As I write this column, I have just returned from the 2016 AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. It was an amazing experience being with over 18,000 pro-Israel activists learning and lobbying for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. We had 46 Lehigh Valley delegates and 16 students from Lehigh University and Muhlenberg College. Much of the media hype of the conference focused on the presentations by four of the five remaining U.S. presidential candidates.
While some may be reading hoping for my reactions to parts of the AIPAC conference, instead I am struck by the intersection of three things that happened over the past 48 hours.
When you pass people in the halls of AIPAC, you look for familiar names and places on name badges and you look for familiar faces. While on an escalator, a man in front of me turned around, looked at my name tag, and asked if I was a Hilltopper. That was the mascot from my Hillwood High School in Nashville, Tennessee. In a second I realized that the man in front of me was a fellow football team member; we were close friends in Nashville.
We talked briefly as we exited the escalator. He is now a Baptist minister and was attending the AIPAC conference as part of AIPAC’s outreach to Christian leadership. He told me that as a devout Christian, he always knew of his religious connection to Israel. Then he recalled memories of me in high school, as the “big Jew” on campus and always talking about Israel. He remembered my going around school putting up flyers and posters about Israel. He even recalled my discussion with him on why I was so motivated to support and advocate for Israel. I told him, “If Israel ever lost a war, it would be her last.” Years later he went to Israel on an AIPAC Christian outreach mission and he explained that my words to him in that 11th grade hallway were with him on that first trip to Israel and he finally understood what I said to him. From that moment, he was committed to being a pro-Israel advocate.
On Tuesday morning March 22, we all awoke to the tragic news of terrorist attacks in Belgium. As I was still at the AIPAC conference and not watching cable news, I was regularly checking emails and news apps for updates. I was anticipating all the press releases from organizations condemning the terrorism and expressing support with the Belgium nation. The first press release I received did not come from a national Jewish organization. It did not come from a Jewish federation. It came from the Muslim Association of the Lehigh Valley. In addition to condemning terrorism and expressing solidarity with the citizens of Brussels over this tragic and senseless act of violence, the statement also made clear the distinction of such acts from their Islamist faith.
After returning from AIPAC, I participated in the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding’s Youth and Prejudice workshop. The workshop hosts 300+ different middle or high school students each day for four days throughout the year. During the workshop, the students hear from Holocaust survivors or second generation presenters. I regularly participate, speaking about my father’s experiences before, during and after the Holocaust.
The focus of my presentation links my father’s story with the challenge of decision making in the face of evil. I talk about decisions that others made that likely saved my father’s life. I talk about decisions my father made that likely saved his life, and those of others. And I share with them a simple truth of life: It is not what you do when you have no choice, but it is what you do when you have a choice. What do you do when you see injustice, prejudice, or racism? What do you do when you see a bully at your school? What do you do when your friends mistreat someone at school because that person has a different skin color, is a different religion, has less money than you? The kind of world we live in depends less on the decisions and actions of evil people, but on the decisions of good people. Reminding them of the decisions that were made in my father’s stories, I challenge them to make good decisions in their lives.
As the students were leaving the building, one student ran back into the auditorium intent on speaking to me. He looked at me and stated, “Thanks for your talk. I really hope I make the right decisions.” He quickly pivoted and ran back to his classmates.