Now a few words about my home town, Fresno California, butt of countless jokes and YouTubes full of mostly derogatory references to it from films and TV shows made in sophisticated Los Angeles. With a population of about 525,000, it boasts a California State University campus and several other major educational institutions. It is the center of one of the most productive agricultural areas in the US, which produces more than half of all the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the US.
Reliable estimates of the Jewish population are hard to come by, but probably there are fewer than 1000 Jewish families there. Jews arrived there in the 19th century and made their living in farming, lumbering and ranching, and of course commerce. After WWII, a number of Jewish GIs who had been stationed at Hammer Field (now Fresno Yosemite International Airport) married local girls and stayed on. There are a few Israelis working in agricultural technology. But for whatever reason, a large Jewish community never developed.
There is a Reform Temple with about 300 families, a now-tiny Conservative synagogue, and a Chabad house. The Jewish Federation of Central California is based there. There is no local source for kosher meat, with the exception of poultry products sporadically carried by Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods.
I wasn’t born there, but it was the place I spent the greatest part of my life, the place I met my wife shortly before making aliyah, and the place I to which I returned in 1988 after almost a decade in Israel. Probably because I knew in my heart (and because my wife and kids never stopped reminding me) that I should have stayed in Israel, I became active in Jewish and Zionist affairs, such as they were. I spent 26 years there, always in touch with what was happening in Israel and with my kids, who moved back as soon as they were old enough to become “lone soldiers” in the IDF.
I did my best to counteract the always-growing stream of propaganda aimed to demonize and delegitimize Israel, as it flowed from the media, the local “peace” organizations and a few anti-Israel activists at the university who regularly organized offensive films and speakers. In 2007, the university received a large grant from an Iranian-connected organization and established a Middle East Studies Department. Like virtually all such departments, it related to Israel only as a foreign body in the Muslim Middle East (you can read here about how I got kicked out of a conference held by that department).
During and after the Second Lebanon War of 2006 and the mini-wars in Gaza, there were anti-Israel demonstrations at an important intersection in town, organized at first by the “peace” groups. Led by activists associated with the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, more and more Muslims began taking part, sometimes leading to near-confrontations with greatly outnumbered pro-Israel demonstrators.
All this time I struggled to try to get positive coverage of Israel in the local media, which were mostly ignorant about the issues or hostile. And I tried to develop Zionist consciousness in the Jewish community.
I almost completely failed at the latter task. Although there was a small nucleus of pro-Israel people (some of whom were transplants from Israel), the larger community was apathetic. As time went by, more and more of them seemed to be actively anti-Israel, especially after the election of Barak Obama, whom the Jewish community supported heavily.
In particular, the Reform temple became less and less hospitable to pro-Israel presentations. A new rabbi took over in 2011, and on several occasions he decided that speakers or films that presented a Zionist point of view would be “divisive,” and did not permit events to be held at the temple.
He particularly emphasized interfaith activities, but the other faith groups included only the Islamic Center and liberal denominations. He is quite proud of his “friendship” with the Imam of the Islamic Center, and appeared together with him on TV to denounce alleged “Islamophobia,” but he did not reach out to Fresno’s large Evangelical community – who, by the way, had been extremely supportive of pro-Israel activities, even hosting speakers for us that the rabbi had rejected as divisive!
The Jewish Federation remained helpful, although I could see beads of sweat breaking out on foreheads when I suggested sponsoring an event that some donors might find a little too pro-Israel for comfort. But one constant was that every year the Federation and the synagogues all got together to organize an Israel Independence Day event, held at the Reform Temple, the largest facility available.
Although I haven’t been back to the US in three and a half years, I’m in contact with my old friends there. And what they told me this year was shocking.
It seems that the theme suggested by the chairperson from the Federation was “A Free People in Our Land,” from Israel’s anthem “Hatikva.” But this was unacceptable to the Reform rabbi. He reportedly said that many in Israel were not free, most importantly himself as a “second class” Jew who is “not free” to practice his religion in Israel. This is absurd, since he can walk into any one of numerous Reform synagogues in Israel and practice his religion.
But worse, he added that “A Free People in Our Land” would “upset” his interfaith group – I presume they would not like the implication that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people – and that it would lead to a “huge outcry” in Fresno and possibly protests at the gate of the Temple! And he, as the leader of the Jewish community, would be blamed.
Rather than let him take his Temple and go home, it was decided that the theme would be “People in Our Land,” thus converting a proud Zionist statement into a celebration of multi-cultural kumbaya.
The idea of observing Israel’s Independence Day without mentioning freedom or suggesting that the land belongs to the Jewish people is certainly original. This particular rabbi was always on the liberal end of the spectrum, but I can’t imagine him saying something like this even a few years ago. This illustrates the danger of the “interfaith engagement” that the rabbi made such an important element in his job. He seems to have abdicated his own volition as a Jew to a group that is implacably hostile to the Jewish state. He has let them dictate what Jews are allowed to say about the Jewish state.
The well-meaning “Jewish leader” who, while actually powerless, serves as a tool for the gentile regime and facilitates their control of the Jewish population is a well-known figure in Diaspora history. Such individuals sometimes were merely targets for contempt, but other times – such as during the Holocaust – played more sinister roles.
This is a classic Diaspora story, and actually serves as a lesson in Zionism. The Jewish people need a sovereign state because they need to live somewhere that they can actually be a free people, where they don’t have to worry about what an “Interfaith Alliance” of ultra-liberal Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Catholics and other non-Jews think about the theme of their Independence Day event.
A very few members of my former community tried to stand up against this abysmal failure to protect Jewish honor and dignity, but without success. Most don’t see the problem. So it will be a celebration of “People in Our Land.” I am embarrassed for them, and saddened by what happened to the community that I lived in and cared about for so long.
Back in the early 1980’s when I was in College I was the President of the Union of Jewish Students. This was at a small, liberal arts college in Ohio. The most Jewish it ever got was the monthly bagels and lox get together and the high holiday services presided over by a reform rabbi from the nearby Hebrew Union College. We were a very weak stream of Judaism at that small Episcopal college. Many years later, while studying in Israel, I asked one of the (Orthodox) Rabbi’s I was studying with about God’s promise to make the Jews an eternal nation in light of all the assimilation and intermarriage that was going on. I wondered how there would be any Jews left in a few generations. The Rabbi told me that Jews exist to do God’s work to prepare the world for the messianic times and that without Jews the world would have no meaning. He did not worry about the assimilation of Jews, or intermarriage, or I suppose of the growing influence of liberal politics on the American Jewish Community. For him, it was all in Gods hands. And that was his faith. From this I learned not to worry too much about the fading Jewish communities in America or the lost Jewish communities in other parts of the world. I have faith that God will protect and help defend Israel and the dying communities in America are just part of the plan. While this attitude of resignation may seem like apathy, it is quite the opposite. It drives me to work in Zionist areas where my contribution will count. Support, both vocal and financial of organizations that are fighting to maintain Judaism and support Israel for example. This is one of the reasons I find your blog to be so important and energizing – even when the news seems bad. Let the Fresno Jewish community pass away to nothingness! Let that be the lesson to all Zionists to redouble our efforts to support and help Israel remain strong and secure. When Jews stop standing up for themselves, the end truly is near.
Vic, I found reading this blog to be factual but hurtful at the same time. When I first rolled into Fresno in 1965, the Cantor, of blessed memory, of TBI took me to lunch at Stanly’s Armenian restaurant. Aside from information he gave me about the Jewish community in Fresno also it was “bashert” at that time the love of my life and her mother
came in and the “shiduch” was made. Rosalyn, a native Fresnan, and I spent 44 years
through joy and grief . Our primary religious as you know was at Beth Jacob. Although
Rosalyn along with her parents had strong ties with Beth Israel, we chose to affiliate with the more traditional. We both noticed a pronounced swing to the far left before moving to Portland. The Reform Movement certainly has lost sight of where Judaism is rooted as so clearly evidenced by all of the radical tendencies both here and in Israel. The
phrase the enemy amount us is more deceitful than from out. Hopefully Fresno will regain its sense and Portland as well.