Posts Tagged Israel

After the War is Over

Published in last week’s Mishpacha Magazine

Question:  When is a new shul considered successful?

Answer:  When it’s big enough to spawn its first breakaway minyan.

imagesIn recent weeks, observers have gone to great lengths to show, correctly, the silver lining of achdus (unity) within the dark clouds of terrorism.  The three martyred yeshiva students, the barrage of rocket fire, the mass retreats into bomb shelters, the cost of the Gaza operation in precious Jewish lives – all of these have brought Jews in Israel and around the world together and, for at least a moment, put an end to the divisiveness that too often characterizes our community.  It is a genuine consolation, and it warrants our attention and celebration.

Not to be a spoilsport, but these observations miss a critical point:  namely, that it has all happened before.  Again and again and again.

After 40 years in the desert, the Jews entered the Land of Israel in unity, like one man with one heart, fighting together to claim and conquer the land that had been promised to their forefathers.  But almost immediately after the death of Joshua, the incident of the concubine of Givoh led to a civil war that almost annihilated the tribe of Benjamin.[1]  Common purpose and brotherhood disintegrated into mutual suspicion and unbridled vengeance within a single generation.

This tragic pattern defines the entire Book of Judges.  Perhaps the most egregious example follows Yiphtach’s rallying the people to take up arms against the Ammonites, whose 18-year domination of the Jewish people was the longest in the entire era of the Judges.  Barely had Yiphtach returned from victory, however, when the tribe of Ephraim accused him of willfully excluding them from joining in battle to overthrow their oppressors.  In the violent clash that followed, 42 thousand Ephraimites were killed by the tribe of Menashe.[2]

Skip ahead six centuries to after the fall of the Babylonian Empire, when the Jews refused to follow Zerubavel back to Israel to reclaim their homeland.  Instead, they remained “scattered and dispersed,” in such of state of disunity that Haman and Achashverosh believed their plan of genocide could not fail.[3]

imagesThe pattern continues through post-Biblical history.  The unity inspired by the Maccabees against the Seleucid Greeks led to an autonomous Jewish commonwealth for the first time in 300 years.  But the internecine intrigues of the Tzaddukim (Sadducees) and the Hellenists ignited a bloody campaign against Torah and its sages. One generation later, a bitter power struggle between the Hasmonean brothers Hyraknus and Aristobulus cost tens of thousands of lives and eventually allowed Rome to gain a foothold in Israel, which led to the destruction of the second Temple.  And we know all too well that the primary cause of the current exile was, and is, senseless hatred – the contempt for and mistrust of other Jews for the unpardonable sin of being even a little bit different.[4]

The point is this.  We are very good at coming together in the face of a common enemy.  This is why Hashem sent us down to Egypt in the first place, as a tikkun (rectification) for the family discord that culminated in Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery.

But it is not enough for us to come together in times of crisis.  What is painfully obvious from history is that Hashem wants us to remain united after the threat has passed and peace has returned among us.  As long as we unify merely because “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” can we really expect Hashem to shower His blessing upon us by sending the Messiah?  It is how we continue to act toward one another after after the missiles stop falling that ultimately determines our future.

When my wife and I moved to the Jerusalem suburb of Neve Yaakov 22 years ago, we were among the second wave of pioneers, following the 36 families who first took up residence in the new subdivision downhill from the established Kamenetz neighborhood.

Those courageous souls had stories to tell.  There was just enough (hijacked) electricity for each family to run a refrigerator and one light bulb, and a rotation system allowed families to use one major appliance – typically the oven or the washing machine – for two hours a day.  I heard tell of one neighbor who came knocking to ask to borrow 15 minutes of electricity; his wife’s cake wasn’t done yet.

Things were a little better when we moved in, but not by much.  The streets were unpaved and overrun by heavy equipment and Arab workers.  There was no bus service.  A few weeks after we moved in, two payphones appeared for the entire neighborhood; but these were little help when my wife went into labor, since no one close enough to call had a phone line.  (Remember the days before cell phones?)

In the winter, our space heaters invariably overloaded the circuit breakers, and on erev Shabbos the water pressure turned to a trickle.  Minyonim met in mobile homes, bomb shelters, storage closets, and my living room.

But the sense of community was palpable.  Our second-hand Torah scrolls regularly turned up posul (invalid), and we ran from minyan to minyan borrowing from this one this week and lending out to that one next week.  When growing numbers necessitated a new minyan, it was the gabbai of the old minyan who showed up with a load of bookshelves and siddurim (prayerbooks).  Walking home from shul Friday night, we Ashkenazim greeted the Sephardim with Shabbat Shalom while they greeted us with Gut Shabbos.

So here’s the challenge.  How do we not become victims of our own success, as we have so many times throughout history?  What will convince us to summon up mesiras nefesh (self-sacrifice) for shalom the way we do for learning and Torah education and charity? When will we realize how much we need each other, even when our enemies are not storming the gates?

imagesOr will we keep looking for ways to divide ourselves from ourselves, whether according the color of our yarmulkes or the style of our skirts or the brims of our hats?  That may be defensible, even pragmatic, in New York and Israel.  But is it really best for us to carve ourselves up into such narrow slices of Yiddishkeit that we only come in contact with other Jews who dress, act, and think exactly the way we do?  And does it make any sense whatsoever for small towns to have two, three, or even four high schools to service fifty children?

With Hashem’s help, by the time this appears in print, some measure of peace will have returned to Israel.  But will it endure?  Only if we remain committed to one another in peace as we have under siege.  Indeed, the way we manage the peace will determine whether it will last for a month, for a year, or for all eternity.  And when the era of eternal peace finally arrives, may it be soon, we will wonder why we spent so much effort and energy dividing ourselves up in so many different ways for so many long and painful years.

 

[1] Seder Olam re: Shoftim 19-21

[2] Shoftim 12

[3]Ya’aros Davash on Esther 3:8

[4] Yoma 9b

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More Moral Confusion over Israel

Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

imagesAfter Charles Krauthammer wrote so articulately about the moral clarity in Gaza (July 18), it is astonishing that there remains such profound moral confusion.

Exactly why are Arielle Klagsbrun, Hedy Epstein and Maya Harris (“The American Jewish community must value all life,” July 22) so eager to misrepresent the history of Israel, and to condemn their fellow Jews for the unspeakable crimes of self-defense and survival? They denounce the “illegal occupation” of captured territories. Why are they not equally concerned about the Jewish-owned land appropriated by Arab governments — all 38,625 square miles of it (compared to Israel’s total area of 7,992 square miles)? Why do they condemn Israel as oppressors when it was the Palestinian Authority that rejected Ehud Barak’s offer — after the Camp David Accords of 2000 — to return an equivalent amount of territory to that captured in the defensive 1967 war?

Have they forgotten that Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza and handed it over to the Palestinians, who promptly destroyed much of the infrastructure the Israelis left behind and embarked on a campaign of terrorism against Israel?

Most important, by what twisted logic do they suggest that Israel is guilty of murdering the Palestinian civilians used by Hamas as human shields to protect the rockets targeting Israeli civilians in an unprovoked rain of terror? It should be obvious that there would be peace tomorrow if the Palestinian leadership would stop seeking Israel’s destruction today.

Even the Washington Post editorial staff has reached the inevitable conclusion that the leaders of Hamas have no motive other than to sacrifice their own people on the altar of public opinion in hope of inciting world condemnation against Israel for defending itself. If they read the letter written by Ms. Klagsbrun, Ms. Epstein and Ms. Harris, the Hamas terrorists will rejoice, as their people die, knowing that their stratagem has not been completely in vain.

 

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An open letter to the administration and student government of UCDavis

Although the recent UC Davis divestment resolution against Israel ended in a deadlock, I suppose there is still some silver lining: at least half the people casting votes can be considered clear-headed.  But as for the others, please tell me — what exactly were you thinking?

imagesDid you buy into former President Jimmy Carter’s accusation condemning Israel as an apartheid state?  If so, how do you explain Israeli Arabs having a higher standard of living than Arabs in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, or Iraq?  or a higher literacy rate?  or higher life expectancy?  Does it mean nothing to you that Israel is the only democracy in the Mideast?  that only in Israel women have equal rights and equal education?  that Palestinians who work for Israeli companies like Sodastream oppose the boycott you advocate to save them from oppression?

If you are outraged by the unequal treatment of Israeli Arabs, how do you explain that Israel has Arab members of Parliament proportional to its Arab citizenry?  How is it symptomatic of apartheid that Israel has or has had an Arab deputy Prime Minister, an Arab Supreme Court justice, an Arab national soccer team captain, and an Arab Miss Israel?

Where is your outrage toward apartheid in Arab countries that oppress their Jewish minorities?  Or are there too few Jews for you to apply the term apartheid in Arab countries that are essentially Judenrein?  In case the flight of oppressed Jews from Arab countries is news to you, look at the decline in Jewish populations from 1948 until today:

Algeria:           140,000 to <100
Egypt:             80,000 to <100
Iraq:                 150,000 to 40
Lebanon:         30,000 to 30
Libya:              30,000 to 0
Morocco:         500,000 to 700
Syria:               30,000 to <100
Yemen:            55,000 to <200

You denounce the “illegal occupation” of captured territories.  Why are you not equally concerned about the Jewish-owned land appropriated by Arab governments — all 38,625 square miles of it (compared to Israel’s total area of 7,992 square miles)?  Why do you continue to condemn Israel as intransigent when it was the Palestinian Authority that rejected Ehud Barak’s offer — after the Camp David Accords of 2000 — to return an equivalent amount of territory to that captured in the defensive 1967 war?  And by what twisted rationalization do you fault Israel for not sitting down to negotiate with Arab leaders who continue to call for Israel’s destruction and deny its right to exist?

As for those of you who abstained:  were you lacking clarity or courage?

Why are you not railing against the far more egregious human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, and myriad other nations all over the globe?  Even if political correctness is the explanation, please explain why quantifiable Arab oppression is accepted while fabricated Israeli “oppression” is not.

But if the real reason, as seems likely, is old-fashioned anti-Semitism, then let’s trade in that antiseptic euphemism and call your worldview what it really is:  Jew-hatred, plain and simple.

UC Davis was once an institution to be proud of.  For the first time in thirty years, I am ashamed of my alma mater.

Rabbi Yonason (Jonathan) Goldson
Class of 1983

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Searching for the Way out of Exile

imagesAt first glance, the soggy, green downs of Ulster bear little resemblance to the parched and craggy hills of Israel.  But a gentle tugging at the cultural fabric of either place unravels an unmistakable common thread:  two peoples, impossibly close geographically, impossibly distant ideologically, with more than enough fuel for hatred between them to burn until the coming of the Messiah.  Tromping over hills and through city streets, however, first in one place and then in the other, I discovered a more compelling similarity:  the bitter struggle of humanity in exile.

“Which are the bad parts of town, the ones I should avoid?” I asked the owner of the bed-and-breakfast where I passed my first night in Belfast.

She dutifully pointed out the Shankhill neighborhood on my map, cautioning me to steer clear of it.  I thanked her and, with sophomoric self-confidence, proceeded there directly.

It was the summer of 1984, and central Belfast exuded all the charm of a city under martial law. Policemen on patrol wore flack jackets.  An armored personnel carrier idled at a major intersection waiting for the signal to change.  Blown out shells of buildings sprouted weeds, and street signs warned, DO NOT LEAVE CAR UNATTENDED.  But as I worked my way up Shankhill, I discovered even more disconcerting landmarks:  elementary school yards swathed in barbed-wire and churches pocked with scars from automatic-rifle fire.

I stopped in at a corner pub and took a seat at the bar beside two locals.  Each was nursing a pint of Guinness.  Another glass, two-thirds full with boiled snails, rested between them.  The men took turns using a bent eight-penny nail to dig each snail out of its shell before popping the meat into their mouths.

Click here to read the whole essay.

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St. Patrick’s Day Re-Reflections

At first glance, the soggy, green downs of Ulster bear little resemblance to the parched and craggy hills of Israel.  But a gentle tugging at the cultural fabric of either place unravels an unmistakable common thread:  two peoples, impossibly close geographically, impossibly distant ideologically, with more than enough fuel for hatred between them to burn until the coming of the Messiah.  Tromping over hills and through city streets, however, first in one place and then in the other, I discovered a more compelling similarity:  the bitter struggle of humanity in exile.

“Which are the bad parts of town, the ones I should avoid?” I asked the owner of the bed-and-breakfast where I passed my first night in Belfast.

She dutifully pointed out the Shankhill neighborhood on my map, cautioning me to steer clear of it.  I thanked her and, with sophomoric self-confidence, proceeded there directly.

Read the whole article here.

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The Media War on Israel

I ask the New York Times:  Why does the paper give equal placement to the photo of Jews mourning Mrs. Mira Scharf and the photo of Muslims mourning Ahmed al-Jabari, the terrorist mastermind largely responsible for Mrs. Scharf’s murder? I ask the anchors of NPR, why does virtually every story covering violence in the Mideast begin with Israeli fire and Arab causalities, mimicking the sardonic Israeli joke that Western reporting typically begins:  Israel incites violence by retaliating?

And I ask the editors, writers, and news anchors of CNN, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the BBC and major news outlets around the globe, why do you continue to ignore the facts and the history that prove only one irrefutable equation – that Israel’s neighbors are as disinterested in peace as Israel is in war?

Read the whole article here.

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Denouncing Spiritual Terrorism

On March 16, 1968, soldiers of the 1st Battalion’s Charlie Company committed one of the most notorious war crimes in American history when they brutally massacred over 300 villagers in the Vietnamese hamlet of Mỹ Lai.

Was every soldier in the American army complicit in the crime?  Did the perpetrators of the massacre act in accordance with the dictates and the mission of the American military?  Was the savagery inflicted on innocent men, women, and children indicative of the country whose soldiers wore its insignia on their uniforms?

The simple answer is:  no.

We can talk, legitimately, about collective responsibility and the mixed cultural messages that may have contributed to the atrocity.  But when Americans learned about the barbarism of their own soldiers, the untempered outrage that poured forth testified that the individuals had acted as individuals, and that their inhumanity in no way represented the values of their country.

The same was true about the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995 by the marginally religious zealot Yigal Amir.  As unpopular as Rabin may have been among the religious community, only the most extreme ideologues saw his actions as anything other than an aberration of the Torah values he invoked to justify cold-blooded murder.

And the same is true now with respect to the hideous spitting incident in the Beit Shemesh community in central Israel.  It doesn’t matter that the perpetrator may wear a frock coat and sidelocks.  It doesn’t matter that he may refrain from kindling fire on the Sabbath, may keep a strictly kosher diet, and may stand in prayer before his Creator three times a day.  It doesn’t matter that he may study Talmudic texts and analyze the finest points of Jewish law.  It doesn’t matter if his neighbors, whether few or many, sympathize with his attitudes and his actions.

At best, he is a misguided fool.  At worst, he is an imposter and a terrorist.  Whatever he is, he does not represent the ideals of Torah Judaism.

The sad truth is that the Torah, the Almighty’s guide to morality and virtuous conduct, is only as good as we allow it to be.  The Torah may be a perfect expression of the Divine Will, but it only works to the extent that imperfect humans are willing to let it shape their conduct and, even more essentially, their character.  It does not mystically or magically turn us into saints; rather, it teaches us how to transform ourselves into spiritual beings.  But it remains up to us to follow the path it lights before us.

The sad truth is also that there are imposters among us; the Talmud itself laments the “pious fools” who clothe themselves in the external trappings of religiosity with no comprehension whatsoever of true spiritual values.  The Jew who prays fervently and then cheats in business, the Jew who clops his chest in repentance then slanders his neighbor, the Jew who meticulously trains his son to read from the Torah scroll and then spits on a child who may have innocently absorbed the social mores of the surrounding secular world – a Jew such as this is worse than a fraud.  He is nothing less than a terrorist, for he brings violent derision upon the Torah and all its sincere practitioners.

Frequently at odds with contemporary Western values, Torah values are easily mocked, satirized, and misrepresented by intolerant skeptics who would rather ridicule than seek answers to their questions.  But the Orthodox community includes tens of thousands of Jews like myself, Jews raised in irreligious homes who chose to return to Torah observance, Jews who learned to appreciate the ancient wisdom of our people by asking those same questions, by searching for teachers and mentors who could articulate the answers, and by listening patiently to their explanations.

Unfortunately, many secularists and most of the media prefer to deal in stereotypes.  It’s easier to depict bearded men in long coats as fanatics than it is to examine the historical and philosophical foundations of their tradition.  It’s more provocative to caricature women wearing head-scarves, three-quarter sleeves, and knee-length skirts as burqa-clad Jewish Wahabists than it is to concede the modest elegance projected by many Orthodox women.  It suits the progressive agenda better to decry separate seating on buses in religious communities as Shariah-like segregation than it does to contemplate how sensitivity to sexual boundaries bolsters the integrity of the family structure against the hedonism of secular society.

The useful idiots who masquerade as devoutly orthodox but possess little understanding of authentic spiritual refinement empower cynics eager to smear an entire theology with the broad brush of condemnation based on the actions of a few.  But amidst the outrage, consider this:  Does it make any sense that true adherents of the culture that taught the world the values of peace, charity, and loving-kindness would endorse the public humiliation of a little girl in the name of piety?

It doesn’t.  And we don’t.

Published in the St. Louis Jewish Light.

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