Tag Archives: terrorism

Remembering Amalek’s oppression of us-and others

10 Mar

I posted on my Facebook page this week an article reporting that 100 U.S. Senators signed a letter to President Trump demanding swift action to counter the surge in attacks on Jewish communal institutions. My posting without comment was meant to indicate praise of the Senate for this important bipartisan statement. In response to my posting, my brother, Aryeh Bernstein, a Judaic scholar and social activist in Chicago, referred me to a blog post that he had just written. He praises the letter from the Senators demanding the Administration do more. However, he then notes an important irony:

“[T]he Senate — divided and hostile at an historic level — unites in solidarity with our Jewish community in response to a frightening but (thankfully, so far) very low register of violence: robo-call threats that have given no indication of having backing to follow through, but cause fear and disruption of communal life, and scary property damage to Jewish sacred spaces (broken and vandalized synagogue windows, vandalized Jewish cemeteries). At the same time, Muslim, Indian, Black, immigrant, and LGBTQ communities and individuals have not received the concern, attention, and care of the Senate, even as they have faced similar, and, in many cases, more direct and lethal violence,” such arson attacks on mosques in Texas and Tampa and the murder of two Indian Americans in Kansas.

I’m grateful to Aryeh for this important reality check. Shabbat Zakhor calls on us to remember the weakest, most vulnerable members of society because we know what it’s like to be in their shoes. This week’s special maftir reading reminds us of the wicked machinations of Amalek who attacked the Israelites from behind, preying on the stragglers in the rear.  The full text is as follows:

17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — 18 how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. 19Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

We read this section on the Shabbat prior to Purim because Haman of the Purim story is a descendant of Amalek and is therefore an archetype of evil. The great irony of the Amalek portion is that we are told simultaneously to remember Amalek AND to blot out the name of Amalek.

There is another odd feature of the Amalek portion. There is ambiguity regarding the phrase in verse 18, v’lo yirei Elohim. The New Jewish Publication Society translation moves this phrase from the end of the sentence to the beginning and says: “[H]ow, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down the stragglers in your rear. The merit of this translation is that it makes clear that the wicked Amalek lacks fear of God, another way of saying they have no common decency. On the other hand, there’s a problem. Another way of reading verse 18, based on the actual phrasing in the Hebrew is: “And you were tired and weary and did not fear God.” In other words, it is perfectly reasonable to read the text in a way that says the Israelites did not fear God! How can this be? Was it that the stragglers lost faith, thus becoming vulnerable to Amalek? What kind of God would do such a thing?

According to the late Rabbi Jack Bloom, z”l, in an article he published on this difficulty, he proposes that lo yirei Elohim does indeed refer to the Israelites. He writes: “Perhaps, at an Israelite army staff meeting, when an officer noted that there were those who trailed behind the camp, no junior officer or commanding general stood up to say, “We have stragglers out there; we have women and children, the famished and the weary, young and old who can’t keep up—we have to protect them somehow.

 

“No troops were deployed, no armed escort dispatched; no protection provided. The stragglers were not protected for the self-same reason the Amalekites attacked them. The Israelite high command had depersonalized their own people. They were the refuse, the impoverished, those no longer of any use in the long trek to Canaan. They were no longer of value. They did not matter. They had become other. They were depersonalized, left to perish in the desert, to be exterminated by Amalek. The Israelite leadership was lo yirei Elohim, ‘undeterred by fear of God.’”

We know that there are people in the world who have evil in their hearts and who do not fear God. To a large extent, their moral compass (or lack thereof) is out of our control. What we do control is ourselves and our actions. There is a lot of pain and suffering in the world of which Amalek may be an archetype. In response, we can actively choose to behave in a way befitting people who fear God.

When we remember Amalek, we not only remember Amalek’s attack, we remember the response of the Israelites to this disaster. At least according to one reading of the text, the response was less than satisfactory. It made the disaster worse instead of less severe. Zakhor et asher as lekha Amalek, “Remember what Amalek did to you,” rings true today. It’s not just the physical attack, but also the osmosis of Amalek-like thinking into the psyche of the Israelites that dehumanized the most marginal members of their society at the time of their greatest need. Shabbat Zakhor is an annual check-in for us. Rather than bemoaning all of the disasters that have befallen us and wallowing in our own victimhood, our task should be to reach out and be present to our neighbors who are also in pain. It’s great that the Senate speaks in a united voice to condemn anti-Semitism. This wasn’t always the case in American history. At the same time, we must not allow the Jewish community to be used as a fig leaf while reins of terror against other minority groups go by unchecked. Let’s resolve this Shabbat Zakhor, that we will not stand idly by while our neighbors are in fear. Let us remember and be present for those in need of support, because we know what it’s like. May our renewed resolve usher in a Purim worthy of our celebration.

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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).

Zakhor: The Meaning of Steven Sotloff’s Death

5 Sep
Steven Sotloff, 1983-2014

Steven Sotloff, 1983-2014

Parashat Ki Tetze, ends with the mitzvah of Zakhor: Zakhor et asher asah lekha Amalek: 17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — 18 how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. 19 Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

This Shabbat we remember Steven Sotloff, z”l. An American journalist from Miami, he was also Jewish. In 2008 he made aliyah and held dual American and Israeli citizenship. As a journalist, he was committed to uncovering the truth, even if it meant putting himself in great danger. While on assignment in Syria last year, he was kidnapped by the Islamic State. When another American journalist, James Foley, of blessed memory, was brutally murdered and beheaded by ISIS, the terrorists announced that Sotloff was next. Despite an emotional appeal by his mother, Sotloff was brutally executed and beheaded this week. Our nation mourns. Within our shock and outrage, we ask how it is that these ISIS terrorists can imagine the brutality that they have committed.

Within our tradition, the rabbis ask the same question about Amalek. In the Midrash, the rabbis ask what was Amalek’s motive? After all, following the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites showed the world they had God on their side. What could a nation hope to gain by attacking Israel?

The Midrash uses the analogy of a boiling hot bath. The first person that jumps in gets badly burned – but cools the bath off considerably, making it easier for the next person to jump in. Amalek so badly wanted the Israelites destroyed, that they were willing to attack Israel even after having witnessed how God’s powerful hand had protected them. Amalek was defeated, as the Torah tells us, but their gutsy, almost suicidal, attack on the Jews did a lot to alter the prevalent thinking of the time that the Jews and their God were invincible.

The world has a bad habit of standing by watching terrorists brutalize innocent civilians. The world has been particularly tolerant of Hamas terrorists who threaten the lives of millions of Israelis with rockets and tunnels and then put their own children in harm’s way as defensive shields when Israel retaliates against the rocket fire. When the democratic nation of Israel defends her citizens from terrorism, Israel is reviled throughout the world and accused of war crimes. What many around the world fail to understand is that if terrorism fueled by Islamic fundamentalism is allowed to exist in Israel, it will spread to the rest of the civilized world. As Prime Minister Netanyahu says, if Israel is forced to tolerate terror, it will come soon to a theater near you. Tragically, that is what we are witnessing with ISIS. President Obama called ISIS a cancer that must be stopped before it spreads even more. It’s an apt metaphor; however, we must recognize both the source of the cancer and prior failures to fight it.

James Foley and Steven Sotloff are hardly the first Americans to fall victims to the diabolical terror of Islamic fundamentalism. This week, we mark the 13th anniversary of 9/11 when 3,000 people died on our soil. The mitzvah of Zakhor extends beyond words and tributes to those who perished at the hands of terrorists. Zakhor requires further action.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I believe our nation failed to seize the moment to challenge Americans to make our society better and more respected in the world. The mitzvah of remembering Amalek caps a parasha with more mitzvoth than any other parasha: fair weights and measures in business, safe building practices in home construction, and protection of the weaker members of society. It’s as if a message of our parasha is that the best antidote to evil is a society that lives by laws and high moral principles. When there is a breakdown of that structure, Amalek is invited to enter.

In the midst of self-reflection of how we in Western civilization have allowed terrorism to spread, there’s another angle to explore. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, wrote three years ago how Osama bin Laden thought he could get away with it. The same question applies today to ISIS and their genocidal rampage. Rav Sacks writes that bin Laden thought he could get away with it because he saw the West in decline.

Sacks writes about the moral decline of our society and the diminishing commitment to communal values throughout the West. He writes: “Whenever Me takes precedence over We, and pleasure today over viability tomorrow, a society is in trouble. If so, then the enemy is not radical Islam, it is us and our by now unsustainable self-indulgence.
The West has expended much energy and courage fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq abroad and defeating terror at home. It has spent far less, if any, in renewing its own morality and the institutions — families, communities, ethical codes, standards in public life — where it is created and sustained. But if I am right, this is the West’s greatest weakness in the eyes of its enemies as well as its friends.”

ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas and other radical groups scoff at our values in which preservation of life reigns supreme. Like Amalek generations ago, they willingly jump into a hot bath to show the world that beheadings can be done. Our leaders must have the moral gumption to fight this tyranny and stop it. Moreover, we as citizens must continue to build a society rooted in the highest values of human dignity.

Rav Sacks’ words about 9/11 ring true today. He writes:

“The only way to save the world is to begin with ourselves. Our burden after 9/11 is to renew the moral disciplines of freedom. Some say it can’t be done. They are wrong: it can and must. Surely we owe the dead no less.”

May we be inspired by Parashat Ki Tetze to create a just society that prevents Amalek from rearing its ugly head. That will be the best way we can honor Steven Sotloff’s memory, may his memory be for a blessing.

#TieBlog #Pinchas

10 Jul
Batman, a vigilante, is a modern version of Pinchas.

Batman, a vigilante, is a modern version of Pinchas.

Pinchas is the Torah’s “Dark Knight.” He is a vigilante who takes the law into his own hands. When the Israelites were seduced into a mass orgy by the Moabites, God and Moses are incensed. Pinchas is too and pushes the envelope by stabbing to death a prominent Israelite man and Moabite woman who are copulating in public. Parashat Pinchas begins with God rewarding Pinchas, grandson of Aaron the High Priest, with a Brit Shalom, a Covenant of Peace. The rabbis struggle to justify this reward when Pinchas acted outside of any legal jurisdiction to take such action. In the Jerusalem Talmud the rabbis go so far as to say that Pinchas should have been excommunicated were it not for God’s own intervention. Batman is a similarly complex figure who stands for justice but operates outside the established legal system. Hence, the Batman tie.

One additional note: as I post this there is conflict in Israel with Hamas firing rockets from Gaza towards civilian pupulations in Israel and Israel striking back at Gaza. This latest escalation follows the murders of three Israeli teenagers and the retaliatory murder of a Palestinian teenager. In the Masoretic text, the letter vav of the word Shalom (peace) is broken (Numbers 25:12). Perhaps the Masoretes offer their own subliminal interpretation that expresses doubt over the fitness of Pinchas in receiving a covenant of peace. Peace is fragile and broken easily, especially in the face of zealotry. Let us pray for a true and lasting peace for our brothers and sister in Israel and their neighbors.