|Benjamin Anthony, left, and Lee Lasher|
Lee Lasher of Englewood has a deep interest in ensuring that different parts of the local Jewish community come to trust, respect, and even like each other.
To that end, Mr. Lasher, an alumnus of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Berrie Fellows Leadership program, and fellow alums – and now friends – Ian Zimmerman of Glen Rock and Ari Hirt of Teaneck, formed a group called Unite4Unity, which until now has explored the bridges that actually do span the community.
Now, the three friends have decided to multitask. Another cause dear to all of them is Israel. What could be better, they thought, than to bring the community together around the Jewish state? And given their own orientation toward action, what would be best would be to give people information they can use to present Israel positively, to combat such threats as BDS with knowledge, insight, and passion.
“We are always looking for topics that will unite the community and allow for a common conversation,” Mr. Lasher said. “And with everything going on in the world, we thought that support for Israel is something that can bring everyone together, regardless of their denomination or religious background.
“We all felt that there are some great programs about Israel, and often you go and learn something, but there is no real practical take-away. We thought about what we could do to change that – that was the genesis of this program.”
So next Tuesday, Sgt. Benjamin Anthony of the Israel Defense Forces will keynote an evening that also will include a discussion with a panel of representatives from StandWithUs, Israel’s Consulate General in New York, and AIPAC, and end with the chance to meet in small, facilitated groups to discuss the evening’s content and other issues.
The evening is sponsored by a range of synagogues, from the Orthodox on one end of the spectrum to the Reform on the other, and it’s being held at the Conservative Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford.
Benjamin Anthony, who now heads an organization he founded called Our Soldiers Speak, will discuss his experiences as a veteran and reservist.
Mr. Anthony made aliyah to Israel 11 years ago, “and I have been in three wars,” he said. “Unfortunately, I expect to be in another one in the not-so-distant future.”
He was born in England, as his accent makes clear; after he graduated from the University of Manchester there he moved to Israel and was drafted almost immediately. “I am one of seven children; four of us live in Israel” and all of them, three brothers and one sister, have been in the IDF, he said. He fought in the second Lebanon war in 2004, in Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, and Operation Protective Edge in 2014. (“We should make war on whomever comes up with those names,” he said, perhaps half joking.)
Since then, he has toured college campuses; he has spoken at 350 schools on four continents, he said.
“I will be exploring the similarities between combat on the battlefield and the fight for public opinion on campuses – and why I believe that victory in the latter will improve our chances in the former.”
The most immediate parallel between Israel’s wars and the situation its advocates face on campus is “that those who support Israel are massively outnumbered,” he said. “The second is that quality trumps quantity – and I do believe that our most effective advocates are superior to the anti-Israel lobby.
“The third is, frankly, the terrorization of students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who are pro-Israel. They are feeling deeply intimidated, browbeaten, and threatened. And not unlike the citizens and soldiers of Israel, they have nowhere else to go, so they will stand their ground.”
There the parallel breaks down a bit. “They can choose silence,” Mr. Anthony said. “Many are choosing to go silently into the night. But many do not do so.”
And then there is the final, perhaps most evocative, parallel.
“It is teenagers and young adults who are asked to bear the brunt of this fight. It is a fight that in most cases most people would prefer not to undertake – but it is has been thrust upon them.”
The fight matters, he continued, because “the military aid and diplomatic aid from which Israel benefits is judged in the court of public opinion. The aid is a direct result of the actions undertaken by voters, by students, by opinion-shapers. And so, if people decide not to engage, we will see a disintegration of military and diplomatic support as well.”
Why is this happening? “In my opinion, first and foremost the anti-Israel lobby has become stronger because of an unholy alliance between the left and the Islamist movement, and that seems to be predicated on a common dislike of the state of Israel.”
Part of that dislike, he said, is “due to the acceptance of false narratives, such as Israel being an apartheid state.” Those narratives are accepted without any critical analysis, he said. As a result, many people, even Jews, “move away from the story of Israel.
“The anti-Israel lobby is extremely well-endowed by foreign investment,” he continued. “Currently there is massive Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Qatari investment in tertiary education in the United States.
“The Saudi Arabian kingdom made a $20 million contribution to Harvard, and the same to Georgetown. That is a sensible policy for them, because Harvard is the premier university in the world, and Georgetown is the premier political university.” It is not surprising that the recipients of such largesse feel indebted to their benefactors.
At the same time, Mr. Anthony said, “Jewish students often arrive on college campuses without any formal education in Israel’s history, so when they hear anti-Israel rhetoric they have no way of refuting it.” That’s where the feelings of being browbeaten and intimidated come in.
“What’s missing from the discourse about the state of Israel is an unreserved, unbridled pride in Israel,” he said. “I intend to do my level best to reinject that pride into those who are kind enough to listen to my words.”
And that, he added, is a transdenominational feeling. “I go to Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform synagogues,” he said. “They are not as divided as they think they are. Not nearly.”
Andrew Gross is the political advisor to Israel’s deputy consul general in New York. (He also grew up in Wyckoff and went to Ramapo High School; “I am a proud Ramapo Raider,” he said.) He plans to talk about Israel as the quintessential start-up nation; it is a way, he said, “to broaden the conversation – to think about Israel the country, not Israel as a debated political issue.
“One of the key elements of my job is to reach out to different communities, to build bridges with Jews and non-Jews alike, by sharing the competitive advantages of Israel. It is a source of inspiration and innovation.
“Israel was ranked the fifth most innovative country in the world by Bloomberg this winter – the United States was ranked 11. The Economist ranked Tel Aviv as the second best start-up ecosystem in the world, after Silicon Valley.
“Israel’s competitive advantage in the world is our ability to export creativity.
“We want to offer a practical guide to partnering with Israel. There are lots of ways to be supportive of Israel, to go beyond a debate about conflict. If you really want to know how to be a partner for Israel in Bergen County, we should talk about how to connect with diverse communities, like Christians, the LGBT community, Hispanics, African-Americans, groups that are empowering women – those are the sorts of relationships that Israel deeply values.
“To help Israel is to help build bridges.”
Shahar Azani, who used to work in the Israeli consulate, now is the executive director of StandWithUs’s northeast region. (Avi Posnick, StandWithUs’s regional coordinator, will be on the panel on Tuesday night, but Mr. Azani provided a preview of his talk.)
“StandWithUs is very active in bringing the community together,” he said. “We have to be able to counter the nefarious methods of the BDS movement.” That movement – the attempt to boycott, divest, and impose sanctions against Israeli goods, services, and performers – is trying all sorts of new, creative methods. At NYU, for example, a BDS group tried to connect divesting from Israel with “fossil fuel divestment, which is a more popular cause on campus,” Mr. Azani said.
“People always say that BDS groups are limited to only a few hundred campuses, but it is on many elite campuses. It’s like venom – when it penetrates the body through a bite on your finger, you can’t say it’s only gotten your finger. Your whole body is contaminated.”
But there is hope, he said. We have to teach our children. “If we plant the seeds for Jewish continuity, Jewish leadership, for these kids’ involvement later in their lives with the Jewish community, with professional Jewish life, with the federation world, we have to do it now. We have to work hard today to make sure that Jewish life is strong tomorrow.”
Dan Mitzner is the associate director of AIPAC’s real estate division. His response to a request to discuss his contribution to the meeting was to email a refusal to talk. “Unfortunately, as per AIPAC policy, I cannot comment to the press,” he wrote.
Mr. Lasher has high hopes for the evening, both as a practicum on how to support Israel and as a way for disparate parts of the community to come together. “We should be thinking about what draws us together, not what drives us apart,” he said.
|Who: Unite4Unity and the northern New Jersey Jewish community
What: An evening, called Unite and Stand Up For Israel, featuring Sgt. Benjamin Anthony, a panel of Israel advocates, and a chance to talk in small groups
What: On Tuesday, April 28, from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m.
Where: At Solomon Schechter Day School, 275 McKinley Avenue, New Milford
For more information: Call Joy Kurland at (201) 820-3946 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sponsors: Unite4Unity, Ahavath Torah, Emanu-El of Closter, Beth Rishon, Kehilat Kesher, East Hill Synagogue, Bnai Yeshurun, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, the JFNNJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council, Solomon Schechter Day School, Our Soldiers Speak, and StandWithUs
And: Light refreshments!