It is good to be back on this bimah once again as we continue an approximately one hundred year tradition of holding Union Summer Services. While I am saddened that our sister congregations are not with us, I am delighted that Har Sinai and Oheb Shalom are maintaining this venerable custom that began when both our congregations were downtown, within walking distance of each other. It is truly an honor to be invited once again to officiate from this historic pulpit.
Given this is the Fourth of July, Independence Day, the 238th celebration of our declaration of freedom from Great Britain, I had fully expected to give a sermon about an incident in American Jewish history, extolling and exploring the symbiosis between the United States and the Jewish people, one of the most successful in all of Jewish history. Yet the events of this last week call for a response. I cannot speak of an incident that occurred over 200 years ago when yesterday’s events call out for explication.
We are still reeling from the shocking and brutal murder of our three boys, Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach. These three teenagers possessed the boundless optimism and unlimited enthusiasm of youth. We were taken by their sweet and innocent smiles, expressive personalities, devotion to Torah, and love of their families. With their deaths, three worlds were destroyed. We will never know what they might have done with their lives, what they might have achieved and what mountains they may have climbed. Their loss is incalculable. For a few weeks, their kidnapping by Hamas terrorists brought the entire Jewish world together. We thought that they were hidden by the terrorists, who would trade them for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails just as they did with Gilad Shalit. We never expected that they would be murdered al Kiddush HaShem, simply because they were Jews. Three mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, and an entire nation and people now mourn for them. They are lost forever, but they will not be forgotten.
Israeli police have identified two prime suspects in their killings, Amer Abu Aysha, 33 years old, and Marwan Zawasmeh, 29 years old, both part of the Hamas infrastructure on the West Bank. While we presume them to be innocent until proven guilty, most troubling is the remark of Abu Aysha’s mother who told Israel’s Channel 10 news, “If he did the kidnapping, I’ll be proud of him.” What kind of mother exults that her son is a murderer of innocent children? She, unfortunately, is not alone. There have been countless Arab mothers who have rejoiced when their sons and daughters have blown themselves up to murder harmless civilians. What kind of society produces mothers like this? “I have yet to meet the Israeli mother who wants to raise her boys to become kidnappers and murderers.”
After the boys’ murder, we were distressed and disgusted to see images of smiling children in Gaza holding up three fingers and then a thumb to indicate their approval of the murder. I ask again, “What kind of society teaches its children to rejoice in the death of other children?”
Israel will retaliate against legitimate Hamas military targets and political infrastructure. That is just and appropriate. The State of Israel will not take revenge against children. What the government of Israel does and what some of its people do, however, are not one and the same.
While attending the community memorial service Wednesday night at Beth El, I was reading psalms. I particularly noted verse six in Psalm 27 which says, “Now is my head high even though my enemies surround me.” What I think the psalmist meant by this is that even though I live in the midst of a culture that celebrates death, I will not make this my value. Even though I am part of the Middle East, an area where life is cheap, I will value life and celebrate it. I will not make my enemy’s values my own. Sadly, some Israelis today are not heeding the words of the psalmist. They are making their enemy’s values their own. Just a few days ago, an Arab teenager, Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, 16, was kidnapped while sitting in front of his house in East Jerusalem. He was waiting in the early morning for friends so they could walk to the mosque together for Ramadan prayers. His burned body was found later that night in a Jerusalem forest. Presumably, he was abducted and murdered by Jewish extremists seeking revenge for the killing of the three boys. Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately condemned the murder. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said “if Muhammed was the victim of a reprisal killing it amounted to an act of terrorism.” An investigation was immediately launched to find the perpetrators of this heinous and despicable crime. Less than twenty four hours after burying their son, Naftali Frenkel’s family released this statement, “We do not know exactly what happened overnight in East Jerusalem. The police are investigating the matter. But if it turns out that an Arab youngster was killed for nationalistic reasons, then that is terrifying and shocking. There is no difference between blood and blood. Murder is murder, no matter what the age or nationality is. There is no justification, forgiveness or atonement for such a murder.” If only Arab mothers would say something similar about the death of Jewish children!
What is equally as disturbing is the Facebook campaign instigated by a group of Israeli soldiers from Nahal Haredi, a combat battalion established in the late 1990s for ultra-Orthodox Jews. These young men submitted images of themselves with their weapons, brandishing signs reading, “The people of Israel demand revenge.” The Facebook page gathered 35,000 “likes” before it was taken down two days later. These soldiers are now facing court martial. Another Israeli blogger, this one a civilian, posted a photo of two smiling girls holding up a sign that read, “Hating Arabs isn’t racism, its values!” Videos posted on You Tube and Twitter showed small crowds of Israelis in Jerusalem shouting “Death to the Arabs!” While only a small number of Israelis support these extremists, their perversion of Jewish values is most upsetting. These Jews are a mirror image of the Palestinians who live to hate.
Anyone who has read Ari Shalit’s My Promised Land understands that Jews, too, have blood on our hands. Israel could not have been created without the expulsion of Arabs from land they inhabited for generations. Jewish soldiers committed unspeakable atrocities towards Arab civilians. While Arabs certainly committed many more such attacks against Jews, and while the expulsion of Arabs was a necessity in order to create the State of Israel, no Israelis at the time rejoiced in their actions. They kept silent and kept their guilt within. It is only now that they are beginning to speak about their wartime actions.
We were heartened to see that late Wednesday night, hundreds of Jews rallied against racism in Jerusalem. They stood against the extremists who demanded an “eye for and eye.” They understood if we all demand an eye for an eye, eventually the entire world will become blind. Reprisal and retribution must end. Justice must take its course. Terrorism by Arabs should not be met with terrorism by Jews. As the psalmist wrote, “Now is my head held high even though my enemies surround me.” Their values are not our values. We extol life and do not seek death. We say “Am Yisrael Chai,” the People of Israel lives, not the People of Israel dies. Our prayers on this Shabbat are for life and peace for all the people of Israel.
Amen and Shabbat Shalom
Wall Street Journal, July 3, 2014.
NY Times, July 3, 2014