Last month the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released a survey that really shocked me. The statistic that surprised me most, as reported in the New York Post, was that "31 percent of Americans believe that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America."
The ADL survey took me back to the early days of my first term in Congress, when I was invited to a congressional prayer breakfast held every other Tuesday in a private congressional dining room. Sonny Montgomery, a longtime congressman from Mississippi, said to me, "Ed, the prayer breakfast has asked me to ask you to join us next week and talk to us about Judaism. Would you? You are Jewish?" I replied, "I'd be happy to come, and yes, I am Jewish."
I am not an observant Jew, but I am a proud Jew, proud of my traditions and proud of all that the Jewish nation has given to the world. I like to think I might have the blood of King David and King Solomon coursing through my veins. I am proud of the fact that my people gave the world monotheism, Moses, Jesus, Marx, Einstein, and Freud.
We have never been more than one-third of 1 percent of the world's population, and yet 23 percent of Nobel Prize winners between 1901 and 2007 have been Jews, and persons of half-Jewish ancestry. We withstood the terrors of Haman, Hitler, and Stalin and those lesser Jew-haters who from time immemorial tried to destroy us as a people.
Those are the thoughts that went through my head when I wrestled with what I would say at the congressional prayer breakfast. I am not a scholar on Judaism. I am comfortable in a synagogue and go twice a year on the high holy days, Rosh Hashana, and Yom Kippur. I attend an orthodox synagogue because of my friendship with its rabbi, but I am probably closer in lifestyle to Reform Judaism and identify myself as a conservative Jew because I am uncomfortable entering a synagogue without a yarmulke (skull cap). And most critical, I knew I could acquaint myself with the exotica of Judaism which would interest most of those in attendance.
So I went to the Library of Congress and read a few books in preparation.
I appeared at the prayer breakfast and told them all that I knew, much of it new to me as well. I tried to explain the meaning of the old joke: A Jew is stranded on a desert island. He wants to pray. He builds two synagogues. Why? One to attend and one he would not be caught dead in. The reason of course being that we are always fighting among ourselves.
After my remarks, I took questions. Then I said, "You are not asking the one question you would like to ask, but are too polite to ask — Do Jews have dual loyalty, to both Israel and America? You would never think to ask that of anyone coming from England, Ireland, Italy or a dozen more nations I could name from whence our fellow citizens come. But you do think of the question when it comes to Jews.
In the United States, our universally held belief is that we are different than all other countries.
We or our immediate ancestors mostly came from elsewhere. We in America pride ourselves on our tradition that we do not want our citizens to forget from where they came or their ancestors' traditions, ethnicity or religion. We know that knowing who we are strengthens us as a country, able to take all of us in and create a new citizen of the world — an American.
Yes, Jews do have a large place in their hearts for Israel. We remember when before World War II, Hitler offered in 1939 to allow Jews to leave Germany if other countries would take them. Few did.
We remember the St. Louis with its 900 or more passengers turned away from Cuba, not permitted to land in the U.S. and shipped back to Europe where half of its passengers ended up in concentration camps, where they were murdered. We know that if Israel had existed then, it would have taken in every Jew who needed sanctuary.
I would have told my congressional colleagues of the pride I felt as a Jew when three Israeli air force planes flew over the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 2003 with the permission of the Polish government to mark an anniversary of the freeing of the prisoners.
Then I raised my right hand and said to them, "I swear to you that if Israel ever invades the United States, I shall stand with the United States."
My remarks were met with great applause, and I hope that comment caused an understanding of the love that Jews like myself have for the state of Israel, to which I will never emigrate, while loving even more the great United States which has given me so much, and allowed me to become a New York City councilman, congressman and mayor.
It has allowed me and millions of others, the sons and daughters of immigrants, to lead a good life, and permitted many of us based on merit to rise to the highest positions in this country.
I suspect that many of the 31 percent of Americans who believe that Jews hold a dual loyalty are not Jew-haters, but have not given any thought to why Jews, who love America more than many because we appreciate its generosity to us, worry so about the security of the state of Israel.
We know that every night when we go to sleep so easily and safely, there are communities of Jews in other countries who fear for their lives because of anti-Semitic rabble-rousers. And we know that Israel is there to give them sanctuary, and if need be, send its troops to rescue them as it did at Entebbe in 1976.
For me, America is everything. We are living in the Golden Age of America. All of us of whatever race, religion or ethnicity owe this great country our everlasting gratitude and love.
We should be willing to die for it if need be to protect it.
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