The Rainbow Sign
I’m a skeptical person. So I was apprehensive when Yesh Atid won 19 mandates in the Israeli parliament this January. The mood was too euphoric. Yair Lapid was too slick. The promises were too expansive. When my friend and fellow Crimson columnist Joshua B. Lipson ’14 wrote a piece in the Harvard Political Review praising the night’s victors I thought he had drunk some Kool-Aid. Or Arak. I was wrong. Two months into the new government, the new political party is revivifying the Zionist enterprise.
This isn’t Theodor Herzl’s Zionism. The father of Jewish nationalism thought Jewishness should serve as an ethnic base for an atheistic polity. Though Lapid is an avowed secularist, he has not demanded the abolition of the rabbinate, a state body, now controlled by the ultra-Orthodox, which regulates Jewish marriages, conversions, and burials and oversees kosher certifications. Yesh Atid’s Knesset membership is drawn from a wide range of Jewish traditions. Dov Lipman is an ultra-Orthodox rabbi from the United States who made his name fighting religious extremism in Beit Shemesh. Ruth Calderon is the founder of a progressive, egalitarian beit midrash. Shai Piron is a religious Zionist and headmaster of a yeshiva.
In 1950, The Weavers released “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” the first and only Hebrew-language song to top the charts in America. Encouraging girls to leave the farm and greet returning soldiers, the lyrics recall the agrarianism and honest poverty of Israel’s youth. An affecting if verklempt ditty, “Tzena” matters most because of the people who sang it. The Weavers—Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, Fred Hellerman, and Pete Seeger—were the Lewis and Clark of the early 1960s folk music revival, surveying territory Peter, Paul, and Mary, The Byrds, and pre-electric Bob Dylan would roam. The band broke up in 1955, the victim of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the blacklist. Seeger, later to become the big macher of the folkies, had been a card-carrying communist. The other three had been fellow travelers. Progressive troubadours, they were enamored with Israel, including in their repertoire several other Hebrew tunes.
Now lost in the Billy Bragg agit-prop, Israel was once a revelation to the left. And with good reason. The settlers of the Second Aliyah were socialists, and they transmuted the Mir, the Russian peasant’s communal farm and the intelligentsia’s idée fixe, to the kibbutz, the organizing unit of Jewish economic activity during the Mandate period. As independence approached, the Yishuv was so in the thrall of leftism that the State Department feared a Jewish state might come under Soviet tutelage.
“Do you really think a Holocaust could happen here?” I asked. “I have all my papers in ready just in case,” my septuagenarian neighbor replied.
That woman is now in her 80s, but the exchange has stuck with me, and it always surfaces in my mind around this time of year, as we commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day and celebrate Israeli independence. If I found her sense of vulnerability unsupported, I shared her implicit sensibility, a hard truth of the 1940s: Only a Jewish state and a Jewish military can be depended upon to protect the Jews.
As I sat in the audience of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Policy Conference two weekends ago, I could have sworn I was at a Megillah service. People were making a lot of noise and railing against a Persian leader who wanted to annihilate the Jews.
The Islamic Republic claims it wants nuclear capacity for peaceful purposes. That’s a highly dubious proposition. But so is the notion that Iran would drop an atomic bomb on Tel Aviv. Even if President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a modern-day Haman, he lacks the power to realize his vision. Like all Iranian presidents, he is a glorified functionary, with real authority invested in Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Despite essentialist, facile chatter about the mullahs' “culture of death,” Khamenei is a realist. He knows Iran will be “obliterated” if it perpetrates a second Holocaust. Instead, the Islamic Republic seeks to challenge Israel’s military superiority and counterbalance the American-Saudi axis. Those aims menace the geopolitical interests of the U.S. and the Jewish state, and the two countries have responded with appropriate and devastatingly effective sabotage campaigns.
Jews love a good argument, and I am no exception, so when I saw the “Open Hillel” petition, I quickly signed it. The appeal, begun by the Progressive Jewish Alliance, would allow Hillel-affiliated groups to co-sponsor events on site with all campus organizations, provided they are not anti-Semitic or racist. According to Hillel International’s current Israel guidelines, Hillel will not “partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that ... deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state; ... delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel; ... or support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against (BDS) the State of Israel.”
Here, those regulations have been interpreted loosely. Last year, Harvard Hillel sponsored an event with Peter A. Beinart, a liberal Zionist supportive of a West Bank settlement boycott. In 2010, a former member of Fatah spoke here. Two years earlier, Hillel hosted an anti-occupation art exhibit. Other Hillels, unfortunately, have not been so generous.