Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Why Do They Hate Us?
PLAY FULL SERMON HERE:
It’s not a great question with which to begin a Rosh Hashanah sermon, but it’s one that can’t be avoided, given our experience, both historic and recent.
On a warm night in, just after I had escorted our Israel group to Ben Gurion airport and grabbed a cab back to Tel Aviv, as I was ready to sit back and enjoy that warm glow of the night sky over the promenade, and that feeling of satisfaction following another great trip, I flipped on the computer and saw a video called “Only Israel” that had gone viral on YouTube, 400,000 hits in less than two weeks, a song written by an Israeli girl from Efrat named Yedida Freilich. The song is a powerful, haunting indictment of the world for holding Israel to an unfair double standard following the flotilla incident off the coast of Gaza.
“Only Israel has no right to defend herself,” she sings. “Because the world cares nothing about Jewish blood.”
Why do they hate us?
That week, I also received an email from one of our TBE young adults telling me of her shocking experiences while attending the 2nd U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, a conference for every leftist social justice cause imaginable. She was struck by the overwhelming anti-Israel presence there.
“As early as the opening march,” she wrote, “I saw more kafiyas and Palestinian flags than I'd ever seen before. There were numerous workshops each day with titles such as "Unlearning Zionism: Unlearning Racism," “The Case Against the Jewish National Fund," "Understanding Israeli Apartheid," and the list goes on. The word “Zionist” was bandied about the way people used “Communist” in the 1950s. A session organized by a pro-Israel group was cancelled.”
“I've never encountered anti-Israel temperament on such a large scale,” she wrote…. “It’s not as if I thought the world was on our side. But, seeing and hearing these things in-person changed me forever.”
The numbers can be scary. A poll in the Boston Review last year, conducted just after the Madoff scandal, indicated that a fully 25% of the American people blames the Jews for the economic crisis. So we’re not just talking about the fringe here.
Why do they hate us?
The flotilla incident was terrible, but the response to it went far beyond what one might call “proportionate.” It became a sort of Rorschach test for venom and resentment. Once the facts came out, Israelis were united in defending the actions of soldiers under attack, and they were united in their belief that the world was out to get them, including, many felt, the American President.
Meanwhile, many American Jews were left with stomachs churning after the flotilla, feeling helpless to defend Israel blindly when we were seeing the Israeli Prime Minister exclaim that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, while the networks were showing us a very different story.
By the end of July, Netanyahu and Obama had made nice and things began to calm down, but while I was in Israel, make no mistake, their despair was palpable. Israelis feel totally secure on their streets. The economy is booming over there. The place is more beautiful than ever.
But Israelis can feel the world closing in: Denied the right of self defense by Goldstone, delegitimized by European intellectuals and on American college campuses, dehumanized by Iran and its proxies, rebuffed even by some of their American Jewish friends, and this week, misrepresented by Time Magazine’s mean spirited and just plain wrong cover story. The goal of Israel’s enemies is no longer to defeat Israel militarily but to delegitimize it in the eyes of nations. And it is working. The Prime Minister understands this, by the way, which is why he is highly motivated to strike a deal for peace.
Why do they hate us?
Why does the world not give a hoot about Gilad Shalit, who hasn’t even been seen by the Red Cross? Why is the world fiddling while Iran prepares its own Final Solution? Why are atrocities ignored in Darfur, Chechnya? Turkey? Afghanistan? Why is Israel the only one who has no right to defend itself?
Why? Why? Why?
When I was over there in July, the Israeli papers were filled with columns discussing that question. During these days leading up to the fast of Tisha B’Av, a time usually reserved for national rumination, there was plenty of that to go around. And then, thrown into the mix, there was the Rotem bill, designed to help hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants convert to Judaism, but which threatened to disenfranchise American Jewry by placing the power of defining Jewish status entirely in the hands of chief rabbinate. And all of this begged the question of why anyone would want to convert to a people that everyone hates.
In June, noted intellectual Peter Beinart raised a storm by accusing the American Jewish establishment of sacrificing its liberal values in favor of support for Israel at any price. A long-time supporter of Israel, Beinart spoke about a generational divide. The sense that the world is against us doesn’t resonate with younger American Jews, he said. In focus groups, young American Jews repeatedly used the word “they” rather than “us” in reference to Israel. In a poll, only 50 percent of young Jews said they would consider Israel’s destruction a personal tragedy.
Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post featured an interview with political guru Frank Luntz, who was in Israel to advise government officials on how they can improve their PR skills in talking to Americans. “American’s want to hear empathy,” he advised. “They want to know that you feel the pain of the people in Gaza.”
And it’s true. Americans have a strong historical affinity with refugees of all nations.
As long as they don’t move here.
Luntz spoke of a focus group he did with Harvard and MIT students. He only told them that he was going to ask them about the Middle East. There were 35 people in the room: 20 of them were non-Jewish, 15 were Jewish. And he didn’t tell anyone who was which.
“Got them all into the room,” he continues. “It was so crowded that we had kids sitting on the floor. But that added to the intensity. They felt like they were in a dorm room. And within 10 minutes, the non-Jews started with “the war crimes of Israel,” with “the Jewish lobby,” with “the Jews have a lot more power and influence…”
And guess what? Did the Jewish kids at the best schools in America, did they stand up for themselves? Did they challenge the assertions? They didn’t say (anything). And in that group was the leader of the Israeli caucus at Harvard. It took him 49 minutes of this before he responded.
Luntz later confronted the Jewish kids about their silence.
“And it all dawned on them: If they won’t say it to their classmates, whom they know, who will they stand up for Israel to? Two of the women in the group started to cry. I got the whole thing on tape. The guys are like, “Oh my God, I didn’t speak up, I can’t believe I let this happen.” And they’re all looking at each other with horrible embarrassment and guilt like you wouldn’t believe.”
Why do they hate us? Why do WE hate us?
OK – time to redefine the problem: The problem is NOT that everyone hates us. Jews have been hated for 3,000 years. And guess what! We’re still here! Get over it!
Things aren’t that bad anyway. There are many who love us. Hey, Chelsea Clinton married one of us. Amare Stoudemire signed with the Knicks and discovered his inner matza ball. Things aren’t so bad – but even if they were, the real important question is, how can we respond to all the hatred we see around us, much of it directed to people other than Jews, without losing our humanity?
The paranoia of feeling hated is threatening to take over our souls. THAT’S the real problem. And if that fear takes over our souls, if THAT is all there is to being Jewish, we will lose our kids, we will lose Israel and we will lose a whole lot more.
This conversation gets us into scary territory. Do we in fact take perverse pleasure in being demonized, because it allows us to demonize in return? Because it enables us to send out panicked emails, galvanize and raise money? Not that the dangers aren’t real – they most definitely are, but the greatest danger is that such negativity will turn off the next generation and sully a tradition that for 3,000 years has left a beautiful legacy of love.
Maybe peace will also come when WE love their children too.
That’s hard. No doubt it’s hard.
We need to love their children not simply because showing empathy is a good political strategy – which it is – but because it is right, it is good, and it is the essence of our faith. What Israel did in setting up a model medical facility in Haiti after the earthquake was not simply good PR – although it was terrific PR – it was a gesture that came right out of the Jewish Values playbook. It was the essence of what a Jewish state should do – and we were proud, so proud of it. It was the right thing to do. Just as rescuing Ethiopian Jews, including many of dubious Jewish lineage – was and remains the right thing to do. Just as caring for African refugees and the children of foreign laborers is the right thing for a Jewish state to do.
There’s an argument in the Talmud between Rabbi Akiva and Shimon Ben Azzai, over which is the most basic principle of the Torah. Akiva says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He was a big fan of love. He LOVED love. He’s the guy who put the Song of Songs into the Bible, and his late-blooming romance with his wife Rachel is maybe the greatest Jewish love story of all time.
But Ben Azzai trumped him by saying, “No, even more important than ‘Love your Neighbor’ is the verse from Genesis that states, “On the day that God made human beings, they were made in the likeness of God, male and female God created them.”
Rabbi Arthur Green, whose new book “Radical Judaism” is must reading for any post-modern Jew – and we’ll be teaching it here this year – thinks Ben Azzai was on to something important. It’s not enough simply to love your neighbor. Anyone can love a neighbor. Azzai says that’s not enough! We have to love everyone. Not just the person who lives next door. Not just a fellow Jew. Every human being is in God’s image. True, some are harder to love than others. Some are nearly impossible.
And we all know who they are!
Some days you can love them, and some days you can’t. Even if you can’t love them, you have to treat them with dignity. We should reach out even to those whom it might be hard to love: the stranger, the indigent, the immigrant, the Muslim, the Pole, the Haitian, the Haredi Jew, the sinner, do-gooder, the office snitch, the teacher’s pet, the right wing activist, the left wing activist, the enemy, the former friend.
I know very little about God, except that God looks something like all of the above. All are created in God’s image. And we’ve got to love them all – but if we can’t love them, and God knows it’s not easy, we’ve got to treat them with respect.
As you know, I often like to focus on a particular prayer during these sermons, as a thread that will connect them all. This year we’ll look closely at the Sh’ma, our most important prayer and the prayer that commands us to love – V’ahavta – “You shall love the Lord your God.” So, one may ask, how can you command love?
Well, it’s not really a command, as professor Reuven Kimelman has pointed out. Read properly, “V’ahavta is a response. An instinctive reaction projecting love out into the world. Projecting back what we have received.”
In both the morning and evening liturgies, the Sh’ma is immediately preceded by a prayer about love. In the morning, that prayer is Ahava Rabbah – “A Great Love,” a transcendent love, an UNCONDITIONAL love. The word for love, “Ahava,” appears in various forms no fewer than six times in that single prayer, including the first, middle and last words. Love, love, love, love, love, love. Six times! Like a mantra.
We are loved by an unconditional love – a boundless love, as we say at night, Ahavat Olam. When you’ve been loved in that way, when the world has loved you in that way, the only way to respond is to give love in return.
You’ve undoubtedly heard that old bit of wisdom from Dorothy Law Nolte, “Children learn what they live”
If a child lives with encouragement,he learns confidence.
This is a popularized version of Erik Erikson’s idea of basic trust. The psychologist conducted an enormous amount of research showing that children who have a secure attachment with loving, sensitive caregivers come to know a world that is predictable and reliable. The Sh’ma is saying that such a world is at the root of the Jewish concept of love. A loving parent is doing God’s work. A nurturing community becomes God’s place - which is, by the way, what Temple Beth El aspires to be, an ever-embracing community, from womb to tomb, a conduit of divine love, nurturing our temple family and then projecting it out into the world.
Well, our prayers seem to be telling us that we have lived in a child’s paradise. A world of freely given love, an unending flow of love. And all we have to do is recognize it – and return it. And return it with ALL our heart, which for the ancients meant with our intellect, and ALL our soul, our nefesh, which is life itself, and with all our might, all our physical and material capacity. Love the world as best you can, in any way that you can, because we’ve been loved.
We take that love and hurl it right back at ya’ God, right back at ya’ to the world. That’s what we are here to do as Jews. We are here to love. Not because we are commanded to – rather because, when we have been enveloped by so much love, it is natural to want to give love back.
V’Ahvata, then, to summarize, is not a command but a natural response to a lifetime of nurturing.
I will grant that it is often not easy to give love back for those who have felt very little love in our lives, either as children or adults. And that indeed is a tragedy.
But no matter how horrible your childhood, it could never match the historical experience of the Jewish people. If the children of Israel were really children, God would have been picked up by Child Protective Services long ago. And after what he did in today’s and tomorrow’s Torah portions, Abraham would be next in line.
And that is the crux of the problem once again. We want to love, but our experience has coarsened us. The heavenly Parent seems to have been AWOL while six million were butchered, and while terrorists were allowed to run amok on the buses of Jerusalem and the towers of Manhattan. It’s hard to love when we have not always felt the love. We’ve been burned more recently too, when so many are out of work, when people are suffering, when life savings have been lost. It is easy to succumb to fear. It happens all the time – to very good people.
And yet somehow, through all our travails, Jews have historically been able to transform sorrow into song. And that is because, despite it all, we’ve never forgotten how to love – we’ve never stopped feeling that Ahava Rabbah – that expansive love.
Last April as our Stamford Kulanu group arrived in Krakow on the March of the Living, we had every reason to remain suspicious of the Poles. With all that history of anti-Semitism, it’s hard to wipe the slate clean. I was astonished to see anti-Semitic figurines of Jews with moneybags for sale at the airport gift shop. But when the Polish president was killed in that tragic plane crash on the day after we arrived, suddenly we became the emissaries of the Jewish world at the Polish national shiva. Suddenly the fact that we were in Poland was not simply a coincidence of geography, but a summons to responsibility. And our responsibility was to love. We asked the hotel to secure for us 80 black ribbons, so that we could wear them on the March. We asked our Polish guide to teach us how to say I’m sorry, and we said it to every Pole we passed. The word we used was Solidarnosc – meaning “we feel Solidarity with you.”
But these are Poles…. They’re supposed to hate us. And we’re supposed to hate them. Aren’t we?
Two stories: First from the Zohar: A man traveling on a hot day grew weary and sat down to rest on a rock. A snake slipped toward him but a gust of wind came, snapped a branch from a tree and it killed the snake. When the man awoke and stepped away from the rock, the rock suddenly slipped off the cliff.
Rabbi Abba saw what had happened and asked, “What is your merit that you have been saved from death twice?”
The man answered, “I never fail to make peace with those who harm me. I become their friend and repay good for evil. And before I go to sleep, I forgive all who require forgiveness.
Rabbi Abba said, “You are greater than Joseph. He forgave his brothers, but you forgive strangers as well.”
And from the Talmud, tractate Ta’anit:
During a drought, Rabbi Eliezer prayed long for rain, but nothing happened. Rabbi Akiva offered a short prayer and the rains fell. A Voice from Heaven called out, “Not that Akiva is any better than Eliezer, but Eliezer carries a grudge against those who slight him, while Akiva forgets it and moves on.”
Sometimes it is better to have a short memory, as Akiba did. And sometimes it is not:
As our Polish guide, Ziggy, suddenly broke down in tears when he realized that he now had to speak of his leader in the past tense, I connected with him on a most human level. We can all recall the shock of first saying a loved one’s name in the past tense. I’ve sat in hundreds of homes and hospital rooms where that has happened. It usually takes a few days, or even weeks, as we switch back and forth.
And at that same moment I also remembered those wintry days in 1980 Gdansk, when Lech Walesa’s Solidarnosc party courageously broke the Soviet stranglehold of Eastern Europe, working in perfect synchronicity with Jewish refuseniks were corroding the Evil Empire from within.
And I remembered, March 26, 2000, when the Polish pope wrote a note at the Kotel and cried at Yad Vashem, and prayed for God's forgiveness for "the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer." Rabbi Michael Melchior described the moment as being “beyond history. Beyond memory.”
We have been loved by an unbounded love!
And I said to myself on that rainy, cold night in John Paul’s hometown of Krakow, “How could I possibly hate this man – and these people?” They’ve lost their future. Their leader – and a good percentage of their government. This is their 9/11, their November 22. And I embraced our guide in front of the entire group, and pledged solidarity with him.
This past summer, while vacationing on the Island of Rhodes, Mara and I visited the old synagogue there, now beautifully reconstructed – though only a few dozen Jews remain. The museum there tells an important story. In September 1943, as the German military commanders took control of Rhodes, British aerial bombings caused much damage in the Jewish quarter. The Jews wished to protect their Torahs, among them an 800 year old scroll. In secret, the Torahs were given to the Turkish Moslem leader, the grand mufti of Rhodes, who agreed to house them in, of all places, the pulpit of his mosque! The following July, the Jews of Rhodes were deported to Auschwitz. Of the 1676 that were deported, only 151 survived. After the war, the Torahs were returned to the few who came back.
But that’s not the end of the story. In 1971, the Grand Mufti confided to a long time Jewish friend, “One of the greatest moments of my life was when I was able to embrace the Torah, carry it and put it in the pulpit of the mosque – because we knew that no German would ever think that the Torahs were preserved in the pulpit of a mosque.”
And that’s still not the end of the story. In 2004, a journalist interviewed the daughter of the grand mufti, expressing how much the Jewish community had appreciated her father’s gesture. She acknowledged the recognition and then stated, “I have Jewish blood.” Not quite sure what she was trying to explain, the journalist asked the translator what she meant by that. She replied, “My grandfather was Jewish, on my mother’s side.” That meant that the Grand Mufti’s father in law was Jewish. Who knew! I’d love to have been at THAT Seder.
Hearing a story like this, my question is no longer why they hate us, but why in the world would we hate them! We’ve been loved by an unbounded love.
70% of Albanians are Muslims. According to Yad Vashem sources there is no evidence of a single Albanian Jew being turned over to a Nazi. Norman Gershman, a Jew who researched this subject, adds that “In many cases, Jews were arrested or were refugees, and those (Albanians) living there would give them false passports and dress them in Islamic garb. In many cases, the Albanian rescuers never even knew their real names.”
V’ahavta – We will love. Not we MUST but we will. We will love because we’ve been loved. Even at times of enormous suffering, we’ve been touched by an Ahavah Rabbah. We will love because our God is a God of love, our Torah a Torah of love; every ounce of breath that comes from us is a breath that was given to us in love.
So two weeks ago, when our Interfaith Council held a vigil to show solidarity with our Muslim friends, how could I not attend? I know what it’s like to be part of a despised faith group, a group who, so it’s been said, has insidious designs to take over the world. A group that’s called shifty and rich and devilish. A group whose holy books are burned. There is only a short hop from the Protocols of Zion to some of the things we’ve seen written about Muslims over these past several weeks. So I went to the vigil and I spoke – and the next day I received a number of emails from local Muslims who had been there, thanking me profusely for my courage. I was embarrassed.
Since when is it courageous to stand up for decent people who are being vilified?
These aren’t terrorists. These are police officers and firefighters and bus drivers and Little League coaches. These are fellow Americans!
My friend and partner in dialogue Behjat Syed recently relocated to Houston, but he wrote me, on the day after that vigil:
The situation in downtown Manhattan is a complicated one and I don’t presume to resolve that matter here. But I plead with us all. Let’s not allow the voices of intolerance to dominate the discussion. I don’t know Iman Rauf personally, but all I know of him tells me that he is precisely the person we want in this conversation.
I pray that loving hearts will prevail on all sides and that the Cordoba Center, wherever it is built, will become a beacon for moderation and hope, the one we have all needed for so long, and that the resolution to this matter be just the thing that will enable our still-grieving nation to at last begin to heal.
Reb Shlomo Carlebach said, “If we had two hearts like we have two arms and two legs, then one heart could be used for love and the other one for hate. Since I have but one heart, then I don’t have the luxury of hating anyone.”
This is the journey from the lower hey to the upper hey is the one we all need to take, the journey from receiving to giving, the journey to unconditional love. Let it begin now. Let us make the passage from Ahava Rabba to Ahavat Olam, from a great love, to the greatest love of all, the love of all with whom we share this earth.
It is easy to be cynical. It is easy to be suspicious. It is easy to throw up our arms and disengage.
It is easy to hate. But IF WE HATE – THE HATERS WILL HAVE WON. They will have turned us into them.
So why do they hate us?
All I know is this. 20,000 Albanian Muslims risked life and limb to save us. How many of us have done that for an Albanian Muslim?
No, they don’t all hate us. And in the end, it doesn’t really matter who hates us and why. All that matters is that we love. Why?
V’ahavta! We WILL love.