Monday, November 8, 2010

Empty Chair Syndrome

In America his face is hidden deep in the bowels of a high security prison. In Israel his face greets you as you enter Jerusalem. Jonathan Pollard remains not only locked away from his friends and family in a U.S. prison, but from the Jewish American subconscious as well.

In Israel “he is still alive” is a motto of optimism and urgency. In America it is an actual and sadly necessary reminder of his tragic situation. Gilad Shalit is the face that stares at Israelis from every bus, billboard, and newspaper but is as ubiquitous as a pager in America.

Pollard is sitting in an American prison, serving out a, some say incongruous, sentence of life in prison for being convicted of espionage on behalf of Israel (recently the deputy of the American Defense Secretary that helped incriminate Pollard has acknowledged that Pollard has been given a disproportionate punishment).
Shalit has been held captive by Hamas since his abduction in 2006. Hamas has all but refused to release any information as to Shalit’s condition and has repeatedly balked at negotiations for his return.

While Pollard and Shalit are two very distinct issues, each with its own complexities and opinions, they are both inextricably linked as the faces of the current Israeli political and cultural narrative. Not so in America.

While the world is no stranger to Jewish American apathy, indifference to their suffering brothers is no longer the gravest cause for concern. Apathy has given way to ignorance. The utter lack of dialogue on issues such as Pollard and Shalit in America is the American Jewish Establishment’s most alarming miscue. Many American Jews may feel torn between their allegiance to Israel and America over Pollard, but to erase it from the narrative altogether is far from the answer. The always maddening debate over whom and what would be acceptable to trade to bring Shalit home can bring the closets of friends to blows, but never should it be swept under the rug. No sane person would argue that Israeli society has reached a consensus on either Pollard or Shalit, however it is in dealing with these sticky issues that Israeli society truly distinguishes itself as a pluralistic and democratic entity in a region where such values are sparse. Jewish Americans are being trained to involve themselves in every human rights cause there is…that is except for the trials of their own people. The dismissal of Jewish issues such as Pollard and Shalit can only breed disregard and ignorance, two things no community is in demand of.

The solution to this daunting predicament is for Jewish American groups to adopt the Israeli mindset in relation to Pollard and Shalit. Israeli culture suffers/benefits from “empty chair syndrome”, the incessant awareness that there is a person missing when sitting down to the proverbial family feast. This cognizance of vacancy then leads to a discussion in every mini-mart, taxi cab, and Shabbat table in the country.  American Jewry is suffering from “crisis at the neighbor’s house” syndrome. Instead of making sure their own house is in order, they jump up from the table to fight their neighbors’ fights first. No attempts are made to solve the problem of the glaring empty chair. It must be asked: how can you run out to save your neighbor when an empty chair blocks your front door?

“Empty chair syndrome” is not a new concept in Judaism. During the Passover Seder we fill a cup for Elijah the Prophet, as well as open the door for him, in the hopes that he arrive and lead us to salvation. During the Succot holiday we invite different Biblical icons into our Succot. Their lack of physical attendance serves as our motivation to analyze our lives in the hopes of living more righteously the rest of the year. Israel has adapted this concept for Pollard and Shalit and American Jewry must do the same.

Hopefully, the Jewish American community can transform themselves into a community that confronts the issues of its own people first and foremost. While fighting against injustice in Darfur and women’s rights in Iran has true altruistic merit, Jews must first grapple with their own affairs if they hope to survive long enough to help the rest of the world. Hopefully, the American Jewish Establishment can right the ship so that they can move the empty chair away from the front door and be able to open it for Pollard, Shalit, and the rest of their stranded brethren when they come home to reclaim their seats at the table.


  1. Maybe I'm missing something, but hasn't American Jewry established AIPAC? Were not exactly in the days when we had to lobby FDR on White House stairs anymore...

  2. While it is true that AIPAC has become a force in American Politics, and there are a good number of American Jews that work for and with AIPAC, the Israel issue still seems to be on the backburner in American communities.

    One only needs to look at what is happening on US college campuses. Liberal campus movements for every cause under the sun are stocked with Jews, however, the only Israeli issues they are taking on are DBS and ending the "occupation".

    AIPAC is a start but American Jews need to bring the idea of AIPAC into their homes. The crisis of their brothers in Israel need to be their crisis. The desire for a solution must be burning deep within them at the office, at the dinner table, and in bed before sleep.

    Israelis can't forget unless they close their eyes. Too many American Jews are yet to open theirs.


    Well worth the read. Discusses your point to some degree...