The essayist Vic Rosenthal (creator of the blog, abuyehuda)has published an essay about a small Jewish community in California (“What happened to my home town”, abuyehuda, February 15, 2018). His story isn’t just about one small Jewish point within the vast American landscape. This story is, he says, a tale about Jewish diaspora. If he’s correct, it’s not a happy story.
He writes about Fresno California. Fresno has a population of perhaps 525,000. It doesn’t have many Jews—perhaps 1,000 Jewish families.
Fresno has one Reform Temple with about 300 families, a now-tiny Conservative synagogue and a Chabad house (ibid). The Jewish Federation of Central California is based there.
Rosenthal spent the better part of his life in Fresno. During the time he was there, he became active in Jewish and Zionist affairs (ibid). He says he lived in Fresno 26 years before making aliyah (for the second time) in 2014.
He describes a growing anti-Israel attitude taking hold in Fresno. During and after the Second Lebanon War of 2006 and the mini-wars in Gaza, he notes, there were anti-Israel demonstrations organized at first by “peace” groups. Then, led by activists associated with an ‘Islamic Cultural Center’, the anti-Israel protests attracted more and more Muslims (ibid).
Over time, the larger Jewish community in Fresno seemed to become apathetic about supporting Israel. He believes today that, as time went by, more and more of Fresno’s Jews seemed to become actively anti-Israel, especially after the election of Barak Obama.
In particular, the Reform temple in Fresno became less and less hospitable to pro-Israel presentations (ibid). A new rabbi took over in 2011. On several occasions he wouldn't welcome speakers or films that presented a Zionist point of view because, he would say, they were “divisive” (ibid).
Instead of supporting Israel, this Reform Rabbi emphasized interfaith activities. But he was selective about what he meant by ‘interfaith’. He seemed not to include Fresno’s Evangelical community, which was, by the way, extremely pro-Israel. He appears to have associated instead with Fresno’s Islamic Center and with liberal denominations. He seemed quite proud of his “friendship” with the Imam of the Islamic Center. He even helped the Imam denounce alleged “Islamophobia”.
Every year, the Fresno Jewish Federation, along with the community’s synagogues, organizes an Israel Independence Day event. This was typically held at the Reform Temple, the largest facility available.
This annual Israel Independence Day ‘celebration’ is Rosenthal's focal point in this essay. He wasn’t present during planning discussions (he lives in Israel) for the upcoming 2018 celebration. But he says he’s in contact with friends still in Fresno--and what they told him about what will happen at this year’s Israel Independence Day celebration shocked him.
It seems that the theme suggested by the planning chairperson (from the Federation) was, “A Free People in Our Land”. These words come from Israel’s anthem, “Hatikva”, which expresses the Jewish desire to be free once again, as Jews, in our own Holy land.
But such a theme was unacceptable to the Reform rabbi. He reportedly said that many in Israel were not free, most importantly himself. He said that in Israel he was a “second class” Jew who is “not free” to practice his religion (ibid).
This is absurd, Rosenthal says, because this rabbi can walk into any one of numerous Reform synagogues in Israel and practice his religion.
Worse, the rabbi objected to such a theme because celebrating “A Free People in Our Land” would upset his interfaith group (ibid). It might lead to a “huge outcry” in Fresno and possible protests at the gate of the temple!
The theme was changed to “People in Our Land.” Suddenly, a proud Zionist statement (A free people in our land) was converted into a celebration of multi-culturalism.
Rosenthal adds, the idea of observing Israel’s Independence Day without mentioning freedom or suggesting that the land belongs to the Jewish people is certainly original. This particular rabbi was always on the liberal end of the spectrum, Rosenthal says, but he couldn’t ever imagine this rabbi saying something like this even a few years ago.
This Fresno story, Rosenthal adds, illustrates the danger of “interfaith engagement”. This Reform rabbi seems to have abdicated his own identity as a Jew to appease a group that is implacably hostile to the Jewish state.
The rabbi has let them dictate what Jews are allowed to say about the Jewish state.
How does this well-meaning “Jewish leader” serve his People? He doesn’t. He serves rather as a tool for those who hate Jews, Judaism and Israel. He facilitates the control of Fresno’s Jewish population by hostile others.
Rosenthal says this rabbi is a well-known figure in Diaspora history. At times, such individuals were merely targets for contempt. But at other times – such as during the Holocaust – they played more sinister roles.
Rosenthal concludes that this Fresno story is a classic Diaspora story. It serves as a lesson in Zionism. It teaches that the Jewish people need a sovereign state because they need to live somewhere they can actually be a free people, where they don’t have to worry about what an “Interfaith Alliance” might think about the theme of their Independence Day event.
In 2018, if things stand as they are now, Fresno’s Israel Independence Day celebration won’t be about Jews finally having their own, Jewish state. It will be a celebration of “People”.
You don’t need to wonder if this Fresno story will become your Diaspora story. Make aliyah. Then, you'll be free to celebrate Israel's Jewish Independence Day as it should be celebrated.