When Ariel Sharon died on Saturday, the obituaries emphasized his strength as a military commander and political leader, recalling his brilliant counterattack across Suez to surround the Egyptian armies when Israel’s very existence hung in the balance in the Yom Kippur War the Arabs almost won.
He was the “new Jew” after the Holocaust, a strong man who stood up to those who wanted to destroy the likes of him, and his country. He knew the first war the Israelis lost would be its last. He had his faults, but weakness wasn’t one of them.
His story was that of his country, of perseverance and intrepidity in the face of his enemy. When he surprised the world in 2005 by withdrawing settlers and troops in Gaza, he was compared with President Nixon going to China. He had a plan to create a strong state that would survive by compromising with Israel’s enemy, removing settlers who had been his most loyal followers. He completed a long and crucial part of the 450-mile barrier that ran along and through the West Bank, dramatically reducing terrorist crossings. The wall also suggested a border for a Palestinian state.
Sharon had great hopes for a lasting peace with defensible borders, a way for the Jews to flourish in their historic homeland. He saw himself as an architect who would fulfill the dream of the Jews.
In the eight years since he lapsed into a coma, the world has become a more dangerous place for Israel. A militant Hamas has strengthened Palestinian power, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon has grown more dangerous and Iran moves closer to building a nuclear bomb. An American president has not warmed to Israel as a succession of his predecessors did.
Jews in the Diaspora, with different problems, lost a different kind of star last week. Judy Protas, born in Brooklyn, who died at the age of 91, was an American Jew who wanted to see Jews prosper in America and overcome a persistent low-grade anti-Semitism.
Her name was never a household word, but she got more than 20 minutes of behind-the-scenes fame in many households with a popular advertisement for a Jewish rye bread that won a multicultural audience before anyone had ever heard the word. In the age of “Mad Men,” when advertisements inevitably featured the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant and the bread was always white and sliced, she created an iconic advertising slogan: “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish rye.” Anyone riding a Manhattan subway in the 1960s looked for the ads with portraits of New Yorkers who were not Jews: an American Indian in braids, a robed choirboy, a black child, a Japanese boy, an Irish cop, an Italian grandmother and Buster Keaton, an aging star from the silent movies. Malcolm X, an unrepentant anti-Semite, liked the poster with the black child so much he had himself photographed with it. Jewish rye became endearingly wry.
“What we wanted to do was enlarge its public acceptance,” the copywriter told The New York Times in 1979. She enlarged the acceptance of Jews, too. As columnist Walter Winchell told his audience of radio listeners and newspaper readers, it was a commercial with a “sensayuma” (say it loud quickly).
The deaths of Ariel Sharon in Israel and Judy Protas in New York call attention to the polarities of experience for Jews, those who live in the Promised Land and those who have scattered across the globe. The largest number live in North America. Israelis have always worried about the assimilation of Jews who live outside their country, and now the government plans to invest billions of dollars over the next two decades to bolster the Jewish identity of Diaspora Jews.
They’re considering a Jewish peace corps, Hebrew language courses in cities with a large Jewish population. They want to encourage Jews to marry Jews. “If you get more Jewish young people together, and they marry each other and marry earlier, we begin to address a problem,” says Steven Cohen, a sociologist who studies the effects of the Diaspora, tells The Jerusalem Post. The outreach would encourage Jewish engagement with Israeli issues on college campuses.
Jews in America are concerned that naive professors are becoming more aggressive in their hostility to Israel, singling out the Israelis as an easy target, when China, Cuba and Russia, among others, are the greater offenders of the civil rights of others. Those offenses are largely ignored. They want them to love a Jewish rye made in Israel.
Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.