Security—personal and community-wide—is topmost on the minds of American Jews, after two fatal terror attacks there in the past year.
That’s my takeaway from a 16-day coast-to-coast lecture tour, where I met Jews of all kinds. And security is an area where Israel can, and should, help.
I delivered lectures about my new book, “Why Are We Still Afraid?” It’s devoted mostly to Israel, but it concludes that just as Israelis have no reason to be afraid, neither do American Jews. Concerned, yes. Vigilant, yes. Afraid? No.
Here are three levels of reality I encountered:
- At a synagogue in the New York area, worshippers routinely click a code on a pad next to the door to let themselves in for weekday prayers. On Shabbat, there’s a city police officer outside, his patrol car parked prominently for all to see.
- One synagogue, in a university city, did not publicize my lecture with posters or articles for fear of attracting violent protesters —spreading the word only by internal email and word of mouth.
- A well-connected pro-Israel US government consultant shocked me when he said, “I have only one question: Where can I run?” He predicted a Holocaust in the US, and then worried that Israel, with its “postage-stamp territory,” is indefensible.
Let’s take these in reverse order.
The consultant insisted that the warning signs from 1930s Germany, which led to the Holocaust, are evident in the US today. I don’t live there—I left for Israel in 1972—but even if that’s true, doesn’t it mean that we have the chance to act now and stop the progression? I believe it does—because our overall position in the US is strong, not weak.
I was moved by my first Celebrate Israel parade, where an estimated 70,000 people marched down Fifth Avenue—Jews joined by the New York mayor, governor, a senator, and other non-Jewish notables. It was a show of strength. As it should be.
Here’s a section from one of my lectures about that:
“Today, Jews are the most successful minority in the US. We’re so successful that some are lumping us together with whites, as if we have ‘white privilege.’ How quickly they forget, or repress, the recent past, playing hand in glove with politicians who parlay the fear into votes.
“Not so long ago in the US, there were quotas for Jews entering universities. Some professions were closed to Jews. Country clubs? Forget it. Jewish kids were getting beat up on the streets almost every day, in almost every school, and called names that I won’t repeat here.
“The situation in the US today is exponentially better than it was in the 1950s, ‘60s, even ‘70s. Back then, anti-Semitism was an acceptable part of the culture. Today, not only is it officially unacceptable – most overt acts of anti-Semitism are illegal!”
So the law is on our side, and in large measure, society is on our side. What I like to call antisocial media has ramped up the appearance of the threat against us. Yes, there are attacks against Jews, and now we all hear about all of them. A prominent New York rabbi wrote movingly about one that he experienced there, noting that “our society is in turmoil.”
Indeed. The question is—what do we do about that? Do we cower behind our synagogue walls, afraid to publicize our events for fear of violence? To be fair, the same synagogue had a picnic in a park before my lecture, and there was no security in sight, and no apparent concern by the participants.
But there is clearly a threat. The terror attack in California that killed a congregant raised the issue that small congregations cannot afford armed guards, even though they are necessary.
And they are. Here’s the rest of that section from my lecture:
“The attack against the synagogue in Pittsburgh last year, when a white supremacist walked in and shot 11 people dead, unnerved us all. Some bridled at the suggestion from President Trump that you post armed guards at synagogues.
“But that’s 21st century America. There are metal detectors in front of schools. Hardly a day goes by without some kind of mass shooting. In 2017, 39,773 people were killed by gunfire in the US. Precautions are essential everywhere, and we are not exempt. It’s not that we’re Jews—it’s that we’re in America.”
Some congregations, like the first one above, are wealthy enough to provide their own security. Most are not.
Here’s where we need new thinking. For seven decades, Israel and American Jews have had a give-and-take relationship. You give, we take. It’s time to turn that around.
Today’s Israel is an economic powerhouse. New cars clog the streets and highways. Million-dollar apartments are common. Israel is a full member in the OECD, reserved for first-world economies. It’s time for us to give back.
Every year, thousands of 20-something Israelis complete their army service. They have just had two to four years of intense security experience. In addition, army officers muster out with a full pension in their 40s. The actual numbers are classified, but it’s a large talent pool.
For about $100 million a year, Israel could train and send 1,000 of these ex-army people to the US to work as security guards. And yes, Israel can foot that bill, if it puts its mind—and politics—to it.
Israel’s annual budget is about $120 billion. With a “b.” Of that, for example, about $2 billion goes for religious services, according to an independent, if hostile, study. Much of that is “coalition politics” expenditures to lure parties into the government. Ironically, since this huge sum is aimed at ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, you call that “pork” over there.
I’m not saying that Israel has $100 million lying around. It doesn’t. Its wonderful health system is collapsing from underfunding. Education is underfunded. Many other elements of public life have not kept up with population growth because of misdirected funding.
No, this project would have to come as a result of an overall change in Israel’s social priorities, reflected in its budget. We are far from that. Instead, we are still voting about who will be toughest on Palestinians, an irrelevant issue if there ever was one.
American Jews need our help now. If we really need another reason to make this happen, here it is: Helping with security could alleviate the damage we’ve done lately to relations between Israel and American Jews.