I converted to Judaism in the Spring of 1980, when Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority were bullying those of us who were not Christian lovers of Jesus in the United States. That group included my wife and son by birth, and me by choice.
I became a Jew after years of searching and study. Coincidentally, I completed my conversion from Catholicism when Christian fundamentalism was raging out of control in a country founded, ostensibly, on keeping the Church, and organized religion, separate from matters of State.
At the same time, my work as a labor journalist led me to do an article revealing the right-wing web of organizations behind fundamentalist Christian groups, and their connection to Republicans crusading for office in 1980. My passion for Judaism drove me to compile the first Holocaust Education curriculum ever produced for the National Education Association, for use in classrooms across America. Intentionally, I set aside a portion of the curriculum detailing the Nuremburg Laws—State sponsored laws, which, essentially, criminalized being a Jew.
That spring, when Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor, I considered the Israeli raid as a matter of self-defense, necessary for the security of Israel. Friends and colleagues accused me of becoming a Zionist since my conversion to Judaism. “I was a Zionist before I was a Jew,” I replied. “I have always believed in the necessity for and the legitimacy of the State of Israel.”
Thirty-five years have passed since my conversion to Judaism. In the decades since becoming a Jew by Choice, I was blessed to work on a project for peace with the heroic writer Elie Wiesel, and to be mentored, almost daily, by Mario Cuomo’s kind and wise Community Relations Specialist, Rabbi Israel Mowshowitz of Queens, NY, who arranged a fact-finding trip to Israel for me in 1991, with the Jewish Community Relations Council of NYC. On that mission, public officials from across New York met with such Israeli Leaders as Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Interior Minister Arik Sharon, Health Minister Ehud Olmert, Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, Shimon Peres, and Israeli-born Arabs who were members of Israel’s Knesset. The following year, I accompanied Governor Mario M. Cuomo on a trade mission to Israel, meeting with a wide array of Israeli officials in a new, more progressive government, led by the former military leader, now peace advocate, Yitzhak Rabin.
I sat next to Prime Minister Rabin, while Mario Cuomo sat across from him, and Matilda Cuomo sat next to Rabin’s wife, Leah. I studied Rabin’s face line by line, his eyes full of sadness from witnessing too much death and suffering. Later, I learned that Rabin, haunted by the thought that he was leading young Israeli soldiers to their slaughter in the 1967 War—Israel’s greatest military victory—experienced a nervous breakdown during the War.
I followed Rabin’s face carefully in our meeting with him in September, 1992, and saw the sadness slip away each time he spoke of his hopes for bringing peace to the land of his birth, the land he loved and for which he risked his life. I can still hear Yitzhak Rabin’s somber voice warning us of the grave threats to peace posed by political extremists among Jews, Palestinians and others. Just the day before, in a public park in Jerusalem, we witnessed right wing Jewish extremists shout down then 80-year old Mayor Teddy Kollek, because Teddy believed all faiths, not just Jews, should be able to worship freely at their Holy sites in that Holy City.
Our meeting ended, and Yitzhak Rabin shook our hands. The last word he uttered to each of us was “Shalom.” Four years later, Rabin was assassinated by a fundamentalist Jew, the very kind of Right Wing political extremist—on either side– he foresaw as a threat to peace.
Now, BiBi Netanyahu is poised to put his political career above the security interests of Israel by snubbing an American President and interfering in the foreign policy of the United States by campaigning with US right-wing extremists in Congress to invoke new sanctions against Iran—sanctions which could push the Middle East closer to a regional war, at a time of intense instability.
Yitzhak Rabin, who knew the horrors of war first-hand, would have batted back the bellicosity of Bibi and Speaker Boehner, and, instead, seized the opportunity of creating a nuclear-free Iran and the slender possibility of “Shalom” for Israel, and the world. To do any less, is to betray the legacy of Israel’s founders, freedom fighters, soldiers, citizens and Jews, in Israel and elsewhere, who believe that the path to peace is a sacred obligation.