Od Lo Avda Tikvatenu: Why We Cannot Lose Hope – Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk, Rosh Hashanah 2014

This  blog post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is adapted from the Rosh Hashanah sermon shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, OH on September 24, 2014, at the Congregational Service. We encourage you to share this post with friends by email and with social media such as Facebook or Twitter. You may also respond to the blog post with your own thoughts below.

There is this prank I pull in my office. If a discussion gets too heated or intense, I pull this big black book off my shelf. I say “this is just too much for me. I’m going to curl up with a good book.” Then I pull the book down over my face revealing its title: The Anguish of the Jews. (Edward Flannery, New York: Paulist Press, 1964)

The Anguish of the Jews… as though for kicks or for relaxation…we Jews curl up on the couch with a glass of wine and 23 centuries of accusation, anguish and oppression. Over time, we’ve been accused of deceit, greed, and conflicted allegiance to our nation. But we always knew it was the worst of times when they called us murderers, Christ-killers, and torturers of gentile children to obtain their blood. The latest iteration of the blood libel is the one in vogue across Europe- that we are genocidal war mongers intentionally targeting Palestinian children. This accusation, based on the recent war in Israel and Gaza, is like many other words spoken about Jews over history. It is garbage and filth. It is a shame-faced lie.

Oh how I wish my prank was still funny! I wish I could laugh this yuntif standing a cool distance from the knowledge that animus against Jews is on the rise. But you’d know better. You were here with me a year ago. We prayed for a New Year sealed in peace & fulfillment. Yet this past year turned out to be a year when Jews were a favorite target for rage, and it’s sad! I bought this book as a text for a class in college. It was purchased in 1991. But when I re-read it this summer, I couldn’t help but notice how little has changed since I first read more than two decades ago.

  • Then, as now, I’ve hardly needed the book to imagine Jews targeted for hateful violence. The news in the early 90’s showed rocket attacks on Israel with scud missiles causing Israelis to run for shelter. Sound familiar?
  • Then, as now, leaders across the globe were asking Israel’s government to show restraint, to allow attacks on its people without attacking Iraqi rocket launch sites in return. Ring a bell?
  • Then as now, we lobbied our President- then President Bush, now President Obama, to remedy the sour relationships formed between them and their allied but often combative Prime Ministers of Israel, then Yitzhak Shamir, now Benjamin Netanyahu.

Oh, how I wish it were different, then and now! I wish it were different for Israel, for the United States and for people of good-will in all nations who wish Israelis and Palestinians an enduring peace, if only wishing would make it so.

But I have learned a lot about wishful thinking since I first read this book of anguish. Then I was just a kid, only beginning to apprehend the way Jewish self-determination in Israel awakens both political tension and prejudice worldwide. Now I’m a grown-up, a leader in the Jewish community with responsibilities at a synagogue where thousands count on us to point to a path of healing.

In recent months I’ve struggled to keep up with the array of hateful incidents affecting our people. On Bastille Day in mid-July, a Paris synagogue holding a memorial service was attacked by rioters, trapping hundreds of worshippers inside. This summer we saw protesters carrying “Jews to the gas” placards at a demonstration in Berlin. We witnessed Italian leaders call for a Nuremberg-style tribunal for Israel. And the U.N. Human Rights Council condemned Israel as an aggressor as though Hamas carried no responsibility in this summer’s war. Here in the U.S., we also saw an uptick in anti-Semitism in the music industry, on college campuses and in politics.

It seemed like a real tidal wave of hatred when a Miami rabbi was shot to death outside his synagogue. Yet instead of being supported by the community, those gathered for his funeral were punished by anti-Semitic vandals defacing cars and buildings with swastikas…Meanwhile Israeli kids went to war against terrorists, and when Jews worldwide expressed solidarity with them, it seemed as if we could do no right! Hurled at us were libelous accusations of Jews as oppressors, often unchallenged by news organizations we would have hoped to be even-handed.

It is not as if we believed that the Israeli army or government were beyond reproach. To the contrary! Israeli leaders are grown-ups. They take the concerns raised about them in stride. All Israel ultimately asks its critics is to recognize is that it is the job of Israel’s leaders to protect its citizens. Most Israelis sympathize with concern that Israel has been on an active war footing. They believe that war, all war, is hell. But when the war is in the Middle East, they and we should reject the singling out of the State of Israel as hell’s own devil!

Such singling out of Israel is anti-Semitic. Yet since 1948 it has become commonplace for those who threaten Israel to claim they are only anti-Zionist. These forces say they don’t wish Jews any harm. They are only against the Zionists. It is as though they believe there are two Jewish peoples, and one of us is willing to sacrifice the other.

Remember the story of Purim? Divide and conquer was Haman’s tactic in Megillat Esther! All Haman had to accomplish was to convince the King that there was that the Jews living in his midst had customs that were different and suspect. Once a shadow was cast over Jews, even though it was fabricated, the King filled in the rest of what he didn’t know about Jews with the worst of suspicions. He began to see Jews as sinister, deceitful, worthy of rage, and he wound up giving Haman all the cover he needed to kill us.

Friends, if you change just one letter of Haman’s name, the Nun for the Samech, you get Hamas, the word in the Torah for the lawless and corrupt violence of the generation of Noah, and also the name of the political entity claiming to represent the citizens of Gaza.  Nine years ago, when Israel left Gaza, its Prime Minister said it was time for Israel to get out of the business of controlling the conduct of the people who live there. But in the election that followed, the citizens of Gaza elected Hamas into power! And intelligence has revealed what Hamas planned with the power it amassed and the humanitarian supplies the world sent into Gaza.

Hamas had marked this very night on the calendar, the evening of Rosh Hashanah in 2014, to carry out a mass murder on Israelis, sending terrorists through dozens of tunnels dug beneath Israel’s borders, to smuggle weapons, tranquilizers and terrorist fighters to wreak havoc on our people. Had they been successful, the numbers of Israelis that would’ve died tonight would have been staggering. How can one not recoil at such ugliness? The crowd who claims they are merely anti-Zionist sure has been quiet since the revelations of Hamas’ plan for mass murder were exposed, showing just how few of them could have given one whit if Jews were murdered en masse tonight!

According to Edward Flannery, author of The Anguish of the Jews, masking anti-Semitism in the cloak of anti-Zionism is based on both “a fallacy and a refusal…The fallacy consists in defining Jewishness as only a religion, not a peoplehood or a nation, whereas it is essentially all of these; [and] the refusal [is] in not allowing Jews to define ourselves.”  As your rabbi, I teach you often how Judaism is impacted by our sacred ritual observance. Clearly I love the Jewish religious tradition. But throughout my life I’ve come to see that the most common thread tying Jews world-wide is not religious ritual. Rather, the ties that most tightly bind us are the values of our culture our civilization and our national identity.

What I’m trying to say is that Jews are a nation- a nation whose historic destination has been Israel, a nation whose traditions are rooted in the seasons of Israel. Indeed, our very last name is Israel. We are Bnai Yisrael, children of Yisrael, a term purposefully evoking the image of the one who wrestles and prevails in his struggle. It is not as if Jewish self-determination was born in 1948. This is our heritage!  Yet as often as we’ve tried to demonstrate that in the world, many can’t decide whether to accept Jews using our might to prevail, or to only accept us when we lay vulnerable, restrained, and subject to the whims of extremists on the other side of nearly all of Israel’s borders.

Oh, how I wish it were different! I pray it might only yet be. I pray for a break-through- for peace to arise on Israel’s citizens, for the people of Gaza and the West Bank. Indeed I pray tonight for a heavenly peace for all in this world who are traumatized by war! But there must be something for us to do besides pray. Isn’t there? Can you even pray away hateful rage?

It is not as if our heritage is hate-free. Indeed, the disgust of Ishmael and Isaac, one for the other, was born in the pages of another anguished history book, our Torah. And the same is true a generation later for the hatefulness between Jacob and Esau, the two sons of Rebecca and Isaac. In the Torah, these brothers were pitted one against another by parents who cultivated mistrust and deception between the brothers until both Jacob and Esau feared the other. These brothers learned a painful truth- that you can’t pray away the fear of your brother any more than you can eliminate it through warring attack!

In David Mamet’s 2009 book The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred and the Jews (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 2009) he compared the Torah’s teachings about Jacob, described in the Torah as studious and homebound, with Esau, his brother, a talented hunter and man of the fields. Mamet supposes that Esau and Jacob are represented today in the struggle between Jews comforted by Israel’s military strength, and those who feel revulsion or shame when Israel uses its military strength. Mamet reminds us that “Jacob and Esau are of course, one…two sides of the same being, or two aspects of human nature.”  But he also proposes that Jews carry a confused attraction and repulsion to power in our hands.

I have seen truth in Mamet’s theory, and I believe this issue merits our careful attention. For it is crucial that like Jacob and Esau who ultimately reconcile, we in the modern Jewish community also reconcile with the significant number of our own people who hold doubts in the way the Jewish community responds to anti-Semitism and to the world’s rage against Israel. What I’m trying to say is:

  • We cannot just whistle a happy tune, and pretend there aren’t people in our community who wish diplomacy was chosen more often than armed force by Israel’s leaders.
  • We cannot ignore those who carry doubts on the other side entirely, holding that Israel isn’t forceful enough in its battle against sworn enemies.
  • And we cannot tune out the voices of those who believe that killing Hamas leaders only ensures the rise of new militants to avenge the death of those Israel martyrs.

Friends, these are all valid points of view in our community. I don’t happen to agree with any of them. But ignoring that people who hold these views exist, or shutting them out of a place at the Jewish communal table…does not seem prudent. It is actually divisive within our people- particularly as our young people rise and find their own voice in advocacy for Israel and for the Jewish people.

Now, I imagine nearly all of you heard- that the student body president at Ohio University recently released a horrible anti-Semitic video, imitating the popular ALS ice bucket challenge, but purporting to dump a bucket of blood on herself, to represent the Israeli murder of Palestinians. She then called on OU to join a targeted divestment and boycott of Israel.

One of our Fairmount Temple students at OU, Sarah Weingarten, called out the blatant anti-Semitism in this shameful video. On her blog, she listed facts about Hamas, Israel and their history. And finally she did something most consonant with the Judaism we taught her: she called for respect and dialogue, wrote sensitively about those who feel differently, and challenged student leadership to unify students on campus rather than intimidate them. (http://culturechump.blogspot.com/2014/09/a-response-as-jew-and-ohio-university.html, Sarah Weingarten) I won’t be surprised to see Sarah raising her voice as a Jewish woman throughout her life, holding our leaders accountable for slanderous comments based on race, religion, or nationality. She has begun a path of calling out hatefulness when she encounters it, and I’m so proud of the way she followed her heart.

But you know, there is another path in which to which our heart could lead us. There is another reaction to the disease of anti-Semitism. It is actually NOT allowing hate to rattle us. It is NOT allowing the bigotry we face to distract us from focusing on the positive mission of our people. In other words, one of the best ways to avenge those bent on hating and causing anguish among Jews is to build our tradition, deepen our bonds as Jews, and imitate Israel in the way we act in the world.

I think now of the way Israelis are often first among nations bringing aid when disasters strike around the world and people are in harm’s way. Acting for reparation and healing, when doing so carries no personal benefit is central to the message of our prophets. And when Israel offers that help, even when a nation suffering has shown antagonism for Israel, shows us all a powerful example of Jews focusing on bettering the world rather than obsessing over every slight ever made against us. Indeed, many of Israel’s founders believed in that value. They felt that a Jewish community neglecting its responsibilities to the world was practicing a dead Judaism, the very goal of the Nazis.

In Israel today, many young people are working to hold on to Israel’s mission rather than get trapped in a cycle of acting based on hatred and animus. In a story you did not see in the media, a music video was released last spring by Hamas authorities in Gaza that is even more horrible and graphic than the one at OU. The lyrics are a horrific call to arms, and the images in the video are of bloodied Israeli bodies. It became so popular in Gaza that its producers released it in Hebrew to taunt Israeli citizens. The song is called, “Kum Aseh Piguim” translated from Arabic to Hebrew as “Up, do terror attacks!”

Remember – the goal of the song was to intimidate Israelis. But the reaction to the video was just the opposite. What happened was that Israeli kids turned it into a popular anthem, posting videos of themselves crying out joyfully, and dancing to “Up, Do Terror Attacks” in nightclubs and downloading it to cell-phones as a favored ringtone. Several groups of young Israelis re-released the song on their own, adding lyrics calling out peaceful good wishes that mock the song’s original hateful intent.

An Israeli airman explained this unique phenomenon. He said: “The fact is that this song is about what [Hamas] loves the most—they…want to see everyone dying and lying bleeding in the street like in the video. [But this is also] what we hate the most. When people sing the song, they are looking that culture straight in the eye. They see the difference between them and us, and they know what this war is about and what they’re fighting for.” (http://tabletmag.com, August 8, 2014, “How a Hamas Anthem Became a Hit in Israel,” Yoram Hazony)

When I read this story, I couldn’t help but think- that even under traumatizing circumstances, these young Israelis were not letting Hamas nor Haman nor Hitler nor anyone bent on causing them anguish to dictate the essence of their lives and the future of Israel!

So I want to end with a warning. I told you that in my office I have this book, The Anguish of the Jews. It sits by a dozen other volumes about remembering the Holocaust, supporting the State of Israel, fighting against brutality, prejudice and injustice. These are the themes most prominent in my Jewish identity and my rabbinate. But each time I raise my voice, each time I speak up, I can hardly count the number of books, mailings, letters, emails, packages and notes from voice-mail messages I receive that would best be described as “hate mail.”

Let me be clear: I welcome differences in points of view and criticism of the words shared at our long-standing free pulpit. But I’m sad to report much of the material I’m sent when I speak out in the community is hateful and a lot of it is sent to me by Jews who should be ashamed of themselves. These Jews, as far as I’m concerned, they hate Judaism.

They hate Judaism because of its very essence. They screech at the top of their lungs against our striving to fulfill the values of the prophets through the work we do in the community. We could have a civil public discussion of this tension – but civility is foreign to the cowards who resort to hate mail.

No, these folks hate Judaism… because of how Judaism has evolved. They speak as if we are still locked in a primitive world where our relationship to all others must constantly be governed by deep, abiding suspicion. They refuse to accept that today’s reality is much more complex and nuanced than the Biblical composers could have ever imagined. Acknowledging that could begin a constructive dialogue within and beyond the Jewish community. But how exactly do you dialogue with those who derogate you and your friends based on race, religion, and nationality – the very techniques historically used to subjugate Jews?

The whole thing makes me curse the loneliness and isolation we face. It makes me despair for our future. But it also does one more thing. It makes me feel more motivated than ever to speak the truth as I understand it in the world. For I believe that all people of conscience should be repulsed by the rise of anti-Semitism and should abhor the singling out of Israel in a blood-soaked Middle East.

But I beg of you tonight… we in the Jewish community we must not become the sum total of all the hate, abhorrence and repulsion the world demonstrates to us. As Jews we are pledged to a nation whose faith is in life not death, blessing and not curse. Od Lo Avda Tikvatenu – We are a people whose hope is not lost.

So if on Rosh Hashanah it is indeed written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, then let our commitment tonight be clear. Tonight we inscribe ourselves and our people in Israel into a Book of Life and Peace, a Book of Purpose and of Kindness, and we seek to set aside a Book of Anguish and Rage that would and could be the literal end of us. We are B’nai Yisrael, children of Israel, so let us wrestle and let us prevail. For our hope is not lost. Our hope is not lost… not today- not tomorrow- not ever, Amen.