On February 25, 1986, my grandfather Robert Arnold Riesman Sr. delivered a speech at his synagogue in Providence, Rhode Island. Grandpa was a lantern-jawed, even-tempered man — an industrialist, a philanthropist, and a bona fide war hero — which made it all the more striking when, on occasions such as this, he invoked life’s horrors like a fire-and-brimstone shtetl rabbi. He began with a story of Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous mad scientist of the Nazi camps, who had been tried in absentia in Israel the year before. He quoted the testimony of a Jewish survivor who had been forced by Mengele to starve her own newborn child to death: “The child grew thinner and thinner, weaker and weaker. Every day Mengele would come and look at it.” A nurse secretly procured some morphine to put the baby out of its misery. “You want me to kill my own child?” she asked the nurse. “‘I can’t do it.’ We had a big argument until I did it. I murdered my own child.”
Grandpa then quoted the rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg about how the Holocaust taught Jews “that power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, but absolute powerlessness corrupts even more.” My grandfather, a whisperer to two U.S. senators and a former president of the Rhode Island Jewish Federation, was far from powerless, and he made it his business to get the world to know and care about what was happening to the Jews. And the most effective way to do that was to rally American Jews around the common goal that united the vast majority of them, regardless of denomination, location, or political party: the defense of the Jewish state.
My grandfather’s aim that winter night was to goad his listeners into being more ardent supporters of what he proudly referred to as “the pro-Israel lobby,” of which he was a significant component. “Exercise your rights as a citizen,” he told the crowd. “For your children and grandchildren. For the powerless who died in the Warsaw Ghetto or the death camps, who never had the chance to live free in Israel. And for those who today live free in Israel and want to stay that way.”
Was my grandfather thinking of me when he spoke of Mengele? Just 11 weeks prior, he had been cradling my infant body in his arms, blessing and cooing at his firstborn grandchild in the maternity ward. His speech drew a straight line between Jewish powerlessness and the deaths of Jewish infants because he genuinely believed the two were inextricable. In his eyes, Israel was always under mortal threat, and if its foes were to defeat it, there would be mass Jewish death there on a scale with which his generation was all too familiar. If his people lost their citadel in the Middle East, who knew what other dominos might fall? The scion of his own line could be next.
Such was the argument. Such is the argument still. And look where it got us.
In my grandfather’s day, Israel was the great unifier of the American Jewish community. Now it is the great divider, both inside our own community and in cleavages with other ones. Bring up Israel with any American Jew and you can feel the atmosphere tighten. There is no topic that incenses us more, whether the emotions are pride or shame, defensiveness or hatred, fear that not enough of our coreligionists support the Jewish state or rage that they support it too much. There are those among us who have opted out of the conversation altogether, but one can run only so far these days. [Continue reading…]