By Cliff Rieders
On the surface, they lived at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Bob was chairman of the Lycoming County Democratic Party, and one of his major efforts was to increase registration in the party. He had served in Vietnam, proudly, as an intelligence officer. He supported his daughter in bringing a ground-breaking civil rights case in federal court that prohibited prayer at graduation of the South Williamsport High School. When I first met with Bob and his daughter, he uttered these chilling words to me: “I willingly went to Vietnam and served as an officer to support my country and her principles. I cannot abide a prayer which discriminates against my people, the Jewish people, after what I was willing to sacrifice.” Bob was such an impressive witness in describing his motivations that the federal judge who heard the preliminary injunction ruled decisively in favor of Herzenberg’s daughter.
On the surface, Lee Bender was the opposite. He was a committed and strident member of the Zionist Organization of America and a proud political conservative. Every email of Lee’s ended with the words, “NEVER AGAIN APPEASE TERROR OR BE A DHIMMI.” Lee was from my hometown of Great Neck and, like me, served as a Coast Guard Licensed Launch Operator for the local park district. Lee, a lawyer by training, was a prolific op-ed writer for publications like The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel and the Jewish Exponent.
Both of these men, notwithstanding their differences and the fact that they had never even met one another, understood the crucial role played by the state of Israel in maintaining a safe and stable Middle East. They clearly appreciated that the direct interests of Americans is in supporting Israel against attacks from both the left and right-wing politicians in this country. Neither man was an extremist, unless extremism can be defined as one who passionately seeks the truth and speaks unapologetically for the Jewish people.
We live in a world today where politicians have sought to divide the Jewish community into those who support the United States and Israel and those who are anti-Israel and are also unpatriotic Americans. Neither Bob nor Lee could possibly understand such an insane equation. For both men, the word “liberal” meant banishing intolerance, regardless of one’s own personal point of view. Neither Bob nor Lee were comfortable with those who try to marginalize, divide and boycott. Efforts to pigeonhole any particular community was properly understood as an anathema to legitimate political discourse.
The concept of being liberally inclined, in the enlightenment understanding of the term, and steadfastly supporting Israel’s right to exist as well as to fight efforts to boycott, divest or sanction the Jewish state was something that both Lee Bender and Bob Herzenberg understood very well. I remember both men saying to me in the relatively recent past: “How could any liberal not support the freedoms embraced by Israel, which protects the interests of Muslim, Bahaist, Druse, Christian, Jew and everyone else who lives in the country?” Why, they both asked me at one time or another, would people who claim to be affiliated with Jewish causes want to cast false accusations against the Jewish state in order to support dictators like Mahmoud Abbas? Abbas is the head of the Palestinian Authority, once elected, but never again to have to face an election.
Paying Palestinian Muslims to murder innocent civilians is not a good reason to create yet another Muslim state in the Middle East sitting at the very throat of the Jewish nation. This fact was clearly understood by both Bob and Lee, who nevertheless worked in their own causes to secure peace and security in the world.
The loss of these friends is, of course, more than the loss of friendships. The world has lost two very principled people who articulated, perhaps better than any others I have known, that the enemies of Israel are not ensconced in either liberal or conservative clothing, but rather represent an ancient ignorance which never ceases to rear its ugly head. Rather than being a current liberal or conservative issue, the state of Israel must be a nonpartisan issue among those who truly love the United States of America and seek her continued leadership in a world beset by lunatics of every race, religion, color and creed.
Bob and Lee will be greatly missed and only further emphasize the need for the rest of us to work together for the causes and interests which they understood were so important: a world secured by loyalty, trust, honesty and integrity. May their families be comforted among the Mourners of Zion.
Cliff Rieders is a trial advocate in Williamsport. He will receive the Lee Bender Defender of Israel Award at the Greater Philadelphia ZOA gala on Sept. 24.