Is Israel Our Life Boat?


Have you heard the story about the Jewish grandmothers sitting by the pool and complaining about various things? The first begins with a heartfelt “Gevalt.”

Before she can explain, the lady next to her sighs,
“Oy, taten-yu.”
Then the woman to her left exclaims, “Oy vey.” and then the fourth woman cuts things short.
“OK, ladies, enough about the children. Whose dealing?

Speaking of complaints.
These days are tough for the Jewish people.
Another terrorist attack in Europe.
Another Jewish victim.
Another response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
And, as he did after last month’s attacks in Paris, he said European Jews should draw conclusions from these events when he called on them to “come home” to Israel.

This time, in response the chief rabbi of Denmark criticized the prime minister saying that the statement was irresponsible and that terrorism wasn’t a reason to move to Israel.

Netanyahu argues — with no little amount of political calculation some would say — that Israel is serving its basic need, a life-boat for Jews in danger of drowning in a sea of hatred.

Is the Prime Minister correct in doing so? And will it help or hinder the Jewish people?

In support of Netanyu we have — not surprisingly — the Jewish neo-cons:

This week, Jonathan Tobin from Commentary, wrote :
Some, especially Netanyahu’s many critics, view this exchange as yet another example of his seeking to take advantage of tragedies for the sake of boosting his poll ratings in a tight election race. But whatever you may think of Netanyahu, these attacks are both unfair and inaccurate. As the nation state of the Jewish people in their ancient homeland, Israel doesn’t exist solely as a refuge for Jews under attack. But the latest string of attacks on Jews in Europe, as the editors of this magazine wrote in an editorial in the February issue of COMMENTARY, do once again prove “the existential necessity of Zionism.”

And now for the counter-point:

Danish Chief Rabbi Yair Melchior — a distant relative of mine by the way — was not engaging in a political attack on the Israeli Prime Minister. Rather, he seemed to view Netanyahu’s statement about the need for Jews to leave Europe as an attack on his community. As others said after the Hyper Cacher attack in Paris, the rabbi seems to believe that if Jews flee, the terrorists as well as the growing ranks of European anti-Semites win.

Rabbi Yair Melchior: “People from Denmark move to Israel because they love Israel, because of Zionism. But not because of terrorism.

“If the way we deal with terror is to run somewhere else, we should all run to a deserted island,” Melchior said.

There is some truth to Melchior’s argument. Certainly Jews who immigrate to Israel from the United States are not fleeing injustice but are rather embracing Israel and Zionism.

But does he really think the decline in the population of European Jews and the vast increase in aliyah in recent years is a statistical anomaly?

As the Pew Research Center’s latest data reports, Jews are fleeing Europe. That is not just because of the alarming increase in violence against Jews but a product of the way anti-Semitism has once again become mainstream in European culture after decades of being marginalized, or at least kept under wraps, after the Holocaust.

It is a plain fact that those who have made up every great wave of immigration to the Jewish homeland have been primarily motivated by necessity rather than an ideological commitment to Zionism.
The logic of Zionism is not so much the very real appeal of its efforts to reconstitute a national Jewish culture and language but the need of the Jews for a refuge from the potent virus of anti-Semitism.

It would be nice to believe that in the enlightened Western Europe of our own day the fears about mobs crying “Death to the Jews” that motivated Theodor Herzl to write The Jewish State and found modern Zionism would no longer apply.

But a Europe where the Jew-hatred of the Arab and Muslim world that was imported by Middle Eastern immigrants mixes with the contempt for Jewish identity and Israel that has become conventional wisdom among European intellectual elites is not a place where Jews can live safely.

Under these conditions, isn’t it the duty of any prime minister of Israel to remind the world, as well as those faced with such a difficult decision, that Jews are no longer a homeless people that can be abused with impunity?  The rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel not only has given the Jews a refuge that would have saved millions during the Holocaust. It also gave every Jew around the world, whether Zionist or non-Zionist, religious or non-religious, a reason to stand a little taller.

So, yes, Israel is a life boat AND a flag-carrier ship of state for the Jewish people.

Jews may choose to stay where they are, whether in an increasingly dangerous Europe or a place like the United States where, despite the existence of anti-Semitism, they can live in unprecedented freedom, acceptance, and security. But the existence of a home for Jews helps make them more secure.

Anti-Semitism is “a disease for which there is no cure.” But after Copenhagen, the conclusion is just as true: “The existential necessity of Zionism after Paris is not only a fact. It is a charge for the future.”

As long as we’re talking about Bibi, we should also observe, that beyond the politics of his coming to speak to the Congress without White House approval, there lies the specter of Iran.

A couple of years ago, during a slightly more friendly time, the Prime Minister of Israel granted President Obama, a special gift: the biblical book of Esther. He wanted President Obama to put this book on his night table and read it perhaps before retiring to bed, so he could understand something about the history of Jewish people.

It’s a familiar‐sounding story: In Persia, an oppressive and vengeful leader seeks the total annihilation of the Jewish people. It sounds like a line from an Israeli speech, but it’s also the story of Purim.

Bibi has spoken of some of the evils perpetrated by the Iranian regime murdering thousands upon thousands and continued: “This is how Iran behaves today, without nuclear weapons. Think of how they will behave tomorrow, with nuclear weapons. Iran will be even more reckless and far more dangerous.

“There’s been plenty of talk recently about the costs of stopping Iran. I think it’s time to talk about the costs of not stopping Iran.

“The world’s most volatile region would become a nuclear tinderbox waiting to go off. And the worst nightmare of all, Iran could threaten all of us with nuclear terrorism.”
I was proud of him when he said: “As Prime Minister of Israel, I will never let my people live under the shadow of annihilation.”

So, Israel is a life boat, it’s a ship of state, and it’s a gun boat.
Of course it has to be all three and more. And it deserves our support. Our unconditional support.

Which is not to say we should agree with what its leaders always do. Not by a long shot.

But we would do well to remember the wisdom offered by Robert Frost: “Home is, when you go there, they have to take you in.”

We Jews know the bitter reality of having no home.
We should never forget.


What We Learn from the Brian Williams Mess



As some of you know, I have a dog named Charlie. I love him but he is often in trouble. And then he feels guilty. Dogs are great at guilt. The moment you walk into the house, a dog will telegraph to you with its whole body the sin it has committed. The eyes squint and dart this way and that. The ears are flattened. The head is lowered. The tail trails. Pathetically ingratiating behavior usually accompanies all this – desperate little hand licks, half-hearted tail wags, general obeisance.

When you discover the actual crime – a mistake on the rug, a broken what-not, a chewed shoe – it only takes one phrase to crush your dog’s faint optimism and fawning spirit.

In a low, I’m-the-master-voice, you intone: “Shame on you! Oh, how could you? Shame!” Complete canine collapse ensues. Guilt overwhelms the creature. It throws itself on your mercy or slinks away in abject misery. This is probably one of the main reasons people like to have dogs as pets – it allows us to wield the power of punishment and forgiveness with such clear-cut, unambiguous results.

Unfortunately for God, human beings are not nearly as reliable or repentant. Indeed, we seem to possess an uncanny ability to shift blame, ignore consequences and shirk responsibility. After one particularly corrupt boondoggle had been exposed in the infamous administration of Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daley, he was confronted by a young reporter. “Aren’t you concerned and embarrassed by these activities, Mayor?” Daley turned to the earnest young man and bombasted, “Son, nothing embarrasses us!”

As crazy as that statement may seem, it appears to be the guiding principle in our behavior today. The outlandishly corrupt, overtly immoral, banally violent and shockingly evil are paraded before us, invited on talk shows, made rich and famous and given control of our streets. It seems there is no longer any sense of shame or guilt or embarrassment operating in our culture.

To live without a sense of shame or embarrassment suggests that we can go through our entire lifetime without ever being ashamed of our behavior, no matter what transpires.

I am not saying we should purposely do bad things, but I do believe in the spiritual power of embarrassment.

Consider this teaching:
“Embarrassment is a response to the discovery that in living we either replenish or frustrate a wondrous expectation. It involves an awareness of the grandeur of existence that may be wasted, of a waiting ignored, of unique moments missed. It is a protection against the outburst of inner evils, against arrogance, hubris, self-deification. The end of embarrassment would be the end of humanity.”
Who Is Man?
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1965), 112-13.

When Abraham Joshua Heshel wrote these words he was speaking of our our vulnerability and the opportunity for embarrassment to lead us to depth and spiritual growth.

Speaking of embarrassment, let’s consider the sad case of former and perhaps future NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. As you know, on January 30 for the first time on the news program, Williams declared that in Iraq in 2003 he was on a military helicopter that sustained enemy fire and had to crash-land. Soon, however, some who had been on that mission started disputing Williams’ account online, saying he was actually on a different helicopter. NBC launched an internal investigation.

Williams apologized on air on February 4 and, on February 7, announced his decision as managing editor of Nightly News to take himself off the program “for the next several days … to allow us to adequately deal with this issue.” He stated, “It has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions.”
After the bulk of this lesson had been written, it was announced that NBC had decided to suspend Williams for six months without pay from both of his Nightly News roles.

He has expressed remorse and says he is committed to regaining viewers’ trust.

Related to this story are general questions about the reliability of human memory, as well as the psychology and dynamics of lying to improve one’s status or reputation.

New York Times columnist Tara Parker-Pope writes: “Numerous scientific studies show that memories can fade, shift and distort over time. Not only can our real memories become unwittingly altered and embellished, but entirely new false memories can be incorporated into our memory bank, embedded so deeply that we become convinced they are real and actually happened.”

Others assert that people are tempted to lie about themselves to try to enhance their status. Kyle Smith writes in the New York Post: “What Williams’ lie was about was what lies are always about: … The term ‘fish tale’ does not mean you mistakenly tell people you caught a sickly 8-ounce catfish when actually you snagged a 95-pound monster marlin.”

What does Judaism say about Brian Williams’ situation? Consider this episode from the Bible:
(For context, read 1:1-15.)
2 Samuel 1:7-10
[The man said,] “When [King Saul] looked behind him, he saw me, and called to me. I answered, ‘Here sir.’ And he said to me, ‘Who are you?’ I answered him, ‘I am an Amalekite.’

He said to me, ‘Come, stand over me and kill me; for convulsions have seized me, and yet my life still lingers.’

So I stood over him, and killed him, for I knew that he could not live after he had fallen. I took the crown that was on his head and the armlet that was on his arm, and I have brought them here to my lord.”)

Here we read about a young Amalekite who is trying to ingratiate himself with the new king of Israel, David. The former king, Saul, had been David’s enemy and had tried to kill David several times, although David has refused to do battle with or kill King Saul. We also know from the report in 1 Samuel 31 that, a few days prior to this, King Saul, seeing that he was about to be overrun by the enemy Philistines in battle, chose to kill himself rather than die at the hands of the enemy.

We aren’t told much about the Amalekite.
Perhaps he was an after-battle scavenger, stripping the fallen soldiers of their belongings.
In any event, he takes the crown and bracelet from King Saul’s body to give to David, and claims to have killed King Saul himself — at Saul’s request, of course. Perhaps he thought King David would be grateful for being rid of one of his enemies, although he was careful not to claim to be one of them. Just a little embellishment — or maybe some “misremembering” — to advance himself in the new king’s eyes.

It didn’t work, however. Instead, King David has the young Amalekite executed for daring to kill God’s anointed king.

A little self-aggrandizement may seem like a good idea, but it often leads to problems later on — even if, as in this case, it’s not discovered to be a lie right away.

Remember the advice of Mark Twain: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything”.
But we don’t follow this advice do we?

A question: Have you ever remembered a particular event with great certainty, perhaps even vividly, which you later learned could not possibly have happened the way you recalled? How did you react to this discovery?

There was a great op-ed, written by David Brooks, which appeared in the New York Times February 10. I quote a few sentences here, but it’s worth a full read:

“There’s something sad in Brian Williams’s need to puff up his Iraq adventures and something barbaric in the public response. … The barbaric part is the way we respond to scandal these days. When somebody violates a public trust, we try to purge and ostracize him. … I … think we’d all be better off if we reacted to these sorts of scandals in a different way. The civic fabric would be stronger if, instead of trying to sever relationships with those who have done wrong, we tried to repair them, if we tried forgiveness instead of exiling. … [R]igorous forgiveness … balances accountability with compassion.”

So what do we learn from Brian Williams mess? To sum up:
three things:

Embarrassment and shame are not always bad — and they can actually help us grow. Maybe Brian will find this out.
Self-Aggrandizement is human and even understandable but it often leads to unforeseen problems down the road. Be aware!
And let’s try to practice compassion for those who have messed up their lives. It could be us.

Jews and Morocco? The End of A Beautiful Friendship?


A week ago last Sunday, some spectators left the National Football Conference Championship game early, presuming that, with only five minutes left, the Seattle Seahawks could not change the trajectory of the 19-7 score that favored the Green Bay Packers. No doubt Seahawks’ faithless fans kicked themselves all the way up the space needle and back when they learned what happened after they split. Their team somehow scored two touchdowns in two minutes to take the lead, after which the Packers tied with a field goal, pushing the game into overtime. One more stunning touchdown won the Seahawks the right to defend their 2014 Super Bowl title on February 1 against the winners of the AFC Championship game, the New England Patriots.

Seattle Seahawks’ third-year quarterback Russell Wilson had expected “an all-out battle,” but he also believed “that somehow, we would get it done. I believed we could overcome the turnovers and the mistakes and the adversity.”

Coach Pete Carroll affirmed, “Even when things were rough, [Wilson] was in it the whole way. He never doubted that he could get it done. He never hesitated, never flinched. … he kept saying that we were gonna find a way.”

“A lot of teams would have given up. We kept fighting,” said Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin. “We kept fighting and believing. The motto of our program is finishing, and that’s what we did.”

Some Questions:

1. Have you ever left a game or a match before it was over, only to discover later that it didn’t end the way you thought it would? How did you feel about your decision to leave early?

2. What might cause a person to lose faith in God? Have you ever been tempted to give up your passion or values? How did you handle that challenge?

3. Is it easier to believe the naysayers, or the die-hard fans who never give up on you? How do you decide whom to believe when you’re in a situation that looks hopeless?

This week’s Torah Portion, describing Pharaoh’s pursuit of the fleeing children of Israel, tells us that there were those among our people who despaired: “Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? … For it were better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we are to die in the wilderness.”

There are always persons in every crisis who yield to counsels of despair.
Erich Fromm, distinguished psychoanalyst, in his great book “Flight from Freedom,” tells us that some people fear the responsibilities of freedom and prefer the stultifying slavery, which is to them escape from responsibility. It was this psychological reaction that enabled slave peoples in the past to accept the tyranny that enslaved them. After all, freedom does impose responsibilities; freedom does require courage; freedom means maturity.

Moses’ answer, however, stands as the classic response: “Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord.” And salvation came as the children of Israel walked through the parted waters of the Red Sea.
It is faith in freedom and the courage to implement that faith by action that brings deliverance.

My recent trip to Morocco makes me question my faith in the future of Jews there. Although the Jewish community has been there for more than 2,000 years, the signs seem clear.  There are very few Jews left.  Those who can have left.  Most of the others are looking to leave.  They do so not so much out of fear as resignation that the country and Jews have no future together.

But the lesson of the Seahawks and this week’s Torah portion humbles me.  Who knows?  Perhaps the worried Jews in France will return to Morocco?  Perhaps the are other factors not understood by me.  In the meantime, I encourage us to visit and show support for those who remain behind.

2000 years is a long time to be part of a country.  One would hope that somehow the relationship will survive.