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Peter J. Rubinstein
Wake-Up Call on Israel & Anti-Semitism (Rosh HaShanah 5763)

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  September 6, 2002

The story is told of a commuter who rode the train to work every day. One day he couldn’t find his ticket when the conductor asked for it. He looked in his pockets and in his briefcase and then in other people’s bags. Finally the train conductor said,  “I’m sure you have a ticket. Why don’t you look for it in your breast pocket? That is where most men keep it.”  “Oh, no” he said. I can’t look there because if it isn’t there, I would have no hope.” (From Elisa Davy Pearmain’s “Doorways to the Soul”)

This story, though not told about the State of Israel, has an unsettling resonance to the current environment in that troubled and much beloved land. We are not finding hope easily.

As an American Jew with singular loyalty to the United States, this amazing country of ours, I am also unabashedly an “ohev yisrael,” a lover of Israel, from which perspective I speak.

This is a difficult time in Israel, some would say the most difficult time. There is no clear roadmap to peace. The economy has been decimated by the obliteration of tourism and of foreign investment. Israelis are battered by the tragedy of lost life. They are emotionally spent. Israelis are uncertain as to what to do.

Israelis want peace, but not at the price of their existence.

They will not allow their nation to be sacrificed in order to end terrorism, to placate the nations that condemn Israel as a thorn in the side of international relations.

The battle today is not about Israeli policy. If the disagreement that Israel has with its Arab neighbors were about borders, the Palestinians would have jumped at the Barak peace offer. And the battle is not about Israel’s settlements in Gaza or the West Bank. Successive Israel administrations including the present government, and certainly the majority of Israelis, have signaled their willingness to give back land, even land on which many of the settlements exist in exchange for a permanent and secure peace. The battle today is about survival. The shamelessly stated goal of Hamas and the Islamic jihad is plain and simple: the obliteration of Israel, to eliminate the Jewish state from what they believe is Arab land.

And frightfully, the attacks against us may cut even deeper. To many of our enemies, the ultimate goal is the annihilation of Jews. Bashaar al-Assad, the president of Syria, greeted the pope during a visit last year proposing that Christians and Muslims make common cause against those, he said,  “who try to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality with which they betrayed Jesus Christ.”

We are engaged in a conflict involving the existence of Israel and the battle involves the safety of Jews in every corner of this world.

Not since the Holocaust has the venom of anti-Semitism been spewed so greatly as over the past year. Synagogues have been burned in England, cemeteries desecrated in France, and graffiti declaring that “six million were not enough” written on a synagogue wall in Germany. On this day of Rosh HaShanah, we received a report that a Holocaust memorial in northeast Germany has been firebombed and desecrated.

In Denmark, a Muslim group has offered a thirty-thousand-dollar bounty for the murder of several prominent Danish Jews. In Norway, the Confederation of Trade Unions is urging its members to boycott Israeli products. Synagogues have been firebombed in Brussels and Tunisia. Legislation limiting freedoms for b’rit milah has passed in Sweden. Violently xenophobic, anti-Semitic, Holocaust revisionist politicians have taken public platforms in Europe and they have followings.

In a New York Times story, Richard Bernstein pondered,  “Does the ferocious moral condemnation of Israel mark a recrudescence of that most ugly of Western diseases, anti-Semitism? Or is it a legitimate, if crude, criticism of a nation’s policies? Where does one draw the line?” he asked.  “And how does one judge?” 

Knowing Richard Bernstein, I know he knows the answer quite well even though he writes with journalistic neutrality. A swastika painted on a wall in Venice alongside anti-American and anti-Israel vituperation is against Jews, not simply against policy. American Jews have paid scant attention to this anti-Semitism because it is not at our door.

We need to be courageous enough to label something anti-Semitism when it is.

When at a dinner party, the French Ambassador to Great Britain used a disgusting expletive in describing Israel and asked,  “Why should the world be in danger of World War III because of those people?” His unguarded words exposed the vulgar lie that Israel caused its own victimhood, that Israel alone could have prevented the attacks on it.

It is time for us to awaken and to engage ourselves in the battle.

We must keep ourselves informed and publicly and privately label myths and lies about Israel for what they are. Then we must be critical in our thinking. And we must visit Israel.

First let us be informed.

Inform yourself by knowing history.

Sadly, the world’s historic memory seems to be limited to the last Israeli response to terrorism so that Israel is always seen as the culprit when it defends its citizens.

The terrible irony is that in 1947–48, the founders of the Jewish state willingly agreed to a two-state arrangement, which is presumed to be the present solution. When the United Nations presented its Partition Plan for a Jewish state of Israel along side an Arab state, including an international zone around Jerusalem, the leaders of the Zionist movement gave their assent. The Arab response was a military invasion: Lebanese troops advanced from the north; Syrian, Iraqi and Transjordanian troops from the east; and Egyptian troops from the south. Even Saudi Arabia sent a contingent.

The resistance to accepting the Jewish State of Israel has continued ever since. Israel does not exist on the maps of Palestinian Arab school children or in their textbooks. We can argue that Israel might have done better in its relationships with its own Arab citizens and in its treatment of Arabs in the territories, but it would be foolishly irresponsible to assert that Israel had the power to win the love and support of its avowed enemies. The destruction of Israel has been a constant agenda since its creation and before. The national covenant of the PLO still calls for the elimination of Israel, that Jews be driven into the sea.

With knowledge, we can combat the myths and lies that place the blame for the current Middle East unrest on Israel.

We need to make it clear at every opportunity that this Intifada plaguing Israel did not begin because Prime Minister Sharon, then opposition leader, walked on the Temple Mount two years ago. I realize now and publicly apologize to you for how wrong I was in condemning Sharon for inciting the riots. The incitement of the Palestinians came from their leaders. Sermons urging Palestinians to riot were given in mosques. Plans for attacks on Israelis had already been prepared.

Sharon’s ascent to the Temple Mount in 2000, though not necessarily wise, does not explain the string of terrorist attacks which followed the Oslo accords in 1993 and continued until this Intifada. Enmity toward Israel did not begin when Israel built settlements on the West Bank. Remember that the 1967 war was waged against Israel before there were any settlements. Opposition to Israel’s existence did not begin with the founding of Hamas. Israel had already fought for its existence in 1948. Hostages had already been taken at Entebbe. Israeli athletes had already been executed at the Munich Olympics. Jews had already been murdered on cruise ships. It is absurd to say that if Israel had behaved differently, there would be peace now.

Terrorism in the Middle East is a Palestinian tactic. The opponents of Israel speak of peace from one quarter and of obliteration of Israel from another. The debate continues as to whether Mr. Arafat, the titular head of Israel’s opposition, malevolently deploys terrorists or is powerless and cannot control terrorism.

We have an obligation to express any reservations about Israel’s policies through appropriate channels to the government of Israel. But when Israel takes steps to prevent terrorism, hunt out the killers, and even exact retribution for the lives of hundreds of innocent Israelis who have been slaughtered and maimed, Israel acts with the same resolve as does the United States in the battle against those who plan to destroy us.  Forty innocent civilians killed in one week in Haifa and Netanya when they gathered for Seder last Passover is the equivalent of eighteen hundred Americans killed with attacks occurring week after week. In the last two years, over six hundred Israelis have been killed by terrorists, the equivalent of thirty thousand Americans. The number of Israelis seriously injured and maimed would be the equivalent of a quarter million Americans. Consider that, internalize that when you judge Israel’s actions, which are often planned to minimize the loss of enemy life, sometimes exposing its own soldiers to ambush while terrorists use children as human shields.

There is no excuse, no justification for the continuous terrorist bombings and murder of students at the Hebrew University or of infants in their carriages at restaurants or in markets, or of innocent civilians in cafes.

We must know the facts of Israel’s birth and history. We must be informed and speak out when we hear the myth that Israel exists on Arab land, a lie that is repeated over and over again as though fact.

Be informed by attending our Israel Teach In on the afternoon of Sunday, September 29. Read books on the history of Israel.

Read again Joseph Alpher’s article,  “What Everyone should know about the Conflict,” in the latest issue of Reform Judaism, which you all received in the mail. Alpher parses the “big lie”, from the myth that Israel exists on Arab land from which Jews had been absent to the latest permutation of the lie that September 11th was caused by American support for Israel or the even more heinous lie that Israel planned the attacks.

Inform yourself by learning about those who oppose us.

In a yet unpublished book about Abraham, Bruce Feiler, who wrote “Walking the Bible,” relates a conversation with the imam of a local East Jerusalem mosque who told Feiler,  “God prefers the people who worship him correctly.” Referring to the September 11 attacks, the imam said “it came from God.” After arguing that Hitler was God’s agent in punishing the Jews, this imam commented on the state of Israel.  “We are Muslims and this is Muslim land. If you want to live among us, what you believe is your problem. This is the message of God.”

We here will continue to cultivate and purposefully pursue relationships with moderate, peace-seeking Muslims like many in our own neighborhood, including the wonderful imam of the mosque on 55th Street. But when we sit across the table in discussion, we need to be aware of the differences in our theologies and world views. Know that an Arabic word for peace,  “salaam,” does not mean the same as the Hebrew word “shalom,” though they sound alike.  “Salaam” derives from the Arabic word which means submission.  “Shalom” derives from the Hebrew word which means wholeness. Submission and wholeness are very different approaches to peace. Muslims and Jews need to know our differences and nevertheless believe that with decent intentions we can pursue peace.

We need to be informed. Right now college campuses are the arena for capturing public opinion. Jewish student organizations and leaders on campus have finally stepped up to engage the pro-Palestinian lobby. We need to support the organizations which support our children in their battle for truth, especially campus Hillels. At least let us win the minds of our own children.

We need to be informed.

We also need to be critical in our thinking.

Though we are inclined to trust the media as neutral, media organizations often have their own bias against Israel. Let us keep news organizations alert to their bias and our knowledge of it.

For days on end last April, we heard over and over again reports and accusations that Israel had committed a massacre when it entered Jenin after the murderous Passover bombings. The media coverage supported this allegation.

Then in early August the United Nations, hardly a pro-Israeli institution, issued a report dismissing the Palestinian claims as unsubstantiated. The UN criticized the Palestinian Authority for putting civilians at risk by “inducing turmoil, chaos, and instability.” That report, clearing Israel, was hardly noticed by the press and the myth of an Israeli massacre was left to simmer in the public consciousness.

Let us be on guard against the type of reporting that asserts a moral equivalence in the terrorist bombings which kill civilians in Israel on the one hand and the Israeli military response seeking the killers on the other hand.

Be alert. Be critical. Sign up and receive information from CAMERA and Honest Reporting, two organizations dedicated to keeping the public record straight. These organizations are proficient in their analysis of language, photographs, and news coverage, demonstrating how the media can demonize Israel and Jews.

Be informed. Think independently.
And visit Israel.

We American Jews have abandoned Israel in the time of need. We cannot be proud. When times were better we visited Israel and basked in the warmth of family, feeling strengthened by what Israel accomplished. When matters become difficult we stay away. That is not the way family behaves.

No one can guarantee safety. But with caution we can visit Israel. Those of our congregation who came on trips with us during this Intifada know that any visitor will be welcomed as though they are God’s gift. When we stay away from Israel, we grant victory to our enemies.

It is our responsibility as family to visit Israel. Today I announce that Central Synagogue is organizing two congregational trips to Israel, one this fall and one in the spring. They are opportunities to be in Israel, to be with family, and to consider the shape of Israel’s future. We are planning these trips with an eye on safety and in recognition of our need to be present. You will be hearing more.

My friends, we are not powerless. And when the world stands together in condemnation of Jews and of Israel we must not be apologetic or ashamed. Israel will not stand silent upon the graves of its children and never again will we Jews huddle and cower when murderers come after us. We will stand strong in our defense. While we are not perfect, we are proud of the values which imbue our traditions and teachings with the sanctity of life.

We will mourn those innocently lost on both sides in the struggle but we will not apologize for strength or for survival.

We must be stay informed. We must speak out against bias and lies of any kind. We must visit Israel.

Above all we must be hopeful.

When our father Abraham died, his sons Isaac and Ishmael met after many years to bury their father. Born from different mothers and at odds since before they were born, fathers of rival nations and separated for almost seventy-five years, the Torah reports both “Abraham’s sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah.” The scion of the Israelites and the scion of the Arab nations reconciled. They were mourners. They were brothers.

That is why we hope. Three thousand years ago, cold enmity transformed into gentle tenderness. Today there has been too much blood. We are all mourners.

And we have reason to hope. We have reason to hope because there has been some quiet in recent weeks. We have reason to hope because some Palestinian leaders speaking to the Arab press have called for an end to terrorism, instructing their own people that violence has gained them nothing. We have reason to hope because parents of murdered Israeli children and Palestinian parents who have lost their own children meet in common sadness. We have reason to hope because life in Israel goes on. After the massacre at his school, Hebrew University President Magidor said,  “Despite everything, we must not let [the terrorists] kill our dream of peace.”

So let the word go forth from this Sanctuary that we vow resolve and we encourage hope. Hope is our story and hope is our future. Our collective hope will assure the path to peace. 

Let the word go forth from this place that we Jews have strength for that journey toward peace. Let the word go forth now and forever that we will pursue that sacred quest until there is peace in this creation, justice in this world and gentleness among all humanity. 

Amen.

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