Tag Archives: Iran

One People, One Heart

22 Sep

 

The America Jewish community has been deeply divided over the merits of the recents nuclear accords signed with Iran.

The American Jewish community has been deeply divided over the merits of the recent nuclear accords signed with Iran.

On the night of November 4th, 1995, I was walking through the streets of Jerusalem near the Mahane Yehudah market. I had spent that Saturday evening with many of my rabbinical school classmates in an exuberant Melave Malka, a festive celebration of the end of Shabbat with singing, dancing and Torah learning. In retrospect, I realized that during my walk home after the party the streets seemed eerily quiet. Finally, as I neared my apartment, a seemingly crazed man was staggering down the street toward me. As we passed on the sidewalk, he was not crazed at all, but his face was ashen. He said in Hebrew, “Someone shot Rabin.” That was how I learned the shocking news that was confirmed when I got home.

Earlier that evening in Tel Aviv, hundreds of thousands gathered for a massive pro-peace rally.  “I was a soldier for 27 years,” Rabin called out. “I believe there is a chance for peace.  A great chance which must be seized.  Violence is undermining the foundations of Israeli democracy…it must be rejected and condemned, and it must be contained.  It is not the way of the State of Israel. Democracy is our way.  There may be differences but they will be resolved in democratic elections…”  (Horowitz, Shalom Friend, 16)  Unfortunately, Rabin’s final remarks became horrifically prophetic as he was assassinated minutes later by a Jewish terrorist.

I remember the atmosphere in Israel in the weeks before and after Rabin’s assassination. Posters were plastered around Jerusalem calling Rabin a traitor for signing the Oslo Accords with the PLO. Even worse were the posters depicting Rabin in a Nazi SS uniform. Public criticism of Rabin did not come out of nowhere. Two years into the Oslo process, there had been an escalation of terrorism in Israel, including bus bombings, that raised public fear.  On the other hand, peace activists charged that opponents to the peace process were traitors to Israel. The nation had already witnessed the unthinkable when Baruch Goldstein of Kiryat Arba slaughtered Muslims at prayer in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron in 1994.  In the wake of Rabin’s assassination, religious Jews in Israel were publicly taunted and harassed by secular neighbors because Yigal Amir, Rabin’s assassin, was a product of the national-religious world. This was a dark time for the Jewish people. Fortunately, respected rabbinic leaders from the national-religious camp like the late Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein,  z”l, who died earlier this year, led a communal heshbon hanefesh, examination of the soul, and many Israelis and Jews around the world took advantage of the “teachable moment” to learn from Judaism’s tarbut ha-makhloket, our culture of respectful disagreement. Indeed, every page of the Talmud is full of debate. Our tradition embraces debate. There is no one  legitimate Jewish opinion of anything. How we engage in debate is another matter.

The Torah offers a vision of what an ideal Jewish community looks like, and it’s worth reflecting on that. In the book of Exodus, the Israelites leave Egypt, throwing off the shackles of slavery and entering a new chapter as a free people. They wander in the desert for seven weeks, according to tradition, until they come to Mount Sinai where they receive the Torah. A key question that emerges from the text is why did God choose to give the Torah to our ancestors at Mt. Sinai? Why not give the Torah as the people left Egypt? Why not as they entered Israel? What was it about that particular moment when the Israelites were assembled at the foot of Mt. Sinai?

In Exodus 19, the text tells us:

ב וַיִּסְעוּ מֵרְפִידִים וַיָּבֹאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינַי וַיַּחֲנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר וַיִּחַן־שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶד הָהָר:

“They journeyed from Rephidim and arrived at the Sinai desert and made camp in the desert, and Israel encamped there near the mountain.” Rashi notes the verbs in this verse: vayisu, vayavo’u, vayahanu—they journeyed, they came, they encamped. These verbs are all plural. It is a collection of individuals. Then, the verb case changes: vayihan sham—It encamped there, that is, the people of Israel. Rashi says at that moment it was k’ish echad k’lev echad. as one man as one heart. In other words, what made it possible for us to receive the Torah was that we came together as a single, united entity. The message is that being one people enabled us to receive the Torah and encounter God. They had come together as throngs of individuals, each with different ideas, hopes and fears. Yet, when they came together, they received the Torah, a symbol  of their shared values and destiny.

Twenty years have passed since Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by a Jew. Yet, I fear the division of the Jewish people as much as I ever have before. Reflecting on this past summer, I believe that we have reached a new low point in the history of the Jewish people both in Israel and in the United States. I fear the consequences of our division if we do not take swift action to overcome our current predicament.

This past summer, we witnessed two acts of horrific violence in Israel, one in which a Haredi man stabbed six participants in the Jerusalem gay pride parade, killing a teenage girl. That same day, a gang of radical settlers burned to the ground a home of a Palestinian family. At the time, and 18-month-old baby boy was killed, and in the weeks since both parents succumbed to burn wounds. These two acts of Jewish terror should shake us all, our entire people, to the core, just as the terror of Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir did two decades ago.  It might be easy for us to dismiss these instances as extreme, isolated acts that happened far away in a democratic country that pursues and punishes the perpetrators.

When violence is carried out in the name of Judaism, it should raise red flags for us to be vigilant not to create an atmosphere that could incite such violence. My fear is that within the American Jewish community we are sinking to a dangerous level of irreparable fracture. Debate over the recent nuclear agreement with Iran divided our Jewish community and brought about the worst possible behavior from advocates for and against the agreement. Supporters of the deal charged Jewish members of Congress who opposed the agreement with the slur of dual loyalty, insidiously suggesting that these patriotic Americans put the interests of Israel ahead of the United States. Meanwhile opponents of the deal have called supporters kapos, suggesting they are two-faced Jews who put their own political survival ahead of their loyalty to the Jewish people. This rhetoric has pitted Jew versus Jew. It is not in keeping with ish echad klev echad, “one person, one heart.”

When I express concern about how we talk about key issues of the day, I am not saying let’s just stop talking about them. We have a right and duty to voice our concerns as active participants in democracy. We look at the world now, and we have good reason to fear. We see a strand of militant Islam in the form of ISIS and other terrorist groups on a violent march throughout much of the Middle East. We see a sharp increase of vicious attacks on Jews in European capitals. We see Israel increasingly isolated when it has become fashionable in some parts to question Israel’s right to exist. And, yes, on top of all this Iran has threatened to wipe Israel off the map.

We as Jews have good reason to feel threatened and scared and angry. At the same time, taking the broad view of history, we Jews have never had it so good. We have a strong democratic State of Israel, and we are active participants in our vibrant democracy of America. Particularly in times like this, when there is much uncertainty in the world, we as Jewish Americans dare not apologize for engaging in American democracy. We dare not apologize for supporting the State of Israel and the Jewish people’s right to a secure national homeland. And, like caring family members who share loving criticism from time to time, we dare not apologize for holding America and Israel to the highest standards of justice.

The United States and Israel are democracies that were each inspired in their founding by Biblical values. Our societies cherish open debate and have the innate ability to redeem themselves through democracy. We have good reason to mobilize and to muster all of our tools within our democracy to create a better world. Along the way, members of our community might have different approaches to achieving a safer and more peaceful world and more secure Israel. In a time like this when contentious issues are at stake, rabbis like me have the responsibility to raise the question: What are we doing to make it possible for our community to come together, kish echad klev echad, like one person with one heart?

The rancor in the American Jewish community that we experienced this summer fell far short of the “one person, one heart” vision. I believe our democracy is threatened if we turn arguments into witch hunts. Our democracy is threatened if we brand each other as illegitimate because some other person disagrees with a policy or politician whom we support. Our democracy is threatened if we only listen to those with whom we already agree rather than engage those who see things differently.

A teacher and colleague of mine, Rabbi Brad Artson, advises that in any disagreement it is best for each party to speak in a way that makes it possible for the relationship to continue after the disagreement. We need to speak in a way that allows us to have our say and allows us to come together afterwards. We must hold in our heart love for each other despite disagreements. Instead of demonizing, we need to ask questions, such as:

“I know you’re concerned about Israel’s security as much as I am—how are you able to support this?” Or “I know that you hate war and love democracy, why aren’t you bothered by this?” This more constructive approach is borne out of affection and respect for our fellow Jews.

Twenty years after Yitzhak Rabin was killed by a Jew, we still have much work to do to heal the deep rifts within the Jewish community. On this Yom Kippur, I ask you to join with me to speak in pledging from this moment forward to speak to our fellow Jews who are sincerely engaged with respect and dignity. Let us also pledge to moderate our rhetoric and demand of politicians that they will speak of those with whom they differ with respect.

The future of democracy at stake both in America and Israel. Our blueprint for navigating present turbulent times is the notion kish echad klev ehad. If we can truly be as one person with one heart we will merit to receive our bountiful Torah that will empower us to bring about healing into our broken world.

Ken Yehi Ratzon

(Inspired in part by published sermons by colleagues Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson)

 

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The Power of Words

18 Jul

There’s a Jewish expression that one is likely to hear from observant Jews. Those words are bli neder, literally, without an oath. Despite the inherent negativity of the statement, it is generally used to commit to something. For example, “Honey, what time will you be home?” To which the spouse responds, “Bli neder, I’ll be home by 6:00 for dinner.”
Words matter. Words have power. That is the message of the opening of today’s double Torah portion, Mattot-Masei. Moses instructs the heads of the tribes saying: Ish ki-yidor neder l’Adonai o hishav’a shevu’a l’esor isar al nafsho lo yachel devaro—If a person makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing a self- obligation, he shall not break his pledge; k’khol hayotze mipiv yaase, he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.

Rabbi Harold Kushner comments, “The power of speech is one of the unique gifts of a human being, a power we share with no other creature. In these rules governing vows and oaths, we see that human beings, like God, have the power to make things holy by words, by proclaiming them holy. By uttering words, an Israelite can impose an obligation on himself or herself as binding as God’s commands in the Torah.”

Words matter. Words have power. Words can change the world. Yet, words are sometimes ambiguous. The meaning of words spoken by one person might not be understood the same way by another. The misunderstanding that results unfortunately can lead to bitter conflict and, God forbid, sometimes war.

The meaning of words on paper is the top news story this week as the US, together with its P5+1 partners concluded an agreement with Iran to curtail Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. To be clear, the agreement delays Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Is a 15-year delay a good thing? On the surface, it should be. If we were discussing rational actors, there would be widespread relief that the world will have fewer nuclear bombs for the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, with respect to Iran, we are not discussing rational actors. Its mullahs fantasize about wiping Israel off the map. A bomb in the hands of religious fundamentalists is a terrifying prospect. Furthermore, the conventional weaponry that Iran will now be able to purchase with the lifting of sanctions is not much less frightening. Yossi Klein Halevi, a well-respected centrist journalist in Israel has said that Jewish history teaches us that when enemies threaten to destroy us, we believe them.

Like many of you, I’ve read what I could about the accord. I also participated in a conference call for rabbis convened by AIPAC and another by the Rabbinical Assembly. There is indeed much to be concerned about this agreement. I don’t claim to have any more expertise than anyone else in this room. Like many people, I have my deep reservations about it. It’s interesting to note that within Israel, not only has Prime Minister Netanyahu voiced protest—we all expected that—but so have his liberal opponents in the Knesset, Yitzhak Herzog, Tzippi Livni and Yair Lapid. In coming days and weeks, there will be spirited debate in Congress whether or not to accept this deal. We will all be following this closely.

I’ve tried to keep up with the vast amount of coverage of this issue and have tried to find statements that speak to me on a spiritual level. One such piece was written in the Times of Israel by Yehuda Kurtzer, a renowned Jewish educator and thought leader affiliated with the Hartman Institute.

He writes the following:

“You negotiate without ever letting go of the weaponry that makes your negotiating possible, and without ever letting go of the fear which enables you to use that weaponry when needed without hesitation. This is part of the existential state of Jewishness in light of the 20th Century, and many of the preceding centuries too. Keep reciting the ve’hi she’amda of the Passover Seder – the mantra that in every generation they rise up to destroy us – even when you have tools at your disposal to fight against those enemies and not merely rely on divine intervention.

“But in addition to this vigilance, the very act of negotiating is the act of faith in the belief — the deeply Jewish belief — that you can and must commit on an ongoing basis to creating different realities than the ones you have inherited, and different realities than the ones which will be inevitable as the result of the kind of stagnation that has its own momentum. Why else have agency if you don’t take seriously the opportunities that it creates?

“[T]he only way I see forward is to negotiate, to agitate, to activate, to legislate, to investigate — perhaps once in a while, to pause and meditate — to do the kinds of actions in the world that make hope, “Hatikvah,” something which is neither banal nor messianic but the mechanism that changes status quos rather than allowing us to be imprisoned by them. This commitment to hope need not be belittled as naivete; it is in fact, a commitment to responsibility.”
On this Shabbat, we contemplate the significance of words. Words have power. Words can destroy, and words can heal. Words declare war and words declare peace. We are witnessing a challenging juncture in history that will hinge on the interpretation of words of a complex document. May we all be guided by sound judgement in how we ourselves use our words towards one another so that we can contribute to a global atmosphere in which words lead not to violence and fear but to trust and hope.

Returning to Jaffa Road

15 Oct

Kelly book

Matt Eisenfeld and Sara Duker, of blessed memory, who died February 25, 1996

Matt Eisenfeld and Sara Duker, of blessed memory, who died February 25, 1996

The last time I saw my friend Matt Eisenfeld was bright and early on Thursday morning, February 22, 1996. We were studying in Jerusalem for our rabbinical school year in Israel. I had finished my morning davening, eaten a light breakfast, and packed my backpack, ready to spend the day at the Hebrew University library to do some research as part of my rabbinical school studies. A little after 8:00, Matt came over. He was having problems with his computer and asked me earlier that week if he could come over to use my computer to type a paper for a class we had taken together on the Song of Songs at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. While we were technically on a mid-winter vacation from classes, most students in our class were bogged down with final papers from the previous semester and were using the recess to work on them. Matt was particularly zealous in finishing his work from the first semester because he and his girlfriend, Sara Duker, were planning a long-awaited trip to Jordan, and he did not want too much work hanging over him at that time. Earlier that week I ran into Sara on the street. An environmentalist ahead of her time, she was on her way to a demonstration protesting the construction of a new national highway that threatened damage to vital ecosystems in Israel’s land. That’s my last memory of Sara.  When Matt came over, he shared with me and my roommate a bag of fresh croissants which he had picked up at a bakery on his way to our apartment. For a few minutes, we schmoozed and caught each other up on the details of our personal lives. He then started working, and I left for the library. When I returned home, he had already gone for the day. Three days later he and Sara were gone forever, and I never saw them again.

For several weeks, Matt and Sara had been talking about traveling to Jordan. The day finally came, February 25, 1996. At around dawn, they boarded a Number 18 bus, one of Jerusalem’s busiest lines. They were on their way to the Central Bus Station where they were going to catch a bus to Petra, Jordan. They never made it there. At approximately 6:45 AM, as the bus was winding its way down Jaffa Road near the Central Bus Station, a Hamas terrorist detonated a bomb that killed 26 people and wounded 49. Matt and Sarah were among the dead.

Later that day, a Schechter Institute professor called with the news of Matt and Sara. I can’t even begin to describe the shock and devastation I felt at that moment or for weeks and months thereafter.

Their loss was not only devastating for their family and friends. It was a loss for the Jewish people and for humanity. Both were tremendously inspired and inspiring Jews who were passionate about their Jewish observance and had magnetic yet humble personalities. Matt was a graduate of Yale University, destined for a brilliant career in the rabbinate. Sara graduated Barnard College and was pursuing a career as a research biologist.

Matt and Sara were idealists who put words and lofty goals into action. Sara’s quote in her high school yearbook is: “Keep both feet firmly planted in the clouds.” This speaks volumes about both her personality as well as Matt’s. They befriended a homeless woman in Morningside Heights and taught her to knit kippot, which she could sell to JTS students. They put their ideals into action.

Matt and Sara’s story is now beautifully told in the new book The Bus on Jaffa Road: A Story of Middle East Terrorism and the Search for Justice, by Mike Kelly. The author is a renowned author and columnist for the Bergen Record in Northern New Jersey. Sara was from Teaneck, and Kelly covered the story of Sara and Matt’s death from the beginning. Several years later, he covered 9/11 and wrote extensively on its impact in the aftermath. This led him on a personal mission to learn more about terrorism emanating from Islamic fundamentalism. He travelled around the Middle East, and he ultimately returned to the story of Matt and Sara because it encapsulates the toll of terrorism on the families of its victims.

The suicide bus bombing on February 25, 1996, that claimed the lives of Matt and Sara represented a turning point in Israel’s history.  The Oslo accords, signed on the White House Lawn less than three years earlier, raised much hope in the region and around the world that peace was imminent. In the aftermath of Oslo, Jordan and Israel normalized relations, and Israelis began traveling to Jordan, as Matt and Sara planned to do. There was a feeling of great optimism in the air.

Much had already happened post-Oslo to raise concerns about its viability, including the Baruch Goldstein massacre of Palestinians in Hebron on Purim in 1994 and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by Yigal Amir. These two attacks were carried out by Jewish extremists. As Kelly reports, Israeli law enforcement officials in the mid-1990s were more focused on cracking down on Jewish extremists. They assumed that the Palestinian Authority would crack down on Hamas and other extremists in their camp. One of the most sickening revelations from Kelly’s reporting is that Yasser Arafat, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, knew in advance of Hamas’s diabolical plan for February 25, and urged a Norwegian diplomat to stay out of Jerusalem that day.

Over the ensuing months and years, the February 25 bus bombing yielded other developments of global consequence. It factored into Shimon Peres’s loss to Benjamin Netanyahu in elections three months later. It undermined the Oslo process. Most significantly, the Israeli investigation established that Hamas terror was financed by Iran and that the mastermind of this bus bombing trained in Iran.

Matt and Sara’s parents, Len and Vicki Eisenfeld and Arline Duker, wanted justice. They grew close to Stephen Flatow, a New Jersey lawyer, who lost his daughter Alisa in a suicide bus bombing in Israel in 1995. Kelly reports on a confluence of diplomatic and political events that led to these families suing the Republic of Iran in US Federal District Court in order to seize frozen Iranian assets in the United States. Recently adopted Federal law allowed for such lawsuits against nations, such as Iran, that the State Department considered state sponsors of terror. The families were among the first to test this law in court (I personally testified in the Eisenfeld-Duker case in Washington in May, 2000). The Court held Iran liable and awarded significant damages to the families. The next hurdle was collecting the money.

Even though President Clinton signed into law the legislation allowing families of terror victims to sue state sponsors of terrorism, the Clinton Administration resisted release of Iranian assets. They were concerned that such release would dash any chance of an eventual diplomatic rapprochement with Iran. Kelly describes the intricate maneuvering among all three branches of our government as the families sought justice. Eventually, a compromise with the administration was reached and the families received some compensation, though a fraction of the original judgment.

I lived through and observed this saga up close and have always been inspired by the strength and courage of Len and Vicki Eisenfeld and Arline Duker. Mike Kelly brought this saga together in one narrative, with all of its complex twists and turns, and my admiration for the families has deepened. They fought back against Iran not for their own sake but because they wanted to do whatever they could to prevent other parents from losing children to terror. Through their efforts, all three branches of the US government put Iran on notice that their sponsorship of terror is intolerable.  Despite the horrific tragedy that they endured, the Eisenfeld and Duker families affirmed life.

Our observance of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, in its essence, is about affirming life in the midst of an uncertain, unpredictable and often violent world.  All of the rituals associated with Sukkot and Simchat Torah affirm our mortality. On Sukkot we dwell in temporary booths, fragile structures that are exposed to the elements. On Shemini Atzeret, we pray that God will bless us with rain so that we don’t starve. Furthermore, we recite the Yizkor memorial prayers in memory of our loved ones who have passed away. On Simchat Torah, the day we rejoice over the gift of the Torah, we read about the death of Moses. Mortality is very much on our minds, but we affirm life.

The statement zman simchateinu (the season of our joy) is a life affirming declaration, even when we confront death. We know horrible things happen in the world both through natural disasters and the evil and suffering with which human beings afflict one another. The message of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret is “Despite it all…” Despite all of the pain and suffering in the world, we will seek to strengthen the quality of our lives. Rabbi Neil Gillman notes the ambivalence of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, from which the message is “Despite it all…” Despite all of the pain and suffering in the world, we will seek to strengthen the quality of our lives. In our precarious and fragile world, loyalty, trust, commitment and love are the things that give us strength. The Eisenfeld and Duker families embody all these qualities.

I think about Matt and Sara every day, but especially when we say Yizkor. I’ve been personally blessed that I have not lost any of my close relatives for whom I would traditionally say Yizkor. When we say Yizkor, I refer to the passage in the prayer book for remembering martyrs, and I remember Matt and Sara, how they lived life to the fullest and how it was taken from them too soon:

“May God remember the souls of our brethren, martyrs of our people, who gave their lives for the sanctification of God’s name. In their memory do I pledge charity. May their bravery, their dedication, and their purity be reflected in our lives. May their souls be bound up in the bond of life. And may they rest forever in dignity and peace. Amen.” (Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, Rabbinical Assembly, 1998, p. 195).