" -- an Israeli expression for "getting it." Why couldn’t I see that all my religious stuff was a mere trifle of a contribution to my brethren, the children of Israel, compared to the deeds and accomplishments of this great and important man? Still, I was stubborn and wasn’t biting.

The conversation moved onto current events in Israel and the issues of the day -- it was then the time of what is now known as the "first intifada." He then asked me a very interesting question: "What do you see as the general direction of the Israeli public -- which way are things moving?" I responded that I had observed a strong teshuvah movement -- a movement back to orthodox torah Judaism and that politically everything was moving right. The teshuva movement, I explained, had started to gain serious momentum after the Yom Kippur War, when victory was snatched from the hands of defeat and the miracles were tangible -- stories abounding throughout the country inspiring a return to faith. That trend was growing stronger every year and yeshivas for returnees were thriving -- new ones opening -- now drawing young Jews from all over the world as well as from within Israel. Politically, I explained, there was a movement to the right as a result of this return to torah which promised all of the land of Israel to us and not to the Arabs and also as a result of the Arab uprising -- which at the time may have been mostly rock throwing, deadly as that could be.

His response is one that I will never forget and it is the point of this article. It left me speechless and unable to respond. It also has provided me with a reference point that I have referred to over the years when things in Israel became particularly perplexing and frustrating. He looked me square in the eyes and in a most deadly serious way -- which conveyed to me that he meant to tell me something very, very important, said: "We won’t let it happen."

I was very much taken aback and didn’t have the poise to ask him who is "we" and who empowered you and what then is your agenda if it is against the return of the Jewish people to the land and faith of their fathers -- a process that appears to be the fulfillment of the words of the prophets and the very promises of the Almighty. I have never had the opportunity to ask those questions of him having missed the chance. I like to think that if I was there now I would have the presence of mind and maturity to carry the conversation forward and learn more about the man I was speaking to and the people he spoke so confidently and authoritatively for.

Over the years I have seen in Israel’s left a strong antipathy towards torah and orthodox Judaism as well as an inexplicable desire to capitulate to the Arabs -- empowering them in every way to wage war against us and take our land. It is apparent in the "disengagement" plan that is afoot to evacuate the religious settlements of Gaza. It is more than a lack of faith that drives these opinions and actions, it is something darker -- something the VIP was trying to let me in on as a favor to those who had brought me to him -- something I needed to hear "for my own good."

Actually, it has been helpful -- in dispelling certain illusions about "Jewish leadership" both here and there -- elected or not. Perhaps it will also be helpful to you.


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