Archive for the ‘Hamas’ category

My Response to an Excellent Article on Middle East Peace

March 30, 2010

Lady Gaga Versus Mideast Peace

Are settlements more offensive than pop stars?

By BRET STEPHENS

Pop quiz—What does more to galvanize radical anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world: (a) Israeli settlements on the West Bank; or (b) a Lady Gaga music video?
If your answer is (b) it means you probably have a grasp of the historical roots of modern jihadism. If, however, you answered (a), then congratulations: You are perfectly in synch with the new Beltway conventional wisdom, now jointly defined by Pat Buchanan and his strange bedfellows within the Obama administration.

What is that wisdom? In a March 26 column in Human Events, Mr. Buchanan put the case with his usual subtlety:

“Each new report of settlement expansion,” he wrote, “each new seizure of Palestinian property, each new West Bank clash between Palestinians and Israeli troops inflames the Arab street, humiliates our Arab allies, exposes America as a weakling that cannot stand up to Israel, and imperils our troops and their mission in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Mr. Buchanan was playing off a story in the Israeli press that Vice President Joe Biden had warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “what you’re doing here [in the West Bank] undermines the security of our troops.” Also in the mix was a story that Centcom commander David Petraeus had cited Arab-Israeli tensions as the key impediment to wider progress in the region. Both reports were later denied—in Mr. Biden’s case, via Rahm Emanuel; in Gen. Petraeus’s case, personally and forcefully—but the important point is how eagerly they were believed. If you’re of the view that Israel is the root cause of everything that ails the Middle East—think of it as global warming in Hebrew form—then nothing so powerfully makes the case against the Jewish state as a flag-draped American coffin.

Now consider Lady Gaga—or, if you prefer, Madonna, Farrah Fawcett, Marilyn Monroe, Josephine Baker or any other American woman who has, at one time or another, personified what the Egyptian Islamist writer Sayyid Qutb once called “the American Temptress.”

Qutb, for those unfamiliar with the name, is widely considered the intellectual godfather of al Qaeda; his 30-volume exegesis “In the Shade of the Quran” is canonical in jihadist circles. But Qutb, who spent time as a student in Colorado in the late 1940s, also decisively shaped jihadist views about the U.S.

In his 1951 essay “The America I Have Seen,” Qutb gave his account of the U.S. “in the scale of human values.” “I fear,” he wrote, “that a balance may not exist between America’s material greatness and the quality of her people.” Qutb was particularly exercised by what he saw as the “primitiveness” of American values, not least in matters of sex.

“The American girl,” he noted, “knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs and she shows all this and does not hide it.” Nor did he approve of Jazz—”this music the savage bushmen created to satisfy their primitive desires”—or of American films, or clothes, or haircuts, or food. It was all, in his eyes, equally wretched.

Qutb’s disdain for America’s supposedly libertine culture would not matter much were it not wedded to a kind of theological Leninism that emphasized the necessity of violently overthrowing any political arrangement not based on Shariah law. No less violent was Qutb’s attitude toward Jews: “The war the Jews began to wage against Islam and Muslims in those early days [of Islamic history],” he wrote in the 1950s, “has raged to the present. The form and appearance may have changed, but the nature and the means remain the same.”

Needless to say, that passage was written long before Israel had “occupied” a single inch of Arab territory, unless one takes the view—held to this day by Hezbollah, Hamas, al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah and every other jihadist group that owes an intellectual debt to Qutb, including significant elements of the “moderate” Palestinian Fatah—that Tel Aviv itself is occupied territory.

Bear in mind, too, that the America Qutb found so offensive had yet to discover Elvis, Playboy, the pill, women’s lib, acid tabs, gay rights, Studio 54, Jersey Shore and, of course, Lady Gaga. In other words, even in some dystopic hypothetical world in which hyper-conservatives were to seize power in the U.S. and turn the cultural clock back to 1948, America would still remain a swamp of degeneracy in the eyes of Qutb’s latter-day disciples.

This, then, is the core complaint that the Islamists from Waziristan to Tehran to Gaza have lodged against the West. It explains why jihadists remain aggrieved even after the U.S. addressed their previous casus belli by removing troops from Saudi Arabia, and why they will continue to remain aggrieved long after we’ve decamped from Iraq, Afghanistan and even the Persian Gulf. As for Israel, its offenses are literally inextricable: as a democracy, as a Jewish homeland, as a country in which liberalism in all its forms, including cultural, prevails.

Which brings me back to the settlements. There may well be good reasons for Israel to dismantle many of them, assuming that such an act is met with reciprocal and credible Palestinian commitments to suppress terrorism and religious incitement, and accept Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. But to imagine that the settlements account for even a fraction of the rage that has inhabited the radical Muslim mind since the days of Qutb is fantasy: The settlements are merely the latest politically convenient cover behind which lies a universe of hatred. If the administration’s aim is to appease our enemies, it will get more mileage out of banning Lady Gaga than by applying the screws on Israel. It should go without saying that it ought to do neither.

Write to bstephens@wsj.com

Dear Mr. Stephens,

I just want to compliment you on an excellent article.  Your message is right on target.  There are many reasons, other than our country’s relationship with Israel which have led many in the Islamic world to consider the U.S. the “Great Satan” while it considers Israel only the “Little Satan.”  As troubled as they are with the status of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are far more troubled by Israel’s very existence in their region.  And what troubles them most about Israel’s existence in their region is that they view it as an infection, threatening to spread, of Western values, ideals, principles, and culture.  For them, Israel personifies all that they utterly detest about the West, and especially about America.  Indeed, in your terms, Israel is Lady Gaga; that seductive temptress of Western values and lifestyle.

How soon all the Israel critics, including Pat Buchanan and General Petraeus, forget about the violence that followed the publications of the Danish cartoons.  Now the Islamic hatred of Denmark had absolutely nothing to do with Danish support of “Israeli expansionism.”  One cannot even speak definitively about Danish support of Israel, period.  Yet all this hate was directed at them.  Why?  Because in the West, people are allowed to express their opinions, even if their opinions are critical of Islam and of the use of Mohammed as a rallying point for terrorism.  Israel had little, if anything, to do with it.

I fear that the time will come when the U.S. will decide to abandon its one true friend in the Middle East, Israel, buying into the mythology that our troubles with the Arab world center around our support of Israel.  If we let Israel go, then those troubles will go away.  Yet, once the dirty deed is done, and Israel is destroyed, the same “good people” who pushed for Israel’s abandonment will shake their heads and speak of how tragic it all was.  Like so many of those who stood opposed to the American rescue of Jews from the Holocaust, after the fact they will become mourners of the dead.
Yet it will not be long before, much to their surprise, even with Israel wiped off the map, jihadist rage will once again be turned against our nation.  But this time, they will not be able to justify their violence by pointing accusing fingers at Israel.  Finally, the truth will out; that in their eyes, a state of war exists between our two cultures.  More “imperialistic” than Israel ever was in terms of its territorial expansion, America has been “imperialistic” in terms of its culture, its values, and even its food.  For them, the devil is to be found in MacDonald’s, Wall Street, and Hollywood.  All will not be right with the world until all the world is governed by Shariah Law.  Granted, this is not the view of all Muslims, and more likely than not, even of the majority of Muslims, but it is the view of those who encourage others to blow themselves up in the name of Allah, while they remain safe and sound, some distance away; that is until some Israeli agent takes them out, only to cause Israel to be castigated as a villain by the world rather than recognized as our first line of defense against such terrorism.

Once again, thank you for an excellent article!

Sincerely,

Rabbi Henry Jay Karp
Davenport, Iowa

The Latest Fiasco in Israel-US Relations

March 20, 2010

Everyone is all abuzz about the latest spat between Israel and the US.  The New York Times, as well as others, have labeled it a “crisis” and the most serious conflict between these two nations in two decades.  I have even read an article which questions whether or not the US has become Israel’s newest enemy!

This matter has certainly gotten way out of hand.  So much so that both sides, more or less, are attempting to tamp the fires which it has set off.  Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, has published an op ed piece in the New York Times entitled “For Israel and America, A Disagreement, Not a Crisis” while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who just a few days ago publicly harangued and rebuked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, now declares that proposals offered by the Israeli government to resolve this dispute are both “useful and productive.”

Just briefly, what is at the heart of this matter?  Earlier this year, in the hopes of jump starting the peace process by a show of good faith toward the Arab world, the Obama administration demanded that Israel cease and desist from any further construction on the West Bank.  Of course, in the mind of the Obama administration, as well as in the mind of the Arab world, the West Bank is defined as including all of East Jerusalem, which includes all the primarily Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as well as the Arab ones.  After much tussling, the Netanyahu government finally did agree to a temporary moratorium on West Bank construction.  Then we arrive at last week’s visit to Israel by Vice President Joseph Biden.  Just as this very positive encounter was drawing to an end, a mid-level official of the Israeli Interior Ministry announced an interim planning phase for the expansion of Ramat Shalom, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in East Jerusalem; an expansion which would include 1,600 new housing units.  To this announcement, Vice President Biden’s reaction was both immediate and severe.  On the very same day that he proclaimed the Obama administration’s “absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israel’s security”, he turned around and expressed his outrage as he condemned the move as “precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now.”  Even though Prime Minister Netanyahu responded by stating that he, too, was surprised and embarrassed by this announcement, the Obama administration refused to be placated.  The Vice President’s expression of outrage was only to be embellished upon by a 45 minute phone call to Prime Minister Netanyahu by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in which she severely chastised him, along with an equally strong statement issued by President Obama.  Needless to say, all this was not received very well by the Israeli people.  Obama’s approval rating in Israel, which has never been very high, plummeted to the single digits.

First of all, let me state that I fully understand and appreciate the frustration felt by the Obama administration.  After all, a deal is a deal.  No construction means no construction.  I cannot help but wonder whether or not this announcement on the part of the Interior Ministry was a deliberate act of provocation, intended to derail any progress in the peace process.  It is no secret that the ultra-Orthodox community of Israel is almost as opposed to the peace process as are Palestinian groups such as Hamas.  The major difference between them is that while groups like Hamas will use missiles and bombs to disrupt the peace process, these ultra-Orthodox groups use their political clout and surprise announcements such as this one to try to get their way.  AND THAT IS A MAJOR DIFFERENCE – ONE WHICH SHOULD NOT GO UNNOTICED BY THE CURRENT AMERICAN ADMINISTRATION.

All that being said, I believe that once again, the Obama administration has blown it big time!  It is beyond my understanding why they have insisted upon turning this incident from a “disagreement” into a “crisis” – regardless of what Ambassador Oren has to say on the matter.  They made that choice when they elected to ignore Prime Minister Netanyahu’s initial reaction to the announcement of surprise and dismay.  Instead of working with him to untangle this mess, undoing the obvious sabotage of the Israeli extremists, they decided to proceed as if this was the official course of action of the entire Israeli establishment.  Indeed, they worked to push Prime Minister Netanyahu into a corner where he would need to become belligerent rather than cooperative in order to maintain his own dignity.

There is a profound irony in the facts that shortly after Vice President Biden’s trip to the area, the Palestinians went ahead and dedicated the naming of a public square in the West Bank after a female suicide bomber, Dalal Mughrabi, the Fatah woman who led the 1978 Coastal Road massacre in which 37 Israeli civilians and an American photographer were killed, and 71 were wounded.  And not to be outdone by their West Bank compatriots, Hamas in Gaza conducted a rocket attack on Israel in which a Thai worker was killed, the first Israeli fatality since this winter’s war in Gaza.  And what has been the reaction of the Obama administration to all this – SILENCE, COLD, DARK SILENCE.  Let us see now:  On the one hand a proposed building project, one not necessarily supported by the Israeli leadership, and on the other hand, the official honoring of a terrorist murderess and a lethal rocket attack upon Israeli civilians.  Which is worthy of American outrage and condemnation?  The building project, of course!  What’s wrong with that picture?

What is wrong with that picture is what has been wrong with the picture painted by the Obama administration since day one – and I say this as one who actively supported Barack Obama in his bid for the US presidency.  They profess that they seek to broker a peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but they are anything but evenhanded.  They are beyond quick to chastise and condemn Israel for whatever she does, yet they stand idly and silently by while the Palestinians continue to engage in the most outlandish and hostile of behaviors.  And if that were not bad enough, they refuse to learn from their past mistakes.  If experience should have taught them anything, it should have taught them that whenever they place heavy demands upon Israel, they have only effectively fueled Palestinian and Arab excuses NOT to sit down at the peace table.  No sooner are such demands upon Israel made then the Arabs say that they have nothing to discuss with Israel until those demands are fully met to their satisfaction.

Yet when will the Obama administration place similar demands upon the Arabs, especially upon the Palestinians?  I am waiting, but my patience is running thin.  What demands, you may wonder?  How about a total cessation of all attacks upon Israelis?  How about a cessation of the smuggling of weapons into Gaza?  How about an end to the rearmament of Hezbollah?  How about abiding by the terms of the Road Map to Peace, and putting an end to the teaching of hate to their children, both in their schools and through their children’s television shows?  I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

Peace in the Middle East can never be achieved through US intervention if the US policy is one which antagonizes the parties involved.  Rather than beat them up, the US must learn how to work with them, as partners, in removing the roadblocks which stand in the way of bringing peace, security, and freedom to all the residents of the area, both Israelis and Palestinians.  Needless to say, this is not an easy task.  It will require much hard work and endless patience.  There is no room for the US to engage in throwing tantrums, as it has so recently done.  For while Mr. Obama may have gotten some of his frustrations off of his chest, in the end he has not advanced the cause of Middle East peace, but rather has retarded it.

Responding to a Call for an International Unilateral Establishment of a Palestinian State

February 25, 2010

Purim is just around the corner!  One of the ways that Jews engage in the joviality of Purim is to engage in the fine art of spoof.  Of course, Purim plays and Purimspiels are the primary examples of such satire, but not the only ones.  Very often, synagogues, for example, will issue parody editions of their own newsletters.  Parody is truly a Purim prank.

I share this with you because I cannot make up my mind whether or not the author of the NY Times Op Ed piece below – apparently a Jew, based upon his name – was writing a serious proposal or merely engaging in a Purim parody on the debate over the establishment of a Palestinian state.  I pray that it is a Purim parody, the humor of which the folks at the Times failed to grasp.  For if it is meant to be a serious proposal, it shows how we have moved into the realm of the absurd.

At first glance, I thought that if this essay is serious, then it might have been written by a raving pro-Palestinian.  However, as I delved into the text, I found the author proposing how liberating it would be for Israel if the international community would simply take it upon itself to out-of-hand declare and recognize the existence of a Palestinian state, without conferring with either Israel or the Palestinians.  That, according to the author, would leave Israel completely free to close its borders to all Palestinians – as is the right of any state to close its borders to the nationals of another state.  The issue of the supposed Palestinian “right of return” would be moot, since they now would be citizens of the Palestinian state.  As the author states:  “Within the context of statehood, this difficulty is somewhat eased as it is largely untenable for any state to demand that millions of its citizens should be allowed to become citizens of another state.”  He also states that this would settle the matter of terrorism.  As with any state, there can only be one state sponsored military establishment.  It the terrorist groups continue to pursue their military operations, it will be up to the Palestinian state authorities to eliminate them.  Here the author states:  “A government’s maintenance of a monopoly of force within the area of its claimed sovereignty is one of the basic requirements of statehood.”  And so the article goes on, including the author’s denial that such an international recognition would have to include a recognition of borders.  Personally, I cannot imagine how one can declare a recognition of a state without at the same time recognizing the legitimate borders of that state.

The one thing this author did not point out is that should the international community actually take this action and unilaterally declare a legitimate Palestinian state into existence, then they would most certainly be setting the stage for an almost immediate war; a war between states, and not between one state and shadow insurgents, as the conflict stands now.  A war in which the State of Israel could legitimately claim that continued terrorist attacks constitute nothing less than acts of war, and therefore serve as grounds for a formal declaration of war.  In such a case, there would – at least theoretically – be do difference between a Hamas missile attack on an Israeli civilian population center and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  At that juncture, Israel could employ all its military might against the Palestinians until their either formally surrender and agree to Israeli imposed peace terms or their state is totally destroyed and dismantled, with extreme measures employed to finally effectively put an end to terrorism.

The consequences of such a decision to unilaterally declare Palestinian statehood under the present conditions of instability and violence are profound and frightening – even more for the Palestinian people than for Israel.  That is why I cannot wonder whether this article is indeed a Purim parody on the calls for such immediate statehood.  To consider it otherwise, is to consider it as a dark and devious plan, the ultimate agenda of which is to bring the Palestinian people to the point of truly reaping the bitter crop which has been sown for them by the terrorists within their midst.

Rabbi Henry Jay Karp

February 24, 2010

I.H.T. Op-Ed Contributor

Declare a Palestinian State

By JEROME M. SEGAL

France’s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, has alarmed the Israeli government with his recent statement that “one can envision the proclamation soon of a Palestinian state, and its immediate recognition by the international community, even before negotiating its borders.”

Israel fears that this will develop into a full blown European Union initiative and has warned that with this approach the Palestinians will have no motivation to resume negotiations. But this argument is not convincing. Were the international community to recognize the State of Palestine, it is likely that it would do so without specifically recognizing the claimed borders of that state, just as the international community does not recognize Israel’s claimed borders.

For instance, the United States has never accepted Israeli claims to sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem. Moreover, international recognition does not end the occupation, nor does it solve the refugee issue, nor the problem of Jerusalem. All of these issues will require negotiations, but early statehood, would put such negotiations on a state-to-state basis, and this would be valuable in a variety of ways.

Of most importance in future negotiations is the issue of security, whether Palestinian forces can prevent attacks on Israel, either suicide terrorists, or rockets fired from the West Bank. If they cannot, then Israel will not withdraw from the West Bank, regardless of what the international community says.

Over the last year, praise has been heaped on the performance of Palestinian security forces, trained under U.S. auspices, and operating under the authority of President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. However, without progress toward genuine statehood, what is today viewed as “successful security cooperation,” will in time dissolve as it comes to be viewed as Palestinian collaboration, with its security forces having become “the police of the occupation.”

Under early statehood, Israel’s refusal to allow non-state actors to operate militarily from the West Bank is on a much stronger footing. A government’s maintenance of a monopoly of force within the area of its claimed sovereignty is one of the basic requirements of statehood.

Early statehood will also contribute toward the resolution of the issues of refugees, Jerusalem and borders. On refugees, it is clear that very few of the six million Palestinian refugees will ever return to Israel. This however, is extremely difficult for the Palestinians to absorb politically. Within the context of statehood, this difficulty is somewhat eased as it is largely untenable for any state to demand that millions of its citizens should be allowed to become citizens of another state.

With respect to borders and security issues, the Israelis have often been tone-deaf in previous negotiations, failing to realize how demeaning to Palestinian dignity were their demands to control Palestinian airspace, or to have land swaps on an unequal basis.

In the context of state-to-state negotiations, there will be some natural evolution toward the symmetries that typified Israel’s negotiations with Jordan and Egypt. Similarly with Jerusalem, the state-to-state context will also be supportive of the need to find a way to share control of the holy sites and to make Jerusalem the capital of both states.

In addition, early statehood offers a way to reduce the likelihood that Hamas will undertake steps to derail negotiations. This can be attained if Hamas is assured that the international community will respect the results of Palestinian democracy, unlike 2006, when following its victory in legislative elections, Hamas was denied the ability to govern. Instead the international community laid down conditions that Hamas rejected. So far there has been no resolution.

Fortunately, the state-to-state context offers a way to deal with the problematic conditions of the Quartet — the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. Thus, the demand that Hamas provide prior recognition of Israel becomes instead one of mutual state-to-state recognition, and the demand that Hamas accept previous agreements negotiated by its P.L.O. rival becomes the standard requirement of continuity of international treaties between state entities, when new governments are elected.

With early statehood there is a chance that the Palestinians will be able to put their house in order, and have a government with sufficient legitimacy to bind the Palestinian people through negotiations.

Finally, it should be noted that for the Palestinian leadership, achieving international recognition of the State of Palestine, without Israeli permission, will be an act of assertiveness that will enhance their ability to make difficult concessions in the negotiations.

For all of these reasons, while international recognition of Palestinian statehood prior to an agreement with Israel is not a magic solution, it is a highly constructive idea that may make successful negotiations a genuine possibility.

Jerome M. Segal directs the Peace Consultancy Project at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is co-author of “Negotiating Jerusalem.”

Purim: The Antisemitism Holiday

February 23, 2010

Around the world, we Jews soon will be throwing ourselves into our celebration of Purim.  We will be voraciously eating hamantaschen (Purim cakes), dressing up in all manner of costumes, reading the Megillah (the Book of Esther) while grinding our groggers (noisemakers) as loud as we can whenever the name of Haman is mentioned, having fun playing games and winning prizes; all of this being wrapped up inside a carnival – or dare I say a Mardi Gras – atmosphere.

Purim is a holiday of total abandonment to joy.  It is a mitzvah!  We are commanded by Jewish law to enjoy ourselves on Purim.  And such abandonment was never intended to be limited to just children.  Adults, too, are supposed to surrender to it.  I know that there are times when we adults can become too self-conscious or just too darn stuffy to let ourselves get into the spirit of Purim, but that is our shortcoming and not the shortcoming of the holiday.

Last year, at our Purim service in Davenport, Iowa, we had a family of adults who attended, all in costume, and it was obvious from their behaviors that before coming to Temple, they had liberally partaken of the fruit of the vine, or perhaps liquids somewhat stronger.  They had a great time!  After the service, there were those who commented about how inappropriate was their behavior.  However, those who made such remarks to me were surprised, and perhaps disturbed, by the response they received.  For rather than affirming their outrage, I told them, “No.  Not at all!  For these were the adults who, more than any others, had truly captured the spirit of the holiday.”  What?  Drunkenness in the sanctuary is appropriate behavior?  Not on Yom Kippur, and not even on Shabbat.  But on Purim – you betcha!  In fact, there is an entire tractate of the Talmud, Tractate Megillah, which is dedicated to instructing us on how to observe this holiday properly.  And in that tractate it says, believe it or not, “On Purim it is a man’s duty to inebriate himself to the point that he is unable to distinguish between the phrases, ‘ Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordecai.’”[1] In fact, there is a Purim tradition for adults – not for children but for adults – which is derived from that mitzvah, the very name of which comes from that Talmudic text.  It is called a Adloyadah and it is an adult drinking party.  The name Adloyadah literally means “until you are unable to distinguish.”  Purim is indeed our party holiday!

But why all the extreme celebration?  After all, while the story of Mordecai and Esther, Haman and Ahashuerus is an interesting one, it would not appear to be that significant.  Let’s face it!  It’s not Passover, with the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea, and the liberation of our people from Egyptian slavery.  So what is this excessive joy all about?

You see, while the celebration of Purim centers upon merriment, the reason for the celebration of Purim actually centers upon the most painful and tragic challenge which has confronted our people, not just at the time and in the setting of the Purim story, but in practically every time and every setting throughout the history of our people.  I am talking about antisemitism; that seemingly eternal hatred of Jews merely because we are Jews, coupled with the desire to do away with, if not all of us, as many of us as possible.  Haman, the villain of the Purim story was a consummate antisemite.  His plan for the Jews of Persia was nothing short of genocide.  Indeed, this might have been the first attempted genocide in human history.  It is to this point that Rabbi Irving Greenberg, in his book THE JEWISH WAY: LIVING THE HOLIDAYS, says “Appearances can be deceptive.  Purim, which supports enormous theological freight, may well be the darkest, most de­pressing holiday of the Jewish calendar.  Its laughter is Pagliacci’s – a hair’s breadth away from despair.”[2]

Unfortunately, in our own day and age, history has impelled us to memorialize another attempted genocide; the Holocaust.  Yet our Holocaust remembrance is most certainly a somber affair.  We recall both atrocities and instances of heroism.  We weep in our hearts, if not actually with our eyes, for all its victims so brutally slain.  We are nonplused by the evil of the evil doers and we, with grim resolve, vow “Never again!”  There is no merriment attached to Yom HaShoah; no noisemakers drowning out the name of Hitler whenever it is mentioned.  There is nothing lighthearted about it.  Yet the bonds which bind Purim to the Holocaust are incontrovertible and unbreakable. Probably the most compelling statement of this connection came out of the mouth of none other than Julius Streicher, the publisher of the virulently antisemitic Nazi newspaper, “Der Sturmer.”  Having been sentenced to death by hanging at the Nuremberg trials, his last words were “Purimfest, 1946!”[3]

So if Purim is all about antisemitism and attempted genocide, why is it so merry whereas Yom HaShoah is so somber?  The merriment of Purim is based, not so much upon the attempted genocide itself, but rather upon the defeat of the genocidal plan; the victory of the Jewish people over antisemitism.  For while Haman plotted our destruction, unlike Hitler, Haman never succeeded in killing one single Jew.  Gratefully, when it comes to Purim, we have no Jews for whom to mourn.  Thanks to Queen Esther and her uncle Mordecai – true Jewish heroes – the implications of Haman’s hatred were not underestimated, but were effectively confronted before any harm could be done.  And that is a true cause for celebration.  The confronting of antisemitism – the confronting of hatred and bigotry – and stopping it in its tracks before it can take root – before it can draw blood – is a true cause for celebration.

There is much which the Purim story can teach us for our own day and age about both the nature of antisemitism and how to respond to it.  We make a serious mistake if we choose to believe that this story is just about the past.  It is about the present as well.  So what can we learn from it?

First of all, we should learn that while a certain amount of assimilation into the general society may serve us well, we are foolish to believe that assimilation in and of itself is the answer to antisemitism.

The Jews had a good life in Persia.  By most of their neighbors, they seem to have been completely accepted.  One of the ways that we can tell that the Jews were highly assimilated is by looking at the names of the characters.  Neither Esther nor Mordecai are Jewish names.  Greenberg believes that these names are based upon the names of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar and the Babylonian god Marduk.[4] It is not uncommon for Jews, when they feel welcomed by their non-Jewish neighbors, or they wish to make themselves more welcomed by those neighbors, that they put aside their Jewish names in favor of more socially acceptable ones.  One only need consider the names of most American Jews today to see this at work.  My name, “Henry,” is not a traditional Jewish name, and neither is my wife’s name, “Gail.”  Even most of those who have traditional Jewish names don’t pronounce them in their Hebrew fashion.  My son, for example, is named “Joshua,” not “Yehoshua.”

Nor is the assimilation of the Persian Jews at the time of the Purim story witnessed just in their names.  How much more assimilated can a Jew become than Esther?  Here is a Jewish woman who becomes queen of the land.  But she does not become queen like Joe Lieberman when he was running for president.  She does not wear her Judaism on her sleeve.  Quite the contrary.  For her, Jewish identity is a very personal and private matter.  If no one mentions it to her, she doesn’t mention it to them.  As far as she is concerned, what the non-Jews around her, including her own husband, don’t know won’t hurt her.  She doesn’t look Jewish.  She doesn’t act Jewish.  She doesn’t talk Jewish.  And at least as long as people don’t ask her, there is no assumption that she is Jewish.  Sound familiar?  It should.  So, you see, the Persian Jewish community at that time was not that different than ours today.

Yet even in a society where most people, including the king, seemed to be comfortable with living side by side with Jews, still there were those who were fueled by their hatred of us; who, those who, like Haman, saw us as a community apart from society; an alien presence; a threat requiring elimination, indeed extermination.  These are Haman’s words to Ahashuerus, “There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among all the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.  If it please your Majesty, let an edict be drawn up for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the stewards for deposit in the royal treasury.”[5] Indeed, such people seem to hate us all the more for our trying to “fit in.”  Even though today these haters of Jews may be on the fringe of society, they still pose a real danger.  They pose a real danger because they always have the potential of locking on to an issue which gains them an audience of otherwise tolerant people.

Did we ourselves not experience this for several years, with a personality no less than Bill O’Reilly, on the Fox network, ranting and railing about the so-called “War on Christmas”?  Suddenly, he had a surprising number of our fellow Americans believing that Jews, and other religious minorities, but especially we Jews, were dead set on denying our Christian neighbors their sacred holiday.  Why?  Simply because we preferred such inclusive December salutations as “Happy Holidays” and “Seasons Greetings” over the Christian-only sentiment of “Merry Christmas.”

While being at one with the general society can never be the complete answer to antisemitism, it most certainly can be part of the solution.  We must remember that Mordecai was not just a good Jew.  He also was a good Persian.  Remember that it was Mordecai who uncovered the plot to assassinate King Ahashuerus.  He literally saved the king’s life, and for that he was rewarded, much to Haman’s chagrin.  But more than the reward he received at the time, it was his actions and his proven loyalty, as well as the love and loyalty of Queen Esther, which sowed the seeds for Haman’s undoing.  If Jews are to have any hope of safety in a society, then they must prove themselves, time and again, to be good citizens who contribute to well being of all.

Purim also teaches us that we must take the threats of antisemites seriously.  When Mordecai reported to Queen Esther Haman’s dark plot against our people, it would have been easy for her, in the safety of the royal palace, to tell him that he was blowing the situation way out of proportion; that it was inconceivable that Haman could ever achieve his goal.  There are still plenty of Jews today who would respond that way.  “I don’t want to rock the boat.  I don’t want to put myself at risk, simply because I am Jewish.”  Sad to say, this was the response of too many American Jews to the Holocaust, while it was happening.  Their fears for their own security kept them from protesting and from demanding that the United States open its doors to Jewish refugees; to demanding that the Allies bomb the extermination facilities.  If they had done so, God knows how many of our Europeans brothers and sisters would have been saved.  But they failed, and we know the results of their failure.

Esther, rather than hiding in the safety and security of the royal palace, chose to take Haman’s threat seriously; so much so that she took great personal risk in confronting and subduing it.  As a result, our people were saved.

Like Esther and Mordecai, the rabbis of the Talmud understood:  “Kawl Yisraeil aravim zeh ba-zeh” – “All Jews are responsible for each other.”[6] First and foremost, we are Jews, and as such, we need to take care of each other.  It is foolishness for we Jews to think that we can dissociate ourselves from our fellow Jews and from the challenges they face.  For in the end, those challenges will engulf us all, even if we try to hide from them in the deepest, darkest places, or for that matter, in the palace of the king.

Today, in Iran, there is yet another Haman, making similar threats – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  He has been seriously pursuing the production of nuclear weapons, coupled with unabashedly announcing his goal of using those weapons for the total elimination of the State of Israel.  He has proudly proclaims that “Israel must be wiped off the map!”  If we have learned anything from the Purim story – from the actions and the courage of Mordecai and Esther – then it is that it is imperative to take seriously those who make such threats, and to act according so as to insure that such plots never come to fruition.

Mordecai and Esther took Haman’s threats seriously, and they nipped his genocidal plan in the bud, and therefore we celebrate at Purim.  On the other hand, far too many refused to take Hitler’s threats seriously until it was too late, and therefore we mourn on Yom HaShoah.  Today, there are those, like Ahmadinejad, and Hamas, and Hezbollah, and a frightening number of Neo-Nazi hate groups, who continue in the tradition of Haman, threatening to extinguish the existence of the Jewish people.  The sad and hard truth is that once antisemitism is unleashed in a society, we Jews have little choice.   We have to be willing to fight long and hard to eradicate it.  And that job is not just the job of any one Jew or any one group of Jews.  It is the job of all Jews.  It is our job.  We have to do it.  We cannot stand by silently, waiting for the threatened danger to disappear like a cloud of smoke.  For it is not a cloud of smoke.  It is tangible.  It is lethal.  And it will remain so unless we act to dismantle it.   To such threats, Purim challenges us to respond in the manner of Mordecai and Esther, for the future of our people is in our hands.  In the years to come, will the nature of our response to such antisemitism give rise to another Purim celebration or another Yom HaShoah memorial?


[1] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillot 7b.

[2] Greenberg, Rabbi Irving, THE JEWISH WAY: LIVING WITH THE HOLIDAYS, p. 224.

[3] Conot, Robert E., JUSTICE AT NUREMBERG, p. 506.

[4] Greenberg, 227.

[5] ESTHER 3:8-9.

[6] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shevuot 39a.

Commenting on the NY Times Article: For Israelis, Mixed Feelings on Aid Effort

January 22, 2010

Below is a New York Times article about the reactions of Israelis to Israel’s efforts to aid the suffering people of Haiti.  Following the article is a letter which I sent to Ethan Bronner, the author of the article.

January 22, 2010
FOR ISRAELIS, MIXED FEELING ON AID EFFORT

JERUSALEM — The editorial cartoon in Thursday’s mass-circulation Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot showed American soldiers digging among the ruins of Haiti. From within the rubble, a voice calls out, “Would you mind checking to see if the Israelis are available?”

A week ago, ahead of most countries, Israel sent scores of doctors and other professionals to Haiti. Years of dealing with terrorist attacks combined with an advanced medical technology sector have made Israel one of the most nimble countries in disaster relief — a factor that Western television news correspondents have highlighted.

But Israelis have been watching with a range of emotions, as if the Haitian relief effort were a Rorschach test through which the nation examines itself. The left has complained that there is no reason to travel thousands of miles to help those in need — Gaza is an hour away. The right has argued that those who accuse Israel of inhumanity should take note of its selfless efforts and achievements in Haiti.

The government has been trying to figure out how to make the most of the relatively rare positive news coverage, especially after the severe criticism it has faced over its Gaza offensive a year ago.

“Israelis are caught in a great confusion over themselves,” noted Uri Dromi, a commentator who used to be a government spokesman. “There is such a gap between what we can do in so many fields and the failure we feel trapped in with the Palestinians. There’s nostalgia for the time when we were the darlings of the world, and the Haiti relief effort allows us to remember that feeling and say, you see we are not as bad as you think.”

“Now They Love Us,” was the headline Wednesday on the column of Eitan Haber, a close aide to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s and a Yediot columnist. “In another month or two, nobody will remember the good deeds” of Israeli soldiers, he wrote. “The very same countries and very same leaders who are currently lauding the State of Israel will order their representatives to vote against it at the United Nations, proceed to condemn I.D.F. operations in Gaza, and again slam its foreign minister.”

Israeli journalists flew into Haiti with relief teams. And while the contours of the catastrophe have been well described, inherent in the coverage is the question of what Israel’s performance says about it and its place in the world.

Much noted has been the absence of rich and powerful Persian Gulf countries in the relief effort, a point made here when the 2004 tsunami hit large parts of Asia and Israeli relief teams swung into action there as well.

Many commentators argued that the work in Haiti was a reflection of a central Jewish value. Michael Freund, a columnist in The Jerusalem Post, wrote on Thursday, “Though a vast gulf separates Israel from Haiti, with more than 10,500 kilometers of ocean lying between us, the Jewish people demonstrated that their extended hand can bridge any gap and traverse any chasm when it comes to saving lives.”

But on the same page, another commentator, Larry Derfner, argued that while Israel’s field hospital in Haiti is a reflection of something deep in the nation’s character, “so is everything that’s summed up in the name of ‘Gaza.’ ” He wrote: “It’s the Haiti side of Israel that makes the Gaza side so inexpressibly tragic. And more and more, the Haiti part of the national character has been dwarfed by the Gaza part.”

Early in the week, Akiva Eldar, a leftist commentator and reporter with the newspaper Haaretz, made a similar point: “The remarkable identification with the victims of the terrible tragedy in distant Haiti only underscores the indifference to the ongoing suffering of the people of Gaza.”

MY LETTER TO ETHAN BRONNER

Your article about the mixed feeling of the Israelis on the Haitian aid effort was indeed disturbing on several levels.

First of all, from my “liberal” perspective, it presented a disorienting turn around in that the right wingers endorse this relief effort, and it is the left that criticizes it.  For me, when the right supports humanitarian actions and the left opposes them, I feel I have either entered the Twilight Zone or some alternative universe.

Secondly, I simply cannot understand why those on the left have chosen to frame this as an “either-or” situation.  Why should they, who have compassion for the people of Gaza, choose to demonstrate that compassion by refusing to have compassion for the people of Haiti?  Would it not make more sense – and be far more consistent – to point to the efforts in Haiti with great pride and then say something like, “We need to show similar humanitarian zeal for the suffering people of Gaza”?  Is it just because I am an American Jewish liberal that I see it that way?

Thirdly, I do not understand how the Israeli left can fail to make an important distinction between the people of Haiti and the people of Gaza, that distinction being that the people of Haiti have not been firing rockets and mortal shells at Israeli communities and have not followed leaders who adamantly insist upon the total destruction of the State of Israel.  Yes, the people of Gaza are suffering, and suffering greatly – though still, their suffering cannot be compared with what the Haitians are going through at this time.  However, Gaza is still ruled by Hamas, and Hamas has continued to wage war on Israeli civilian centers and continues to refuse to consider a negotiated peaceful solution to its conflict with Israel.  As for the people of Gaza, we have only witnessed demonstrations of their support of the Hamas terrorism; never their opposition to it.  I know that they themselves can be terrorized by Hamas, but still, no one from Gaza speaks out about peace.  No one from Gaza proposes that there can be a better way to resolve their differences with Israel.  There is a strong argument that silence equals assent.  The bottom line here is that Gaza is at war with Israel.  Haiti is not.  How can you compare the two when it comes to Israel’s responses?

Does this mean that I do not support the idea of Israel providing humanitarian aid to Gaza.  ABSOLUTELY NOT.  I do support it and support it vigorously.  I support it on two levels.

First, this is what Jews do and have always done.  When we see others who suffer, we feel commanded to intervene to help relieve their suffering, and we act on that feeling.  We act quickly.  We act compassionately.  We act generously.  As we have so acted in Haiti, I believe we need to so act in Gaza, even though we continue to be engaged in an armed struggle with Hamas.  Along those lines, there is a famous midrash (rabbinic story) that states that after the Red Sea closed in and drowned the Egyptian army, while the Children of Israel were singing and dancing on the redemptive shores, the angels in heaven joined the Israelites in their celebration.  Witnessing this, God rebuked the angels, crying, “How dare you dance and sing while my children are drowning!”  Even though the Palestinians of Gaza are our adversaries in this armed conflict, we cannot forget that they, too, are God’s children, and as such, worthy of our compassion.

Second, from a purely political perspective, I believe that the State of Israel would make more progress down the road to peace by treating the Palestinian people with humanity and kindness than they ever will through force of arms.  Sometimes the military option is unavoidable, as it was in both the Gaza War and the Lebanon War, for a nation cannot stand by passively when others are raining missiles on their citizens.  But the military option is only a last resort and it is rarely, if ever, a complete answer in and of itself.  The most effective path to peace is by transforming your enemy into your friend.  In the case of the Palestinians, this needs to be done by helping to lift this people up out of their poverty and degradation.  The more Israel works to bring the Palestinian people into a higher and finer quality of life, the closer they draw to a time of true Shalom – peace complete and pure.