Imagine my May 28th experience of walking the Detroit Zoo in white and blue was pretty similar to that of the close to 2500 other Jews who came out that night in support and celebration of Israel and Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.                                                                                                  

I felt liberated from the submerged edginess I sometimes feel attending synagogue each Shabbat, free of the beleaguerment too much news can foster. It simply felt great to be out on a beautiful summer night, knowing we were safe and marveling at how many of us there were. A hinei mah tov (How good it is to [be] together, Psalms 133:1) vibe permeated the entire evening.

Then came the news of the protests. The outrage. The threats to cancel zoo memberships. All because a bunch of Jews gathered to enjoy an evening in a rented public space.

My first, second and third thoughts were:

“Don’t these people have anything better to do than hate?”

“Really?”

“What is wrong with them?”

Among the many things I appreciate about visiting the zoo throughout the year is the universal delight shared by all comers. We enjoy the monkeys’ antics and the penguins’ graceful glides through the water. Lined up for the train and the carousel, we chat with whomever is ahead or behind us. Baseball cap or hijab, two moms or one and a dad, blue jeans or saris — we share in a common experience that shifts us beyond any personal particularities.

The zoo is one of the few places where we can all come together as what we are at our core: human beings enjoying a day out with friends and loved ones. We can see ourselves in one another as we hold our kids up to see the kangaroos, watching in awe as the peacocks unfurl their magnificent tail feathers.

There is the concept of the Jewish people being “a light unto the nations.” I’m not going to explore that one here. Instead, I suggest that the Jew is a mirror to the nations. To the outraged TikTokers I say, “Your hate-contorted face? Your words of fury seeking outlet on social media and your heretofore calm heart now pounding with adrenaline? How did my spending an evening in a space rented by my community hurt you?”

And to the nearly thousand posters on the TCD Dearborn Instagram page blasting the zoo, some of whom compared us to animals, I would like to offer part of my grandfather’s 1969 letter to the editor of The Birmingham [Alabama] News. He was responding to a letter written by Dr. Salah El Dareer, president of Alabama’s Birmingham Islamic Center, who had asked, “Is Israel really necessary for Jews?”

Their letters were written before intifadas and suicide bombers, before the settler movement, Israel’s security wall and the myriad of rejected peace plans. Before October 7. I have wondered what he would say of the current situation. I believe that he would still find it within his heart to pen the same words that closed his letter. I believe he would still find in the other a mirror as he offered himself to be to Dr. Dareer. His words are a reminder to me as well. He wrote:

Some day, the little people of Arabia, so long tyrannized, will join hands with the little people of Israel to make of the Middle East again a land of milk and honey for a blessing to themselves and all mankind. 

It will surely come that day because if mankind is to survive, it must.

So it is that I say to the letter writer respectfully but firmly, that it is necessary that Israel survive, not for the Jews but for all of us, everywhere, because Jews are nothing less or nothing more than people, human beings, whose survival is precious, imperative and necessary of us all and for him as well.  I say these things to the writer because, whether he wishes or wants or would have it so, though not a Jew, he is no less my brother too.

A. Berkowitz.

This essay originally appeared in www.nu-detroit.com.

photo courtesy of Debra B. Darvick