Saturday, July 20, 2019

Stephanie Bonder and Michael Cohen. (Credit: Robert Isler)

It was fitting that Hadassah, which bills itself as the “Women’s Zionist Organization of America,” would hold a forum entitled “Is Zionism a dirty word?” The well-attended Sunday breakfast took place at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey campus in Paramus on January 27. Attendees were treated to both a history lesson of the origins and various forms of Zionism, as well as stark examples of real life challenges we face today in confronting those who have demonized the movement.

Moderated by Jill Tekel, area vice president, the panel included Stephanie Bonder and Michael Cohen. Bonder, a teacher at the Golda Och Academy for the past 16 years, is current chair of Hadassah’s Young Women’s Department and has previously been a region president. Cohen is both Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and is on the Englewood City Council.

Each speaker initially approached the topic of Zionism from a different perspective. Bonder tackled the movement from an historical context. She offered that the term Zionism was coined in 1890 by Nathan Birnbaum, an Austrian writer and journalist, and then transitioned into her personal relationship with Zionism, her parents’ Jewish activism and her first visit to Israel on the occasion of her bat mitzvah. She recalled the indescribable feeling when she first stepped off the plane onto Israeli soil, thinking “I’m home.”

Bonder went on to list and explain the various forms of Zionism, focusing on six in all. The earlier types: Political, Labor and Revisionist Zionism, were all secular in nature. The final three discussed were Religious, Cultural and Diaspora Zionism, with Hadassah serving as a perfect example of the last form.

Bonder made the observation that when a Jew was born can often strongly influence their opinions about Israel. Those born before there was a State of Israel, or who grew up at a time of major conflicts such as the Six Day War, are often of one mindset. It was a time when Israel was decidedly the underdog, with her very survival often called into question. Victories evoked a sense of pride. Today’s younger generation, who have only experienced Israel as a regional power and who are constantly exposed to stories of its oppressive behavior, often have a more jaded view. Bonder concluded by reiterating her own and her organization’s sentiments with the thought that “ Hadassah is proud to have the word Zionist in its name.”

Cohen focused on Zionism realities of today. He began by relating that the Simon Wiesenthal Center is an NGO at the United Nations. Several years ago, it managed to convince UNESCO to cosponsor an exhibit about Israel, which was no easy task. The exhibit consisted of 28 panels and showed the 3,500 year connection of the Jewish people to the State. A 20 -year- old Jewish campus leader approached Cohen about using the exhibit for her college campus. However, she did not want to include two of the panels because they illustrated the Jewish biblical connection to the land. Cohen was flabbergasted. Here was a young Jewish activist who had been so influenced by the negative propaganda, that she didn’t feel comfortable with panels biblically associating Israel with the Jewish people. Cohen asked if she was aware of the State Department definition of anti-Semitism. He went on to warn the audience against allowing the philosophy of “We hate Israel but love Jews” to take hold.

Cohen spoke of the need to do better in our fight against detractors. The tactics they use are often more savvy and sophisticated than ours. To illustrate, he spoke of a 2017 New York City Council hearing on whether to condemn the BDS Movement. At the time, about fifteen states had such laws on the books, but not one local municipality. There were representatives from a number of Jewish organizations and all seemed fine until the room suddenly filled with about 300 ardent anti-Zionists and anti-Semites. Linda Sarsour sat three seats from Cohen.

The rules of the forum were clear. Those who interrupted speakers were subject to ejection. Rather than employing a tactic of mass disruption, which would have been short-lived as the entire group would be escorted out, one protestor at a time jumped up to shout epithets as each speaker began, maximizing the disruptive effect. Cohen said that along with this pre-planned tactic, the protestors also were keenly aware of where the press and the cameras were situated, and used it to their advantage. At a strategic moment, a Palestinian flag was unfurled from the balcony. Although the anti-BDS resolution easily passed, Cohen got a taste of how well the opposition knew how to play the crowd and the press for maximum effect.

Yet another troubling story, this one in our own backyard, was the Mahwah eruv controversy. Cohen brought students to the Mahwah City Council forums to experience the drama first hand. At one point, a leader of the community openly stated, “We have to do something about the infestation of Jews in our community.” Council members listened without reaction. It was a lesson for the students. Counter tactics employed were effective, as proceedings were broadcast live to a Facebook group where 15,000 people could see for themselves the level of hatred in the room. Mahwah lost the case and the City Council President, the biggest critic of the eruv, was voted out. Cohen noted that leaders of Mahwah never really got it. They just wanted the controversy to go away.

During the Q&A session, in response to an audience member’s criticism of Jewish control of West Bank Territories, Bender said, “You can be of the opinion that we should get out, but you must be aware of the security concerns as well.” Cohen took a different approach to this issue and the hostility it can bring towards Israel as a whole. He asked how many in the room were proud to be Americans. Almost every hand went up. He then asked how many agreed with all the policies of our government. Point made.

Bonder closed by noting that most people get their news from smart phones and other devices these days. She said she constantly is exposed to pro-Israel stories on her phone because it feeds her what she wants to see. The danger is all those people whose devices only make them aware of the other side of the narrative.

Cohen’s final warning was that we must be constantly aware of the latest trends and stay vigilant against the influences our children may face.

By Robert Isler

Robert Isler is a marketing researcher and freelance writer who lives in Fair Lawn. He can be reached at [email protected]