What follows is an address given by a Wayne Woodman at the AABGU Tribute Event held in November of 2015 by the American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (AABGU). Wayne is a friend and a Director of AABGU. I thank him for his words and the permission to reproduce his full address here.
My parents emigrated to America in the spring of 1940 as the Nazis conquered France. As new arrivals Mom and Dad wanted the very best education for me and sent me to 13 years of Episcopal boy’s prep schools; one of a handful of Jewish kids amongst a swarm of Wasps. I was called a Christ killer, a kike and a dirty Jew on more occasions than I’d like to remember. A generation later, my children have never experienced anti-Semitism. And while that’s progress it has also weakened their ability to detect the presence and threat of this undying evil.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise. It is on the rise in ways unseen since the 1930s.We still say “Never Forget” but despite the rush of distressing events and the creeping insinuations emanating from academic and political leaders, we tell ourselves it’s not quite time to remember; not yet, not here.
Perhaps non-Jews think that the growth of anti-Semitism does not apply to them–we Jews may be first in line but we are never last. We are the canary in the coal mine when evil poisons the atmosphere of freedom and tolerance.
Turning points in history begin in vacuums. Complacency allows evil to fill the void and good people rationalize its inevitability until leaders with vision confront reality and decry those who willfully ignore it. Their vision and honesty inspire courage in those who were uninspired; those who have come too late to realize that all they were trying to protect by not confronting evil–their families, friends, businesses and way of life—is at greater risk now.
These were leaders like Lincoln, Churchill, Roosevelt and Reagan in the West; like Ben-Gurion in Israel. None perfect but each perfect for their time. Each arrived in the aftermath of good intentions, intentional weakness, and studied gullibility. Each arrived in the wake of weak men unwilling to consider any consequences that failed to fit the false reality they had shaped in their minds.
Today it is out of favor to speak of exceptionalism because we are, once again, in a time of weak leaders. America and Israel are exceptional nations; exceptional because each is rare in history. Both are better because they are exceptional. History is nearly always a story of the strong crushing the powerless. America and Israel are rare because both have flourished as a free people no longer subject to the dictates of thugs and autocrats.
America and Israel have walked similar paths. Both were initially settled by the religious rejects of Europe. Our Wars for Independence were considered futile follies doomed to fail. Both countries formed new societies based on longstanding moral principles and both are administered through an innovative form of government. Each opened her doors as a refuge for the oppressed; a frontier to pioneer a new life. And both America and Israel are under assault from forces led by radical academics and Islamic extremists.
Israel is well known as Startup Nation but it should be more properly known as Start Up Civilization. Western Civilization began the moment Moses came down Sinai with the law. These laws transformed human society from the tribal to the community; where shared values promoted tolerance; where property was protected from brute force; where deferred satisfaction ruled over instant gratification; where self-interest conquered selfishness.
These values are ancient but durable truths. They underlie nearly every modern western nation. They aren’t true because they are old. They are old because they are true. There are many monuments to extinct societies but the gift of the Jews isn’t physical—it is metaphysical. Its why we are not just a memory carved in a ruin but we are memory makers long after competing cultures have receded into history. Our moral shaped our existence and colored the way we see the world around us.
The strange bedfellow’s alliance between Radical Islam and radical academics, between the pre-modern and the post-modern, is rooted in their mutual need to delegitimize our world view. Radical Islam’s world view would suffocate progress in the name of sclerotic tradition. Radical academia’s world view would suppress freedom of thought in the name of doctrine. One wants to claim monopoly over our spirit while the other wants to claim monopoly over our minds. Should they prevail the altar at which G-d affirmed his covenant with Abraham will be transformed into an altar upon which freedom and progress will be slain.
Our gift will fund the advanced education of students from around the world; students who will return to their home countries armed with a depth of knowledge to speak accurately and factually on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people against growing opposition within universities and government institutions.
There are many stories about first visit epiphanies at the Western Wall but mine came in a former bomb shelter in S’de Boker. It is home to the academic archive of David Ben Gurion. As Paula Kabalo, the head of the Institute, translated some Ben Gurion correspondence, I looked around the room filled with thousands of documents written by this great man and felt like I was inside his head, like I could feel his presence. That moment lives with me and enlivens my zeal for his cause.
BGU and the Negev are intertwined, inseparable. It is the last region of Israel still in its pioneering stages. BGU is the manifestation of Ben Gurion’s vision. It is the school where ordinary kids go to gain the expertise, the mindset and the will to transform both their lives and their country.
It is unlikely that any one of us will be remembered like Ben Gurion, as a providential leader. However, collectively, we can act on his behalf and on behalf of his vision. Each of us has made a financial commitment to BGU. For some of us, it was generous; for others, sacrificial; for all commendable. Yet, commendable is not enough. We must each do what, for most of us, is uncomfortable. We must engage in a discussion within our communities; a discussion about how our choices from the voting booth to the synagogue and from our alumni support to our charitable giving align with the ongoing interests of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. We must tune our actions until they resonate with the music of our hearts, the song of Zion.
Speaking as the son of ordinary parents who came to America to ensure extraordinary opportunities for their children I want to thank you all for this great honor and supporting this remarkable school and the Institute of Israel Studies.
AABGU Tribute Event 11/8/2015 Philadelphia By Wayne Woodman