Monday, September 28, 2009

Feeling Like Jonah

Feeling Like Jonah
Yom Kippur 5770-2009

President Lincoln is said to have regularly told this story:

A frontiersman lost his way in an uninhabited region on a dark and tempestuous night. The rain fell in torrents, accompanied by terrible thunder and more terrific lightning. To increase his trouble his horse halted, being exhausted with fatigue and fright. Presently a bolt of lightning struck a neighboring tree, and the crash brought the man to his knees. He was not an expert in prayer, but his appeal was short and to the point: ‘Oh, good Lord, if it is all the same to you, give us a little more light—and a little less noise.’

The story relates in a humorous way the feelings that all of us have when we are lost and afraid. All we need is a little hope, to see the rays of sun peeking through the clouds: a bit more light to reassure us and a bit less of those things that scare us.

Most of us feel that we are not “expert in prayer.” At times even the most “expert at prayer” could not do better than to repeat the words of Lincoln’s frontiersman. The best prayers are not necessarily grandiloquent, or perhaps, to use a more appropriate term, highfalutin. The best prayers are poignant, relevant, and meaningful.

The sailors on the ship with Jonah could easily have uttered the same words as those uttered by Lincoln’s frontiersman amid the storm that tossed their ship. Overwhelmed with fear, they sought help from the divine as well, asking of the cause of their plight and eventually coming to the conclusion that Jonah was to blame. They sought forgiveness from the divine hoping that the storm would relent. It finally did, when Jonah was tossed overboard.

Just as an aside, please do not assume that sending people around you into the depths of the sea will alleviate the things that trouble you. That ONLY worked in the story of Jonah, though it has been tried again and again throughout history to too many scapegoats, people wrongly blamed. As members of the Jewish community, we know that accusations can be totally without merit. As individuals, we often forget that fact in our lives and may take on blame that is undeserved.

Please do not assume that just because bad things happen to you or to those around you that YOU have something for which to ask forgiveness, blame to accept. Bad things happen in our world. There are bad people in our world. Natural disasters occur. Accidents happen. Illness strikes. People make mistakes. There is irrational hatred.

Though in the story of Jonah, God brings the tempest to toss the sea, in the Reform Jewish tradition, we do not believe that God does such things. God is our support through times of distress, not their cause and not having “allowed” them to happen. This is one place where Reform Judaism is dramatically different than any fundamentalist religious tradition.

In the story of Jonah, Jonah was not at all happy to have to do this work for God. He did not want this “noise” in his life and fled from it. But, he could not escape from it. That part of the story is very much in line with many of the challenges we face in our lives.

During the High Holidays, we work toward returning ourselves to the right path. We perform teshuvah, turning, repentance... All of us have strayed at times from the path of righteousness and may, like Jonah, have found ourselves trying to escape from the challenges that face us.

For many of us, this past year has found us wandering on unknown paths. Darkness has set upon us. Storms have shaken us to the core. Some of us have experienced the loss of employment, the end of relationships, the onset of illness and the death of loved ones. We have been left bereft on a lonely way. Others of us have taken on daunting tasks and encountered challenging circumstances. We all stand arrayed today before God and we feel…we may feel hurt, sad, pained, alone, afraid, guilty—just like Jonah.

If only we could flee. If only we just go away, our problems would…but they won’t just go away. We are like Jonah trying to flee from that from which we cannot flee. The task must be done: the mourning for lost loves, the healing from pain or illness, the continuation or completion of the daunting task, the dark tunnel or deep valley that must be traversed before we come into the light.

It is not without reason that this morning it is customary to read the words, “For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, nor too remote” while this afternoon it is customary to read the story of Jonah, who believed that it was is exactly that. These stories come to teach us that when we are faced with a challenge, we must try to overcome it, to succeed at it, even though it may scare us so much that we wish to hide from it.

And our tradition teaches that God is with us as we face these challenges:

Yea, though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for You (God) are with me.

And when we find ourselves with mountains to climb:

I lift my eyes to the mountains: what is the source of my help? My help comes from Adonai, maker of heaven and earth. God will not let your foot give way.

God is with us when we face darkness and fear and when we have mountainous tasks to overcome. God is within us, urging us on, giving us the strength, if we but only listen.

Jonah needed a bit more encouragement than most. God doesn’t usually provide a large fish shaped limousine to deliver us to the door! Long distances take time to cross and often, no little amount of work.

In our story, once Jonah was delivered to dry land, God reiterated the task before him—and Jonah, this time, faced it. “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!” He believed that his task was an easy one. Deliver the message and wait.

Jonah did not understand repentance. He had only just come to understand acceptance. The people of Nineveh were ready. They changed their ways and God changed in response to that action. We have to accept the challenges, to face the tasks, to be willing to deal with the work, first. Then, and only then, can we begin to do the work necessary to achieve teshuvah, turning ourselves, turning our lives, in a new and more positive direction.

Jonah became angry because he didn’t understand why he had to be put through what he himself went through. How could it be that the result of his going to Nineveh, of his taking on the work of the daunting task, enduring the darkness and fear, was that God so easily forgave the people of Nineveh? Why didn’t God forgive Jonah’s fear? Why force him to face it? Jonah felt unappreciated. He had difficulty accepting the task and even more difficulty changing direction: acceptance and teshuvah.

Jonah did not realize that by changing his actions, even reluctantly, he brought great change to his world. In the story, Jonah saved the people of Nineveh by performing the task that made him grievously afraid. We may ask what had scared him so.

Perhaps, it was hearing God’s voice in his head. That might have frightened him a bit. It would certainly frighten most of us here if it happened to us. But perhaps, Jonah was not frightened of God at all, but of the people of Nineveh and how they would react to him. Prophets, even in ancient times, were often not well received, prophets of doom even less so. Jonah may indeed have been scared of the task that he was being asked to perform. We may have tasks that scare us as well.

While the obvious lesson of the story of Jonah is the connection between the teshuvah of Nineveh and God’s willingness to forgive us today. Another lesson is that great change can be brought by the positive actions of individuals even if they find difficulty taking them on, as Jonah did. Individual actions may harm a great many, but they can also benefit a great many.

As I said earlier, as Reform Jews, we do not believe that God challenges us in this way. Yet the outcome of dealing with difficulties in our lives is similar. Facing challenges changes our perspective. I spoke about that a bit on Rosh Hashanah morning, when I talked about standing up for ourselves and accepting responsibility for our actions. The same is true with taking on challenges.

The view at the top of the mountain is very different than that from the deeply shadowed valley below. In the midst of our troubles, we often cannot see out of the darkness into the light. In the light, we gain perspective: often gaining pride and courage.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, the great Orthodox rabbi, once said:

When I was young, I wanted to change the world. I tried, but the world did not change. Then I tried to change my town, but my town did not change. Then I tried to change my family, but my family did not change. Then, I knew: first, I must change myself.

Sometimes that change comes when we engage our own weaknesses, our own problems. It is much like when a parent flies on an airplane with a child and is given the simple advice, “Put the oxygen mask on yourself first.” You need to be at your best in order to do your best to help others. God judges us by our best.

That task, to be the best we can be is not necessarily easy. It may even be downright difficult. The cards may be stacked against us. We may well feel like Jonah and want to flee. Or perhaps, pain, loss, and difficult challenges have been put into our path. We may even be angry at God or feel that God is angry with us.

In that vein, Rabbi Marc Gellman writes:

It’s okay to be angry with God, because your anger is just a sign that you care… God would rather have you be angry at God than not to speak to God at all. And you’ll see, chances are that speaking to God will help you lose the anger and keep the love.

Anger and hatred can eat us up. We can make ourselves sick or we can spread our anger and hatred around, sharing it with others and make their lives miserable. Those who try to maintain tight control and harbor anger and hatred as well can easily become abusive of others. They can wreck havoc in their homes, in their workplaces, and among their friends, often losing friends because of outbursts of anger, making working relationships uncomfortable or impossible, and causing emotional harm at home.

God is not an abusive parent. Avinu Malkeinu is “rachum v’chanun,” “merciful and gracious.” God is “patient, loving, and true, showing mercy to multitudes, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon.” We should try our best to be as well: of ourselves and of others who have offended against us.

We should try to be like God in our mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. But we are not God. We are faulty, emotional, irrational at times, ignorant, swift to anger and a whole host of other traits that are not ideals. We are not perfect. We all err. We all sin. Our best is never perfect. Perfection is impossible, though we try to attain it nonetheless.

On this Day of Judgment, there is never a more appropriate quote from the Jewish Tradition than the following story of the Chasidic sage Zusya:

While on his deathbed, a student asked "Rabbi, what worries you about your death? Surely you will be welcomed into the gates of heaven."

Zusya sighed. "My son, I am not worried that God will ask me, ‘Zusya, why weren't you more like Moses?' Because I am not Moses. I am worried that God will ask, ‘Zusya, why weren't you more like Zusya?'"

We fear being held to unfair standards, yet we too often hold others to unfair standards. We, knowing that we are imperfect, demand it of others.

We are like Jonah, cowering before daunting tasks, acting childishly at times. We need to remind ourselves of the words of Zusya. We need to remember that though we may feel like Jonah at times and believe that we should be like Moses or some other great figure whom we hold as an exemplar of perfection, we are instead the people who we are. Our task is not to be perfect, for that is not possible, but for us to be the best that we can be.

We are like the frontiersman when confronted with darkness and noise on our way through difficult places in our lives. We too simply wish for “a little more light” and “a little less noise.” We are fallible and imperfect beings.

“Atem nitzavim kolchem hayom lifnei Adonai.”
“We all stand this day arrayed before Adonai.”

Unable to hide ourselves behind another. Like Jonah, it matters not where we go because God, within us, always follows us. And we each matter. We each count.

May we be judged fairly by ourselves and others.

May we strive to be the best people that we can be, though we will never be perfect.

May we not turn others into scapegoats but instead claim our responsibilities.

May we, feeling like Jonah tossed at sea or like the frontiersman lost amid the storms of life; find solace and hope, compassion and mercy.

As we travel through darkened paths in our lives, O God, give us a little more light and a little less noise so that we may proceed in our tasks unafraid.

Gamar Hatimah Tovah, may you be inscribed in the Book of life for a good, happy, and healthy new year.

Kein yehi ratzon.

It is Not in Heaven: Handling Problems Where You Are

It is Not in Heaven: Handling Problems Where You Are
Kol Nidrei 5770-2009

Today, virtually everyone has a cell phone. Teens seem to be on their phones almost all the time, often when they should not be. In the old days, cell phones were few and far between among teenagers. Now, they are practically part of their hands. They take their phones everywhere, talking and texting almost constantly.

Parents who would hover over them if they were in the room, now continue to hover when they leave their presence through regular and sometimes frequent cell phone contact. Some of these parents expect to be able to continue this relationship even when their children leave town and even when they are away at camp for a month or two.

In the past couple of years, I have heard numerous stories from colleagues about students who smuggled cell phones into programs where they were banned. Certainly no few of these students do so to keep in contact with a boyfriend or girlfriend, some just because they are teens who are rebelling against authority, but more than a few do it because their parents ASK them to do it.

I know of several instances of the behavior that I am about to describe to you. It is not a description of any one in particular.

A fifteen year old goes away to a program where he or she is told that cell phones are not permitted to students at all, under any circumstances. His or her parents do not understand this restriction, feeling like it must only apply to people who would abuse the use of the cell phones, and therefore tell their child or even ask their child to bring the phone to the program where they hope to communicate regularly with their child.
The child, now maintaining a deception for his or her parents, in turn sneaks off to use the phone where and when staff members cannot see the violation of policy and where no one could overhear the content of the conversation.

Then, the child exhibits difficulty handling problems during the program. His or her counselors or supervisors do not know what is troubling the student, because problems have not been shared with them. They only know that the child is troubled.

Finally the cell phone is discovered. The parents are called.

Often the parents are angry at the staff, despite the fact that the staff made clear that this was a violation of policy from the start and have every right to be angry themselves that rules were wantonly violated and even more so when the parents defend the violation. “I gave him or her permission to bring the cell phone. My child needs to talk with me. He or she has been having problems, like we knew he or she would, and I’ve been trying to help her or him out. My child needs the phone to contact me.”

The parents think that by maintaining the connection at long distance, they can help to solve problems that might arise and, in several cases of which I know personally from my Summers at Goldman Union Camp Institute, at NFTY Institute, and at other youth group programs, were actively trying to do so.

One program director had a rather profound conversation with a parent of which I will attempt to do justice. We’ll call her Mrs. Berg and for simplicity’s sake, we’ll make the child a girl.

“Mrs. Berg, I’m calling you because we found your daughter in possession of a cell phone. She tells us that she brought it with your permission and that she has been in contact with you on it during her time here.”

“Yes, my husband and I told her to bring it. We were all afraid that she would have trouble there, being away from us. And we were right, she’s had trouble. She’s told us all about it and we’ve been trying to help. You aren't helping her.”

“I understand. And have you been able to help her solve her problems?”

“No. We’re not there. It’s not possible over the phone.”

“That is one of the major reasons why we do not allow kids to bring cell phones with them. They need to share their problems with us and we, who are here with them, can help them to solve their problems as long as we know what they are.”

This specific response reminded me of the story of the Oven of Akhni in the Talmud. The Talmud mentions the case of some particular type of oven and describes the events that occurred during a debate among the Rabbis over its ritual status. The majority of the sages held the oven was not kosher, while Rabbi Eliezer maintained that it was acceptable. The Talmud tells us that:

Rabbi Eliezer brought all the proofs in the world to try to prove his point, but they were not accepted. Finally, he said,

"If the law should follow me, let this carob tree prove it!" And the tree was uprooted from where it was and thrown 100 cubits away (some people say 400 cubits). They answered, "We don't bring proofs from carob trees."

"OK, then if the law is according to me, let the aqueduct prove it!" And the water in the aqueduct started flowing uphill. "We don't bring proofs from aqueducts."

"If I'm right, let the walls of this house of study prove it!" And the walls started shaking, as if to fall down.

Rabbi Yehoshua rebuked the walls: "You keep out of this! This is a debate among scholars, and no concern of yours!" So the walls didn't fall, out of respect to him, but they didn't stand up straight either, out of respect to Rabbi Eliezer, so they remained sort of leaning.

"If I'm right, let it be proven from Heaven!" And at that, a Bat Kol, a Heavenly Voice, responded, "Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer? He is correct! He's right in everything he says! The law should follow him!"

Rabbi Yehoshua stood up and replied, "It is not in heaven!"

It is said that Rabbi Natan visited with Elijah the prophet, in Heaven, and asked him what God did when all this was going on. Elijah answered that God smiled and said "My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.”

One could imagine someone saying to the rabbis, "but what if God were to tell you that you are wrong in your interpretation of the law?" With the response, "God gave us the law to interpret." The Talmudic story teaches us that we are now in possession of the Torah and more specifically, that the rabbis make decisions based upon majority rule. That is the essence of the story.

In the broader sense, however, the story is also a paradigm for parenting—with God as parent and the Torah as the child sent out into the world after being raised.
Now, I will not, for a moment, tell you that sending a child to camp or to a youth retreat is the same as sending your child into the world after college, but it is similar.

I could delve further into the comparison and talk about the fact that many parents feel that they should be able to continue to control the lives of their children long after they have left college.

Then again, no few of you have children who left home and returned. That situation is certainly not a parallel to the story from the Talmud. The Torah did not go back home to stay with God while figuring out what path to choose in life, and making sure that God did their laundry… But the story does give us advice on how problems should be resolved.

Here is the moral of this story:

You need to deal with real people—who are there where you are, where the problem is, and not to rely on disembodied voices. A phone call or a Bat Kol can't solve life's problems. Solutions are made where you are.

Yes, a bit of advice, a bit of sage wisdom from a distance may help, but often not. Yes, doctors may be able to guess what ails you over phone based upon your answers, but you may not be telling them the information vital for the doctor to make the right decision. You may not know the right answers. Your perception may be off. This is why actually going to the doctor’s office is invaluable.

We have abandoned far too much to the idea that technology makes distance irrelevant. When you decide that a phone call from a loved one is as good as a hug, tell me that I am wrong.

"It is not in heaven," but instead here with us. This is a theme of Yom Kippur as well. These words are in fact contained in tomorrow's Torah portion.

We will read the passage from Deuteronomy (30:11-14):

11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, "Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?" 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, "Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?" 14 No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

The task of teshuvah, changing our direction and returning to the proper path, may not be easy for us, but it is within our grasp. The work of repentance, and it is work, may not be as easy as saying "I'm sorry," but neither is it impossible. We know our faults and can recall times that we have hurt or offended. We know how to make amends and to do better the next time. We also know that isolating ourselves in order to avoid emotions does not lead to resolution and healing.

There is a growing tendency in our society to share joys and pains with unknowns or distant friends in cyberspace, on the internet, rather than sharing them with those around us. It is not infrequent that I will learn of simchas or tsuris, happy events or troubles, by email or even through a simple status posting on Facebook.

"Just had baby."
"Jane Doe is now in a relationship."
"John Smith (who you know to be married) changed his status to single."
“Jim is having surgery on Monday.”
“Grandmother died last night.”
Needless to say, these statements hardly relay the emotional content of the authors.

One cannot make atonement this way, though we may try. We may try to come before God and say in the style of Facebook:

"Decided I was wrong."
"Jane Doe is now in a relationship with God."
"Jane Doe changed her status to ‘free of sin."

It doesn't work like that. We have to invest our emotions and share our thoughts... Even to convince ourselves that we are sincere, we have to put forth an effort, perhaps even to shed a tear or two or a few.

And Tradition tells us that we do not need to press send for our message to reach God, to reach into the heavens. Today, God descends unto us, to make it easier for us. Atonement is within reach if we wish it and if we try to achieve it.

I didn't say it would be easy. I say only that it is possible. It is within reach. To quote the Torah, "It is in your mouth and in your heart."

"It is not in heaven."

Neither is the ability to make our community better, to strengthen our relationships with one another, and to build our spiritual lives. These tasks are up to us and they require that we physically take part in the life of the community. We have to be there for each other. We have to be here for each other.

When someone suffering illness or feeling the pain of the loss of a loved one enters these doors, they do not want to hear a Bat Kol. They want to see your face, feel your embrace of love and caring, and to hear your words of consolation and hope face to face.

You cannot do the job through email or over the phone. And if you are not here, even if they should hear a Bat Kol, the very voice of God speaking to them through prayer and song, it will not be as powerful, as spiritually and emotionally uplifting, as it would be if you were at their side.

"It is not in heaven."

It is up to you—your congregation, your community, your circle of friends. Your relationship with God and Jewish tradition depend upon your investment, your commitment of your time and your energy. In the long run, it really does not matter what follows the words, "I could not be there for you because..."

And you never know just when that might be, which Friday night, which Shabbat morning, your friend in need will enter those doors and hope to see you. That is what a congregation is all about, being there for one another.

"It is not in heaven."

Take the opportunity that the High Holidays bring to repair wrongs, to bring resolution and healing where there is pain, to begin anew. It is up to you.

May you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good and happy year.

Shanah tovah u’metukah!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

If I am not for Myself
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5770-2009
Rabbi David Kaufman

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain tells the following story:

One Friday afternoon, a friend of his was driving along the highway to join his family for Sabbath—the Catskills were where many New York Jews had holiday homes. He saw a motorist stranded by the roadside, his car immobilized by a flat tire. He was wearing a yarmulke.

Naturally the driver assumed that he too was heading for the Catskills and was concerned that he might not be able to change the wheel in time to reach his destination before the Sabbath began.

He stopped, and helped the man change the tire.

As he was parting, the owner of the other car removed his yarmulke and put it in his pocket.

“Why are you doing that?” said the first. “Don’t you wear it all the time?”

“Oh no,” said the other. “You see, I’m not Jewish.”

“Then why were you wearing a yarmulke?”

“Simple,” he replied. ‘I know that if someone is in trouble and is wearing a yarmulke, a Jew will stop to help him.”

Jews have a long history of helping other Jews in times of need. Just as one example, the rabbinic literature makes it very clear that the responsibility of redeeming Jews held captive rests not only on the family of the captives, but on all Jews, regardless of whether or not they have any connection to the captives.
Jews have created organizations to settle immigrants, feed the hungry, provide free loans and rescue persecuted Jews from around the world, from the Soviet Union to Ethiopia. Let us not forget the support offered by Jews in the diaspora, financial and otherwise, for the state of Israel. Jews have a history of supporting fellow Jews.

As we find it in the Talmud's discussion of Shavuot, "Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh vZeh," "All of Israel is responsible for one another."

Hillel, the great sage, put it another way, using three questions:

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" and, as commonly translated, "If I am only for myself, what am I?" Finally, "If not now, when?"
Hillel seems to guide us to the following answers:

Better stand up for yourself,
But not only for yourself.
And you better act before it is too late.

We are given the directive to stand up to face our challenges and to help others face their own.

At Goldman Union Camp this summer, we discussed this quote from Hillel.

At the time, I thought about how these statements applied to the troubling story of Abraham and Isaac as they walked up the mountain together, today's Torah portion. I imagined these thoughts going through their heads.

Abraham thinking that he needed to do what he needed to do, even if it would be to his detriment, the loss of a beloved son. Isaac, in conflict, wondering if he should stand up for himself against his father or allow his father to act on behalf of his family and future generations. Both knowing that time was growing short.

I struggled to make Hillel's statements fit into the story, but did not find an answer then. At camp, I didn't need the answer. We didn't discuss Hillel's quote in relation to the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. Instead we talked about real life situations. Let me present one of them to you.

You are one of few Jews in your school or in your workplace. Your schoolmates, or co-workers, perhaps including people whom you like and with whom you wish to be friends, begin ridiculing a fellow student or co-worker because they are Jewish. What would you do and why?

We gave the students the following options:

1. Let everyone know that you are Jewish and that what they are saying is wrong.

2. Say nothing, because it likely won't stop them from being mean to the other student and will only result in them being mean to you as well.

3. Let them know that you disagree with their ridiculing Jews, but do NOT tell them that you are a Jew.

4. Join in ridiculing the other Jew so that they will not suspect you of being Jewish.

5. Try to change the subject.

The staff stressed to the students that the question is not what SHOULD you do, but what WOULD you do. Which option would you likely choose in that situation if it actually happened to you?

Almost all of the students said that they would not seek friendships with the people involved once they knew how they felt about Jews, so the issue is primarily one of what would they do in the specific situation and why?

Of note, no small percentage of the Middle School students had experiences similar to this scenario and therefore many were reacting based upon what they actually did or would do should the situation arise again.

Most of the students when placed in that situation would try to change the subject as their first option. Their second option would be to let the others know that they disagreed, but not to identify themselves as a Jew. Very few would join in, though one said that he DID when confronted with that situation, but no longer hangs out with those kids and won't do it again the next time. About equal numbers would remain silent or declare themselves to be a Jew.

In schools with fewer Jews, silence or avoidance tended to be the option of choice. Many of the students in schools with larger Jewish populations simply stated that the situation could never occur for them, because everyone they are around knows they are Jewish to begin with.

Almost all of the students agreed that telling everyone they were Jewish and defending their fellow Jews was what SHOULD be done, but many said that they would feel uncomfortable doing that. Letting everyone know that they were Jewish was the option that required the most courage, the hardest to actually do.

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me?"
"If I am only for myself, what am I?"
"If not now, when?"

Those students who would not identify themselves as a Jew or stand up for Jews would be failing to meet Hillel's standard. Those who only would decry the criticism of Jews without identifying themselves as a Jew, certainly prioritize self, but do so in a manner in which they are not standing up for themselves as a Jew.

Hillel's statement seems to imply that not only do we have to stand up for ourselves, but for others, and to do so at the time, not later on.

Interestingly, the common translation of Hillel's statement loses some of the nuance of the Hebrew. In essence, to translate the second question as "If I am ONLY for myself" is a Midrash. It is an interpretation of Hillel's intent. The question is more literally translated, "But at times when I am for myself, what am I?"

Hillel's intent may well have been to imply that we should not ONLY act on our own behalf. However, the Hebrew lends itself to broader interpretation.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
At times when I am for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?

We assume that the thrust of the statement is to urge us to be more conscious of the needs of others. In fact, the statement may well imply something else. Let's look at the three again for a moment.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

This suggests that there are times, when we must stand up for ourselves because no one else will.

At times when I am for myself, what am I?

This suggests, that when we act on our behalf, our status changes. We can certainly, overdo it if we only act on our own behalf. But our status changes even if we act on our behalf AND that of others.

The question may be "Do we like what we become when we stand up for ourselves and for others?" Clearly, there is a sense of duty and pride when we stand up for who we are and for those like us. The students all said they would feel better about themselves if they chose the option of declaring their Jewish identity and standing up for Jews. But most wouldn't take that option.

The conflict then is one in which the option that makes us feel good about who we are, may cause other problems for us. In other words, the students were telling us that they would rather avoid the problems that come with confrontation, even in defense of themselves and their friends, than to choose an option that makes them feel good about who they are and might make a difference in altering the behavior that they do not like.

I could not help but think of Martin Niemöller's words:

First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.

"At times when I am for myself, what am I?" I ask again.

The answer could be, "empowered."

The answer could be, "proud of who I am."

The answer could be, "the one who will bring positive change."

The answer could be, "the one who repairs the world."

And so, looking at Hillel's last question, "If not now, when?"

Our answer is simple, "Now."

Our job is simple, "Act."

Over the next few days, we will be considering our lives in detail. We will see good things and bad. We will weigh the consequences of action and inaction. Some memories will make us ashamed. Some memories will make us proud. There are people we should approach to apologize and seek forgiveness. We might be afraid, though we know we should act. We know that we should admit fault and seek to right wrongs we have done, pain that we have caused.

It takes courage, friends. It is easier to pretend it never happened. It is easier to act as if there is no pain. It is easier to remain silent and hope that it is never brought to light.

But who will atone for our failings if we do not? Who will right the wrong?

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

How can we be the best people that we can become, the best Jews, the most righteous, if we are not willing to act?

At times when I am for myself, what am I?

And when will we seek to address our failings, to do the right thing, if we are not willing to do so now?

If not now, when?

This is the time.

And so thinking this through, my thoughts returned to Abraham and Isaac. And I remembered my own theory about the Akeidah and its implications.

Indeed I thought, as Abraham and Isaac walked up the mountain, Abraham was thinking that he needed to do what he needed to do to please the divinities, the commonly worshipped gods, even if it would be to his detriment, the loss of a beloved son. Isaac, in conflict, was wondering if he should stand up for himself against his father and the wishes of the divinities or allow his father to act on behalf of his family and future generations. Both knew that time was growing short.

But I had left out an important character in the story—God. So, a bit of my own Midrash.

Perhaps, Adonai looked down upon Abraham and Isaac following the wrong path, about to do evil, and thought, "If I don't act now, Abraham will go through with it." And when Adonai acted, Adonai separated himself from the other divinities that people worshipped in the eyes of Abraham and Isaac and all of their descendents. Adonai became "OUR God" at that moment of decision. God chose "now."

In the year ahead:

May we be willing to do the right thing, though it may be difficult.

May we feel better about ourselves for having acted in the right way.

May we not delay our actions. Now is the time.

L'shanah Tovah!

Friday, September 18, 2009

May God Bless and Keep the Czar…Judaism and Government

May God Bless and Keep the Czar…Judaism and Government
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5770-2009
Rabbi David Jay Kaufman

A group of people were traveling in a boat.

One of them took a drill and
began to drill a hole beneath himself.

His companions said to him:
"Why are you doing this?"

Replied the man:
"What concern is it of yours?
Am I not drilling under my own place?"

Said they to him:
"But you will flood the boat for us all!"

(Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 4:6)

Judaism teaches us that we are to be held accountable, not just for the way in which our actions affect us personally, but for how they affect the broader community. This is, to a certain extent, the basis for the Jewish understanding of government. Sure, there are commandments in the Torah such as "Love thy neighbor as thyself" and in the rabbinic literature such as Hillel's statement "Do not do unto others as you would have them not do unto you;" statements about how we as individuals should relate to others. This story from the Midrash tells us why we need government. The group works to counter the harmful actions of individuals.

Leviticus, chapter 4, for which the story about the boat is a commentary, discusses the way in which the High Priest should make atonement for the guilt of the whole people. The story is offered to help us understand how the sinful actions of one person can, well...sink the ship upon which we all travel. The Torah and Tanakh detail many occasions in which larger groups suffer because of the actions of an individual.

In the Book of Joshua, for example, we learn that the entirety of the Israelite people may be punished because of the sins of individuals. Achan, a single Israelite is said to have kept for himself items captured in battle that were to be sacrificed. As a result of his actions, the Israelites could not win in future battles. God had removed his blessing from them. I'll not go into all of the details now. I'll let you look up the story and its terrible consequences for Achan and his family on your own. It's in Joshua, chapter 7. Suffice it to say, it wasn't a slap on the wrist. The intention of that story is to tell us that we're all in the boat together. Even one person who decides to go their own way can bring down the group, can harm the community significantly. One person, Achan, acted wrongly. God's response to Joshua, the leader of the people, was "Israel has sinned."

Thus, in the distant past and still today in some Traditional circles, particularly among the Ultra-Orthodox, there is the concept that the sin of one Jew may lead to the punishment of all Jews. As liberal Jews, we do not believe in this type of God and certainly not in collective punishment. We do, however, understand that the actions of one person may have a much larger impact. They may even be widespread and have a long lasting impact, influencing the actions and well-being of many others.

We also understand that rules are there to help our society. Our tradition teaches us that government is important to enable us to interact with each other well. We find in the Sayings of the Fathers, Pirkei Avot (3:2) a statement by Rabbi Chanina, who is said to have been an assistant of the high priest. Chanina said simply, "Pray for the welfare of the government, since but for fear of it men would swallow each other alive." Government was seen as essential for our well-being.

Yet overtime, our people became more and more afraid of the abuses of government. How could we not have? Only a few generations passed between each invasion, persecution, and exile, bringing dramatic changes with them. Even during the rule of the same dynasty, rulers arose who were more abusive than those who conquered the lands in which we lived or who had perhaps invited us to live in those lands.

We need not look to non-Jews as the sole source of problematic governments. We can begin with those rulers from among our own people. For example, the Hasmoneans, also known as the Maccabees, are said to have ruled with violence, killing their opponents. The Herodian dynasty, installed by the Romans, was equally bad. Then of course were the Romans themselves who made people dream lovingly of the days when the Hasmoneans and Herodians ruled. Subsequent governments of every ethnicity who persecuted our people were compared to the Romans. Until World War II, the Romans were always seen as the worst of evils.

The rabbis warned us to keep our distance. Rabban Gamliel, son of Judah HaNasi, a Third Century CE leader said (Avot 2:3):

Be careful in your relations with the government; for they draw no man close to themselves except for their own interests. They appear as friends when it is to their advantage, but they do not stand by a man in his time of stress.
We, as a people, had not entered the days of religious persecution at that point in our history. Those who hated us in those days did so because we were connected to those problematic people who lived in Judea, not because of our religious views.
If this rings any bells for those who feel that Jews face persecution around the world because we are connected to the people who now live in Judea, it should. Jew Hatred comes in many varieties and some of those forms are based on political and cultural issues, not on religious ones. We have the privilege of being disliked by different people for things having nothing to do with who we as individuals are, what we as individuals believe, or what we as individuals have done.

In modern times, especially during the late 19th Century into the middle of the 20th Century, our relationships with governments ruling over us have been relatively poor. Hence, the all too appropriate joke from Fiddler on the Roof:

Leibesh: Is there a proper blessing for the Czar?

Rabbi: A blessing for the Czar? Of course! May God bless and keep the Czar... far away from us!

Our lot was not great. Our people came to see Ben Zoma's statement in ancient times of comfort to the poor, as a statement comforting our entire people in modern times. Ben Zoma said (Avot 4:1):

Who is rich? He who rejoices in his portion, as it is written (Psalm 128:2) "You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you." "You shall be" refers to this world; and "it shall be well with you" refers to the world to come.

Ben Zoma intended that statement to be of comfort to those who were not rich, whose labors did not grant them luxuries in this world. It was a statement designed to assure the poor that indeed they would be rewarded in the world to come. Some might look at this statement as one defending an inherently flawed economic system; as a case of religion placating the masses. I look at it as a statement acknowledging the reality that life is not ideal or even fair.

We may have it bad in this life, but in the world to come, we will be rewarded for enduring. As this was true for the individual, how much more true for the Jewish people!

Yet, our people have never been content to "be content." We believe in Tikkun Olam and we believe that while we may indeed be happiest if we "rejoice in our portion" that does not mean that we cannot try to improve it along with that of others. And so, Jews, few in number, find their way into positions of political leadership, not trying to take over the world as conspiracy theorists would be led to believe, but to MAKE OVER the world, to fix what is wrong, to improve the human condition, to make life more bearable for more people.

We care about health care. We care about feeding the hungry. We care about housing the homeless. We care about ending conflicts and creating peace. We care about justice and righteousness. We care about freedom.

We do so, however, bearing generations of baggage. We work with, or in, the government knowing the power of the government to make positive change and at the same time fearing governmental ability to do harm. We seek to foster and protect civil rights, while decrying attempts to expand government into our lives. We fear being judged because we fear that those judging us will be unfair to us. For some of us, the government may have well been unfair in our past.

We have an aversion to judgment. We do not like being judged and avoid judging others. And here we are on Rosh Hashanah, preparing ourselves to be judged. Here we are entering the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, examining our lives, revisiting our sins, and seeking forgiveness. As we will hear on Yom Kippur, "Atem Nitzavim," "you (I, all of us, we) stand arrayed before God, the judge.”

Rationally, we question how. Psychologically, we cringe at the thought. Spiritually and emotionally, well, that is a different story.

Rabbi David Aaron (pp. 84-86 of Inviting God In) teaches:

For children, part of growing up and discovering themselves is discovering boundaries. They naturally want to know what they can and can’t do. They need to test their limits, learn the consequences, and discover the reward or punishment for their actions. When they err, when they are out of bounds, they are punished accordingly, so that they can get back in line… Parents need to relate to their children in a balanced way. Too little judgment or too much judgment will damage a child’s feeling of self worth and confidence. This is one of the great challenges of parenthood…

True judgment is actually an act of loving-kindness. When I judge my child, I am giving him a sense of self-worth; I am instilling within him the confidence that he is a powerful person, that his choices are significant and consequential. I am assuring him that his actions make a difference, that he matters, and that I love him…On Rosh Hashanah…my illusion of being self-contained, without any accountability to a Higher Power, is shattered…I realize that I cannot do whatever I want, whenever, or wherever I want…There is someone to whom I am accountable.

My self wants to feel accountable, because if I am not accountable then I don’t count.

Rabbi Aaron's words are profoundly meaningful. Tonight, tomorrow, and for the days ahead, we are held to account. Some of those here may not believe that God is out there somewhere judging us. But they should realize that we also judge ourselves in a similar fashion. It is all too easy for us to fail to hold ourselves to account and to end up without self esteem simply because we fail to value own our decisions or we judge ourselves too harshly.

Do not pretend that we are totally defined by the way in which others see us. We are our own greatest critics, our own greatest judges. Over the days ahead, you will place yourself in your own court with you as judge over your life and you will decide how successful you have been and how much harder you must work to be the best you can be.

I thought about Rabbi Aaron's words, about the idea that being held accountable means counting, means mattering. I thought about how that applies beyond the individual. How many times over the ages have our people been held accountable? To hold the Jews to account, to blame the Jews, is practically a pastime in some corners of the world. We, as a people, count more than any other in that respect.

We also know that many times we as a people are held to account for false reasons based on incorrect thinking and bias. We decry this kind of judgment. It is an evil. It breeds hatred and contempt. We know it is wrong.

This day and in the days ahead, remember that. Apply that thought to yourselves in your judgment. You are human. You make mistakes. You err. We all do. Sometimes we may well deliberately do wrong. For that, we must hold ourselves to account. Sometimes, we may seek to do the right things and fail to achieve them. Sometimes we may even have been forced to do what we know to have been wrong. We must ask ourselves, "Am I being fair to myself?"

Then when we hear the words on Yom Kippur, "I have pardoned in response to your plea." We will feel that indeed—being held accountable to God and to ourselves, we count.

In the coming year, may we see the importance of our actions and inaction as individuals, may we strive to strengthen our congregation and our community, and may we judge and be judged fairly—and with compassion to ourselves and others.

Shanah tovah u’metukah!

May you have a happy and sweet new year!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The news today is very much in line with my previous posting about the Obama administration, Israel, and Iran.

See the link below for the full article. I have only quoted the first few paragraphs below the link.

President Obama is on the brink of a breakthrough deal that would allow him to announce the resumption of long-stalled Middle East talks, Britain's Guardian newspaper reported, citing unnamed officials.

According to the paper, U.S., Israeli, Palestinian and European sources close to the discussions have said the announcement of resumed peace talks would come within a month.

Key to the deal is a U.S. promise to take a harder line with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, the Guardian said. The U.S., along with Britain and France are planning to push the U.N. Security Council into expanding sanctions to include Iran's oil and gas industry, which would cripple the nation's economy, the newspaper reported.

The Israeli government, in return, would be expected to impose a partial freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank.

"The message is: Iran is an existential threat to Israel; settlements are not," the newspaper quoted an official as saying.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Will the Administration Work to End Israeli Fears?

Shalom All,

I have discussed to no small extent on my radio show recently and probably will this week (Thursday 2-4 pm Central on the growing concern on the Israeli political left of abandonment by the Obama administration. Aluf Benn's op-ed piece, printed in the NY Times is quite telling. Aluf Benn is Editor at Large of Haaretz. Haaretz is not exactly the most Conservative of papers. Benn himself is a MAJOR lefty.

Many people have asked me why it seems that the Obama administration has no interest in speaking with Israelis, but has no problem speaking directly to Arabs and Muslims. My take is that the administration has no problem upsetting Israelis in order to improve its relations with the Muslim world, and the Arab world in particular. Because there is ZERO chance of any peace agreement being reached with the current Palestinian leadership, there is therefore no concern that Israelis or Palestinians will concern themselves with following by US dictates. In other words, it makes no difference if the US says, "Okay, go ahead and build, we recognize that right" or "Don't build, you'll damage the peace process." The first, upsets the Arab world. The second, upsets the Jewish world. Neither makes a bit of difference if there is no possible solution in the peace process. Thus, if the US goal is to improve relations with the Muslim world, then it might as well go for the second option.

On the other hand, while the peace process is going nowhere, Iran is a vital concern and Israel can derail the entire Obama administration agenda by addressing Iran on its own. The Obama administration has misjudged the situation badly. Israel is far more concerned with Iran than it is with upsetting the US. Israel can strike against Iran, has tremendous support to do so from its Arab neighbors, and in my mind WILL if sanctions do not work SOON. Netanyahu was not elected to stop or slow down the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, he was elected to deal with the Iranian threat.

The argument that dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict first will help is beyond ridiculous. The Iranian issue has months, if not weeks, to be addressed before a critical mass is reached. There is no deadline on the I-P front. Worse still for the US is that Israel's Arab allies are in agreement with ISRAEL about addressing Iran FIRST. Egypt is about as supportive of Israeli action against Iran as any Arab government could possibly be. It knows that Iran is supportive of those who threaten the Egyptian leadership, namely Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hizballah, and Hamas. Jordan and Saudi Arabia are also supportive of Israel in this respect. The US had to sent Gates to Jordan to address the fact that Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others are NOT in alignment with the US on Iran but ARE with the Netanyahu administration. My belief is that no amount of assurance will assuage them of their concern. They do not fear a nuclear strike from Iran, but increased militant actions within their borders supported by an Iran using nuclear cover to prevent retaliation.

The belief is that thirty years of diplomacy with Iran, sometimes directly, sometimes through other channels, have failed to result in anything other than allowing Iran to strengthen and to export its military strength and fanaticism around the region, causing problems in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Sudan, the Palestinian territories, Israel and other places in which militant Muslims have received arms and training from Iran. The consequences of Iran continuing these actions under nuclear cover are not pleasant. The thought of having Hamas supported by a nuclear armed Iran will undoubtedly hamper future peace efforts and escalate the threat of any attacks by Hizballah or Hamas against Israel, forcing much more severe Israeli responses to threats. This makes Israeli negotiations with the PA almost laughable. Israel cannot possibly concede anything resembling control over borders under this situation and may even have to increase its current control. Thus, the peace process is on a distant back burner until the Iranian nuclear situation is resolved, not the reverse. One could even argue that Arab nations wanting to make peace with Israel will WAIT until after it strikes Iran to do so, so as to avoid the undoubtedly negative reaction of the Arab street to an Israeli attack and their consequences to their maintaining a new relationship. Better to create one AFTER an attack. Thus, even the Obama administration's push to improve relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors is dependent upon settling the Iranian issue first.

Meanwhile, should Israel decide to strike Iran, US domestic political views will change dramatically. The threat of attacks against the US by Iran will result in a strong shift to the political right, just as has happened in Israel. The economic situation will worsen in the short term, resulting in an inability of the US to address costly social programs and the Obama administration will be faced with years in which foreign policy and defense override its domestic agenda while facing elections in 2010 and 2012 dominated by foreign policy concerns. This should scare the Obama administration into swift action to ease Israeli concerns about Iran and they may well be trying to do exactly that.

The visits of multiple high level US diplomats to the region in recent days are NOT a result of issues relating to the I-P conflict, but a reaction to Israeli fears about Iran and the fact that Israel may just decide that regardless of damage it may suffer to its relationship with the Obama administration and American Jews, the prospect of a nuclear armed Iran is an existential crisis that rises above other concerns. Resolving THAT issue should be far more important to US foreign policy right now than the I-P conflict which as things stand now is impossible to resolve.

I believe that Israelis need both to be addressed directly by President Obama about IRAN in a way that strongly assures them that the US will not ALLOW Iran to acquire nuclear arms and that the administration needs to ratchet up its sanction actions, including pressuring the EU to comply, much faster and much more harshly than it has seemed interested in doing. Without these two actions and prominent Iranian reaction to them by allowing inspection and stopping work obviously connected to nuclear weapons production, not necessarily domestic nuclear power production, I believe that Israeli unilateral action is inevitable and the consequences dreadful.

As someone who wants to see the implementation of a liberal social agenda, including some reasonable form of health care reform, I fear that the opportunity to accomplish it could be lost because of failures of foreign policy during both the Bush administration and this one. We live in a global world. What happens over there affects us here.


Monday, June 22, 2009

On the Peace Process

Shalom All,

There are those who have praised Prime Minister Netanyahu's recent speech and those who have condemned it as more of the same. Many have looked to the bright side, his agreement that the Palestinians could have a state along side Israel, while others have criticized his refusal to stop the expansion of existing settlements as a way of undermining the process of peace, even while calling for it. Personally, I thought that PM Netanyahu's speech was masterful and have seen little substantial criticism of it from anyone not on the far left or right.

In many ways, it paralleled Obama's Cairo speech in which the section specifically dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was fairly well received by the vast majority of Israelis (Obama's falling approval rating among Israelis has more to do with other speeches in which he has been more harshly critical of Israel and with his failure to address Iran's nuclear issues). I do have problems with the President's treatment of history in the Cairo speech, something to which I believe that PM Netanyahu did an excellent job in responding (Pres. Obama made it seem as if Zionism began with the Holocaust). I also have major problems with completely ignoring anti-Judaism in Muslim history, going back much farther than the 1920s where PM Netanyahu began his history. Worst still is probably Pres. Obama's implicit comparison between the Holocaust and Palestinian suffering. I must, however, strongly applaud Pres. Obama for stating in the midst of the Arab world that the US has an unbreakable bond with Israel. For a more detailed treatment of President Obama's speech please see my radio show found at (there were a few technical difficulties with the video, but the sound is good). This all said, on to the more important point at the moment, both speeches contained idea changes whose implications are not fully realized by advocates for either Israel or the Palestinians.

The first is that Two-State Solution is not accurate enough. I have talked about this before. Leaders are now being more explicit that we are talking "Two-States for Two-Peoples" and not simply "Two States." Some leaders are seeking "two states" both of which would eventually become Palestinian states. Pres. Obama mentioned in his speech that:

We will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians EACH live in peace and security.

The "two states for two peoples" concept eliminates a major threat to Israel, namely the return en mass by Palestinian refugees to homes in Israel because it could not happen while maintaining a Jewish state. Those refugees would go to a Palestinian state. The question then becomes how many could such a state support in addition to its already overcrowded population. The answer is very few, leaving the problem of Palestinian refugees for the Arab nations to handle.

The second is a developing understanding that the Palestinians lack the fundamental institutions necessary for any nation-state to work. President Obama stated in his speech, words that easily could have come from PM Netanyahu:

Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build. The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people. Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist.

While THIS statement is lacking "as a Jewish state," it basically puts the ball in the Palestinian's court. It also functionally forces the PA to live up to those same requirements. They cannot simply wait for Israel to act to grant them a state. They have to do these things, "Now." That societal work won't take months, but could take multiple years or even decades. The problem then is the continuing pressure to find a solution ASAP. ASAP may be decades. It will not be the second year or even third year of President Obama's administration.

After the speech, the people looked to PM Netanyahu to endorse a two state solution. In the minds of most, he did exactly that, but did so in a brilliant way. Netanyahu RE-NAMED what is in essence a state-semi-state solution, a 1 1/2 state solution, as a TWO-state solution. It is in fact NEITHER a one or two state solution. The Palestinian entity would be a SEMI-state. This is what I have suggested for years now. It made sense over a decade ago. I thought that was where things were headed in 1993-1994, much less in 1996, much less in 2000... The Palestinians could be granted a state so long as that state is disarmed and not potentially a threat to the existence of Israel.

The state-semi-state idea would never have been accepted by Arafat and will likely not be accepted by Abbas. It CAN'T be accepted by Hamas. IF the world media actually continues to present this idea as a TWO-state solution, which is seems to be doing, Netanyahu has won the war for Israel, much less the battle. I think that is indeed the path the process will be heading and Pres. Obama supports it. Let us not be blinded to the dramatic implications of this path for Israel.

Basically, it rids Israel of its major problems in making peace. It ends Palestinian hopes for conquest entirely, ending any hope that the right of return to Palestine would matter, since the extra-population could not arm and fight, and means that Israel will maintain whatever land it holds when peace is made indefinitely. The only things that it provides the Palestinians are economic opportunity and freedom so long as the latter does not threaten Israel. The only Israelis who could possibly oppose such a deal would be the settlers who want to oust the Palestinians altogether and settle the entire territory. So long as Israel pledges to defend the future Palestinian state from invasion, something that would be in its own interest anyway, there is little that the Palestinians can argue against it.

I am not going to tell you that there cannot be any problems related to security with such an arrangement. In fact, there are additional requirements that go along with this security relationship so as to prevent or limit some of them including guerrilla warfare. These would include control of borders including airspace. The Palestinian state would run like the Vatican, operating under Israeli military auspices and border control just as the Vatican operates within the Italian versions. In fact, the Eastern border of the West Bank would have THREE entities each doing their own security checks: Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian authorities. Gaza would also have THREE: Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian authorities. Egypt and Jordan would be most concerned with what comes OUT of those territories while Israel would be most concerned with what comes into them.

Israel, Egypt, and Jordan all like this solution very much. The rest of the Arab world and the Palestinians almost certainly cannot abide it.


Friday, June 5, 2009

On Obama's Speech - Concerning the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Shalom All,

I have looked in depth at President Obama's speech made yesterday in Cairo. It makes some excellent points and some questionable ones. I found myself practically cheering when reading it at times and then muttering to myself, "What the #%$?" at others. Daniel Gordis, certainly no liberal when it comes to Israel, pointed out that the speech as it concerned Israel was basically in line with the Israeli political center. Even Avigdor Lieberman praised it. Shimon Peres glowed.

I found myself overwhelmingly in agreement with its tenor and its demands of both Israelis and Palestinians. The only truly negative reactions from either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that I have seen have come from the Far Settler Right on the Israeli side and from Hizballah, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood on the Palestinian side. Obama pretty much hit the bull's-eye. You can't do much better than that for targeting the center.

My own criticisms of that portion of the speech really have nothing to do with the peace process. Some have to do with history and others with context. I won't bore you with details unless you wish to see them. I have included detailed comments below. While I and many other supporters of Israel feared this speech and feared that the President would cave in to pressure to pressure Israel, I found his speech generally very supportive of both Israel and of Palestinian aspirations for statehood. I was very pleased with his call for the Arab nations to help out.

Where I do find significant problems with the speech are in areas only tangentially to do with Israel, such as the Iranian nuclear issue, and on issues having nothing at all to do with Israel, such as women's rights in the Arab and Muslim world. I will address those in a separate email entirely. It was a very long speech!!!

On the whole, I was pleased with what it said about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Detailed comments on issues from the speech having to do with Israel and the peace process follow:

The introduction to the conflict was both good and bad. I was very pleased with the President's strong statement against Holocaust denial, but found the order of the speech itself problematic in that it seemed to equate the Holocaust with Palestinian suffering. I also found it highly problematic that the President made no mention of Jewish suffering at the hands of the Arab world including their forced expulsion from many Arab nations and their oppression as second class citizens, a dhimmi population, at the hands of Muslim rulers for much of Islamic history. It was as if Jewish suffering was only at the hands of Christian Europe.

I wanted to cheer when I read, "Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It's a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered."

Then, I noticed the problems in this statement. The Palestinians are not oppressed ISRAELI citizens or even people who SHOULD BE Israeli citizens. They are people actively AT WAR with Israel and SEEKING its DESTRUCTION, not to play a positive role in strengthening its future. Say what you will, but Martin Luther King Jr. was not leading silent demonstrations to DESTROY AMERICA, he was leading them to acquire long overdue civil rights and to obtain the right for black people in America to live the AMERICAN DREAM, to live with full liberty and to obtain full prosperity as American citizens. Let us neither pretend that Apartheid South Africa is an accurate representation. Black people in South Africa were not AT WAR for the destruction of the nation. They had not expressed generations of desire to slaughter the white population or drive them into the sea. Apartheid was a system based, much like American segregation, upon racism. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not such a conflict no matter what anti-Jewish conference may equate Zionism with racism.

For Palestinians it is a war for land, for self-determination, and for some it is a holy war. For Israelis it is a war for their very survival, for the security of Jewish lives, with concern over land and for some it is a holy war. Both want LAND. NEITHER are fighting for CIVIL RIGHTS. Let's not pretend otherwise. The war would have been LONG OVER already had it been acceptable to Palestinians to obtain a state living peacefully along side a Jewish Israel in which they had self-determination and liberty with the end of occupation. The reality is that this is NOT and NEVER HAS BEEN the primary aim of the Palestinian leadership, neither that of Fatah or that of Hamas. This then takes the conflict to a distance far afield from the American Civil Rights movement or that to overthrow Apartheid.

The President then introduced a statement that could easily be stated by Benjamin Netanyahu who has already repeatedly said similar things, "Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build. The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people. Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist."

Much has been made of the President's statement about Israeli settlements. I believe rightly so. Why? Not because it was a wonderful statement, but because it says all things to all people. The Israelis can easily say, "Okay, he's reinforcing the language of previous agreements," meaning the status-quo is okay. No NEW settlements. The Israeli response is then to do nothing. The Palestinians can say, "He's condemning Israel's continuing to EXPAND its constructs on OUR SIDE of the 1967 border." In other words, the statement received applause, but frankly will have little effect other than to entrench both sides in their points of view. EVERYONE liked that statement except the Far Settler Right in Israel which wants NEW settlements. FYI that FAR Right constitutes less than 6% of the Israeli JEWISH electorate. The statement came across as supportive of PA demands, but in reality says nothing new and will have little or no impact.

The President's comments about the need to improve the quality of life for Palestinians were excellent. The question that was left wide open, however, is WHOM is to blame for their lack of prosperity now? One could and many do make the case that it should NOT be solely or even primarily be deemed the fault of Israel, but instead of Palestinian leadership that refuses and has long refused to agree to a reasonable peace that would have already dramatically improved the quality of life. One could certainly argue that continuing attacks from Gaza have FORCED Israel to crack down on Gaza worsening life there and that the terrorist threat from the West Bank has FORCED Israel's hand there as well. Allowing for freer travel through the West Bank is a minor issue. Building industrial and governmental institutions are the bigger ones. The issue of settlements is a diversion. Without the settlements there would still be no viable Palestinian Authority. Institutions need to be built.

What the President said about the Arab world's responsibility, I thought was excellent:

Finally, the Arab States must recognize that the Arab Peace Initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities. The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems. Instead, it must be a cause for action to help the Palestinian people develop the institutions that will sustain their state; to recognize Israel's legitimacy; and to choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past.
America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs. We cannot impose peace. But privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Obama and Netanyahu- Iran and Pakistan

Shalom All,

The big debate going on right now concerns whether or not President Obama will bring pressure to bear upon Israel to make peace with the Palestinians when PM Netanyahu comes to Washington. The wisdom to this point has been that with Israel desiring a stronger tack against Iran by the US, there is leverage against Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians. This is wrong on multiple accounts and Netanyahu is aware of all of them.

First, Iran is at least as big a threat to the US and its interests as to Israel. Yes, an atomic bomb is an existential threat against Israel. However, just imagine the impact of a single detonation of a terrorist atom bomb in any major city in the United States. Such a strike would cripple our nation, result in the immediate rollback of liberty, and dramatically alter how we go about life. It would not kill us all, but the world would change fundamentally. Let's not pretend that the United States is not concerned about even atomic weapons, even without ballistic capabilities, in the hands of those who might use them. Thus, the entire "It's Israel's concern" argument is false. It is OUR existential concern as Americans as well.

Second, we need Israel to do something for us. You see, while Iran may primarily hate Israel, but certainly also despises the US, the US has tremendous problems in Pakistan and with the Pakistani government. You see, the Pakistanis, despite the fact that they are fighting a civil war against the Taliban who are being helped by Al Qaida, are far more concerned with India than with their own insurgents. India is a close ally of Israel. The plot thickens. It is of the utmost importance for the US to secure the Pakistani nuclear arsenal and in the grander scheme of things to prevent Pakistan from going Taliban. If the Pakistanis could be convinced that India is not a threat or more to the point, if India would agree not to be an immediate threat to Pakistan, the Pakistanis could take the fight to the Taliban far more than they are today. The key to getting India to agree just may be Israel.

This leads me to envision an intriguing situation. Netanyahu shows up in Washington with the press buzzing about whether or not he will agree to a two state solution when pressured by Obama. Meanwhile, Obama may well need to ask a favor rather than put forth pressure. The US needs Israel's influence. Take a look at recent news.

Just as an example, the US is asking Israel to warn it before it attacks Iran. Excuse me? I thought the US could pressure Israel to avoid doing that? In fact, I thought that the US told Israel not to attack already.

Rumors are already circulating that pressure is OFF Israel to concede a two state solution. Why? Because that is not currently the primary need of the US. If Israel seeks an exchange for US efforts against Iran, the US has greater priorities than a Palestinian state. Israeli influence with India is more important now than restarting fruitless peace talks with the Palestinians, even if it would make the Arab world happy. Moreover, the US is now the one doing the seeking. Israel likely feels that the only workable solutions with Iran involve sanctions that are only short term solutions and not immediately effective anyway. Hence, the US is holding WEAK CARDS. Israel is holding a royal flush.

Take a look at the two major problems:

1. Problem: Taliban control over Pakistan is an existential threat against the US since Al Qaida would be welcomed and the Taliban would be in control of vastly superior weapons technologies than they currently possess. Imagine Al Qaida roaming the world with several suitcase sized atomic weapons. The Taliban would also destabilize Afghanistan and force the US to redirect resources away from Iraq, allowing Iran to assert itself there. Answer: Pakistani forces need to be diverted from paying attention to India to fighting the insurgency. Solution: Israel can intercede with India, while the US allies itself with India's arch enemy, Pakistan.

2. Problem: Iran's pursuit of nuclear weaponry threatens to destabilize the Middle East and to potentially bring WMDs into the hands of religious zealot terrorists who hate America and American values almost as much as Zionists and Israel. The reality of course is that much of the rest of the Arab world hates Iran also. Answer: The nuclear program must be stopped. Either dramatic sanctions are effective and the weapons program is halted OR military strikes must occur against both nuclear facilities and refined petroleum facilities in Iran. Solutions: Option 1- garner international support for sanctions so that they are effective; Option 2- a major about face regarding the use of US military force and not diplomacy in Washington; or Option 3- a reliance upon Israel's military to get the job done.

The assertion that somehow by forcing Israel to appear to make concessions to the PA, moderate Arab nations would side against Iran is false, because those nations who would be willing to do so are already allied against Iran. They are also allied against the Taliban and Al Qaida. Israel's concessions cannot possibly bring new allies. Worse in fact for those who want the US to pressure Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians, negotiations between Israel and the PA, which are destined to fail, will only damage the coalition against Iran by weakening any Arab leadership working with Israel as their citizenry revolts against cooperation with Israel. In other words, even Arab support against Iran is likely to WEAKEN if the peace process is restarted because it is likely to fail right now. Additionally, as it would be politically impossible for the Obama administration to launch attacks against Iran, US options are limited.

Avoiding military conflict with Iran at ALL COSTS is NOT necessarily in anyone's interests other than Iran's, especially if the sanctions regime is not ramped up to the point of strangling the Iranian economy short of war. The currently imposed sanctions are not stopping Iranian nuclear progress. If the US does not want Israel to strike Iran, IT, not Israel, may have make a concession to the other on this issue as well.

In essence, the two major foreign policy problems facing the United States right now have few solutions and they all involve supporting Israel as it solves the above problems for the United States. One can only hope that the scare tactics being used now, hinting at Israeli strikes against Iran, for example, will be good enough to deter Iran short of actually military conflict. The US may have to offer OTHER concessions to Israel either to avoid attacking Iran or to help with India or BOTH.

Just about all of the bargaining chips that were on the table for the Palestinians are now gone again. More problematic for the Palestinians is that there is a disincentive to reinstate them going forward. Palestinian suffering is diplomatically more beneficial than Palestinian uprising. The risk from failure in the peace process is so damaging at the moment that it is greater than the reward of success.

Obama will almost certainly speak out publicly about the need to create a Palestinian state in the near future, while privately pleading with Israel to help on other issues and conceding the impossible position that the US is in regarding both Pakistan and Iran with Israel being the sole source of help to resolve its problems in both areas. Netanyahu may even help the US diplomatically by talking about the possibility of two states in the future, IF.... Meanwhile, there are bigger fish to fry for both nations.

The Palestinian bargaining position worsens day by day and semi-state status for the foreseeable future, rather than full sovereignty, becomes more and more likely. It isn't just Netanyahu who fears a Hamastan in the West Bank and Gaza, so do Egypt and Jordan as well as anyone who ever wants to see peace in the Holy Land, much less visit its holy sites. What will truly restart the peace process are major concessions by the PA to Israel that allay its security fears, including SUPPORTING, much less recognizing, its status as a Jewish state, and that allow it to move forward diplomatically with its own population. I certainly would not want to be negotiating from that position, which is significantly worse than that faced by Arafat in 2000.

People have wondered what the impact of 9/11 would be on relations between the US and the Arab world. Here is the result. Pakistan and Iran are now far and away the biggest security concerns because they possess, or might possess in the case of Iran, weapons that would make 9/11 pale by comparison. Afghanistan remains a top tier concern as well because it is from there under the Taliban that Al Qaida operated and the Taliban threaten to retake power. Iraq was included with Pakistan and Iran prior to 2003 regardless of whether or not it actually had WMDs because it could easily have constructed them, had them in the past, and had belligerent leadership that was associating with known terrorist entities, Hamas in particular. Internal Arab and Muslim world conflicts including Lebanon, the Palestinians, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, women's rights issues, modernization and a whole host of others have been relegated to second class concerns since 2001 and my friends, that is not simply because George Bush was President.

The simple fact of the matter is that our security trumps others' suffering. Their prosperity and their liberty are dependent on our security. Threatening the United States will result in the United States securing the prosperity and liberty of its own citizenry at the expense of those of others.

This brings me to the final point: OIL. The free flow of oil is still our primary concern PERIOD. Just imagine a Middle East in which a nuclear armed Talibanistan operates from a territory spanning Afghanistan and Pakistan, threatening the entire Indian Ocean, not to mention India, another nuclear power. Imagine on the other side of Afghanistan an Iran possessing nuclear weapons of its own. Now, envision them looking greedily at the vast amounts of money flowing into the hands of abusive despots in the major oil producing nations of the Persian Gulf and looking north toward the Muslim states of the former Soviet Union. Why stop there? Let's put Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in charge of Gaza and the West Bank, operating major arms smuggling in the Sinai Peninsula, and threatening Egyptian sovereignty as well as the Suez Canal.

There could be real ugliness on the horizon and the key to all of it is the US-Israel relationship.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Pope and The Separation Barrier

"One of the saddest sights for me during my visit to these lands was the wall."

-Pope Benedict XVI

Shalom All,

I certainly understand the Pope's sentiments concerning the Separation Barrier. The "Wall" is a sign of the hatred that exists and the fear that hatred evokes. It is a sign of the separation of peoples who cannot get along.

For the Palestinians, it may divide them from parts of their families, keep them from lands and businesses, make their journeys longer in many cases and make them feel like prisoners. It is also a tangible reminder that Israel exists and that there will not be a single Palestinian state over the entirety of the territory. For many THAT evokes sadness and hatred.

But there is another side to the "Wall." For Israelis, the Barrier is a symbol of security and freedom. It is a barrier against the shredding of flesh, the murder of women and children, and the use of fear as a weapon. It is a barrier to violence against innocents and it has been exceedingly effective.

I'm not going to tell you that the ROUTE of the barrier, which is a FENCE and not a wall for most of its length, is ideal. It encompasses settlements that it my mind are indeed barriers to peace and will have to be removed for there to be a two state solution. The Israeli Supreme Court has ordered it moved in certain places because security concerns do not require its path. The essential requirement of the barrier is not to put post-1967 land on the Israeli side, but to prevent the slaughter of innocents. That its route encompasses some of the land East of the Green Line is necessary. That it juts into the West Bank to encompass enclaves like Ariel is HIGHLY PROBLEMATIC and rightly results in condemnation. In making peace, such issues will obviously need to be resolved. This all said, let us not pretend that when there are two states, suddenly there will be no need for the barrier. The barrier SAVES LIVES and will continue to save lives for the foreseeable future.

All one needs to do is look at the list of terror attacks against Israelis since 2000 and you will note the dramatic decline in both the quantity and effectiveness of attacks since the bulk of the barrier was completed by 2006. Just compare pre-2006 with post-2006:

But also think of this: there have been no major Israel incursions into the West Bank for years now. Why? Because the threat from the West Bank is minimal. People there can go about their lives without fear of Israeli military operations. During Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, people in the West Bank watched the news on televisions in cafes without fear that suddenly dozens of tanks would pour through their villages. The barrier has provided real security for the Palestinians in the West Bank, not only for the Israelis, by allowing Israel and the Palestinians to avoid regular and increasing conflicts.

Now, I am not under the false pretense that "life is good" in the West Bank. Peace will make it far better. A Palestinian state in control of a large contiguous territory in the West Bank will make it overwhelmingly better. But right now, one of the things that has resulted in dramatically better lives for the people in the West Bank versus Gaza is that Israel has largely been able to leave the people of the West Bank alone. It has not had to send in forces to strike at would be slaughterers of innocents, while resulting in the collateral damage of civilian deaths and injuries, destroyed infrastructure, ruined economies,.... That is PRIMARILY the result of the effectiveness of the Security Barrier.

Shalom is not simply the absence of violence. Shalom is a sense of well-being that is achieved with the absence of the THREAT of violence.

It saddens me that the Pope did not acknowledge that the Separation Barrier is, for lack of a better term, a necessary evil. Taken in conjunction with the missed opportunity to connect with justified ONGOING, not only decades old, Jewish fears of genocide, the absence of acknowledgement of the Security Barrier as a RESULT of the real threats against the Jews and Jewish people from those who would continue the work of the NAZIs is in my mind glaring.

I think those ARE the Pope's sentiments. I simply wish that he had stated more explicitly in Bethlehem that there is a NEED for the barrier as long as there are threats of violence or even that he understood Israel's act in its construction as based upon its security fears. With many nations condemning Israel for defending its citizenry against those who would slaughter them, such a statement could have been greatly beneficial.

Immediately following the Pope's statement in Bethlehem, standing before the barrier, President Abbas' spoke. Abbas said that the “apartheid wall” was a bid by the Jewish state to drive Palestinian Christians and Muslims from the Holy Land. He spoke of “oppression, tyranny and land expropriation” and said Palestinians wanted a future with “no occupation, no checkpoints, no walls, no prisoners, no refugees”. Abbas gave the Pope's words CONTEXT that the Pope did not intend, because the Pope did not give them context that day.

If I were the speech writer for the Pope, I would have written the following words for him to have said in Bethlehem:

While I am saddened by the very existence of this wall and the conflict that has resulted in its construction, having just visited Yad Vashem, where I saw the results of the kind of libelous rhetoric about, murderous hatred against, and demonization of the Jewish people that are continually, even today, uttered against the Jews in the media, including on Palestinian television stations, by religious leaders, and on the streets in the Arab world and have been all too often put into action from THIS SIDE of the wall, I can understand WHY the wall behind me exists. For there to be a Palestinian state, the Jews must be allowed to live in peace and security in their own state on the OTHER SIDE of this wall. You must be allowed to live in peace and security on THIS SIDE of the wall in your own state. Someday, it is my fervent hope that the wall behind me will not separate enemies, but will divide friends and then it will be taken down. Let us pray for the coming of that day.


Friday, May 15, 2009

The Pope's Words

Shalom All,

I have noticed a trend recently that is exemplified by the article from YNET,7340,L-3707501,00.html. Arab leaders are now calling for a two state solution, while OPPOSING one of them being a Jewish state. Rather than calling for a single Palestinian state, Arab leaders advocating for the Palestinian side are PRETENDING to be supporters of "two states for two peoples" by agreeing to "two states." However, their intent is that BOTH states will become Palestinian states. They drop the "for two peoples" part of the statement. This is to be accomplished by insisting on the Right of Return of Palestinians to what is now Israel. As the Palestinians would then only be slightly less than a majority and have a much higher birthrate than the Jewish population, in a manner of short period of time, Israel will end up with a Palestinian majority. Thus, BOTH states would become Palestinian dominated states. Recent statements by President Abbas are strong indications that he is NOT as moderate as many on the world stage would like him to be.

The biggest problem that those desiring peace now face is that Israel seems to have a choice between maintaining a single state in which Jews dominate Palestinians, many of whom live in occupied territories, or agreeing to peace terms under which there will not be a Jewish state into the future. Even the political left is beginning to see this problem. The issue is not simply a question of a one or two state solution, but of "two states FOR TWO PEOPLES" meaning that one of those states would be a Jewish state. Even Ahmadinejad supports Abbas' version of two states in which in essence both would become Palestinian in short order.

Simply put, what is going on now is that leaders who seek the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state are SUPPORTING a TWO state solution, only doing so in such a way that ultimately NEITHER of those states will be JEWISH. Their support for "two states" allows them to APPEAR to be moderate, when they are very much not and continue to seek the end of the Jewish state.

They really want two states for ONE people.

For this reason, I was particularly appreciative of Pope Benedict's comments during his visit to Israel. There were those who eagerly jumped on his statements and said, "The Pope advocates for the creation of a Palestinian state!" No, my friends. The Pope's statement said much more than that. He said, "In union with people of good will everywhere, I plead with all those responsible to explore every possible avenue in the search for a just resolution of the outstanding difficulties, so that both peoples may live in peace IN A HOMELAND OF THEIR OWN, within secure and internationally recognized borders."

Taking a close look at what he actually said, the Pope essentially called for two states for TWO PEOPLES, meaning that one is a JEWISH state and one is a Palestinian state. Second, the Pope called for "secure" borders.

While many will pounce on this statement as advocating for the establishment of a Palestinian state plain and simple, it is definitely not. It is in fact much in line with the understanding of the Israeli government. If anything, the Pope's statement favors the ISRAELI position that at the end of negotiations there must be a JEWISH state, not just one of two states that happens to be within the boundaries of Israel's recognized borders, and that the states must have SECURE borders, the very phrase which is used to mean that the pre-1967 border is NOT necessarily what that border SHOULD be.

I found and find the Pope's words supportive of the nation of Israel and the Jewish people's desire for their homeland to remain a place of security for Jews.


Friday, May 8, 2009

Sermon on Remembering the Difficult Journeys

Sermon on Remembering the Difficult Journeys
May 8, 2009
Rabbi David Kaufman

This week’s Torah portion, Emor, continues the explanation of what it means to be Holy. Specifically, it concentrates on the priests maintaining a status of purity. Emor also contains the liturgical calendar including all of the festivals. Missing on that calendar are two events marked in the Jewish world recently, Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Heroes and Martyrs Remembrance Day, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. I thought of talking about those modern Jewish holidays tonight.

I also considered talking about the hate-filled protest against the Jews and Gay and Lesbian community of Des Moines this week by a handful of crazy people from Westboro Baptist Church and about the fact that their pitiful protest paled in comparison to the opposition against it. Had we wished to allow them a modicum of attention, we could have arrayed hundreds of people standing on our side of the street, shouting in our support.

I thought about talking about the AIPAC Policy Conference and about the relationship between Israel and the United States today and the threats and challenges that Israel faces. I’ll leave that for some other time as well.

I actually began the day with the idea that I would discuss the dramatic changes that the financial crisis has brought to the Union for Reform Judaism and the threats that it poses to my beloved Hebrew Union College. I have spent no little time in the past couple of weeks working with other rabbis, lay leaders, and faculty members in the defense of the Cincinnati campus which was threatened with closure, but another thought came to mind.

I even thought of doing a sermon on the now widely circulating joke:

“They said that a black man would become President of the United States only when pigs fly and now, 100 days into his administration: Swine Flu!”

I thought to myself about all of the major changes that are going on in the world, all of the major issues, all of the sands that seem to be shifting beneath our feet. Then I decided to tell another story.

Dafer’s family’s story is like many in places where Jews were tolerated in the best of times and threatened during the worst. His mother’s family lived in Baghdad until the great Exodus of Jews from the Arab world to Israel from 1948 to 1952.

Once the nation of Israel was created, Jews living in Arab lands suffered tremendous persecution. The Iraqi government forced most of the Jewish population to leave the country. The majority fled to Israel but others went to any nation that would accept them.

Dafer was an exception. His mother had married an Iraqi Muslim and the government did not force them to leave. When the rest of the family was forced to flee with no notice, his mother and father were not, and did not find out that the family had gone to Israel until it was too late to keep in contact.

Why did they lose touch? Because anyone trying to reach out to someone in Israel from Iraq after that time would have been seen as a spy or traitor and been executed. They could possibly have contacted their relatives in other nations such as in Britain, but Dafer’s family didn’t have relatives or friends who could serve as bridge contacts with them to Israel.

Ammar, Dafer’s niece, relates in a letter that Dafer carries with him, that after the death of Dafer’s father in 1967, Farha, his mother, tried to reconnect the family with Judaism. The Baath party started to monitor them, no doubt wondering whether or not they were Israeli agents, and in order to protect her family, Farha had them once again stay away from the Jewish community.

After a long hiatus from Judaism, Ammar and Dafer’s family was emboldened after the 2003, US invasion to once again pursue rejoining the Jewish community. The guard at the Temple there told them that once there is a new government, they would reopen the Temple. Then new problems faced Dafer and Ammar’s family. The Mahdi Militia and Bader Militia, both Iranian backed organizations, found out that their family was Jewish and persecuted them, forcing them from their homes.

They ended up in Syria, where they sought out the Jewish community in El Hara El Yahodia, but the government of Syria had ordered the synagogue closed. Finding out that they were Jewish, the Syrian Intelligence Services then hounded them. Some Jewish people in Syria who heard of their plight then suggested that they escape to Jordan. The Jordanians refused to accept them because of Jordan’s own security problems with the Iraqis, so the family was sent back to Baghdad.

Back in Baghdad, the family was attacked by the militias that threatened them before. Two members of the family were killed and two others kidnapped and held for ransom.

At that point the family decided to appeal to go to Israel. They were eventually able to get to Turkey and Dafer made it to Des Moines, how and why I still do not know, where a Bus Trainer, someone who trains refugees in how to use the local buses to get around, brought him to Temple B’nai Jeshurun on a Friday afternoon.

When I arrived at Temple this afternoon, we had three guests. Two were from Lutheran Refugee Services and a third was an Iraqi Jewish immigrant who spoke almost no English, but knew enough to have his helper bring him here.

“We need someone who speaks Arabic!” Kathy, a volunteer at the Temple, told me as she spoke with the volunteers. “Arabic?” I thought. “Arabic?”

I thought of two people to call: my Sudanese friend, Francis Chan, who works with Arabic speaking refugees, and Nashi K., who is a member of Tifereth. I called them both. No answer. Mark Finkelstein of JCRC helped me tracked down Nashi while I spoke with the aid worker.

While we were talking, Dafer, handed me the letter written by his niece Ammar, that told the story of their plight.

Then Nashi arrived.

I cannot begin to tell you just how strange a place Des Moines is. Nashi, as far as I know the only Arabic speaking Jew in Iowa, happens to also be a Baghdadi Jew and has relatives who may know Dafer’s relatives in Israel. He promised to speak to them about Dafer’s family. Nashi was able to talk to Dafer and to relate to him in ways that no refugee aid worker could. Dafer now had a Jewish friend and an Iraqi Jewish friend at that! Talk about Mazel!

Three weeks ago, we were visited by Shlomo Molla, a Member of the Knesset of Israel who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia. He talked of literally walking hundreds of miles to be able to be flown to Israel, to freedom. Two weeks ago, we heard from Marion Blumenthal Lazan about her journey during the Holocaust, eventually coming to this country. Hopefully, all of us have heard the story of our own Peter Pintus.

I was struck as I thought about all of these stories, just HOW easy, HOW good, HOW blessed my life has been and continues to be.

I live in a place where when hateful people come to protest against me because I am a Jew, more people come to my defense and virtually everyone considers the hateful people to be ignorant idiots. I live in a place that is not threatened by war or sectarian violence. I live in a place where a wandering Jew from a foreign land is brought to synagogue by helpful Christians wanting to aid him in his practice of Judaism! I live in a place and in a time when I truly need to seek out stories of those Jews who were not and are not so fortunate.

I truly need to remember. We need to remember.

It was not long ago that Jews faced tremendous discrimination in this country.

It was not more that two generations ago that Jews marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and sat with members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee at lunch counters where they were refused service and forcibly removed.

It was not long ago that virtually every country club not founded by Jews denied their admittance as members.

It was not long ago when indeed people would have thought that pigs would fly before America would elect a President from a racial minority.

It was not terribly long ago that in every Jewish gathering could be heard the accents of Eastern Europe. It was not long ago. But today, my friends, it is too easy to forget.

The stories of the journeys from oppression to freedom become almost mythical, something that happened THEN to THEM, not NOW and not to US.

This afternoon, I was reminded of just how special it is to live in this nation of freedom and security.

At the AIPAC Conference, I had the opportunity to hear from Clarence Jones, who was Martin Luther King’s attorney and a close friend. Clarence Jones related Dr. King’s story of his visit to a Conference with Conservative Rabbis in honor of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s birthday. Dr. King said that as he and Rabbi Heschel entered the room, the convention, 1,000 rabbis began chanting, “We shall overcome” in Hebrew.

The words are:

Anu nitgabeir, anu nitgabeir, anu nitgabeir bevo hayom.
Ani ma'amin be'emunah shleimah, nitgabeir bevo hayom.

The last verse combining the principles of Maimonides with the anthem of the Civil Rights movement.

“I believe with perfect faith that we shall overcome someday.”

I thought that it would be appropriate to conclude with those words.


Anu nitgabeir, anu nitgabeir, anu nitgabeir bevo hayom!
Ani ma'amin be'emunah shleimah, nitgabeir bevo hayom!

We shall overcome, but we still have a lot of work to do.

Shabbat Shalom