Elisha Wiesel helped corral a cross-section of more than 100 Jewish and interfaith organizations that cut across the political and religious spectrum at the “No Fear: A Rally in Solidarity with the Jewish People” event.
Earlier this month I received an email from Rabbi Asher Lopatin, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and the rabbi of Kehillat Etz Chayim, our synagogue in Huntington Woods, informing congregants of his plan to attend an upcoming rally in Washington D.C., representing the JCRC and Detroit’s Jewish community.
The flyer he sent, billed “No Fear: A Rally in Solidarity with the Jewish People,” was spearheaded by Elisha Wiesel, son of the late Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel, and hoped to gather Jews of all stripes in a full-throated demonstration of Jewish unity, denouncement of antisemitism and reaffirming the ideals of Zionism. “Let us continue to work toward more Jewish unity as we stand up to antisemitism and fight for the safety and security of Israel,” Lopatin wrote in closing.
Scheduled for July 11, and within eyeshot of the U.S. Capitol, Wiesel helped corral a cross-section of more than 100 Jewish and interfaith organizations that cut across the political and religious spectrum. Scheduled speakers included television host Meghan McCain, Erika Moritsugu, deputy assistant to President Joe Biden, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue and more than a dozen others, including Wiesel.
I don’t consider myself “political,” but the rally’s intent resonated with me on several levels, particularly its call for civic engagement. I hold the construct of civic engagement to be on par with, and complementary to, every American’s obligation to be well-informed on issues.
Each is critical in sustaining our democracy and safeguarding the freedoms our country bestows upon its citizens. Each is also critical as mechanisms to affect change. Like a Venn diagram, engagement and being well-informed each overlap with politics in helping shape public policy. Those precepts are what led me to choose a career in journalism.
I also thought the rally would provide a perfect civics lesson for my 16-year-old daughter, Bella, a rising senior at Frankel Jewish Academy. I forwarded the flyer to my wife, Amy, suggesting the three of us attend the rally and make a weekend getaway out of it.
After toying with the idea of making it a road trip (note: I’m not a fan of long drives), we found an affordable travel package, pulled the trigger, and headed out of town — not knowing what to expect, but hopeful it would be impactful.
I never had attended a rally before, political or otherwise; I always felt it could challenge my integrity as a reporter. However, Amy and I agreed that Bella would benefit from this real-life lesson in civic engagement.
Sheltered in the arms of her family and a tight-knit suburban Jewish community, she will soon graduate and face the larger world, with all of its facts and alternative facts; and the timing has never been more urgent in my lifetime. Hostility toward the U.S. Jewish population — all 2.4% of us — is at a fevered pitch I wouldn’t have thought possible just a few short years ago.
During the last several years, reports of overt aggression and violence directed at U.S. Jews — perpetrated by our fellow countrymen — are events I once deemed as either the provenance of our historical record or dispatches from far-off European capitals. Regrettably, those days have since changed: bomb threats called into Jewish Community Centers and day schools nationwide (including here in Detroit); multiple acts of desecration at Jewish cemeteries; diners harassed at kosher restaurants; beatings — or worse — taking place in broad daylight as people walk to and from synagogue; white nationalists marching, tiki torches in-hand, shouting “Jews will not replace us”; senseless massacres of congregants at synagogues in both Pittsburgh and San Diego.
Even as I write, I fight a cognitive dissonance believing these incidents don’t happen here. Yet they do, and there is no indication of the existential threat abating. It is no longer background noise.
I am not alone in my concern. A May 2021 report published by the Pew Research Center found that three-quarters of American Jews think there is more antisemitism in the U.S. today than there was five years ago. Moreover, slightly more than half say that, as a Jewish person in the U.S., they personally feel less safe than they did five years ago.
Standing for Israel
As Bella begins her last year of high school, it won’t be long before she finds herself outside of the day school bubble where she has been kept fairly insulated from all this ugliness. As her parents, the best thing we can do for our daughter is empower her to use her voice and learn how to act.
Action for social justice through civic engagement is more than just placing a placard in one’s window or throwing up a lawn sign. Action is standing toe-to-toe with those who hijack legitimate criticisms, employ “what aboutism” and purposefully spread misinformation in an effort to delegitimize Israel’s right to exist.
Israeli government policies can and should be reasonably debated, but only in an earnest attempt at finding common ground. Government is not some infallible, omnipotent concept, but is composed of human beings making policy — and people can get it wrong.
However, unlike any other liberal democracy on Earth, Israel’s government is subject to an untenable level of scrutiny, and not just from its own citizenry, but much of the world writ large. More insidiously, debate is often just a guise used by anti-Semites as a red herring to provide cover for their use of debate as a cudgel to spew vitriol.
Of particular concern to us, the veracity of debate when it comes to Israel that takes place on college campuses is often dubious, where anti-Zionism is incubated and given quarter with a false patina of intellectualism. Bella needs to know how to distinguish between legitimate disagreements and healthy discourse — and antisemitism. Moreover, we want to arm her with facts so she can diffuse heated rhetoric, combat dogma with rational counterarguments, and educate those who are either ignorant or blinded by hatred.
On the Ground
Arriving at the west front of the Capitol, its imposing edifice bringing the magnitude of the day’s objectives into relief, we saw multitudes of “Stand with Israel” signs, Israeli and American flags waving, and lots of sunshine; it was crazy hot outside. As the rally kicked off, Bella’s attention to the heat was supplanted by Meghan McCain’s outrage at the increase in antisemitic and anti-Israel attacks engulfing America.
Estimates of the crowd size varied, but there were at least 2,000 people enduring the heat and humidity; enough people to show critical mass, but intimate enough that we had the opportunity to speak with people and share stories.
We also were able to meet up with Rabbi Lopatin. For those who don’t know who he is, you should Google him. He’s incredibly smart, disarmingly engaging and one of the country’s leading voices within Judaism’s Modern Orthodox community.
He went out of his way to praise Bella for making the trip to D.C., which underscored our intent: that showing up — taking action — is critical to making a movement effective. Then, one of the speakers Bella was eager to hear, a former white supremacist named Derek Black, took to the stage. She excused herself and made her way through the crowd to get a better view.
“Can you believe all it took for this guy to question his lifelong hatred was an invitation to a Shabbat meal?” she asked, adding (with a hint of teenage snark), “He didn’t say too much about the meal, but it may have been the cholent that changed him.”
Seeking some respite from the sun, the three of us made our way toward a towering oak tree. Speakers were talking, we were sweating, and just when it seemed Bella’s engagement was tapped, a young woman about her age, a 17-year-old from the suburbs of Chicago named Talia Raab, introduced herself and shared an incredible story of mustering courage under extraordinary threats after simply posting something on Instagram about Israeli solidarity. The savage comments she received aren’t suitable for print in this publication, but Bella was mesmerized by the bravery Raab showed in the face of such hate.
We didn’t make it to the very end of the rally, the heat besting us, but the seed Amy and I hoped to sow seemed to have taken root. We flew home later that evening, and I asked Bella to debrief with me the next day.
“Of course, I’m worried,” she explained when I asked her about the pervasiveness of antisemitism and how she would comport herself in the face of it. “I know the easy way out would be to just not own my Judaism because then there wouldn’t be a problem.
“But I also feel a responsibility to shut the hatred down. I may not organize a rally, and I don’t know what that ‘something’ looks like, but doing nothing can’t be an option either.
“If I don’t get involved, then how can I make a difference?”