Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel

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Our Hope Continues: A Message for Rosh HaShana 5762 – 2001

Rosh HaShana 5762 - 2001

`Od lo avda tiqvatenu — We have not lost our hope

These words from “HaTiqva,” the “Jewish National Anthem,” the official anthem of the State of Israel — these words, “We have not lost our hope, the two-thousand-year hope” — express an essential and central element of Jewish religious philosophy.

Part of the Jewish mission in the world is to make the world a safer, happier, more nurturing, more just and loving place, where every person can develop their potential for goodness. It is a fundamental principle of Jewish thought, one shared with liberalism and Marxism among other creeds, a tenet characteristic of but not exclusive to Judaism, that human civilization can advance, can develop, can improve. There is “Progress in History.” But, as Maimonides observed some 800 years ago, “Human civilization changes slowly” (Guide, Sec. 3).

The same is true for each individual: We can improve. We can become better. We can make progress. That is an underlying premise of the High Holy Days.

The world, life, human civilization can get better. As Jews we make that happen through a life of Torah and Mitzvot, through Tiqun Olam, “repairing the world.” That is what Judaism is all about. That’s part of what BEKI is all about. That is what these High Holy Days are all about.

Last Tuesday [11 September 2001] New York and Washington shook, and a sleeping giant was awakened.

As Jews, we have seen the face of evil before. We have seen the very worst of humanity. We saw it close-up, in all its horror, from the inside, in the pogroms, in the Shoah (Holocaust). We saw it at Babi-Yar, Bergen-Belsen, we saw it at Munich and Maalot and Entebbe, and at the Sbarro Pizzeria.

And as Americans, we have seen the face of evil before, the very worst of humanity. We saw it in the trenches of Europe, we saw it at Pearl Harbor and Normandy and Saigon and Beirut. Some in this room were there. You saw it, you survived it.

A new generation of Americans has now seen something horrible, live, prime-time, up close, in-yer-face. There were literally millions of eye-witnesses, and hundreds of millions of TV-witnesses.

America shook, and a sleeping giant was awakened.

Hinei lo yanum velo yishan Shomer Yisrael — Behold, the Guardian of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers,” wrote the Psalmist (Psalm 121).

As much as we saw evil, we have also seen great goodness, something that reaffirms our faith in humanity, in the innate or at least potential good in each person. We saw firefighters, police officers, rescue workers, medical personnel, constructions workers, office workers, neighbors and bystanders respond with heroism, decency and kindness. They reached out to help. They sacrificed their own safety, their own lives to help others. They lent a hand, they held a hand. Thousands and thousands of people tried to help, to make things a little better.

A few dozen people did evil; many thousands did good. Nothing can undo the damage done. But goodness can still prevail.

As we read in the Psalm for the Days of Awe (Psalm 27): “When evildoers draw near to slander me, it is they, my foes and my enemies, who stumble and fall. Though armies be arrayed against me, I will have no fear. Though wars threaten, I remain steadfast in my faith.”

New York shook, Washington shook and I am shaken. But my faith in humanity is not shaken. My hope for the future is not shaken.

As Jews and as Americans we have faced challenges before, and we have overcome them. We have survived, we have thrived. We make progress; we have setbacks. But we rise again and move forward.

We face many great challenges.

Today we face the challenge of AIDS: Two million people are expected to die of AIDS this year.

Today we face the challenge of child poverty: Ten million children are expected to die this year of malnutrition, lack of safe drinking water and lack of basic medicines.

Today we face the challenge of cancer: Over 500,000 people will die of cancer in the United States this year.

The atrocious hijacking and attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon caused America to enlist in the “War on Terrorism.” Actually, America had declared “War” on terrorism already. President Jimmy Carter declared “War” on terrorism in his State of the Union speech in 1980. As recently as September 1998 President Clinton declared “War” on Bin Laden. Presidents have declared war on poverty, war on cancer, war on inflation, war on drugs.

Incidents that seem so important when the occur so often fade from public consciousness as time passes. Typically, after six months, most of the public has forgotten. People forget that in 1980, the United States supported the mujahiddin freedom fighters in Afghanistan opposing the invading Soviet forces. (The word mujahiddin is from the same root as jihad and means “one engaged in jihad.”) President Carter said, “At this time in Iran, 50 Americans are still held captive, innocent victims terrorism and anarchy. Also at this moment, massive Soviet troops are attempting to subjugate the fiercely independent and deeply religious people of Afghanistan. These two acts — one of international terrorism and one of military aggression — present a serious challenge to the United States of America and indeed to all the nations of the world.” The Soviets were in Afghanistan, not to control any great natural resources or to build great cities, but to control Islamic fundamentalism which was destabilizing and terrorizing the neighboring Soviet republics. The US almost went to war to oppose the Soviets. But that is forgotten now, along with the American hostages incident in Iran.

But this time it may be different. This declaration of “war” reverberates with an intensity and determination beyond the usual well-meaning rhetoric. America may finally be taking its place as a leader in the struggle against terrorism. Israel was already on the front line in that war, and it is about time America took its place in that battle.

The attack last week was horrific in part because it was completely done out of malice. It was also especially frightening because we do not know what the future holds. “While at ease I once thought: ‘nothing can shake my security'” (Psalm 30). But AIDS, child poverty, and cancer, while not imposed by human malice, take a toll orders of magnitude beyond terrorism (at least as we have experienced terrorism so far). Even more, we have the medicine and technology to greatly reduce the toll, but we lack the political and economic will to do so. When a hurricane hits India, or an earthquake strikes Mexico, thousands may die; that same hurricane or earthquake in America may claim only a handful of victims. That is because in America we have built safer buildings, created warning systems and developed emergency support systems. We need a war on Terrorism, but we also need a war on AIDS, poverty and cancer.

We know we can make progress and overcome these challenges. We know we can make a world that is better for future generations.

If the attack on Tuesday changes us, it should help us redefine our priorities.

The explosions in New York and Washington blasted the drivel and dreck of the Durban “UN conference on Racism” from our memory. And I kind of hate to remind you of it. You may recall that this well-intentioned world gathering fell apart largely over the insistence of certain participants in highlighting as the central theme of the conference what they call “the genocidal ethnic cleansing racist terrorism of the Zionist Entity and World Jewry against the innocent Palestinians.”

Now, I should tell you, that I personally am, or would like to be, one of the Government of Israel’s biggest critics. But most of my criticism would seem almost trivial in the actual context of world discourse and the prevailing conditions. So let’s hold on to that, because I know many here are critical of Israel, and question certain policies and actions of the Government of Israel. Let’s set those aside for a moment and look at some larger issues of historical context.

I want to take you back to my ancestral homeland, that is, back to Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the 1930s. I want to take you there because you know Minnesota as one of the most progressive and tolerant places in the world. But in the 1920s and 1930s Minnesota was considered a capital of anti-semitism in the Northern United States.

In the 1930s, Minnesota’s state government was controlled by Governor Floyd Olson of the Farmer Labor Association, America’s strongest “third party” ever. The party was Socialist, and it was progressive. Olson himself was the product of a mixed-marriage. His father was Norwegian and his mother was Swedish. But he also spoke Yiddish.

He was succeeded by his comrade Elmer Benson, who won the 1936 election by a landslide. Benson, like Olson, had Jews among his top advisers, including his personal aid. During the 1938 election campaign, Minneapolis bankers joined with the Republican party activists in an openly anti-semitic campaign. Their coalition’s express purpose was to “block the efforts of the present governor and his Communistic Jewish advisors….” Campaign material made frequent reference to the “Jewish-Communist menace.” Literature from that era stated that “Hitler has shown us the only practical way to crush the labor movement, strikes and Jew Communism. Forward under the radiant cross of Jesus against Jews, Niggers and Communists.”

As the election approached, concern grew that the this anti-semitic campaign would be effective. Top Jewish advisers to Governor Benson handed in their resignations, explaining that they did not want to jeopardize the Party’s chances in the election. The Governor wrote to Rabbi Stephen S. Wise: “Recent events have shown conclusively that anti-semitic campaigns originate in the same camp whence came the campaigns for vigilantism and fascism. The persons constituting the fascist camp seek to make minority racial, religious, and political groups into objects of popular hate in order to give the people scapegoats for the present economic maladjustments….”

The Farmer-Laborites refused to accept the aids’ resignations, saying that “If we were to bow before this anti-semitic movement, we would be guilty, in a crucial moment of our State’s and nation’s history, of having betrayed the cause of human civilization, and we would be helping to prepare the way for fascism.” While the fascists were marching in Europe, this was no time to retreat in the face of anti-semitism. The Jews stood at their posts. In the end, Benson lost the election. (See Hyman Berman, “Political Antisemitism in Minnesota during the Great Depression,” Jewish Social Studies, Vol 38:3-4, Summer-Fall 1976.)

But they did not lose the war. During the 1950s, under the leadership of the new Democratic-Farmer-Labor party and through the efforts of Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey and his supporters, Minnesota came to be a leader in racial equality and respect for diversity. During most of my lifetime, Minnesota has had one, and sometimes two, Jewish senators in Washington. The society and culture have changed. In every successful social movement there are setbacks. But progress is possible.

In the 1930s, Jews in America, many of them survivors of pogroms, were insecure. They knew the history of the expulsions, oppression and pogroms; they heard anti-semitism on their local radio, and they heard the boots marching in Europe. And within a few years, they also knew the Shoah, the Holocaust, and they saw that Jews had no safe place to go.

Modern Zionism as an organized political movement began just over 100 years ago in Europe. The idea of a Homeland for the Jews was a response to what was then called “The Jewish Problem.” At the close of World War Two the background of persecution contributed to the urgency of the establishment of the State of Israel and its centrality in 20th century Jewish life.

Ironically, Jews were creating a separate state in a backwater location at the very moment that states were becoming obsolete, that the world was getting smaller, that territory was decreasingly a security asset. Today, no corner of the globe is safe from modern weaponry. No place is beyond the reach of global capitalism, communications, transportation, economic interdependence. Today it is much harder to live apart. The world is much smaller.

The cry that “Zionism is Racism” does seem ridiculous to us. We define “Zionism” simply as the national movement of the Jewish people. It is no more (and no less) racist than any other nationalist movement, including Palestinian and Arab nationalism. To me it is as simple as that.

However, I can understand why Palestinians might fear Zionism as a force of genocide. That is because genocide and “ethnic cleansings” (if you will) historically have been perpetrated by colonial powers and by the colonized in response. The Jews of Israel are in the somewhat unusual position of being in both of those groups, namely the colonizers and the colonized retaliating. Even more, if Jews neither leave Israel en masse nor make peace with the Palestinians, genocide or at least mass expulsions and “ethnic cleansing” against the Palestinians seems to be one of the few remaining possibilities. At least that’s the way many Palestinians see it. That’s what they would do, you know.

People who are devious and manipulative often assume that others are like that as well. And people who would consider committing genocide assume that others would too. How many more times do we have to hear an Arab leader talk about “driving the Jews into the sea”? It is not surprising that they accuse Israel of plotting to do exactly what they themselves would do. This is an unfortunate and harsh reality. You can read this kind of talk every day on Arabic radio broadcasts on shortwave radio or the internet and in the daily papers.

To make it worse, there are in fact voices in Israel that talk about driving out or “exterminating” Arabs “like cockroaches.” There are people who talk like this in the Knesset, and since Sharon’s coalition took power, there are even people with such ideas in the Government itself. They are condemned as racists by most of the other politicians, but still, they say it. Years ago, during the first Intifada (uprising), Prime Minister Shamir said that if Palestinians ever took up arms against Israel, there would be no trace left of them. Much of this gets reported in the Arabic press. For us they are unfortunate remarks, for the Palestinians they are headline news.

About thirteen years ago I attended a speech in Jerusalem by Mubarrak Awad, a Palestinian academic who was promoting Gandhian non-violence among Palestinians. Outside the building where he was speaking a group of Jews were demonstrating, holding signs that said, “Death to the Arabs!” and holding nooses. And to the Jews who went to listen to and to dialog with Awad, the Jewish hooligans said, “You’re next!”

Awad, an American citizen, was subsequently deported by the State of Israel as a security threat.

Polls continue to show that about 75% of Palestinians in the West Bank support the idea of compromise and peace with Israel. That is not to say that they would prefer this option, but that they would support it. Unfortunately, it is the other 25% of the population that is largely determining policy.

Israelis have similarly said that if there were a real prospect for peaceful coexistence they would support the “two state” solution. The key may be to have the “Peace Camp” in power in both societies simultaneously. Therein lies the hope and path of peace.

Most of the Settlements in Gaza and the West Bank have been, in my view, bad for Israel: They were a huge drain on the economy with little return, a source of conflict, a poor priority, a security liability, and sent the wrong message to the Palestinian Arabs.

Of course if Israel had not developed these settlements, or were to withdraw from them, it would not eliminate the conflict, and it is hard to guess how much it would even reduce Palestinian’s belligerence toward Israel. Israel was the subject of great hostility even before 1967, when it first occupied the West Bank and Gaza. Largely independent of their effect on the level of Arab hostility, I see most of the settlements as a net loss for Israel.

This past year saw the complete collapse of the Oslo Accords, of the peace process and peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians. It saw the Palestinian leadership walk away from a plan that gave them control of 95% of the territory of the West Bank and Gaza. It made many people conclude that the Palestinians — at least their leadership as represented by President Arafat and the Palestinian Authority — simple do not want a peace treaty with Israel.

Some have said that the issue of “The Right of Return” for Palestinians to Israel is what scuttled the deal. I do not believe this is the case. There were proposals on the table that probably would have been acceptable to both sides. Israel would recognize the “Right of Return,” and it would be implemented by giving a few thousand Palestinians each year the right to move to Israel, a right that would expire after some period of months; they would be given incentives to not exercise that right. It would give Israel veto over any individuals it did not want to accept. It would be a “right” mostly in name only — but that would have been enough.

During part of 1983 I lived in an abandoned Arab house a few meters from the “green line” in Jerusalem, near Emeq Refaim, near the railroad tracks. In the fields around the house, shepherds grazed sheep. A small stream flowed in the valley. There was an orchard nearby. The original owners had not been heard from in many years.

But today that house is in the middle of a large shopping mall (the Malha Mall). What would the original owners return to? They’d be living in a french-fry vat at McDonalds. The reality is that there is no home, no village, no family to return to.

Israelis were upset that the Palestinians would demand a “Right of Return” in part because its full literal implementation would make Jews a minority in their own country. They objected in principal, even to a symbolic right, because the very idea of recognizing Israel’s right to exist, the very idea of accepting a “Two State Solution,” requires the Palestinians to relinquish their claim on the “pre-’67” territory of Israel. Perhaps the historic Jewish claim to all of Judea and Sumeria — a claim that some Jews likewise will not relinquish under any circumstances — perhaps that claim of right of Jewish settlement in Arab Palestine could be balanced against Palestinian claims. The point is, if the two sides want to reach a solution over this issue, it can be done.

To Palestinians, the continuing growth of the Jewish settlements says, “No matter what we Israelis say, we are actively, permanently taking this land.”

Some Israelis who opposed settlements said, “well, if the Palestinians ever want to negotiate peace, this gives us some chips, and the continuing development gives them some incentive, for the longer they wait, the more we will settle, and the more they lose.” Other Israelis said, “this is our land, period. It’s ours and we will settle it. The hard fact is that the Palestinians and the Arabs in general will never accept us, and no matter what we do they will not leave us in peace, so we may as well grow as aggressively as we can. The Arabs will never make peace with us, so why take their sentiments into account?”

In this scenario, what of the Palestinian Arabs? What will happen to them? Will they be “transfered”?

Some say, “Even if Israel left the settlements, Arab hatred and violence would not decrease. Indeed, it could increase, for withdrawal will show Israel as weak, it will show that their violence produced tangible gains.” The same argument was made against withdrawal from Lebanon. Palestinians did indeed see that withdrawal as a sign of Israeli defeat and weakness. But that withdrawal has also, so far, resulted in a border much more peaceful than what prevailed since the invasion in 1982.

There was another small hopeful sign in the collapse of the negotiations last year. Some have charged that the Palestinians have not honored and do not intend to honor their agreements with Israel, that they will trade land for peace, and once gaining the land, will remove the peace. But if this were the case, why didn’t Mr. Arafat accept the Barak offer, and then once the Palestinians took control of the territory, begin their campaign for “liberating” all of the Holy Land?

Following the signing of the Oslo Accords, schools and media controlled by the Palestinian Authority continued to incite violence against Israel and hatred against Jews. Many hoped that this would fade out, but it didn’t. It only got worse. While some leaders were trying to build a future of peace, the demonization of Israel and Jewry intensified.

I don’t think either side was truly ready to take the drastic steps necessary to live in peace. But I still have hope. Moses never crossed the Jordan, Herzl did not live to see the Balfour Declaration, Martin Luther King did not live to see racial harmony, Rabin did not live to see peace with the Palestinians. But they lived to see a vision of what the future could be.

Progress can take place. Slavery has ended (mostly) in this country; child labor has ended (mostly); the rights of women have advanced; religious freedom exists. The notion of Human Rights is a rallying cry heard around the world. Historic enemies such as Sweden and Norway, France and Germany, Mexico and the US, Japan & China have learned to live together in peace. Someday Israelis and Palestinians will live together in peace. ‘Od lo avda tiqvatenu — we have not lost our hope.

As we Americans join the “War on Terrorism,” let us remember that terrorism is not the only threat we face. Let us be motivated out of love of decency, love of humanity, and not by hatred.

“Vengeance is Mine,” says the Lord — mine and not yours.

Tsedeq tsedeq tirdof” — “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”

Let us seek safety and justice, not revenge. Let us use every tool of economics, diplomacy, law enforcement, jurisprudence, technology, education, and not fall back on the old habits of using military as our first and only response.

That great teacher of nonviolence, Mahatma Gandhi, said that violence is not always the worst option. But the problem is that we so often make it the first option. Gandhi once said,

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall — think of it, always.”

As Americans we want to stand together, and we want our Government to act decisively and successfully. But as Americans we know to be suspicious of Government. We remember the Red Scare, the McCarthy Inquisition, the Gulf of Tonkin, Watergate. We know to support our government in its worthy efforts, but also to insist on due process, open government, and the rule of law. The Government should act only after due deliberation and consultation. Only when democratic processes and principles are respected can we be truly united and successful.

In recent years, America has supported terrorism – supported and trained Osama bin Laden and the Taliban (when they were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan); America supported the contra terrorists against Nicaragua and state terror in El Salvador, and supported the Honduran military and its death squads; America overthrew democratically elected governments in Iran, Chile and Granada. American companies, backed by the United States Government, have bespoiled resources and exploited workers in many lands, have teamed up with native despots, and have been complicit in the murder of thousands upon thousands of innocent people. American dollars and military advisers helped suppress democracy around the world.

At the same time, America has done good things in many places around the world. We have to recognize that like every country we have a mixed record. None of that justifies the attack on America. But as we go forward, we must be careful to stay on the side of right. We should be righteous, not self-righteous.

Now that we’ve seen the “Face of Evil” in the World Trade Center Terrorists, we should look in the mirror and examine our own ways, as we prepare to lead the world toward a better future. As Jews and Israelis, despite Durban, we can stand together with the world against terrorism.

But we must come clean ourselves. As we say in our daily prayers, “veTaher libenu le-ovdekha be-emet — cleanse our hearts that we may serve You in truth.”

I have not lost my hope. We can make our future better.

Od lo avda tiqvatenu – We have not lost our hope.

Qave el HaShem, hazaq veyaamets libekha, veqave el HaShem
Hope in the Lord and be strong; Take courage, and hope in the Lord.

Psalm 27

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