True Heroism Entails Action, Not Just Words

Published: August 12, 2015

From Florence to Assisi to Rome. Through Tuscany, Umbria, and Marche. Gino Bartali, the Italian cycling legend and two-time winner of the Tour de France, zigzagged his way through Italy by bike in an effort to save Jews in Italy during World War II.

For the majority of us who are not cycling enthusiasts, Bartali’s heroic story is as unfamiliar as his biking feats. For much of his life the cycling champion hid his wartime exploits even from his own children in the same carefully guarded manner he hid counterfeit identity documents for Jews in the frame and seat of his bicycle.

A cycling buff and family friend, Jonathan Freedman, told me about how he is working to change that. In an effort to get the story out, Freedman formed Team Gino Bartali and rode in last week’s Chai Lifeline’s Bike4Chai to honor Bartali’s heroism. Freedman himself only discovered Bartali’s story after stumbling upon a little-known documentary circuiting the Jewish film festivals.

“My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes” is a documentary written, produced, and directed by Oscar nominee Oren Jacoby. It debuted in October 2014 at the Hamptons International Film Festival and aired in June at the Simon Weisenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance. The documentary tells how Bartali hid a Jewish family in his cellar and traveled throughout Italy on his bicycle delivering false documents for hidden Jews under the pretense of training for competitions.

As mentioned, Bartali never spoke of his activities, which he conducted under the threat of death to himself and his family, until late in life. His son Andrea, when finally made aware of his father’s acts of bravery, was told by Bartali, “One does these things and then that’s that.”

In 2013 Bartali was posthumously recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Bartali the hero stands in sharp contrast to would-be heroes of today who have an opportunity to pedal papers of a different deliverance. It is ironic that Bartali’s story is being publicized at a time when Jews are once again confronted with very real threats. There are those who are in a position to change the course of Jewish history. The question is whether they too will become champions.

With the Iran nuclear deal facing one last hurdle in Congress, much depends on the decisions of some of 28 Jewish members of the House and Senate. Unfortunately, with their overarching fealty to President Obama and the Democratic Party, many Jewish politicians supported the deal with knee jerk alacrity at the very outset, including Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Representatives Jan Schakowsky, Sander Levin and Adam Schiff.

Among Jewish congressmen with large Jewish constituencies, such as those in New York and Florida, the battle still continues only because of the outcry from Jewish voters. Some of these politicians, usually very quick to voice their opinions, are disturbingly silent when they hear cries of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.”

None, however, came under the intense pressure and scrutiny experienced by Senator Charles Schumer of New York, poised to become the next Democratic leader in the Senate. After dissembling for weeks, Schumer finally succumbed to the overwhelming pressure of thousands of calls flooding his offices, in addition to forceful lobbying by AIPAC and other groups, and declared his opposition to the deal.

Schumer’s decision, while welcome, comes as no surprise considering the irreversible mark of Cain a vote in favor of the deal would have left on his political career. The threat of severely jeopardizing his upcoming reelection bid in 2016 supplanted any antagonism he now incurs with Obama and Democrat Party elders. It became abundantly clear that self-serving behavior ultimately becomes self-defeating.

Schumer’s defection from the majority of his Democratic colleagues rankles Obama but by no means ends the fight to save America and Israel from this bad deal. Obama needs 34 votes to withstand his promised veto of legislation disapproving the deal, and Schumer and other Jewish lawmakers need to scramble to ensure that Obama doesn’t get them.

Schumer’s challenge now is to persuade fellow congressmen, Jews and non-Jews alike, to come aboard. Time is of the essence and his work is cut out for him.

Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, herself still undecided, recently predicted the deal would ultimately survive because there wouldn’t be enough votes to override Obama’s veto.

“It is troubling and difficult for the deal to lose as prominent a senator like Chuck Schumer,” Wasserman Schultz said. “But it’s absolutely, completely still possible and probably likely that this is a deal that will go through.”

The danger of “too little, too late” is actually one Prime Minister Netanyahu, himself feverishly fighting the Iran deal, would do well to teach Schumer. This month’s tenth anniversary of the Gush Katif expulsion should be a haunting reminder to Netanyahu of the damaging futility of political posturing in place of political action.

Then a cabinet minister in Ariel Sharon’s ruling government, Netanyahu in October 2004 threatened to resign unless Sharon agreed to hold a national referendum within two weeks on the so-called Gaza Disengagement. Yet it was only on August 7 of the following year that Netanyahu finally resigned, a few short weeks before the expulsion.

Netanyahu then warned his fellow Knesset members not to “give them [the Palestinians] a huge base for terror.” But his urgent exhortations “to stop this evil” and “gather strength and do the right thing” rang hollow due to his delay in uttering them. Any sense of political triumph attributable to his resignation was belied by its lateness in coming. And it remained a blight on Netanyahu’s legacy. Schumer now finds himself in a similar position.

The legacy of instinctive moral valor lives long after other accomplishments have faded, as Gino Bartali’s bravery demonstrates. The purpose for which Bartali rode his famed bicycle proved to be far more enduring than the actual riding itself.

Yes, Chuck Schumer finally put weeks of wavering indecision behind him, but to safeguard his legacy he needs to do what he can to push others to do the same.

Original Article Published in The Jewish Press