Ann and I are spending the month of February in Jerusalem, where the weather is sunny and warm and the politics are hot and cloudy.
Unlike my last trip to Israel in December, with the board of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, where I met with political, religious, and nonprofit leaders, we are here this month with no agenda of meetings and are spending our time with friends. Some are sabras and others are Americans who have made aliyah. My personal lens into the political campaign now being waged admittedly is limited. However, from both my personal discussions and my reading of the Israeli press it is clear to me, as I am sure it is to those of you who are following the election campaign from the United States, that Israelis are united in their desire to seek leaders who can guide them toward peace with prosperity and security, while deeply divided over which if any of the political parties can lead them in that direction.
Israelis also are concerned about the growing gap between the rich and poor. As in America, the benefits of 21st century prosperity have been limited. An ever-growing percentage of Israeli Jews live at or below the poverty level and a growing segment of the Israeli middle class feels itself priced out of the housing market.
One difference between my discussions in December and today is that many of my friends, as well as many Israelis in general, according to the news reports on both television and in print, are very concerned about the political fallout from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress next month. Israelis are keenly aware that the United States is the only friend they can count upon to support them in both the international political arena and with the military materials that this miraculous but still small nation state cannot produce itself. Therefore, I hear from friends that their vote in the March 17 election will be influenced not only by whom they believe can best deal with the Palestinian question and the threats of ISIS and Iran, but also who can maintain and strengthen the America-Israel alliance.
I could easily end this column here, with a cry of Oy gevalt! To do so, however, would be telling only half the story. Despite all the problems, Israel remains a loving family, despite its often loud and angry quarrels.
I experienced a moving example of this love when I visited the Jerusalem program center of One Family Fund, whose roots, as well as its American fundraising offices, are in Teaneck. The One Family Fund center is a place where victims of terror and their family members come for a vast spectrum of activities and services. While the Israeli medical system does the best job possible in repairing and healing the bodies of terror victims, it is One Family Fund and other groups that share its mission that is quietly doing the harder and more long-term work of healing the spirits and the souls of terror victims and their families. From the individual and group therapy programs to the social programs it facilitates, One Family Fund is using the dollars it raises in America effectively and efficiently in renewing the lives of those who have been torn by terror.
Israel is an imperfect nation-state and a vibrant democracy. There, the old clichÃ© of “two Jews, three opinions” rings true. I hope that the next government, which like all governments since 1948 will be formed through a coalition of parties that will form after the election, will play better together and last longer than the last coalition. While this remains an unknown, what we do know is that the next Knesset will represent the breadth of Israeli opinion, including Israeli Arab citizens. What is also clear to me from my street-level view of Israel this month is that Israelis are willing to wrestle with the social, political, and economic challenges they are facing. They see this election as an opportunity to do that.
Sitting in Paris in the midst of an anti-Semitic uprising 120 years ago, Theodor Herzl wrote “The Jewish State,” outlining his vision for what became the Zionist movement. Herzl envisioned a Jewish state that would protect the equal rights of its non-Jewish inhabitants and would be a source of pride and protection to Jews who chose to continue to live in the Diaspora. His dream has not yet been achieved, but in partnership with our Israeli brothers and sisters we still have the responsibility and the opportunity to work toward its fulfillment.
The weather in Northern New Jersey, like the relationship between the governments of Israel and America, has been unusually cold this month. While we cannot do much about the weather, through our support of programs like One Family Fund, we can help lift clouds of tears from terror victims. As our Israeli brothers and sisters go to the polls next month, to engage in the only democratic election in the Middle East, we can commit ourselves to join hands with them in encouraging the government they will elect and our American government to cool their rhetoric, and to maintain the warmth of cooperation that has characterized the Americanâ€“Israel alliance for the past 66 years.