Who we choose to speak for us impacts our message

My late parents were humanists. We belonged to the Ethical Cultural Society, and I went to a socialist Labor Zionist summer camp. My older sister Enid, who wrote Midrashic poetry and taught English at Rutgers, held salons around our parents’ dining room table, mostly about the Vietnam War, abortion rights and racial inequality.

Enid saw it as her duty to get me out of the middle-class Jewish bubble. She owed it to me, she felt. After all, I was the one who hid the Evening Sun newspaper from our parents when she was with the Berrigan brothers getting arrested for protesting housing discrimination. She didn’t want Mom or Dad to learn she spent the night in an area jail.  

When I was just 18 and received the Selective Service draft lottery No. 70, Enid drove me to the American Friends Service Committee where I’d learn to be a conscientious objector. She also loved to take me to marches: marches for civil rights and fair housing, marches for Israel, marches for a woman’s right to choose, even a march in support for AIDS research. Most of these demonstrations happened in either Washington, D.C., or New York City.

These marches of my young adulthood felt differently to me than the March for Israel on Nov. 14, which I attended with my students from Baltimore’s Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community High School. Don’t get me wrong, I know how impressive it was to have nearly 300,000 Jews from all over the nation if not the world converge on the Capitol. I was also greatly impressed by the presence of Natan Sharansky, Deborah Lipstadt and others. 

Still, I felt lost at times. For instance, why on earth was Pastor John Hagee up on that stage? Of course, it had a great deal to do with his organization Christians United For Israel, which sends millions of dollars to the Holy Land and is close to the Netanyahu government. But Hagee is a man who once said that God sent Hitler to carry out the Holocaust. He called Hitler a “half-breed Jew.” Hagee believes the evangelical Christian mantra that Jesus can only “return” if Israel is a secure nation, and that proselytizing to Jews is the core of his mission on this earth — so why was he on the stage? Please not him. It was a misdirection of the day’s cause.

When I attended a march for AIDS research and funding, there wasn’t a homophobic clergy member talking from the stage about “loving gay people” and that God was teaching us a lesson by killing them so let’s save them. If it was a rally against racism, we weren’t told by a speaker that Blacks learned great tradesman skills from slavery.

I covered two CUFI conferences when I was the editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times. They were the only conferences I ever covered in 30 years of Jewish journalism where a “minder” was required to follow me around so that I would not ask questions to participants without a CUFI staffer arranging the interview in advance. I watched the conference participants dance through the auditorium aisles while waving flags of Israel, and I listened to Israeli leaders and mostly Republican members of Congress address the voracious crowd. Yet the spirit didn’t move me, to borrow the phrase; I wasn’t part of their unity, though I love Israel. Their message was clearly mixed and unrepresentative of a Jewish identity with Israel. The bottom line was that these people had gathered in worship of Jesus, really.

When I left the Washington Convention Center at the end of one of these assignments, I saw a group of Neturei Karta waving Palestinian flags and holding anti-Israel signs. A CUFI delegate, heading out at the same time, pointed to the Neturei Karta and asked me, “What is that all about?”

I turned around, hearing the singing coming from inside the conference center. My thoughts were back there, wondering if I had missed some sort of point to all of this. Hagee was going to begin speaking again.

Looking over my shoulder at Hagee, I said to the middle-aged woman, “I was going to ask you the same thing.”

I am proud of the Jewish students, educators, Holocaust survivors, synagogue groups, Jewish youth groups, yeshivot and seminaries and your neighbors and mine who sent a message to Washington’s elected officials, the White House and our friends and enemies that we can show unity in great numbers.

Even though I am not a particularly religious person, I do think we missed an opportunity while, gathered together in the hundreds of thousands, we were applauding the likes of media stars and Pastor Hagee.

The opportunity to pray together, to recite Tehillim or whatever words of personal prayer individuals might have had, would have been a beautiful, unmistakable signal. It would have been as if we were all at Sinai: no political bases to cover, no questionable guest speakers, just the Jewish people, nearly 300,000 strong in prayer, asking Hashem to save our hostages, protect the IDF, destroy our enemies and end this endless spiral of death in a region that future generations, Jewish and Palestinian, should one day know as peaceful, civil and mutually kind. Without any hidden agendas or threats.

I think even my humanistic parents would agree that Jewish prayer should have been heard somewhere. And that it would have been heavenly.

Following a decades-long career as an award-winning journalist and editor, Phil Jacobs is a teacher at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community High School in Baltimore, Md.