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Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Israel at 70 – Facing Reality and Finding Hope

I rarely give sermons about Israel. The last time I did was immediately after the last elections when Netanyahu had said some appalling things and I couldn’t contain my rage. After that sermon, a member was so disgusted with my perspective that he left the community and subsequently left Santa Fe. So, part of the reason I have avoided talking about Israel is cowardice, because I’d rather not upset members of the community. And a community with such divided opinions means that pretty much anything that I say about Israel is going to upset at least someone. Of course, sermons aren’t always meant to be comforting, they are often meant to be challenging, but Israel brings out something else in people – especially Jews – and that, perhaps, is what I want to talk about most this evening. I do so because once again lives have been lost and because I have come to believe that many liberal Jews are not aware of some of the nuance of what is happening in the Middle East. Indeed, in some of the correspondence and conversations I’ve had this week, some members have openly owned their lack of knowledge of the situation.

Allow me to state some starting positions. I have visited Israel twice, both times were over twenty years ago. When I was there, I met my first victim of terror – a young boy who had a plastic forehead because his original one had been blown off in a nail bomb. Between 2000 and 2003, there were 73 suicide bombings aimed at Israeli civilians, but after the security barrier was built the number dropped to 12 in a similar time period. There is no question in my mind that the location of the security barrier is deeply problematic, and while I believe that Israel had every right to erect it, I was one of many Jews worldwide who were troubled by where it was placed. I remember the feeling of fear amongst every day Israelis at that time of imminent attack, a fear which was grounded in decades of previous attacks by Arab nations - including the most cynical one on Yom Kippur - and by Palestinian suicide bombers. The security barrier is important, though. Acting in self-defence after repeated attacks, Israel protected itself and in so doing limited the rights of neighboring Palestinians, much to the condemnation of much of the rest of the world. Jews in Israel were not seen as victims because they had money, they had US support, they had nuclear weapons – they were painted as the bully Goliath and western liberals lapped it up because any blood spilled of impoverished Palestinians seemed to pollute the ground more than the blood of well-off Israelis, when both should have equally offended the conscience. In truth, both sides were, and indeed continue to be, victims. Victims often lash out in inappropriate retaliation, and I believe that addressing victimhood in the Middle East is, in fact, the primary path to peace. But I get ahead of myself.

This week, following Israel’s killing of 62 Palestinians near the border fence, I have received many emails and seen many social media posts from congregants and liberal clergy of other faiths excoriating Israel for breaking international law, for being the bullying Goliath against the helpless Palestinians. I have read a multitude of books, news articles and internet commentaries, and this sermon is the culmination of that research. I will say from the beginning that if my research is flawed, I ask you to later provide me with sources that you think are relevant that I haven’t seen. Don’t get angry with me because I haven’t read something that you have - please later help widen my knowledge on this subject, and perhaps with a new perspective I’ll present another sermon on the topic in the future.

Another starting position is that Israel exists and has a right to exist. How the State of Israel was formed is clearly open to debate. The Israeli narrative tends to focus on repeatedly requesting Arab people to remain peacefully in their homes, while the Palestinian narrative focuses on expulsion and atrocities by Israeli troops. A British police report from 1948, for example, states clearly “every effort is being made by the Jews to persuade the Arab populace to stay and carry on with their normal lives, to get their shops and businesses open and to be assured that their lives and interests will be safe.” (British police report, 26/4/48, “Myths and Facts 1976,” Near East Report, Washington, 1976). There are a number of such reports. However, in the introduction to his expansive text “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited,” Benny Morris explains that new documents reveal “that there were both far more expulsions and atrocities by Israeli troops than tabulated [previously]… and, at the same time, far more orders and advice to various communities by Arab officials and officers to quit their villages or at least send away their women, old folk and children, substantially fuelling the exodus.” (p.5) In other words, both narratives probably contain elements of truth, although with 70 years of oral embellishment on both sides, it is particularly difficult now to determine what happened at the formation of the State of Israel seventy years ago. What I say with a fair degree of certainty, though, is that the Palestinians were treated terribly by their Arab brethren at the time, and instead of being absorbed into their countries, were used as a political tool, which, I believe, is a policy that has now started to bear real fruit. In 1949, for example, Musa Al-Alami wrote in his article “The Lesson of Palestine” in the Middle East Journal that “It is shameful that the Arab governments should prevent the Arab refugees from working in their countries and shut the doors in their faces and imprison them in camps.” Abu Mazen wrote back in 1976 that “The Arab armies entered Palestine to protect the Palestinians… but, instead, they abandoned them, forced them to emigrate and to leave their homeland, imposed upon them a political and ideological blockade and threw them into prison similar to the ghettos in which the Jews used to live in Europe (Al-Thaura, March 1976).” In other words, however the State of Israel was founded, it was founded through international law, and the Palestinian people who fled, either by will or by force, were abandoned by their Arab brethren, and I believe continue to be abandoned by them today, other than the expression of meaningless platitudes whenever Israelis kill Palestinians. Whether we like it or not, the future of the State of Israel is intimately linked with the future of the Palestinian people, and the two cannot be separated. In some sense, Israel and the Palestinians are one – their fate of conflict and of potential peace – is one.

What we saw this week was a tragedy, but a tragedy far more nuanced than most people – and unquestionably most news outlets – allow. When we talk about demonstrations, in this country we think of rallies and protests. The demonstration last week was not that. Ahmed Abu Artema was the man who thought up the March of Return. Writing in the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/14/opinion/gaza-protests-organizer-great-return-march.html), he explains his disdain for national borders, saying that last December he watched a bird fly over the border and found himself thinking “how much smarter birds and animals are than people” in that “they harmonize with nature instead of erecting walls.” This liberal-sounding message, though, is not liberal at all. When your neighbor has to erect a reinforced wall in order to stop you and your brethren from killing him, what is more unnatural is the initial desire to kill your neighbor merely because they are on a piece of land that you once owned. Of course, Abu Artema is not openly calling for violence - he’s just calling for the end of the Israeli state by removing its borders. And to be clear, while I dislike the trait of nationalism in individuals, particularly as a source of pride, the idea of ending nation states is nonsensical. The idea of ending only one nation state is simply offensive. So, The Great March of Return was not a demonstration against Israeli occupation and it was not a protest against the American Embassy being moved to Jerusalem. It was an attempt to establish what Palestinians call The Right of Return, which means every Palestinian returning to their homes in Israel. It is a nonsensical dream that will never happen, and the continued insistence on the Right of Return immediately ends any potential peace because if all the Palestinians and all their descendants returned to Israel, the Jews would be profoundly outnumbered and the Jewish state would cease to exist. The Right of Return is not a right, it is a political position meaning the end of Israel as a nation state. While the Palestinian people demand the Right of Return, there will never be peace in the Middle East. This belief in the Right of Return is bolstered by the United Nations. “Unlike every other refugee population on this planet, the UN extends refugee status not only to those Palestinians who lived in what is today’s Israel and fled or were forced from their homes 70 years ago. It also, with ongoing counterproductive consequence, extends refugee status to their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and onward into eternity.” (https://www.timesofisrael.com/world-must-tell-gazas-hamas-abused-masses-the-truth-there-will-be-no-return/) So, the March of Return was never about peace, it was never about protesting against the intolerable conditions in Gaza. It was about ending the State of Israel. It was also nothing like demonstrations that we know. Of the 62 people killed, 50 were members of Hamas and 3 were members of Islamic Jihad. A press release from Hamas says, “Our people set out today to react to the new American Zionist aggression and to tell the world with its blood and limbs that it is the one that will draw the map of return and the map of victories…The blood that has been spilled in resisting this crime will arouse a revolution until the occupation is removed.” (http://jcpa.org/article/why-hamas-interested-palestinian-deaths/) Hamas used to think that success lay in Israeli deaths, but now it has changed focus. Now it wants Palestinian deaths. Now it wants martyrs, because armchair observers in the West are far more easily swayed to turn against Israel by the image of dead Palestinians. Death encourages sympathy. So, they took over the March of Return and lied to the Palestinian people. As the New York Times reported, “After midday prayers, clerics and leaders of militant factions in Gaza, led by Hamas, urged thousands of worshipers to join the protests. The fence had already been breached, they said falsely, claiming Palestinians were flooding into Israel.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/14/world/middleeast/gaza-israel-deadly-protest-scene.html) The Washington Post similarly reported that “At a gathering point east of Gaza City, organizers urged protesters over loudspeakers to burst through the fence, telling them Israeli soldiers were fleeing their positions, even as they were reinforcing them.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/gaza-protests-take-off-ahead-of-new-us-embassy-inauguration-in-jerusalem/2018/05/14/eb6396ae-56e4-11e8-9889-07bcc1327f4b_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.29ab1ccbbcbd) This was not a peaceful protest. Hamas openly admit it. ““When we talk about ‘peaceful resistance,’” Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar said in an interview, “we are deceiving the public. This is peaceful resistance bolstered by a military force and by security agencies.” (https://www.memri.org/tv/senior-hamas-official-mahmoud-zahhar-on-gaza-protests-this-is-not-peaceful-resistance) Widely circulated Arabic instructions on Facebook directed protesters to “bring a knife, dagger, or gun if available and to breach the Israeli border and kidnap civilians.

(http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/262329/gaza-media-explainer)  An NPR interviewer asked a Gazan with a kite with a swastika on it what it means to him. "The Jews go crazy when you mention Hitler,” he said, adding that he knew exactly what it represented with the chilling words, “We want them to burn.” (ibid.) Before discussing the Israeli response, then, let’s be absolutely clear what this was. This was an attempt at an armed incursion on a national border. It was an act of war, using civilians as a figurative and literal smokescreen. Individuals armed with guns and machetes – and there is clear photographic and video evidence of this -  attempted to breach the fence in order to kill and kidnap Israelis. Hamas knew exactly what it was doing when it urged Gazans forward because it wanted them to be shot. Hamas does not care about the Palestinian people. It is a brutal regime that maims or kills anyone who protests against it and that cannot be voted out because it has banned elections. The inhumanity of Hamas is something most Western liberals cannot comprehend. The Palestinians in Gaza, territory which Israel gave back in an attempt at peace, are ruled by one of the most repressive, violent, theocratic regimes in the world and there is no conceivable way of them being removed from Hamas’ vice. Hamas knows that Western media will be apoplectic at the apparent slaughter of supposedly peaceful protestors. They played the Western media like a fiddle and now liberals all across the world are singing Hamas’ tune without realizing.

Should Israel have responded the way it did? A number of colleagues and congregants wrote to me this week calling for restraint, saying Israel should not have used lethal force. One asked me to openly condemn Israel’s response. In a similar vein, this week, Daniel Sugarman wrote in the Jewish Chronicle thatThere are ways to disperse crowds which do not include live fire. But the IDF has made an active choice to fire live rounds and kill scores of people. You cannot tell me that Israel, a land of technological miracles which have to be seen to be truly believed, is incapable of coming up with a way of incapacitating protestors that does not include gunning dozens of them down.” (https://www.thejc.com/comment/comment/the-hamas-attacks-on-the-gaza-border-have-met-with-an-overwhelming-and-deadly-response-by-israeli-forces-this-must-be-condemned-1.464174) A few days later, though, he realized that he had made an error. In a second article, he wrote, “I’d said that surely there must be a way the protestors could be stopped without shooting live ammunition at them – that Israel, with its incredible technological capabilities, must be capable of developing a way. That was a cry of anguish, but it was not an argument. If no such technology currently exists, then it was absurd of me to blame the IDF for not magically willing it into existence. The traditional crowd stopping technology would not have worked effectively. Rubber bullets are only short range. The same with water cannons. And with tens of thousands of people rushing the border, this would have been extremely unlikely to work effectively. The border would have been broken through. And then, without much of a doubt, a lot of people in Israel would have died.  That was, after all, Hamas’s stated aim…. I failed to acknowledge that, either way, Israel would be giving Hamas what it wanted. Shoot at those charging at you and Hamas would have its martyrs. Fail to shoot and Hamas would break through the barrier and bring suffering and death – its stated aim - to Israelis living only a few hundred metres away from that barrier. The march may have originally been, as it was declared to be, about Palestinians returning to the homes they had to leave 70 years before. But Hamas’s aim was far more straightforward – to quote, “We will take down the border and we will tear out their hearts from their bodies…. The choice was, quite literally, shoot at people running at you with the stated aim of killing you and your families, or fail to shoot and let them do it.” (https://www.thejc.com/comment/comment/i-said-israel-should-be-ashamed-of-its-actions-on-the-gaza-border-now-i-am-the-one-who-is-ashamed-1.464233)

What about international law? There is far more nuance here than people seem to appreciate. There is no question that last month we saw deplorable footage of Israeli snipers shooting individuals near the border who were clearly posing no risk to human life, laughing as they did so. Such immorality, such inhumanity, was clearly in breach of international law against protestors and the individuals involved need to be punished to the full extent of the law. However, this week the situation was different. The law says that “the intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.” Last month’s footage was clearly in breach of that. But that was then and this is now. Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, says that “an attempt to approach or crossing or damaging the fence do not amount to a threat to life or serious injury and are not sufficient grounds for the use of live ammunition.” (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-44124556) He added that even if stones or Molotov cocktails are thrown, even then lethal force is not permissible. But was that what happened this week? Was this just an attempt at a crossing? Was this just people chucking stones? Or, was it to once again use the words of those who took over control of the rally, an attempt to take down the border and tear out the hearts from Israelis’ bodies by an organization that openly calls for the destruction of Israel and that has fired over 10,000 rockets into Israel in the last ten years? When people approach the border to breach it while armed with weapons, we have to ask was this an attempt at approaching the fence or was this the physical manifestation of an ongoing declaration of war? If it was, then of course lethal force is allowed. The impossible difficulty is that international law is framed in such a way that it doesn’t currently properly address this kind of situation. To say that this was a breach of international law is way too simplistic and reveals an immediate bias, conscious or not.

One of my colleagues – a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis - was there, at the border. He wrote the following: “I want to testify that what I saw and heard was a tremendous, supreme effort from our side, to prevent in every possible way Palestinian deaths and injuries. Of course, the primary mission was to prevent hundreds of thousands of Gazans from infiltrating into our territory. That kind of invasion would be perilous, mortally dangerous to the nearby communities, would permit terrorists disguised as civilians to enter our kibbutzim and moshavim, and would leave us with no choice but to target every single infiltrator.

That’s why our soldiers were directed to prevent infiltration – in a variety of ways, only using live ammunition as a last resort. The IDF employs many creative means of reducing friction with Gazans and uses numerous methods, most of which are not made public, to prevent them from reaching the fence.

In addition, over the last few weeks there have been serious efforts to save the lives of children and civilians who have been pushed to the front lines by Hamas – who are trying to hide behind them in order to infiltrate and attack Israel.

When there is no alternative and live ammunition must be used to stop those who storm the fence – the soldiers make heroic and sometimes dangerous efforts not to kill and only to injure those on the other side.

The IDF is stationing senior commanders at every confrontation point to ensure that every shot is approved and backed up by a responsible figure with proper authority. Every staging area has an especially large number of troops in order to make sure that soldiers are not put into life-threatening situations where they will have no choice but to fire indiscriminately.

A situation where thousands of people rush you is frightening, even terrifying. It is extremely difficult to show restraint, and it requires calm, mature professionalism.

55 dead is an enormous number. But I can testify from my first-hand experience, that every bullet and every hit is carefully reported, documented and investigated, in Excel spreadsheets. Literally. I was there and I saw it with my own eyes.” (http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/i-was-at-the-gaza-border-we-did-all-we-could-to-avoid-killing/)

When Israel gave back Gaza in 2007, it did so in the hope that it would bring peace.  Instead, it brought the rise of Hamas, a continual rain of rockets and repeated attempts to infiltrate Israel through tunnels. The Israeli response was a blockade of Gaza, although few realize that Egypt also continues the blockade on their border as well. Israel, Egypt and Hamas are responsible for the impoverishment in Gaza. The blockade makes it impossible for Gazans to grow sufficient food, or to fish in deep enough waters, or to have access to healthcare, education and jobs. It breeds enormous resentment. At the same time, Hamas destroy crossing posts that would enable their people to have access to humanitarian aid, and they spend millions on weapons of war and on terrorist tunnels instead of raising the living standard of the people in Gaza. Their leaders all have electricity and food, while their people do not.  Protesting against Israel, especially while receiving a stipend from Hamas, is the only way such a desperate people can express their now multi-generational frustration and indeed sometimes make money to survive. The situation in Gaza is intolerable. “97% of Gaza households depend on water delivered by tanker trucks. Sewage is another problem. Although 78% of households are connected to public sewage networks, treatment plants are overloaded. Around 90 million litres of partially treated and raw sewage is pumped in to the Mediterranean and open ponds daily - meaning 95% of groundwater in the Strip is polluted.” (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-20415675) And, in a very different way, the situation in cities like S’derot, the Israeli city closest to Gaza, is also intolerable, with children and adults regularly diving for cover or bomb shelters because of continual rocket attacks. Medical studies in Sderot have documented a post-traumatic stress disorder incidence among young children of almost 50%, as well as high rates of depression and miscarriage. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palestinian_rocket_attacks_on_Israel). On both sides there are clear victims, but the world usually only sees one side of victimhood.

So, having faced what I understand as the reality of this week, where could we find hope? In my opinion, the world needs to make it very clear to all Palestinians that the Right of Return is totally unrealistic and that continuing to demand for it will continue to impoverish the Palestinian people and will continue tension in the area. With that in mind, I believe that the refugee status accorded to even to grandchildren of those who once lived in the land should be changed. As Ignacio Cassis, the Swiss Foreign Minister said, this “provides ammunition to continue the conflict. For as long as Palestinians live in refugee camps, they will want to return to their homeland.” He adds, “By supporting UNRWA (The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) we are keeping the conflict alive.” (http://honestreporting.com/idns-05-16-2018-iran-meddling/) The mood and current lack of nuance at the UN, though, does not make me hopeful that such a thing will happen soon.

There are other things that need to happen before there is peace. The illegal settlements, built to house the ultra-orthodox Jews who hear a false call from God louder than the genuine call from their human neighbor, must be dismantled. The situation in Gaza must be improved and that can only happen when – somehow – Hamas are removed from power, or at the very least are brought to the negotiating table with Fatah. The current political climate in the region, though, and Hamas’ vice grip on Gaza, does not make me hopeful that this will happen soon either.

Rabbi Micky Boyden said this week, “As long as Hamas’ ultimate goal remains the destruction of the Jewish state, Israel can hardly be blamed for taking whatever action she considers necessary to protect the lives of her citizens.” (https://weareforisrael.org/2018/05/15/the-bloodbath-in-gaza/) I disagree – I think that is not nuanced enough. Sometimes, Israel sees attack as the best method of defence, but often does not make the compelling case as to why such attacks are important, and then it is easily painted worldwide as the aggressor. To be clear, this week’s response was not that, in my opinion - this week was purely about defence. Nonetheless, I believe that not only does Israel always need to take action in accordance with international law, but it needs to make a greater case to the world when it does. I believe that Israel needs to continually remind the world that Hamas has an open declaration of war against it and that anyone involved in action that threatens the State of Israel must be treated as an enemy combatant, not as a protestor. It needs to make that legal case clearer, and in so doing needs to send the message to the Palestinian people that any action against a border will be treated as an act of war, and met with appropriate corresponding force. It cannot make that legal case alone, certainly not internally. It has to be a full, public presentation to the world. Israel needs to engage in an honest global discussion about the nuance of international law in situations like the one we saw this week.

I do find hope in the fact that you, the members of this community, have sat through a lengthy sermon trying to open up nuance in an often polarizing issue. It is only through nuanced discussion that we could possibly come to develop peace. Simplistic signs like the one on Old Pecos Trail, or cartoons like the one in this week’s Santa Fe Reporter, that blame Israel for slaughtering civilians, do literally nothing for peace. In fact, I am certain that they exacerbate conflict. Blaming only one side for this conflict is nonsensical. Both sides have done things that they shouldn’t. Both sides have missed opportunities for peace. So, along with the need for nuance is the need for greater recognition of mutual pain and mutual blame. If Israelis and Palestinians can see that their own leaders have sometimes failed them all, that they have caused the other pain, then perhaps there is hope.

There is one step I can see happening that might bring hope. The Jewish community around the world needs to see the suffering of the Palestinian people as real, we need to acknowledge it alongside the suffering of the Israeli people. The Palestinians’ victimhood cannot be denied merely because of Israel’s victimhood as well. Whoever the cause of their suffering has been over the last seventy years should be secondary to the actual real acknowledgement of current suffering. Jewish tradition does not ask us to explore the roots of a person’s or a people’s current suffering - it just demands that we do everything in our power to try to remove them from suffering. How we do that of course depends on where we think that suffering comes from, and for that we will need nuance. We cannot just say that the Palestinian people suffer because of Hamas because that would be ignoring half of the story. If the Palestinian people thrived, if they were wealthy, if they traded with Israel, then financial incentives to violence from Hamas would be totally ineffective. Mass punishment as a response to individual acts of terror has not worked. We therefore need to therefore help lift the standard of living in Gaza and to do that we have to first and foremost acknowledge the suffering that is there.

I will say one place where I definitely find hope, and that is in Creativity for Peace, and all the similar organizations in the Middle East and around the world that bring Israelis and Palestinians together to break down barriers and to show a shared humanity, to give space to shared pain. True lasting peace is never obtained by blame, but by reconciliation. All the liberals around the world who point fingers do far less to bring about peace than the liberals who actually create relationships. Pointing fingers is easy, it is cheap, it is a way of easing our conscience by blaming others. Psalm 34(:14) adjures us to “seek peace and pursue it.”  Marching with placards isn’t pursuing peace. Writing angry Facebook posts isn’t pursuing peace. Debating the Middle East isn’t pursuing peace. “Making peace among people” (Mishkan T’fillah siddur, p.88), actively bringing people together, breaking down resentment and mistrust, that is pursuing peace. If people really want me to condemn anyone, I will condemn not only those who engage in acts of violence but also those who blame and do nothing else. If we can all stop pointing fingers and actually get involved in the real work of bringing people together, then perhaps God will, in the words of Leviticus, “bring peace upon the land” (Lev. 26:6). If our Temple is to pursue peace, it needs to actively support projects that bring Israelis and Palestinians together. Only then could we authentically call ourselves beit shalom, a house of peace.

So may we come together to alleviate the suffering of all, to recognize the shared pain of all and to actively work together to make peace. May our community be a beacon for peace, striving to listen to those in pain and to help break down barriers of resentment. May we be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace (Mishnah Avot 1:12) and may we truly work for a time when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall they learn war anymore (Is. 2:4, Mic. 4:3). And let us say, Amen.

Friday, 23 February 2018

The Consolidation of Evil sermon, Shabbat Zachor 2018

One of the things I used to love about Star Wars as a child was it very clearly defined good and evil. Darth Vader – dark and forboding, face covered by a mask, was evil. Luke Skywalker, wearing a white outfit, was good. Yes, it blurred the lines somewhat, and by the end of Return of the Jedi when Vader tried to atone for everything he had done, we understood that good people can become bad and that bad people can become good. Nonetheless, a polarized system of good and evil was clearly established. You either fought for good, or for evil. That’s very comforting, especially during childhood, because it makes the world a much easier place to live in. It makes morality a simple on/off exercise of either being righteous or being wicked.

The play Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand, ends in a similar way. In his final speech, Cyrano rallies against compromise. Cyrano didn’t see the world with nuance, he saw black and white, right and wrong. I lapped it up as a teenager, propelled as I was at the time into a confusing world. Such things were comforting. Perhaps that’s even part of the reason why Judaism appealed to me so much at that time as well. The Bible certainly contains nuance in terms of interpretation, but in terms of morality, not so much. There’s God’s way and then there’s the wrong way. You’re either for God or you’re not.

Shabbat Zachor is the epitome of that. The Shabbat before Purim, we read from two scrolls – one for the weekly Torah reading and one to read of Amalek. Remember what Amalek did to you, we read. The connection with Purim is because the Book of Esther (3:1) says that Haman was a descendant of Agag, which was the name of the King of Amalek. To quote Aish HaTorah’s commentary on this, “Haman’s desire to wipe out the Jewish people was an expression of his long-standing national tradition.” Indeed, they say that “Amalek attacked the Jews out of pure hatred – Amalek lived in a distant land and was under no imminent threat.” In other words, Jews good, Amalekites evil. It’s really a very simple system of morality.

With such a mindset, of course, one can excuse all sorts of horror because it’s done in the name of righteousness. So, ethnic cleansing – which is basically what Torah commands of the ancient Israelites as they go into the land – is seen as a righteous endeavor. The consolidation of evil into one convenient package outside of the self carries with it the potential for evil itself.  It also makes dialogue virtually impossible. Midrash tells us that when Esau was getting old he called his grandson Amalek and told him that he was unable to kill Jacob but now he entrusted the mission of exterminating them to him and to his descendants. It’s actually a disturbing story because it means that anyone descended from Amalek is immediately assumed to be a potential murderer of Jews. Politically, this has carried into modernity, with repeated references by Israeli right-wingers to Palestinians being descendants of Amalek. The consolidation of evil dehumanizes, which in turn leads to the potential acts of evil I mentioned before.

Aish HaTorah’s commentary is explicit in the difference between Jews and Amalekites. It quotes Talmud’s response to Amalek, particularly one word – Amalek happened (or in Hebrew, karcha) upon you (Deut. 25:18). It explains that word means coincidence, so Amalek is associated with randomness and subjective thought, while being a Jew means believing in absolutes. Life doesn’t happen by chance, as Amalekites think, but rather everything happens because God wills it. There are consequences to this kind of thinking. If you believe that God determines everything, then great, you’re good. But if you don’t, if you dare to think that God doesn’t control all and that sometimes bad things just happen, then even if you don’t intend to kill Israelites, you’re still basically acting or at least thinking like an Amalekite. This is taking things even further, from judging an entire people according to their deeds to know judging them by their thoughts, even if they haven’t expressed them!

Amalek therefore became the symbol of human evil in Judaism. Torah and then Talmud consolidate evil into one people who, most importantly, they felt were still amongst them. Was Haman Amalek? Was Rome Amalek? Were the Crusaders Amalek? Was Hitler Amalek? Basically, anyone who opposed Judaism was connected in their evil behavior.

I have a number of profound difficulties with this. Firstly, Judaism firmly believes in teshuvah, in returning to God, or repentance. It believes that no-one is born wicked and that everyone has free will. And yet at the same time, it holds that the descendants of Amalek not only act in certain ways, but even think in certain ways. It essentially shuts off any possibility of atonement for anyone descended from Amalek.

A second difficulty is the blatant racism of it. Sure, differing cultures around the world view the world differently, their understanding of reality and of humanity is different. But the very idea that there is one race of people who are hell-bent on evil is textbook racism. Our traditional was profoundly racist. Does that mean we’re bound to its racism? Of course not, but we have to acknowledge that millions of Jews around the world who take it literally feel that they are bound to that code of ethics and aren’t even aware that it is racism.

A third difficult with this is that it gives permission to call anyone evil. Sure, there are evil people in this world, and indeed a majority of people in one nation can be led to evil without even realizing it. We have seen this in recent history. But the idea of Amalek is insidious because it means that anyone can be accused without any potential recourse. Once someone is labeled a descendant of Amalek, there is no potential defence that they can provide for their actions. Whatever they say is an Amalekite lie.

A fourth difficulty is that over time Amalek transcended nationalism and in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox became a tool for internal Jewish intolerance. As Aish HaTorah state on their website, “in describing the actual battle with Amalek, the Torah says: "When Moses raised his hand, Israel was stronger. And when Moses lowered his hand, Amalek was stronger" (Exodus 17:11). Moses' raised hands symbolize the Jews raising their eyes heavenward in a commitment to God and Torah. "When Moses' hands are lowered" ― i.e. the Jewish people take a secular approach to life ― then we lose. It is a direct inverse proportion: Turning away from God automatically causes Amalek to rise, and vice-versa.” What do they mean by this? If you are Orthodox, you are with God. If you’re not, you’re Amalek. This isn’t an appreciation of the nuance of progressive spirituality, I read this as a declaration of non-Orthodox Jewish communities not only turning from God, but being as evil as those who would destroy us.

There is evil in the world. There is evil in this country. There are people who do evil things. There are people who were raised to be hateful and violent. We dare not deny the existence of evil. But consolidating evil and then accusing entire peoples or groups of being inherently and unchangeably evil or indeed of being descendants of evil-doers with a continued evil mission… that is a different thing. That is, perhaps, an evil thing in and of itself. I get that this country is extremely polarized at the moment, and that individuals are groups have deliberately been creating such a society for years. And I think we should call out individuals, or even organizations, that cause harm. But we must at the same time be aware of when we’re consolidating evil merely because it makes it easier for us to address a situation, because pointing the finger is far easier than the difficult discussions and compromises with people with whom we profoundly disagree that are necessary to bring about social change.

 One of the reasons I am proud to be a Reform Jew is because I am entitled to think in a modern way, and I am not theologically or philosophically bound to thinking in divisive ways that disparage entire peoples, or that can be used to basically call anyone who disagrees with me evil. Ultimately, when two sides of a profound disagreement both feel entitled to call each other Amalek, then the term ceases to have any meaningful value at all, other than to continue hatred.

So, this Shabbat Zachor, I’ll remember Amalek. Not as a hate-filled people who went out of their way to attack the Israelite people, because that literally makes no sense militarily or politically. Instead, I’ll remember Amalek as a creation of Torah, as a way of thinking about others that immediately brands them as evil, and it is that Amalek that I shall try to blot out from the face of the earth.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Why I Wish There Were a Hell

This sermon was delivered on 16th February 2018, after another massacre in a school, this time in Florida.

In my youth, I used to believe in heaven and hell. How could I not? Everything I read said that there was a heaven, and the natural corollary to heaven in Western culture is hell. I believed that when a person died they lived on in some other way. My 5-year old son said exactly that to me in the car the other day. As I became more aware of evil, I didn’t know of the Rabbinic concept of Gehinnom, a cleansing place, so I just thought that if good people go to one place, bad people must go to another. So, I essentially picked up on the idea of hell. Over time, my belief in an other-worldy hell disappeared before my belief in an other-worldly heaven did. What kept it going for a while was the old story that heaven looks just like hell, where everyone has long spoons to eat from a shared pot, but that in heaven the people use the spoons to feed each other while in hell they try to feed themselves with the impossibly long spoons, and fail. That was cute. In time, Gehinnom became a far more appealing theological position for me – the idea that except for the utterly wicked, whose souls are immediately destroyed, everyone goes through a period of cleansing before moving onto Gan Eden, the eternal, peaceful afterlife. That accorded with my understanding at the time that God is a God of love, who wants us to be righteous, who wants to share the Divine glory with us.

This week, after the mass murder in Florida, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the URJ, wrote a piece about how God cries with us over the senseless slaughter of children. I found no comfort in it. Maybe because I didn’t cry because I’m desensitized to this, as most of us are. We’re shocked and deeply saddened, and terrified for our own children, but in the face of such regular slaughter, we’ve had to at least partially numb ourselves to it. If God is a supernatural Deity, if God is conscious, does God really cry over this? If so, does God spend all day every day in tears at the senseless violence humanity inflicts on itself every single moment? Does God lament creating this world, or creating humanity?

In Parshat Noach, God becomes sick of the violence. It nauseates God.  “The Eternal saw how great was humanity’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised in the human mind was nothing but evil all the time. So the Eternal regretted that God had made humanity on earth, and God’s heart was saddened. The Eternal said, “I will blot out from the earth the people whom I created – people together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.” (Gen. 6:5-7)

We tend to view that vengeful God as antiquated, but I must admit, right now, I crave it. I need it. If there is a Supernatural Deity, part of me hopes that God is on the brink of wiping out this disgusting, failed experiment and only holding back because of a promise made to Noah to not do so again. The events of this week make me wish that there were a hell. Everyone who takes money that blinds them to act, that allows them to turn away when other people’s children are regularly slaughtered, I wish there were a hell for such people. Not Gehinnom, not a place that cleanses them of their sins and then allows them to sit next to the righteous in heaven. I wish there were a place where they suffer for eternity.

It pains me that I don’t believe in that. It pains me because it means I have to face the reality that those who sit idly by face no consequences in this world or the next. I think back to Jean Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos, in which three individuals end up in hell, which is each other. No fire and brimstone, no torture, other than each other’s company. Through that play, Sartre was trying to suggest that other people are our own hell, that essentially hell can be here on earth, but I can’t agree. I don’t think the people who deserve hell even give a damn. I think they are mentally impervious to this. I think their lust for power at all cost totally blinds them to this repetitive suffering. And moreover, they know that many of them are still likely to hold onto power even when the masses have a chance to change the political landscape. They are immune from hell, especially the hell that others have to go through because of their own inaction, and knowing that makes me nauseous.  I yearn for Divine justice and none comes.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read of the Israelites building the Sanctuary so that God may dwell among them. After the Tabernacle, the Temple was built to house God’s Presence. That was destroyed and then the Second Temple brought God’s Presence among the people once more. Since that was destroyed, God’s immediate Presence has not been with humanity. I would suggest that until the wholesale and repetitive slaughter of people, particularly children, is ended in our society, it would be impossible for God to dwell among us. I would go so far as to say that it would be offensive for us to suggest that God could currently dwell among us, or would even want to.  I understand that this may not be comforting for some, like those who find Rabbi Jacob’s notion of God crying over this tragedy comforting. But I can’t find comfort now. I’m not comforted when every day I drop my kids off at school and kiss them and tell them that I love them just in case it’s the last time I ever see them alive. There’s no comfort there. I can’t be comforted now. I can’t think that God dwells among us while we do nothing about this.

And I know that my wish for an eternity of visceral, tormenting hell for some individuals is an expression of my own anger, frustration and pain. I understand that. But I also understand that it is a convenient avoidance of my responsibility in this, too. Sure, I have spoken about the differing forms of violence endemic in this society to raise awareness and to slowly change society. But I’ve not yet called an elected official to try to make real political change. I’ve not yet supported any organization – like the ones whose details you can find on the table at the back of the Sanctuary – that is trying to bring about real change and stop these constant massacres. So if there were a hell, maybe I would deserve it, too. Maybe all of us who sit idly by and shake our heads and hug our kids and do nothing to stop the next massacre, maybe all of us deserve it, too. Maybe that realization, in and of itself, will be enough to bring about change in me, and perhaps in others, too, so that we might finally act. Or do we have to wait until, God forbid, we experience the true hell of this regular culling of children affecting  the ones we love?

Some of my Rabbinic colleagues have responded to the latest atrocity with poetry. Some have created new versions of the Kaddish to express their grief. I would rather not. I can’t currently look at this tragedy and immediately spring into a prayer praising God for life, as Kaddish does. Ashamnu, however, the prayer for begging for our sins, seems far more appropriate to me, so here’s my version this week:

We have sinned. We have permitted murder. We have accepted murder. We have tolerated murder. We have politicized murder. We have stood idly over the blood of our neighbor’s children, and of their neighbor’s children, and of their neighbor’s children, and of their neighbor’s children, all the while praying that our own would be spared of violence. We have called on the Divine for mercy when we showed none ourselves.  We have prevaricated. We have hidden our consciences and numbed our souls. We have ignored the cries of our society’s children’s blood that calls to us from the ground. We have shaken our heads and failed to act. We have been callous. We have tolerated violence throughout our society and have profited from it. We have succumbed to cynicism and defeat.

For all these failures of judgment and will, we will ask for forgiveness, but only once we have done everything in our power to end the slaughter of innocents in our society. For that, we pray only for strength. (And let us say, amen)