Rabbi Lauren Werber
Temple B’nai Abraham
Rosh Hashanah Morning, 2016
Think about some of the highlights of this past year: For many, the Cavs winning the championship and the parade downtown top the list. But, watching the Olympics is right up there for my family. My son Sam and I were glued to the TV, staying up way past bedtime to cheer on our team. Team USA gave us plenty to cheer about, from swimmers Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, and Simone Manuel to shot put star Michelle Carter to the women’s gymnastics team. Individuals and US teams did well (especially our women), and the optimism, Olympic spirit, smiles, and tears of joy within the team were contagious.
Yet, Sam and I were always looking for an Israeli competitor on the list of qualifiers, always pausing the coverage to scan for that blue and white Israeli flag. We didn’t see it often, but it’s amazing that we saw it at all, and when we did, we felt a rush of pride and hope. This year, our little country of 8 1⁄2 million earned two bronze medals, both in Judo – It’s interesting that Israel so excels in a sport built on respect, decorum, and dignity…
But nothing comes easily for Israel and too often (it seems) Israel succeeds despite the world’s hostility rather than because of its support. It was true from the beginning in Rio. You may have heard about the bus debacle on the very first night, on the way to the opening ceremonies. Israel and Lebanon were slated to share a bus and the Lebanese delegation boarded first. When the Israelis arrived, the head of the Lebanese delegation blocked the door, refusing entry to the Israelis, who were eventually given alternate transportation. Lebanese media praised the team leader’s actions. One news broadcaster (from Al Manar), for example, tweeted, “The Israelis were sent away from the bus because normalization (with Israel) is not to be had in any form, and because the Lebanese identity (is that of) resistance. Be proud to be Lebanese.”
Later in the first week, when an Israeli Judoka (that’s a Judo competitor) named Or Sasson defeated an Egyptian opponent, the Egyptian backed away from a hand-shake (shaking hands is customary) and refused to bow (bowing is mandatory). When called back by the referee to bow, the Egyptian gave a cursory nod and again walked away. He explained later:“Shaking the hand of your opponent is not an obligation … It happens between friends and he’s not my friend. … for personal reasons, you can’t ask me to shake the hand of anyone from this State, especially in front of the whole world.”
The Lebanese delegation kept Israel off a bus, an Egyptian Judoka snubbed an Israeli opponent, and others –including a Saudi Arabian judoka chose or were forced to forfeit matches to avoid competing against Israelis at all.
I can’t help but think of the mournful words of Aicha/the Biblical book of Lamentations: ).Eicha yashvah vadad, ha’ir rabati am( ” ָהר ָיר ָר ְׁב ָדר ָד ָבב, ָר ַםרי ִי ָת ַבר ָםע.“
“How lonely sits the city, that was full of people.”
Jerusalem – Israel – too often sits lonely and alone as aggressions (in word or deed) against her go largely unchallenged. Why is she treated this way? Is it something we’ve done?
It certainly is not our fault as Jews. Our religion promotes the notion that all people are the children of God as the prophet Malachi famously said: Ha’lo av ecad l’chulanu
וּוֹהר ד ָה ָה ָחב ְׁוּ לי ְָֻל?
Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us all?”
Ours is a religion of peace, and one that fits solidly within the bounds of what is considered to be a legitimate faith.
And it certainly is not our fault as Zionists. The fulfillment of the dream of a state for the Jewish people is no different than it is for the fifty-seven countries who are part of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (including Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia), no different from the dozens of countries with a Christian state religion (including Hungary, Scotland, Finland, Denmark, and England), and no different from several Buddhist countries (including Bhutan, Thailand, and Cambodia). Zionism is not a radical philosophy – it is the basic hope “Lihiyot am chofshi be’artzeinu/ to be a free people in our land,” the very same hope realized by people all over the globe.
…The fact that Israel often sits alone certainly is not the fault of Israelis. The Israeli people, overall (We can’t ignore extremists, but they exist everywhere else in the world as well), The Israeli people, overall show tremendous restraint and respect for others. The Israeli Olympic team was ready to peacefully board the bus with the Lebanese delegation and Or Sasson was ready to shake hands with his Egyptian judo opponent. Israeli doctors treat all people – even terrorists and their children – at their hospitals and have set up camp at the Syrian border to bring victims of the war into Israel for treatment. Israeli aid teams are often the first on the ground when disaster strikes, as in Italy this summer – and even in hostile countries. The majority of Israelis are non-violent and continue to support a two-state solution to the Palestinian crisis.
Our isolation is also not the fault of the Israeli government. It is not the fault of the Israeli Government. It’s easy to blame the government. The situation in the territories is simply unacceptable, human rights violations are being committed, and over 3 million people have lived in our land without a country for 68 years. Continuing to build settlements in the territories stokes the fire, and bombing homes in retaliation for terrorism and lording military power over a disenfranchised Palestinian population – whatever the justification– just doesn’t look good.
The hatred against us, however, is not because of any of this. We were hated long before the Jewish state existed and we were hated even when leaders like Yitzchak Rabin and Shimon Peres struggled to create a lasting peace. What’s more? Dozens of governments around the world are committing far worse atrocities. Over just the past five years of conflict, almost 1⁄2 a million Syrians have been killed in a civil war (Syrian Center for Policy Research in NY Times), and, between 2004 and 2008, 400,000 people in the Darfur region of Sudan were killed (New Internationalist Magazine and Unicef). The human rights violations in these countries, as well as China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and so many more are simply astounding, but nobody – NOBODY – is calling for the obliteration of any of these countries. Criticizing policy is one thing. Saying that Israel has no right to exist – as do the Palestinian leadership, much of the Arab world, the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement, Students for Justice in Palestine, and others, puts us in a unique position.
What’s happening is not our fault and it’s not the Israelis’ fault. It stems from the willingness of the whole world to see the worst, to believe the worst, to embrace the worst. We see it at the United Nations, with the BDS movement, even within the Black Lives Matter campaign. So many people and organizations believe the lies and exaggerations they hear, including those who want to be fair and to see a just world. And then those people, sometimes activists for justice, become spreaders of hate and untruth.
There are certainly people who hate us, people who see only one side of a very complex story with enough pain, disappointment, and abuse to implicate and traumatize both the Israelis and the Palestinians. BDS infuriates us, assaults throughout the globe frighten us, behavior like that at the Olympics insults us, but – with it all – perhaps we are not as hated as we think. Perhaps we are looking at things the wrong way.
My rabbi told me the following story:
A Jewish man is riding on the subway reading a non-Jewish fundamentalist newspaper. A friend of his notices, is very upset, and approaches the newspaper reader: “Moshe, have you lost your mind? Why are you reading that newspaper?” Moshe replies: “I used to read the Jewish newspaper, but what did I find? Jews being persecuted, Israel being attacked, Jews disappearing through assimilation, Jews living in poverty. So I switched to this newspaper. Now what do I find? Jews own all the banks, Jews control the media, Jews are all rich and powerful, Jews rule the world. The news is much better! I was reading the wrong newspaper!”
What if we’re reading the wrong newspaper? Ignore the antisemitism inherent in the joke, and it still holds some truth: Are we choosing the wrong things to focus on, are we choosing to see only the worst, only the things that remind us that we sit alone? Is it the wrong newspaper that’s telling us the Israelis were repeatedly snubbed at the Olympics or that Israel is an apartheid state that should be destroyed?
The Lebanese delegation refused to get on the bus, but the International Olympic Committee rebuked the head of the delegation and warned him that such acts would not be tolerated in the future. …Are we reading the wrong newspaper?
The Egyptain judoka refused to shake the Israeli’s hand or bow, but he was booed loudly, severely reprimanded by the Olympic Disciplinary Committee, and sent home by his own Egyptian team. …Are we reading the wrong newspaper?
The media present Israel as a dangerous place and we hear a steady stream of anti-Israel rhetoric, but over 3 million people visit Israel each year and only 1⁄4 of them are Jews – 54% are Christian. (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs) Evangelical Christian supporters alone donate hundreds of millions of dollars to Israel annually. …Are we reading the wrong newspaper?
The BDS movement frightens and angers us, but its effect is questionable. Let’s spend a moment talking about BDS – the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that seeks to cripple Israel in response to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Without going into much detail, BDS strives to boycott not only things that will benefit the Israeli government, but also academic institutions and Jewish-owned businesses that are not even connected to Israel. It is antisemitism and anti-Zionism packaged as a political liberation movement.
The BDS movement employs slogans such as “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” meaning that all of Israel – from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea – should become a Palestinian state, but more than 20 state governments have passed laws or are considering laws that ban the government from working with companies who support BDS. Last month, Illinois actually black-listed 11 such companies. And, just last week, for the first time in 11 years, all U.S. flags at official buildings and posts all over the world flew at half-staff in memory of a foreign leader. That leader, of course, was Israel’s Shimon Peres. …Are we reading the wrong newspaper?
Antisemitism on college campuses remains a huge concern and our children are being subjected to ignorance and hatred far too often. But BDS votes on campuses continue to fail, the charges against the Ohio University students who stood up against antisemitism were dropped, and the Oberlin professor who posted hateful comments on social media has been suspended. …Are we reading the wrong newspaper?
I know we often feel like those words from Eicha –
”ָהרָיר ָרְׁבָדר ָדָבב, ָרַםרי ִיָתַבר ָםע.“
“How lonely sits the city, that was full of people.”
We often feel alone and vulnerable, but perhaps the answer is not to cower in fear or cry out in despair. Perhaps the answer is to read a different paper, to look for a different message, to find hope and love and support. …Many of you may know the famous Mr. Rogers quote:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news (he said), my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Perhaps the answer is to focus on the helpers. If we do that – if we read the right newspaper – then we can be empowered as Jews and as Zionists. We can stand among friends rather than sitting alone – and we can promote the future we want to see for our homeland and our people.
In this new year, may we find friends and helpers and may we be friends and helpers to Israel. May we look around us and, seeing the good, may we be empowered to speak up and to stand tall. May we look ahead knowing that Jerusalem – that city full of people – does not sit alone. And may we celebrate those who sit with her. May it be a year in which conflict, hatred, and hurt are overpowered by peace, friendship and love. As Theodor Herzl said, “Eem tirtzu, ein zo agadah: If we will it, it is not a dream.” May it be God’s will and may it be our will.