By Joseph Waks
The recent Israel–Gaza war, also labeled as Operation Protective Edge, has left a devastating and maybe even an everlasting mark on lives of many people who live in the area, including hundreds of members of my own family. Time will tell how long the current ceasefire will continue and how soon civilians will be able to return to peaceful surroundings.
In Europe, where I once led a student organization that bolstered Jewish identity and fought anti-Semitism on university campuses, hatred towards Jews has skyrocketed. The worrying number of violent attacks against Jews was encapsulated with a Newsweek magazine cover article entitled, “Exodus: Why Europe’s Jews are Fleeing Once Again.”
As for me, in Miami, the war meant that I lost a few clients.
When the three Yeshiva students were kidnapped and murdered and Israel launched a military campaign to end the bombardment of Israeli citizens by Hamas terrorists, I was mostly going about my day, designing custom tailored clothing for men and enjoying the Florida life.
But checking the news left me with an itch I couldn’t suppress. It’s been a while since I have taken on myself any Jewish leadership position. On the other-hand, how am I to remain silent when Jewish blood is being spilled and Western governments are demanding that Israel show restraint in its fight for survival?
My doubts lingering, I recalled a story from Gershon Ber Jacobson, the legendary editor of the Yiddish newspaper Algemeiner Journal, who had a chance encounter with “the Rebbe,” Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, considered by many to be the most influential rabbi in modern history.
The grand Rebbe casually asked him, “nu, vos iz neis?” Yiddish for what’s news.
Jacobson responded, “There is a packed paper this week, there are so many happenings.”
“Tell me the top news,” insisted the Rebbe, who combined both brilliance and compassion in his celebrated life.
Jacobson hesitated and with audacity raised an issue many have been writing to the paper about.
“Many take issue with the Rebbe’s involvement in matters that seemingly has nothing to do with his movement: matters of world Jewry, Russian Jewry, events in Israel,” he said. “People have been questioning why the Grand Rebbe would get involved and take a stance in international issues? They write, ‘let the Rebbe sit in his study and direct his flock.’ ”
The Rebbe turned to the veteran journalist, who maybe was looking more for a good headline then a rabbinical response, and replied in Yiddish.
“There is a story in the Bible,” he said. “One day while Moses, before he became the leader of the Jewish nation, saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brethren. He looked this way and that, and when he saw there was no one was around, he struck down the Egyptian and buried him in the sand. He went out the next day, and behold two Hebrews were fighting with each other. Upon reprimanding the offender, both of them responded, ‘what are you going to do, kill us like you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ Moses realized that the news has broken.”
The Rebbe asked, “How is it that Moses looked to the right and left and he saw ‘no one’ but someone actually did see his actions? When it says Moses looked to the right and left and saw no one, it means that he looked, but no one was doing anything about it!”
Over the years this story had a tremendous impact on me. While thinking about it when the war broke out, it had a new personal meaning. Sheer hypocrisy, blatant lies, despicable disregard for human life was on public display, but it is Israel who is being condemned. In recent weeks in Miami, a visiting rabbi was shot dead on his way to pray and swastikas were spray painted on a synagogue.
To me, it felt like no one is—or at least, not enough are—standing up for justice and for what is right in the world. Many of Israel’s closest allies seem to be just tiptoeing on the sidelines, whilst the world has and is becoming more and more of a hostile place for Jews.
The breaking point for me was when a friend told me that she wouldn’t hang an Israeli flag on her car because she was afraid. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. That in 2014, in Miami Beach, somebody would be worried about expressing their identity? It totally shook me up.
I started expressing my views on social media and soon enough, along with a group of friends, we established “Miami Unites for Israel” and brought out thousands of people for a community-wide solidarity event for Israel. We later distributed 400 Israeli and American flags to hang with pride on our South Florida homes.
On the way, I paid a little price with some clients being uncomfortable with my pro Israel activism and notifying that they were cutting our business ties. I’m not the only one. Actress Mayim Bialik recently wrote: “Oh, Israel. What a month it’s been for you and me. I lost a lot of fans this month because of my love for you. But it’s OK. I love you more than popularity, even when you make me crazy. And even though I don’t always agree with Israeli policy, I’m still a Zionist.”
The Jewish sage Hillel ben Gamaliel once said “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” Your voice may be the minority, it may not be heard so well, yet we must do everything in our power to impact the world and insure that the words “never again” be the reality and not just the hope.
–Australian born Joseph Waks is a Master Designer and Consummate Clothier who lives in Bal Harbour, Florida. Waks has been featured in many American fashions magazines. He established “Miami Unites for Israel” and previously directed the European Center for Jewish Students based in Brussels, Belgium.