Keep it in the family

Sermon delivered on Parashat Acharei Mot, 5776 at Temple Emanu-El, the week of Yom HaShoah. 

There’s a Hungarian joke I recently read that I would like to share.

During the June 1967 war, a Hungarian meets his friend. “Why do you look so happy?” he asks. “I heard that the Israelis shot down six Soviet-made MiGs,” he announces. The next day, the friend looks even more jubilant. “The Israelis downed another eight MiGs,” he announces. On the third day, the friend is crestfallen.  “What happened? Didn’t the Israelis shoot down any MiGs today?,” the man asks. “They did,” the friend answers, “But today someone told me that the Israelis are Jewish!”

Sadly this joke is both funny (I think) and reflective of a very prevalent truth. There have been and continue to be folks who hate us—the Jewish people—simply because we are Jewish. This hatred disguises in many forms, but is nevertheless pervasive and present, and clearly, we have not yet figured out how to stop it.

This week we observed Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Remembrance Day, where we once again brought to life the fact that six million of our brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, parents, and teachers, were mercilessly slaughtered along with millions of others. We observe this day both remember that which was and prevent it from happening again. Unfortunately, we as human beings and Jews seem to better succeed at the former. Humankind as a whole has yet to learn its lesson.

To be clear, Antisemitism is nowhere near as bad as it was, nor is it likely ever to be. Thank God for that. Yes, there remain slurs, prejudices, and attacks around the world, but they are fewer than there were in past years, and voices of reason are significantly stronger. We are not free however of this ugly beast. All one needs to do to see this is look, most recently, to the current British Parliament, where numerous counselors, including two this week, have been suspended for alleged Antisemitism. One of these counselors purportedly posted a tweet comparing Israel to the Nazis, and another, it seems, referred to the “Jewish lobby” in the US which seeks to influence foreign policy and the Oscars (Times of Israel, Stuart Winer, May 4, “Cameron demands Corbyn renounce his ‘friends’ Hamas, Hezbollah”). Things within this party are bad enough the Labour Party’s candidate for election, Sadiq Kahn (a Muslim) recently stated, “It has become more difficult for Londoners of Jewish faith to feel that the Labour Party is a place for them.” (Op-ed “The British Left’s ‘Jewish Problem,’ – NYTimes, May 3 2016, Kenan Malik).

One could give these counselors the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the Israeli-Nazi comparison isn’t a direct antisemitic comment; it might just be meant to be an analogy between Israeli actions towards Palestinians and another oppressive regime with which we are all too familiar. And the comment on the “Jewish lobby” might just be an intended reference to a demographic group seeking certain behaviors from the American government, and the film industry in which many of our people are gainfully employed. To give these folks the benefit of the doubt however is foolhardy. One with an iota of knowledge of this past century would know that to make such references is in poor taste at best, and more plausibly, pushing a button to incite hatred, to gather like-minded folks around a cause, and intimidate the other: Israelis, those who support Israel, and the Jews.

Another area of Antisemitism which I believe to actually be growing, and of which we ought to be very concerned, is Anti-Israel activity epitomized in the BDS movement, BDS standing for Boycott, Divest and Sanction. This movement runs rampant at college and university campuses throughout the world and very much here at home. Officially, this movement seeks to punish Israelis in a way similar to what America has done to nations like Iran and Cuba as pressure to change its policies, but this movement has gone way beyond these good intentions, and most often seeks to discredit Israel in every way, shape, or form, expecting it to behave in ways one would not expect of any other nation. Worse, adherents of this movement tend to assume that all Jews, Israeli or not, Zionist or not, are friends of Israel and therefore targets. Let’s be clear: when one makes an assumption that all Jews are one and in the wrong, and targets them accordingly, this person is an Antisemite. When a university student running for office is asked whether her Jewishness will affect her ability to govern the student body— this happened recently at UCLA— we experience Antisemitism. When Jewish students in a dorm have deliberately-intimidating pamphlets supposedly imitating the Israelis shoved under their doors, an act only meant to provoke and scare “Israel’s supporters”—and this happened recently at Rutgers—we’re experiencing Antisemitism. I’ve experienced these kinds of generalized attacks at my own alma matter, York University, during my undergraduate days, and many of our own students on campuses across the continent are experiencing it today.

Let’s not think that we cannot open our mouths in the face of injustice It’s ok to critique Israel. I certainly do. It’s even ok, though I disagree, to argue that Israel ought not to be a state with an explicitly Jewish character. Where things become more problematic and begin to approach Antisemitism, is when Jews are targeted by those speaking against Israel simply for being Jews. Which happens. Antisemitism is approached when people argue that Israel as a country does not have a right to exist, or defend its people from internal and external aggressors. And this happens happens. Antisemitism is approached when academics, journalists, and others in positions of authority, irresponsibly inflate certain facts on one side while ignoring the facts on the other, and expect their students and readers to fall in line with their perspective. And this happens. Antisemitism is breached when Holocaust analogies are made to real life events involving Jews. And this happens. Antisemitism is breached when Anti-Israel graffiti includes a picture of a swastika. And this happens. Antisemitism, disguised as Anti-Israel, Anti-Zionism, or even just pro-Palestinian, is very present in this world. Which means that the world has not yet learned the lesson of Yom HaShoah. All Jews are not yet safe. And our work protecting our people and looking after our family is not yet done.

Living a Jewish life is not about preventing Hitler from having a posthumous victory, as the theologian Emil Fackenheim proposed. We ought not be Jewish simply because our people needs to survive. Nor do we deserve Israel simply because the Nazis tried to kill us and so we need a place of respite from them. We are Jewish because we have a sacred teaching and a sacred mission, to bring God to this world, and bring this world to God.

And perhaps, it is because of this reason for being Jewish—this striving for the ethical ideal—that many Jews in fact side with those who excessively criticize Israel, to the point of something more poisonous. Because they expect the ethical essence of Sinai from their people, the moral high ground, the best, and they’ll speak out with whoever will amplify their voices, no matter how vitriolic or Antisemitic the partners. There are a number of groups like ’Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights,’ or ‘Jewish Voice for Peace,’ where members rail against Israeli treatment of Palestinians, truthful and fictional. Many of these groups have a few Jews in them, and some of them are almost entirely comprised of Jews.

I would not take issue with these groups so much, nor the Jews who participate in them, were they to even-handedly and appropriately criticize and try to help both sides, but it seems to me that they’re more often ultimately there to bring down Israel in its existence as a Jewish state. Not all of these groups, but many. Not all members will wish this ultimate goal, but that does not stop them from involving themselves in such organizations. The fact that the ultimate goal of the downfall of the Jewish state does not matter to those who feel it important to criticize the state, especially to fellow Jews, is deeply troubling.

When Jews participate in organizations where a major stated or unstated goal is one that is anti-Israel or anti-Zionist, or even Antisemitic, though intentions may be be good and even in line with Jewish teachings, they separate themselves from the body of Israel— from their people and from their family. Peter Beinart wrote about this last week in Haaretz (“For Jewish BDS Supporters, Personal Morality Trumps Jewish Solidarity”, April 27, 2016), when he stated “When you boycott Israel, or reject the ideology on which it was founded, you are estranging yourself from the Jewish world.” When we have problems with Israel or its foundational tenets and we speak up, it may be that we are operating from a moral imperative, but we are also, inadvertently, abandoning the other side of the Jewish coin: family and community. Israel, home to more than 40% world Jewry, is a family center, and to work with an organization that seeks Israel’s end is to cut ourselves off from our people. And given the permeable boundaries between those who act as Anti-Zionists and those who act as Antisemites, to aid one of these organizations is nothing short of empowering Antisemitism in this world.

Going back to the Hungarian joke, where Israel suddenly became bad when it became Jewish, one could easily argue that the Hungarian who was excited in the beginning and cried at the end was one of these Jews who join groups like Jewish Voice for Peace. For he might be happy when a terrorist camp is blown up, even with some civilian casualties. But if it were the Jewish state conducting the attack on the terrorists and causing civilian casualties, he would react in shame, for they should have known better and acted with more caution.

I’m not saying that feeling ashamed of behavior of family members is wrong; we should encourage Israel to be the best it can be. We’re even commanded to reproof in the Torah. But there’s a way to do it, and there’s a way not to do it. Some ways are constructive, whereas some do no less than aid our enemies.

We should absolutely seek moral high ground, but to do so without considering our relationship with our larger Jewish family only adds fuel to the fire of those who hate us. We must find balance. We must find and work for groups that fight for our moral imperatives in Israel like the two-state solution while demonstrating respect and love for the Jewish people and Israel, like the Israel Religious Action Center, and Rabbis for Human Rights. Criticize lovingly, and do so without publicizing our inner business to those who would seek to embarrass us or worse. In a world where hatred for the Jews still exists, we cannot afford to splinter apart.

The term “Holocaust” means devastation by fire, and this week’s Parashah, Acharei Mot, deals with what Aaron the High Priest must do after his sons have themselves been taken by fire and by God. One would think that Aaron would eschew his priestly responsibilities and turn away from God, but instead, he is commanded and does dive back into his work of serving those who are higher: God and the Israelites. So too, in the wake of the fire of the Holocaust and in the wake of the fire of frustration with that which our brothers and sisters are doing, we must follow in Aaron’s footsteps. No matter what we may feel from moment to moment, we have to continue in our service to that which is holy: God, and our people.

You all who are here tonight have made this choice. Particularly our chaverim members who give extra money to ensure a Jewish home and our chai club members who have chosen for so many years to tie their fates in with a Jewish community, you recognize the importance of Jewish family—of seeking God and of seeking justice and peace in this world, but, alongside others with your Jewish community. We may not always get along but we always stick together and work to do our best, because that is what it is to be part of the Jewish people and the Jewish faith.

There will be times where we want to jump for joy at the successes of other Jews in this world and in our own community, and there will be times where we will bow our heads in shame.  When the shame comes, we must respond, but as we would with anyone with whom we have close ties and for whom we care; we must reproof in our own closed circles and remain tight and together on the public front.

In the face of secularism, of flexible morality, of hatred, prejudice, and Antisemitism, to the world, we must stand together as one, alongside our Jewish brothers and sisters. Never Forgeting means that we must work to prevent any crimes against people in this world, whether the perpetrators are Muslim or Jewish, secular or religious. But Never Forgetting also means that we Jews are ultimately in this together. Never Forgetting means that we must always fight for that which is holy in this world: justice, peace, family, God, humankind, and the Jewish people—klal Yisrael.

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davidzvaisberg Written by:

David Vaisberg, originally from Montreal and Mississauga, Canada, serves as Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of Edison, NJ and lives in Metuchen, NJ with his family.

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