Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Kol Nidrei 5774 • 13 September 2013
Am Yisrael Chai – The People Israel Lives
In Warsaw in the autumn of 1939, shortly after the Germans captured the city and before they had walled up the Jews in a ghetto, a couple of Nazi soldiers were seen harassing a Jewish child on the street. The child’s mother ran out of the courtyard, picked up her bruised little boy, placed his cap back on his head, and said to him, “Come inside the courtyard and ‘za a mentsch’ [be a mentsch]...” In her Polish-inflected Yiddish the mother was instructing her son to become a decent human being.
So begins the book Jews and Power, a brilliant work by Harvard professor Ruth Wisse. Wisse goes on to show how this story illustrates a challenge we Jews face in the modern world. We uphold the value of being a mentsch, of not becoming like our enemies. But we also have to acknowledge, in the aftermath of 1939 Europe, how complicated this value is.
“That little boy in Warsaw,” Wisse starkly reminds us, “could not have done his mother’s bidding, because becoming fully human presupposed staying alive” (Wisse, xii). She does not advocate rejecting the value of being a mentsch, but acknowledging the challenge of balancing a life of Jewish virtue against the need to defend Jewish lives from our enemies.
1948 changed the reality of Jewish defenselessness, with the creation of Israel and its army. Think how different the 1930s and ‘40s could have been if there had been a Jewish state to intervene and accept refugees – it’s almost too painful to imagine. Now, 65 years later, Israel is on the map among the family of nations. It’s 40 years tonight since the Yom Kippur War of 1973, a time of anxiety for Israel. But Israel today is stronger in military, economy, and democracy than any of her neighbors.
Not to say there aren’t threats – the potential of a nuclear Iran, the turmoil in Egypt, Jordan, Syria – these are all on Israel’s doorstep. But Israelis, it seems, remain remarkably stoic, even relieved, that their neighbors are occupied with their own inner conflict rather than hostility toward Israel. Somehow, Israelis go on with their lives amid air raids and lines for gas masks.
By contrast, American Jews are not so stoic. We are on the whole nervous, anxious, and defensive when it comes to Israel and even our own status as Jews. It’s ironic because, as Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote in Haaretz earlier this month, “Kvetching aside, US Jews have never had it so good.” We are growing in diversity and vibrancy, and, in some places, in numbers. We spend on average in a year $5 billion on Jewish education. $5 billion! In a recent poll, two-thirds of Jews age 18-29 said that Israel is an important part of their Jewish identity. We are viewed by other Americans as one of the most favorable religious groups. Unlike even 50 years ago, now other Americans want us in their clubs, in their board rooms, and even in their marriages.
And yet, to listen to much of the American Jewish establishment talk, you’d think the sky was falling on us. The old habit of sounding the alarm of Jewish continuity and anti-Semitism served us well in the past, and old habits die hard, indeed.
It’s understandable, after all. For so long, Jews have had to be on the defensive, with the insecurity of a persecuted minority. But now, in America – virtually “overnight,” relative to our life as a people – we are more accepted and prosperous than ever. It is very new. We still don’t know how to process this.
Some of us overcompensate in one particular direction, crying “anti-Semite” like the boy who cried wolf, calling every critic of Israel an enemy or a self-hating Jew. It feels almost as if we miss the cohesive Jewish identity that anti-Semitism has often held together like glue. But as the historian David Mikics said, “Being aware of anti-Semitism seems a fundamentally distinct mission from appreciating Jewish traditions, and it’s often hard to know what the two things have to do with each other.”
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a leading Jewish feminist, raised a similar issue upon encountering virulent anti-Semitism within the feminist movement. She realized that, in her words,
“To feminists who hate Israel, I was not a woman, I was a Jewish woman.” Launching a deeper Jewish journey, Pogrebin wondered: “Why be a Jew for them if I am not a Jew for myself?” Many Jews...discovered that anti-Semitism can make the Jew, but it is more satisfying for the Jew to make the Jew.
And as Mikics concluded, “Perhaps the most basic lesson from the grim continuing history of anti-Semitism is that anti-Semites don’t get to say what the Jew is. Jews do, and each Jew does, and those answers are bound to be rich, confusing, and deeply personal—responses that the anti-Semite will fail utterly to recognize.”
Unfortunately, part of our people fails to recognize this as well. They have lost their way, substituting the watchdogging of anti-Semites and hawkish Israel advocacy for Jewish tradition. At the same time, another part of our people needs to be reminded that the holy effort of living Jewish values – and of being a mentsch – at times requires self-defense against real threats. A third part of our people has little interest in either way of being a Jew, especially in the way the other two groups fail to communicate with each other, and even disrespect each other.
On this evening of Kol Nidrei, I’d like to offer some advice to each of these three groups (myself included). My hope is that there is something here to make everyone uncomfortable. For in discomfort, there is learning.
To the first group, a charge: if you are so committed to Am Yisrael, then show it in the way you treat other Jews, especially those with whom you disagree politically. Stop persecuting your fellow Jews who have concerns about Israel’s actions, and please stop using the phrase “self-hating Jew.” There are many Jews who criticize Israel out of love for her people and concern for her future. Try to be honest and open about Israel’s shortcomings. Remember what you are so good at teaching: if the real anti-Semites will hate us no matter what we say and do, isn’t it better to support Israel without whitewashing it, so we don’t alienate our friends and allies?
To the second group, whose Jewish connection centers on Jewish values and human rights, who embraces life in the diaspora: don’t forget what the existence of Israel has done for Jews worldwide, especially in 1967 when, as our community member Werner Knurr has said, “After the Six Day War, we all walked six feet taller.” Would American Jews be as comfortable and self-assured without Israel?Furthermore, even as you push the previous group to be more open to addressing Israel’s faults, and push Israel herself toward a peace process, let’s not forget the faults on the Palestinian side. Don’t ignore what even Peter Beinart acknowledges, that Palestinians are unlikely to endorse Zionism’s legitimacy, that many seek a return to 1948 rather than the 1967 paradigm in which Jewish peace activists operate. Similarly, as Yair Rosenberg wrote, “...where once it was difficult to get Jews into a room with Palestinians, now it has become difficult to find a Palestinian who will share the stage with a Zionist Jew.” Let’s not whitewash these inconvenient truths, either.
To the third group, the disaffected, unaffiliated, or marginalized: it’s harder to know what to say to you – and really, we should be listening more. But here are a few questions for you to consider, on this holiest night of the year: What do you seek as a Jew, as a human being? What do you want for your children, for your community, and what are you willing to do to achieve it? Simply put, we need you; the Jewish people need you. I’ll say more about this tomorrow. But perhaps your fresh energy and perspective can help be a bridge between these other two groups, to keep us from parting ways entirely, from undermining the Jewish potential to bring redemption to the world.
* * *
Last year, I had the privilege of attending a Wexner Heritage session here in Aspen when Natan Sharansky addressed the group. During the Q&A, a Russian-born American Jew asked him, “Why did the Free Soviet Jewry Movement unify and mobilize the entire Jewish community, and why hasn’t any issue done that since?” Sharansky said, it was because the fight for the Jews of the Soviet Union was a fight both for human rights and in defense of Jews. It was at the same time universal and particular. For him, that’s what Zionism has always been, and that’s what the Jewish mission in the world should be. We should be bold in standing up for Jews and in defending all human rights.
In that spirit, if I may be so bold, we should not be afraid to say that Palestinians have rights – to dignity, and self-determination, and maybe even to land. Supporting that principle does not make us less of a Jew, or less pro-Israel. On the contrary, it makes us credible defenders of the very principle on which Zionism and Israel were founded. Peter Beinart, a controversial and perceptive observer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, shared a story that brings this point home.
Tommy Lapid, the late father of Israel’s most recent political sensation, Yair Lapid, was a hawk. But one day in 2004, watching an elderly woman in Gaza’s Rafah refugee camp searching on hands and knees for her medicines in the ruins of a house destroyed by Israeli bulldozers, he blurted out something astonishing. He said she reminded him of his Hungarian grandmother.
Now, that does not mean that Israelis are like Nazis – perish the thought. They are not, and comparing them is beyond the pale. And remember, genuine anti-Semites will make that awful comparison regardless of what we say and do. What it does mean, is this, in Beinart’s words:
By seeing Palestinians—truly seeing them—we glimpse a faded, yellowing photograph of ourselves. We are reminded of the days when we were a stateless people...
That recognition need not weaken our resolve or our case in defense of Israel and Jews. On the contrary, it should strengthen them both.
It is within our grasp to defend Jewish lives and live by Jewish principles. But not if we come from a position of fear, defensiveness, and insecurity. Particularly as American Jews, we should embrace our security and proceed with confidence. We should learn to combat anti-Semitism without letting it define us. We should be more willing to use our position of power for the good of our tribe and the good of humanity. That has always been the animating tension at the heart of being a Jew. How many times does our tradition call us to beware the other who might lead us astray or destroy us? And how many times does it call us to “love your neighbor as yourself” and “not do to others what is hateful to you”?
As Rabbi Danny Gordis wrote today, “Grant us the capacity for unbounded pride coupled with the embrace of self-critique, satisfaction in what we’ve wrought coupled with a drive to do even better.” My prayer this Yom Kippur, for all of us and the Jewish People everywhere, is that we will be equally fierce in our commitments to be a mentsch and to be a Jew. Let’s let the world know that we are proud of both, and we will never let go of either.
G’mar chatimah tovah, may Jews everywhere and all people be sealed in the Book of Life for a year of blessing.