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Friday Evening November 16, 2012

Israel and Gaza: So That Our Children Won't Be Victims
Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro

 

 

It all depends on how you define the problem…What’s your point of view.

So the story is told of a book collector, a true bibliophile, who meets a friend with very little interest in books. As they are talking, the non-book friend comments, “My family has lived in the same house for generations. We are buried in books. Just threw out one very old book – was a Bible - yesterday. Someone’s name on it…Guten-something.”

That’s not Guten-something. That must have been a Gutenberg Bible. One of first books ever published. Worth over a million dollars.

“I don’t think so. Not my copy. It wouldn’t have brought a dime. Some fellow named Martin Luther had scribbled notes all over it.”

It all depends on your point of view. How you approach a problem defines what you see and don’t see.

For example – If I were to ask you to define the greatest problem facing Jews today in 2012, my guess is that you – most of us – would probably say the challenge has something to do with Jewish ignorance, Jewish confusion. The attenuation of Jewish identity. Assimilation is our problem.

How interesting – because if had asked that same question perhaps 50 years ago, I would have heard some of the same responses, but I also would have heard something about the dangers of anti-Semitism. What non-Jews might do to Jews or the ways in which non-Jews closed Jews out of so many opportunities represented a huge stumbling block for Jew after Jew.

It all depends on your point of view. How you approach a problem defines what you see and don’t see.

Or consider this analysis of the problem or problems that trouble Jews. At a certain point in time, many committed Jews felt that too many Jews simply had no self-respect. Jews were too quiet, almost embarrassed to be Jews. Some changed their names; some had nose jobs to make their supposedly Jewish noses look less Jewish.

Back in the 1960’s I remember a parody of the Peanuts comic strip. You remember, Linus, Lucy, Snoopy, and Charlie Brown. Poor Charlie Brown – He’s always in over his head. Never quite managing to hit the ball when he’s at bat. Always a bit out of sorts. The world kind of runs over poor Charlie Brown.

Back in the 1960’s some Jewish activists got together to criticize the hapless Jews they saw and they created a comic strip called – No-Nuts. Not Peanuts. No-Nuts. Think about it and you’ll get the reference.

No-Nuts was the Jew who couldn’t stand up for himself. The Jew who would rather step aside. No-Nuts had no guts so he whispered when he was around non-Jews. He was humble to a fault. He was weak to a fault. No-Nuts had no self-respect.

It sounds strange because we live in such a different Jewish world. Those of us who live in Longmeadow, for example, take for granted that school isn’t open on the High Holidays, but that could only happen because some Jews made a commotion. They pushed the envelope, demanded attention, and got their way.

No-nuts wouldn’t have had the guts to raise the question – even if he had wanted to do so.

The best example of No-Nuts requires a dip back into history. All the way back to April 1903 when a large pogrom took place in the city of Kishinev in Russia. During a 24 hour period in Kishinev 700 Jewish houses and businesses were looted and destroyed, 500 Jews were wounded, and 47 Jews were killed.

The entire world was shocked – especially Jews. First, because the riot was so devastating. Secondly, because in the opinion of some Jews the Jews of Kishinev had not fought back. They had been passive, said some. Chaim Nachman Bialik, the most famous of Hebrew poets at the time, wrote a devastating critique of the event and virtually blamed the massacre on the Jews. Bialik essentially said the Jews of Kishinev were – he didn’t use the term because it would have been too vulgar – No-Nuts.

Bialik, who was a Zionist, criticized the Kishinev Jews because they hadn’t chosen to or been able to fight back. They had been victims.

And this was what Zionism was promising ought to never happen again. The Zionist claim was that Jews had a double problem. It was a combination of anti-Semitism PLUS their own inability to fight back against hatred.

Bialik and other Zionists said it was no longer possible for Jews to tolerate being victims. To be real human beings…to be worthy of their own heritage…Jews had to stand up and take charge of their lives. Jews could no longer allow themselves to be victims.

And how would you do that? Take charge? Establish a country of your own. Enter history like all other people. Then you can act instead of react. You can stand up straight and not have to turn the other cheek.

All of which is one way to understand what is happening in Israel today.
Of course, there are facts. You find them in the newspaper. The current conflict didn’t begin two days ago when Israel assassinated the leader of Hamas’ military arm. The conflict has actually been going on for years. To be exact, Hamas has lobbed more than 13,000 rockets into Israel over the last 11 years. That’s an average of three rockets per day. Since Tuesday, in fact, Hamas has fired more than 500 rockets. More than 5 million Israelis are in range of Hamas missiles.

Over the years and even recently, Hamas hasn’t had much success in killing Israelis with the missiles, but they have certainly intimidated and terrorized Israelis within range of their missiles. There are plenty of Israeli children who may not have been killed yet, but are terrified that death might rain down upon them anytime anywhere they are.

But didn’t Israel cause the conflict? Here’s an easy response for me. If Israel is so bad, then why aren’t missiles flying from the Palestinians in the West Bank? If the situation was so totally unredeemable, that is what you would expect. Palestinians should be attacking from wherever they are; that is to say, from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

But you don’t see that because, as unpleasant as it may be in parts of the West Bank, the Palestinians there are simply not choosing to terrorize Israel. It’s a choice and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have made the choice to fight. In other words, they’ve chosen to provoke Israel.

Those are the facts, but facts aren’t all that strike me as important tonight. I’d rather like to place the events of November 2012 into a much larger context and see what’s happening as part of a broader story.

I like the way Rabbi Eric Yoffie, past president of the URJ, wrote yesterday. As concerned as he is that there not be a major war, Yoffie looked back at Israel’s origins and said: Israel came into being so that Jewish children would never again have to huddle together in fear, terrorized by enemies of the Jewish people, while their parents stood by helplessly. Helping those children is [what is being done.] Doing nothing (being No-Nuts, being the sha-still it will be alright kind of Jew) undermines the sovereignty of the Jewish state and strikes a fatal blow at the very raison d'etre of Zionism.

Yoffie isn’t happy with violence. I’m not happy with what is happening in the Gaza Strip or all over Israel. But the alternative is to go back to being another kind of Jew and that’s what Zionism was trying to avoid.

To put the matter in terms of this week’s parasha, Israel came into being because of the problem between Jacob and Esau.

Let me remind you: In this week’s Torah portion, we meet the twin sons of Isaac. They are Jacob and Esau. Jacob is a mild-mannered man. He likes to stay close to home. Esau is a hunter. He is physical in every way.

At one point in the story Isaac, who has become old and blind, wants to bless his boys. Isaac plans to give the preferred blessing to Esau. But the boys’ mother won’t have this and so she disguises Jacob as Esau. When Jacob meets his father, Isaac grabs him, feels the fur he is wearing on his arms, and comments: The hands are the hands of Esau; the voice is the voice of Jacob.

In Jewish tradition, that comment came to summarize the difference between Jews and non-Jews. For centuries, Jews prided themselves on not being distinguished by their hands, arms, or muscles. Jews were proud that they descended from Jacob who didn’t employ force to get his way. He used his voice and his wits and mind to survive.

Zionism came along to say that too much Jacob was not a good thing. To paraphrase what I once heard Rabbi Meir Kahane say, The passive way of Jacob was a good thing, but too much passivity is not necessarily a better thing.

For the sake of survival, said the Zionists, we need to take a chapter out of Esau’s book. Get strong. Get tough. Use our hands and muscles to take control of our destiny.

Take that advice too far and tough Jews can become mean Jews. I know that. But Israel hasn’t done that yet. Israel isn’t doing that today. God willing, Israel won’t do that tomorrow either.

I wish it was enough to be Jacob. So soon after Veteran’s Day, I wish it was enough in America and Israel to be Jacob. But, as another great Israeli teacher, Rabbi David Hartman, once taught me: Living in the real world means making tough choices. It means fighting. It means admiring Jacob and never forgetting Jacob, but it also means appreciating the way of Esau.

The hands are the hands of Esau; the voice is the voice of Jacob.

In life you need both: hands and voice, Esau’s way and Jacob’s.

Even on Shabbat I know that. Especially on Shabbat, I recognize that even as I hope that Jacob’s voice will have the final say and lead our people back to calm in the weeks ahead.

 

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