View current news articles, commentary, videos and more having an impact on Jewish culture, politics and religion at Rabbi Silverman's Sites to See
High Holiday Message: Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism
I’d like to thank Nevet Basker and Daniel Gordis for sparking this sermon.
A joke: A little boy, visiting the Bronx Zoo, falls through the fencing and into the lion habitat. Chillingly, a lion sees the boy and begins to stalk him, as is instinctual for a preditor. An Israeli who happens to be at the zoo, hearing the screams of the boy’s parents for help, reflexively umps into the lion’s den and punches the lion smack in the nose with a Krav Maga punch. He dives for the boy, scoops him up, scales the fence with him on his shoulder, and delivers him unharmed to his awe-struck and joyous parents. A reporter from the NYT happens to be there and says the the Israeli, “Wow, that was the bravest action I have ever witnessed. I want this to get front page coverage in The Times tomorrow. What is your name and where are you from?” “Ravi Goldwasser and I trained in the IDF. That is how I knew what I had to do.” The next day, the Israeli picks up the paper to see the article. The headline reads, “Israeli soldier attacks African immigrant and steals his lunch!”
Now I want to take you back to Abraham, as of course that is where we Jews go every Rosh Hashanah. Our sages connected us to Abraham for many reasons, I figure. One is that it’s the holiday of shofar blowing and therefore, with the narrative about the ram being caught by his horn in the thicket for a textured theme of the day. A second reason they included Abraham so prominently might be that Abraham begins the journey of all Jews. And here at Rosh Hashanah, the Jew is really being asked to prioritize his or her allegiances. No one was more of a universalist than Abraham Avinu and Sarah Imenu. They sought, says the Midrash, to spread the monotheistic idea like a fragrance across the entire Asia Minor, from Mesopotamia in the east, to Egypt and the Mediterranean basin in the west. According to midrash, they befriended and hosted—their tent was open on four sides, they welcomed and fed the caravans and spread the word of God and his moral message of the preciousness of human life created in the image of God. Universalism is a profound part of Abraham’s and Sarah’s legacy.
And nowhere more do we see this universal aspiration as in Abraham’s debate with God at the time of Sodom and Gemorrah: “Will you spare all of the town?” Abraham convinces God. But note he moved from the idea of sparing innocent life to the idea of saving everyone, even the wicked, and in the process perhaps never considered that sparing the wicket rather than holding them to account, might further condemn the innocent.
But Abraham, like many universalists, may have suffered from one blind spot. His idealism and universalism took so much room in his consciousness that he had nothing left for his nearest and dearest. And that is why the tests continue—first with Ishmael and then with Isaac in the readings we have on Rosh Hashanah. God is asking of Abraham to dig deep and draw from within the same passion he has for all the inhabitants of Sodom and Gemorrah, even the wicked and irredeemable ones, and protest the injustices about to befall his own innocent family, first with Hagar and Ishmael, and with Isaac on the altar. Abraham fails to make a case for Ishmael and even fails to give him sufficient provisions for a desert journey to Egypt. But he finds his mettle again with Isaac. At first he sends his hand, knowing in his heart it was wrong to slaughter his sone. But the angel (his conscious) tell him, “Abraham, don’t send your hand and don’t lay a finger on him al taas lo meuma.” And his angel/conscious tells him, “Now I see you are a God-fearer who will not take innocent life…especially your own flesh and blood. I see that you are worthy,” because in the Torah, a God-fearer bucks a higher authority or an assumed commandment when it comes to saving innocent life.
The Eliezer Rokeah Commentary of the 13th century put it well. “I see that you, Abraham, are a God-fearer, since you didn’t ‘bring him over to the forces of darkness, lo Hashachta et bincha, not lo chasachta. I see that you understand now that there is a responsibility to value life nearest and dearest to you and life that is innocent life more than general atheoretical life around you. I see you understand that universal and communal accountability begins first and foremost at home. Or, as Rabbi Akiva puts it, ‘ve chai ahicha imach...your life and those dearest to you are your first responsibility. Only after they are safe are you permitted to apply the principle of don’t stand idly by at your neighbor’s suffering.’”
I want to talk about his inversion of priorities at present which asks us to care so much aboot the welfare of others that we should subject our families– our community and the Jewish people as a whole–to risk by advocating for others over our own safety. That was what was being demanded by some in the BLM movement when they linked themselves to the Palestinian cause and labeled Israel a racist and genocidal state, and that is what is being asked of Jewish faculty and students increasingly now in university departments, like CUNY for example, that label the State of Israel and Zionism illegitimate; a colonialist state. Criticism branding Israel as racist, the very thing that was introduced in 1975 and disowned by the UN in the 1990s, is now again accelerating– this past year in the May Gaza war, which really began to feel different this time around. When Hamas fired 4600 missiles into all areas of Israel, south and central, including the main population centers of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, killing 13 Israelis, ostensibly to respond to a supposed invasion of the Al Aksa Mosque (not the case) or a legal eviction of squatters in East Jerusalem, verbal condemnation reigned down like rockets on Israel when it retaliated to defend itself and take out the rocket launchers, the armaments and the intelligence commands and the tunnels. And it was not only verbal volleys against Israel, but assaults on Jews in the street, because they endorse the State of Israel. And so many in academic departments, teachers’ unions, celebrities, corporations, children’s book cooperatives and even the Halls of Congress, ditched the narrative form “both sides” historical validation talk, and unleashed anti-Zionism declarations, including the untruthful branding of Israel as an “apartheid,” ethnic cleansing, land stealing state.
The history of the conflict is very different, of course. Suffice it to say that Jews purchased their land monetarily as well as had it gifted by the dint of Biblical history and by the four powers in San Remo in 1922 and the Balfour Declaration during WWI. The Palestinian Arabs had opportunities in 1939, 1947, 1967, 2000 and 2008 to share the land for a state of their own, which they rejected. And therefore, these lands are disputed and still remain in accordance with the UN Resolution 242, to be apportioned in a comprehensive peace accord.
Therefore, when pro-Palestinian groups, celebs and congress people in this country declare things like “free Palestine from sea to sea,” and that Israel is an apartheid land-stealing colonial ethnocentric state, they are not criticizing Israel’s policies per se, but rather what Israel is; it’s very right to be as a Jewish Nation State. My friends, whatever we might feel for Palestinians who are trapped by their rejectionist and malicious leadership, and they do suffer immensely under their authoritarian grip, we must understand that that leadership is still seeking the elimination of the Jewish State, has predicated their children’s educational system in rejecting Israel’s right to be and any Jewish claim to our homeland, and succeeded in making their new generation carry anti-Semitic animus, and in Hamas’ case, avow the eradication of Jews as a whole and the replacement of Israel in totality with a Palestinian state, and that’s fire that we mustn’t play with. President Biden said it best: nothing will happen diplomatically for the creation of a Palestinian state without Palestinian leadership acknowledging the legitimacy of the Jewish Nation State and Israel’s right to exist.
If you don’t think that is their aim and even potentially much of the world’s aim, one should refer to the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which, in a compelling section, proclaims that having made all provisions of (assembling a national governing body of juridical and legislative branches and formerly declaring independence, the State of Israel as a sovereign Jewish Nation State is irrevocable. Daniel Gordis, in his recent article, The Bearable Lightness of Being [Alone], asks, “How is it that a declaration of national independence needs to even say that what it declares is irrevocable?” He goes on to show that Ben Gurion and others were deeply aware of rumblings in diplomatic quarters, and even in the US State Department, the US, seeing the degree of rioting and protest by the Arab world (and its possible implications), were weighing the possibility, even after the UN vote that legitimized the Jewish State, of a redo. To statet, as they said, “de novo,” from the beginning, on this.
Gordis correctly maintains that this is why the declaration of Israeli independence speaks urgently of “irrevocability.” Gordis continues that deep down, most Israelis know that they stand alone. The world as a whole either cares little about their country or actively dislikes or envies it. And every Israeli who knows this–that it was created first with resolve but then ambivalence. It is this understanding, that their national sovereignty is the only one in the world forum which is questioned, that colors the way they vote and shapes theiropinions and decisions at the ballot box as to what to do with Judaea and Samaria. Given the world’s apathy or animosity, (where in bodies like the ICC and the UNHRC, Israel is de-legitimized) Israel can, at present, ill afford to change the status quo, unless they have a willing Palestinian partner, and even then, their ultimate responsibility is to their children and grandchildren being safe when they tuck them in at night. That willing partner has to be both stable, consistent and committed to peace. Israelis stand alone and they know it, which of course makes the special friendship with the US so vital. But as you see, that alliance too, is being challenged and is being frayed, in the university, in the street, in our ethnic studies and social studies disciplines in high school and middle school, at the ports of commerce, where pro-Palestinian factions try to disrupt the unloading of Israeli commerce, and in the Halls of Congress. Alas, it’s what Gordis terms as “Israelis with apologies” to Czech writer Milan Kundera–the “barely bearable lightness of being [alone].
And that brings it down to us. More and more, we American Jews also stand alone. America’s Jews, typically progressive, are being frozen out of student college governments and women’s marches, even BLM marches, for being supportive of Israel of simply for being Jews. Jewish College faculty are being intimidated because they dare to present alternative Zionist versions of history and of the Mid-East conflict. Their syllabi are now scrutinized and questioned, as is their bibliography said to be overly “pro-Israel,” their tenure more uncertain. Schools, even middle school and elementary (perhaps soon in a district near you) are employing ethnic studies laced with Critical Race Theory wich positions Jews as “hyper white” and having “white privilege.” Holocaust studies are being raided by efforts to broaden and expand these studies into universalist teachings of tolerance, while ignoring the clear lesson of Jewish powerlessness and exile and vulnerability for two millennia and the need for self-determination and safe refuge. Jewish Congress persons are being accused of dual loyalties and somehow not being practitioners of “global justice” when they condemn and criticize anti-Semitic comments of certain congresswomen. And many of us hesitate to lend our voiced in defense of Israel in the workplace for fear of being branded or canceled.
Nevet Basker, an authority in Middle East conflict and in efforts to broaden respectful discourse, makes the point that anti-Israel, pro-Palestine forces don’t flinch when Lebanon practices apartheid against Palestinians. They don’t condemn Egypt for its embargo against Gaza. They don’t make a peep when BDS runs SodaStream or Ben and Jerry’s out of that they call “Occupied Palestine,” and in the process, render hundreds of gainfully employed Palestinians jobless. And they never make a peep either, of any injustice of Palestinians, like the nerve gassing of Palestinian refugee camps in Syria by Haffez Assad. They also get US student governments on college campuses to proclaim boycotts against Israel, which the universities overwhelmingly reject. So if they aren’t hurting Israel directly in the pocket book, while harming Palestinians in the process, who is it really that their ire is directed? It’s directed at us–the American Jew. We are the target. “The right of self-determination and political independence is granted to indigenous peoples everywhere, and challenged only with regard to the Jewish people. So an attack on Israel is an attack on Jews everywhere. Singling out the Jewish state and the Jewish people is an expression of prejudice–prejudice against Jews so ancient and so prevalent that it has it’s own word: anti-Semitism. The late Rabbi Lord Jonathon Sacks called anti-Semitism “a virus that keeps mutating.” “In antiquity and the Middle Ages,” he write, “Jews were hated for what they believed for their religion… in the 19th and 20th centuries because of their race. Today they are hated because of their nation state, Israel. They don’t hate Israel for what it does. They hate Israel for what it is. Anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semistism.”
Which brings me back to Abraham. Another feature of why our sages begin Rosh Hashanah with Abraham is that they realized his ideals and beliefs put him at odds, and set him apart and alone from the entire world. Abraham Ha Ivri means not just Abraham the Hebrew. It also can mean Abraham, the Amad MeEver, who stood alone–who stood over and against. Abraham saw the immorality of idol worship and pagan practices and bravely railed against them at his great personal risk. Like it or not, at each Rosh Hashanah, that is what we must do. We are a nation am badad haYoshev levado, a nation who, at times, and maybe always, must stand alone and counter the currents of immorality injustice and idolatries of the day. If this year taught us anything, I think it’s taught us that it doesn’t matter how much you contort yourself and assimilate into the general culture. Anti-Semites will not discriminate between your stripe, your political affiliation, your observance as a Jew or your creed. So in this aloneness, deepen your Jewish practice and communal affiliation. Stand over and against in your heart, knowing Israel is a Jewish nation that globetrots to salvage life after disaster wherever a neighbor will let her in. Stand over and against the ignorant din, knowing that its inventions and creators yearn to share its discoveries, technologies and medical advances to enhance life and economies all over the globe, including her Middle East neighbors. Stand over and against by realizing that you will not convince everyone who hates us, so maybe stop defending her so much to anti-Semites and treat yourselves to a JNF trip to celebrate her and to experience her up close. Stand over and against this tide of resentment and negativity by understanding that Israel and Zionism remains the greatest Jewish emotional and spiritual meaning-maker for the Jewish people. Stand over and against the tide by learning from Abraham the duty to care for our own first and foremost and, as broad as our universalism is, never risk the wellbeing of our own, even in the pursuit of ‘global justice,’ when that pursuit is being conducted by the “wicked,” who despise us.
May we have the sechel to see anti-Semitism for what it is, and where it is, whether on the left or on the right. May we never be guilty of Abraham’s blind spot, and may we, like him, be granted the blessing of realizing such folly before it’s too late– L’Shana Tova Tikatevu
Last night I sat with my seven year old, consoling her and wiping away her tears. Not an uncommon sight for a child who has a lot of “feelings.” And believe me, 2020 has given us all plenty of opportunity for tears. Between a global pandemic and its related economic downturn, it’s been a tough year. With continued racial injustice exploding into our consciousness again and refusing to be dimmed into the background noise of the chaos of life, we must confront pain. And pain again, as our political system was rocked by an impeachment and a fractious election that still echoes in the minds of many who refuse to accept its results. We have become socially distanced to help slow the spread of COVID-19, but as our alternate realities and facts show, we have become separated from each other by much more than six feet… There were the inevitable celebrity deaths, as well as those closer to our community, whether by the pandemic, or some other cruel twist. There was isolation, depression, and for weeks our synagogue building was completely closed. Yes, 2020 was not the best year—and that’s not even counting the Murder Hornets.
And yet…that’s not why my child was crying. As I rubbed her back, she explained: “But I LOVED 2020!” I almost paused my soothing efforts, so gobsmacked was I. How in the world could one possibly love what was so obviously a dumpster-fire of a year!? Had I sheltered her too much from the reality of what was going on–the pain and sorrow? Was she simply incapable of recognizing the magnitude of suffering which was 2020? Well, sure. That’s partially true. But underneath it, was a great truth, and that is, even within the curses of 2020, even within the depths of darkness, there exists some light. Now this is, in no way an attempt to minimize the pain many of us experienced last year and continue to experience. There is no simple comfort to ameliorate all the hurt. But we do ourselves a disservice to ignore the good that came into our lives in 2020. Homeschooling an energetic first and second grader was by no means a simple task. Often it was (and still is) a very frustrating endeavor, as I try to understand why every generation of teaching philosophers seem to think it’s good idea to teach math differently again. And beyond the number-bonds and units and tens, the diminishment of contemporary social interactions has obviously taken its toll on my little girl. But, she bounces on through it. She has accepted this new reality, and she has thrived. I am blessed. We have daily FaceTime and Zoom interactions with our far-flung family, and one of the benefits of being home together is many more hugs. This pandemic has given me a chance to interact with our congregation differently, and though I’ve seen very few of you in person, I’ve still gotten to connect to many of you in small 3”-by-5” rectangles on my screens, and have remained in touch with many of our non-local congregants, who in a normal year, I might not see until they return from Florida, like so many migratory birds.
But my blessings may not be your blessings, and your pain is definitely different than my pain. I can’t presume to tell you what will happen in 2021, but I can urge you to identify what WERE the blessings of 2020; and where can you find the blessings in 2021. I urge you to reach out to us here at East Northport Jewish Center. Outside of services, both live and virtual, or classes offered in both formats, we are here to help be the center of your Jewish community. Let us know what we can do to help you in these trying times. Find your Jewish family here, live or live-streamed. We are here for you, and may 2021 bring more blessing into your lives.
I may be hated for saying this. But I’d rather be hated for telling the truth than loved for tolerating a lie. And the truth is that it is our responsibility to eradicate the cancerous extremist behavior within our own communities. African-American leaders should be at the forefront of shutting down anti-Jewish attacks by black youth in Brooklyn. Muslims should be the loudest to condemn Islamic radicalized terrorism. And I, a rabbi, must condemn racism within the verbal, mental and cultural shtetls of my people.
Therefore, I want to publicly condemn the use of the derogatory Yiddish word “schvartze” (“black”), those who make Jews of Color feel alienated from our brethren, and any who tolerate, defend and promulgate the racist Hamitic Hypothesis. I want to remind members of my tribe that it is not petty tribalism which defines us, rather the teachings of Torah herself which unite us. And, in the Torah, the very first Rebbetzin was black (Ibn Ezra; Radak, Jeremiah 13:23, Mo’ed Katan 16b, Shaloh, Shavuot 242 and 247), the entire Jewish tribe of Dan is Ethiopian (Eldad ha-Dani, Radbaz, Horav Maran Horav Ovadia Yosef, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate) and all of us are created in the “image of G-d” (Genesis 1:27).
In the second century, Rabbi Meir taught, “Look not at the vessel but at what it contains” (Pirkei Avot 4:20) and in 1983 Rabbi Moshe Feinstein [uncharacteristically] signed a public letter demanding the [Jewish] world aid black Jews from Ethiopia. He told his son-in-law he “suffered great anguish” hearing they were treated differently because “their skin is black.” (Igrot Moshe Vol. 9) The message I see weaved through the glorious canopy of Torah teachings is one salient truth: Our value is determined not by external labels but by our intrinsic individuality. In other words, our soul.
Perhaps we - as a human collective - still struggle to see beyond the color of superficial skin to the content of character because we - as a spiritual collective - still struggle to see beyond the skin of the world to the character of our Maker contained within. Perhaps truly seeing and celebrating our G-d given diversity helps us transform a Darwinian jungle, where only the fittest survive, into a Garden of Eden where everyone can harmoniously thrive. And perhaps the Creator made the world not in black and white but with a rainbow of colors to teach us that one becomes G-dly when the personal plight of the “Me” becomes the moral mandate of the “We.”
Therefore, I - labeled as an “Ultra-Orthodox Jew” - will be “Ultra-Orthodox” in my fight against racism. I will push for reparations for African Americans (Exodus 11:12, Deuteronomy 15:13, Talmud Bavli Gittin 55a, Sanhedrin 91a). I will expose the ugly face of discrimination which hides in plain sight under the guise of benevolent stereotyping (The Insidious Effects of Positive Stereotypes, scholar.harvard.edu, 2012). And I will stand against all bias which perpetuate the enslavement of individuality using the shackles of oversimplified expectations (Psychology Today, “Where Bias Begins, The Truth About Stereotypes, 2016). As Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, famed political activist and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, once said, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides.”
There are those who argue that coexistence is impossible. That the tough reality is that rampant economic rivalry, family breakdown, and centuries of prejudicial societal constructs divide us from one another. But no one ever said that unity is easy to achieve. As the champion of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
Almost six decades since he was murdered for speaking out, there are still political puppet masters planning for a race war. They’re not satisfied with slogans on T-shirts or messages on baseball caps. They want us to be at each other’s necks. But we mustn’t be afraid of their evil. For we only see evil in the world because the G-d within us knows that it is the force of good to stop it. As New York State Attorney General Letitia James said after an uptick in New York anti-Semitic attacks, ”We can’t shy away from obstacles and we can’t shy away from the facts. We have to face this challenge.” Or, as Akedah Fulcher- a black Jew from the Chassidic enclave of Crown Heights - taught me, “Silence is violence.”
There are those who try to silence me. “The arena of politics is unbefitting for a rabbi”, they say. “You’re a fool to believe in insidious racism,” they say. “You just don’t understand,” they say. Well, here’s what I say. I say that my religion makes it my responsibility to be the voice of the voiceless and the champion of the oppressed. I say that I'd rather be a fool fighting against injustice than an intellectual tolerating it. And I say that I may not understand a lot but I do understand that to stop “othering” the other, I must realize he’s my brother from another mother.
My father taught me that as long as ignorance, intolerance, and injustice exist, we can never rest lest we rest in peace. His ancestor died at the Battle of Gettysburg fighting for that truth, often not so self-evident, that all people are created equal. He used a sword and a bayonet. I pick up the proverbial pen to continue his legacy. For it is only through the heroes of our past
, upon whose mighty shoulders we now stand, that the evolution of democracy and liberty can continue to march forward. As Rabbi Tarfon taught in the Talmud, “It is not your obligation to finish the work nor are you free from engaging in it, etc” (Pirkei Avot 2:16).
In these recent years of proliferated polarization, the victims of bigotry have eclipsed our nation’s attention. And it is what we do next, what we tell our youth
in the coming days, what ideas we normalize in our homes that will determine the future of our United States.
I believe what Dr. King wrote in 1967 that “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” I believe what Elie Wiesel said in 1986, “Peace is our gift to each other.” And I believe what the Lubavitcher Rebbe told Mayor David Dinkins
after the 1991 riots, “We are not two sides; we are one side. We are one people living in one city under one administration and under one G-d.”
These leaders have all passed on but their light will never pass away. As the Talmud teaches, “When his children are alive, he is alive.” (Talmud, Taanit 5b). Dr. Bernice King, daughter of the late Martin Luther King Jr., quotes Isaiah 1:17, “Learn to do good; seek justice; correct oppression.” Elisha Wiesel, son of the late Elie Wiesel, channels his father as he asks
"How can so many among us deny that white privilege is real when our African-American brothers and sisters still suffer from the effects of a century of Jim Crow laws and voter suppression?" And I follow in the footsteps of my Rebbe who taught me that we treat G-d as our Father in Heaven in order that we might treat one another as G-d’s children here on Earth.”
In this way, we walk the dream. (Micah 4:2)