On the night of May 26, I drove down to Washington from New York with my son, Adam, and his friend Daniel. We arrived at 2:30 a.m. and crashed out in a hotel. A few hours later, we woke up and coaxed each other to prepare for a day at the White House. The president was hosting a Jewish American heritage celebration, and we'd been able to get media credentials to cover the event. We were exhausted, but thrilled.
The day began with security checks. Then to the subterranean press room. A glimpse of former President Bill Clinton scurrying by with Vice President Biden. A news conference in the East Room with President Barack Obama. An impromptu interview with the White House's mashgiach, the supervisor of the kosher kitchen preparation. Adam and Daniel were documenting the events for their Jewish teen Web site, Shmooze POINT.com. I was interviewing people about Israel for a feature on my Web site, RabbiLIVE.com.
We were on the White House front lawn when I told the teenagers that approaching us was the most famous reporter in the world — Helen Thomas, a veteran of covering presidents from Kennedy to Obama. We stopped her. I told Thomas that the young men were starting out in the press corps and hoped to be reporters. She kindly shared notes about journalism with us. "You'll always keep learning," she told us. It was an honor.
Then I asked: "Any comments on Israel? We're asking everybody today." "Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine," she replied, "… and go home" to Poland and Germany.
The repartee and gentle give and take have now been thoroughly dissected. However, a strict transcription misses the accuracy of the audiovisual. Only in the director's cut, the video, are the nonwords, the sound, the noise, the true reaction. And that was my "oooh."
"What were you thinking when you said 'oooh,' rabbi?" asked Fox News, and eventually, the many other media outlets that probed and jabbed for my innermost thoughts. Well — I was thinking "oooh."
I merely asked a question with a video camera to a columnist. She didn't say that the blockade was unjust, or that the supplies were not getting to Gaza, or that there was a massacre on the high seas, or that East Jerusalem is occupied, or that the settlements are immoral … and get out and go back to West Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa and Eilat. No. This was not the two-state solution. This was get the hell out and go back to the places of the final solution, Poland and Germany. The Jew has no connection with the land of Israel.
And why? Because, as Thomas went on to explain to me, "I'm from Arab descent." That's it? That's all you got?
In the past weeks I have relived this moment over and over. And my sharpest impression is this: Where before I saw a foggy question of an anti-Israel, anti-Jewish link, it's now clear. It's not about statehood. It's about an ingrown, organic hate. It's a sentiment that bears no connection with history, dates, passages or verses. Erase the facts, the dates and the lore. Erase the Jew. Incredibly, even the Nazis would say to the Jew, "Go home to Palestine."
My "oooh" was the sound of the shofar ram's horn calling a loud primal tikeya, the extended ancient whole note from my very core. My existence was being erased.
Oooh. One may disagree on fences and rights of return. There have been handshakes, summits, accords, cease-fires, negotiations and boycotts. It's all been on the table, under the table or sometimes tabled. But the connection between the Jew and Israel is valid, historical, ancient, modern, spiritual and eternal. The relationship is beyond the state of Israel. It is a unique relationship of a religion to a land. The Jews are bnai yisroel, the children of Israel. Even when they are away, they are connected. Even during exiles and diasporas, they are connected. Even during inquisitions, pogroms and a Holocaust, they are connected.
My grandmother used to kibitz, "Friends you choose; family you're stuck with." The Jew is stuck with Israel. There is no ungluing the connection. It is beyond the ambiguous term "chosen people"; they are "the people who have no choice." It is more than a religious belief; it is a value and a moral barometer of the Earth. History, truth, integrity and the foundation of our world are not negotiable.
"Tell them to get the hell out ..."
We went back to the East Room for the Jewish event and then onto the South Lawn as Marine One carried away the first family. We stopped in Maryland on the way home for some kosher shwarma. We had no idea: The New Jersey Turnpike looked the same, but we were already traveling on a road in a post-oooh world.
David F. Nesenoff is a rabbi in New York. His website is RabbiLIVE.com.