Sermon for July 11, 2014

Once again, I am so happy to be officiating on this historic pulpit with
Cantor Gerber. Har Sinai has an illustrious patrimony. It is a privilege to
participate in even a small part of it as I am tonight.
Our thoughts are dominated by events occurring all around us. There are
rockets from Gaza raining down on Israel. The Israeli Air Force and Navy are
striking hundreds of terrorist targets in Gaza. The Ukraine is trying to retake its
territory from Russian rebels. Iraq is in the midst of dismemberment, coming
apart at the seams as we speak. All of the events that concern us have their origin
in the world shattering assassination of Archduke Franz Ferndinand and his wife
Sophia by a Serbian anarchist on June 26th, 1914 in Sarajevo, the spark that led
to the beginning of World War One. Within two months, Germany and
Austria-Hungary were at war with Britain, France, and Russia. Tonight I will
speak about how World War One, the first World War in a hundred years,
impacted the Jewish community in Europe, the Middle East and the United
States. Allow me to begin with the current situation in Iraq.
We should not be at all surprised that Iraq is unraveling, for it is an
artificial state which the British created after WWI from three separate Turkish
provinces, Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. In 1916, while T.E. Lawrence, the
famous “Lawrence of Arabia,” was encouraging the Arabs to revolt against their
Turkish overlords and was promising the Hashemites, the rulers of Arabia, that
they would rule over their own independent kingdoms in what is now Syria,
Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Iraq, the British Foreign Office signed an agreement
with the French called the Sykes-Picot Treaty, which divided the entire Middle
East into French and British spheres of influence. The French pushed Faisal
Hussein out of Damascus, forcing the British to carve a new nation, called Iraq,
for him to rule out of Ottomon Turkish territory. His older brother, Abdullah,
invaded Amman and threatened Syria but was placated by the British when
placed upon the throne of a new country called TransJordan, carved out of their
mandatory territory of Palestine. The Kurds, who resided in Northern Iraq since
ancient times, were promised their own country by the Allies, but were double crossed at Versailles. They were forced to become part of this new state,
populated primarily by Shiite Muslims and ruled by a Sunni Muslim king. It was,
from the beginning, a recipe for disaster. The only ones who seemed to profit
were the Jews of Iraq, a highly sophisticated population of about 125,000 who
made up a large part of the merchant, professional, and managerial class under
the British. Of course, this lead to pogroms against the Iraqi Jews in 1941 during
a pro-Nazi revolt against the British, which the British put down at great cost.
Iraq today is dividing along tribal and religious lines, with the Kurds running
their own de facto state in the north, the Shiites running their own country in
Baghdad and the south, and the Sunnis dominating what may be their own
country in the west. While none of us know how this will play out, I doubt very
much that Iraq as a nation has much of a future. The only bright spot is that the
Kurds and Israel have are aligned against the all those who want to extinguish
their independence.
In 1914, the majority of the world’s Jews lived in Eastern Europe in the
Pale of Settlement, ruled over by the Jew hating Russian Czar Nicholas II. Four
million Jews lived in a large ghetto, from Eastern Poland through Eastern
Ukraine. This area was the highly contested Eastern front, fought over by the
German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian armies. The constant fighting and
fleeing created a humanitarian disaster for the Jewish community. It is estimated
that 100,000 Jews were killed by the Russians. Thousands more died from
disease and malnutrition. The irony is that while Jewish soldiers were serving the
Czar by fighting against his enemies, other Russian soldiers were raping their
wives and daughters behind the lines and leaving a trail of blood. The Russian
and Polish Jews looked upon the German and Austrian armies as liberators.
Germany was revered as the home of enlightenment and civilization. German
soldiers were welcomed in every city and shtetl. For the more than 90,000 Jews
serving in the German Army and almost three hundred thousand serving in the
Austrian Army, exposure to their Eastern European religionists was an
awakening. On one hand, they were deeply moved by these Jews devotion to
their ancestral heritage. On the other hand, they were appalled by their primitive
and backward living conditions. The German conquerors found that these Eastern Jews fit all their stereotypical anti-Semitic caricatures, feeding the
nascent antisemitism that would soon dominate German life.
While many Germans accused the Jews of not doing their patriotic duty,
Jews flocked to the Kaiser’s colors far out of proportion to their part of the
German population. Jews served with great courage and patriotism, embracing
the Fatherland that had given them a sense of home. Jews of England, France,
Italy, and later, the United States, also flocked to their respective flags. This was
the last time in modern history that Jews wore contrasting uniforms and fought
against one another. There is a well known apocryphal tale that supposedly
occurred on the Russian front, but also could have taken place on the Western
Front. A Russian soldier wounded an Austrian soldier and approached him to
finish the job with his bayonet when he heard the wounded soldier recite his
dying words, “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.” Overcome by the
realization he had grievously wounded a fellow Jew, he threw down his rifle.
Grieving for his Jewish comrade in arms, he embraced the mortally wounded
soldier and held him until he died.
It is estimated that between 200,000 and 250,000 Jews served in the
American Army during WWI. The vast majority of them were recent immigrants
to the United States. While they experienced antisemitism in American military
service, their time in the Army quickly Americanized this immigrant generation
and cemented their allegiance to the United States. The War caused several
important developments to take place within the American Jewish community.
First, divisions between German and Russian Jews became meaningless as all
Jews wanted to support their co-religionists in Eastern Europe. No matter their
country of origin, American Jews, for the most part, were sympathetic towards
the German cause, wanting the Kaiser to defeat the nefarious Czar. Events in
Eastern Europe also led to the founding the American Jewish Joint Distribution
Committee, the first all encompassing philanthropic arm of the American Jewish
community. The Joint, as it has become known, raised the equivalent of $265
million for the relief of Jews in Eastern Europe and Palestine. Their life saving
efforts are still incredibly important in the former Soviet Union, literally saving
thousands of lives. Third, the devastation of Eastern European Jewry and the
exhaustion of German, French, and British Jewries made the American Jewish
community the leading Jewish community in the world. From this time forth, the
future of Jewish life depended upon us. In a fascinating twist, the British
government, thinking that American Jews had inordinate influence on the
decisions of the American government, and urgently wanting the Americans to
intervene on their side in the War, issued the Balflour Declaration in 1917,
promising to create a Jewish homeland in the land of Palestine. This declaration
immediately brought most of the world’s Jews to the side of the Allies and was
the seminal event leading to the creation of the State of Israel thirty years later.
So dear friends, as you can see, World War I led directly to the events that
are uppermost on our minds today. It was the catastrophic event of the early
Twentieth Century, the waves of which are still impacting our shores today.

Amen and Shabbat shalom

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