Strangers in a strange land: A message from Robby and Laurie Wax

By Robby Wax
Jewish Federation Board
and Laurie Wax
Women’s Philanthropy President

During Passover, we are reminded that we were once strangers in a strange land. The seder meal instructs us to envision ourselves as slaves in the land of Egypt, and we recount the times our Jewish ancestors faced unimaginable atrocities. We are left to appreciate our freedoms, as we recognize that Jews in the Diaspora are protected by our ability to return to Israel and Jerusalem if we are to face another generational threat to our people.

Since October 7, many American Jews have questioned whether we are facing that threat right now. We have witnessed a rampant spike in antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment in public schools, on college campuses, and in cities across the country and the world. We are not immune to these issues in the Lehigh Valley, and some of us have openly questioned whether we are still welcome here.

In the midst of these concerns, anti-Israel protestors recently turned their attention to local city councils and advocated for the passage of unilateral ceasefire resolutions condemning Israel. These protestors ignore the atrocities that occurred on October 7. They fail to acknowledge the hostages being held in Gaza. They present with intentional misstatements and outright lies in an effort to gain the support of local politicians.

What should we do when faced with this vitriol directed toward our community? Should we just leave it alone, knowing that municipal government has little sway on our international policies? Should we wait until this crisis passes and then reemerge from our abodes when it feels safe to do so?

Absolutely not. Despite the gang mentality demonstrated by these protestors at these meetings, regardless of the heckling or other poor behavior they demonstrate, our voices must be heard.

Since December, several of us from the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley and others began attending the city council meetings in Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton to oppose these resolutions. Initially, we were surprised by the anger and hatred directed toward us from some in the crowd. In Easton, we were mocked and ridiculed by those who disagreed with our statements. The city council meeting in Allentown was a bit more controlled, but the anti-Israel crowd was very vocal. The latest meeting, held in Bethlehem on March 5, lasted past midnight. It was marked by an angry mob spewing inaccurate facts and statements about Israel and the current conflict in Gaza. It ended without any city business being conducted when the anti-Israel group refused to leave the podium at the conclusion of the open comment period.

At each meeting, representatives from the Jewish Federation made it clear that we were representing more than 8,000 Jews from across the greater Lehigh Valley. Other members of the Jewish community also spoke eloquently and passionately and made strong points in opposition to the anti-Israel crowd.

We reminded those who would listen that the hostages remain in captivity. We explained that Hamas wants to take the land “from the river to the sea”—meaning all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea (i.e., all of Israel). We told those in attendance that this is a call for an entire country and its people to be wiped off the earth.

For those demanding that Israel immediately agree to a peace deal in Gaza and a two-state solution, we explained that the Palestinian Authority and neighboring Arab countries rejected nine peace plans between 1947 and 2019. Each of these plans would have created a state for the Palestinian people.

When the anti-Israel crowd demanded an end to the Israeli “occupation” in Gaza, we reminded everyone that Israel unilaterally evacuated the Gaza Strip in 2005. Regrettably, the Palestinians elected Hamas to power, and Hamas began diverting humanitarian aid to support its military operations and reign of terror, including the October 7 massacre.

In response to arguments from the anti-Israel crowd that the United Nations should be empowered to resolve this dispute and provide aid to those suffering in Gaza, we responded that the U.N., through its refugee agency, has allowed humanitarian aid to be diverted to Hamas and other terrorist organizations, and that employees of the U.N. participated in the attacks on Israeli citizens on October 7.

Attendees seemed to ignore that Iran has been supporting Hamas for years, sending hundreds of millions of dollars to Hamas and providing military training to the terrorists. How would residents of the Lehigh Valley feel if a terrorist organization funded by Iran launched thousands of missiles at our families from U.N.-sponsored schools and hospitals a few miles away? Wouldn’t we be asking our government to protect us from the terrorists targeting our homes? Why didn’t these protestors ask for a resolution condemning Iran?

There were assertions from the crowd that Israel is engaged in “ethnic cleansing” or committing “genocide” against the Palestinians. We explained that between 1948 and 2023, the combined Jewish population in Arab countries surrounding Israel dropped from 985,000 Jews to 12,000 Jews, representing a decrease of 99% and leaving Israel—a country the size of New Jersey—as the sole safe haven for Jews in the entire Middle East. During the same period, the number of Arabs in Israel increased from 156,000 to 2.1 million, and the number of Arabs in Gaza increased from 80,000 to 2 million. So, claims of ethnic cleansing or genocide are patently untrue.

At the end of the day, did we convince anyone from the anti-Israel crowd? Probably not. However, we had the support of the mayors of all three cities, as well as every council member in Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton, with one exception in Easton (Councilwoman Taiba Sultana). None of the councils considered a unilateral resolution against Israel, and none are expecting to do so in the future.

At the end of the day, did our efforts change the course of international affairs?  Definitely not. However, we refused to remain quiet and hidden when our community was challenged, and we will continue to speak the truth in the face of these falsehoods. For those who joined us, we thank you. For those who were unable to do so, we invite you to join us in the future.