I love church stories because they reflect synagogue life as well. After a church service on Sunday morning, a young boy suddenly announced to his mother, “Mom, I’ve decided to become a minister when I grow up. “That’s okay with me,” she said, “but what made you decide that?” “Well,” said the little boy, “I have to go to church on Sunday anyway, and I figure it will be more fun to stand up and yell, than to sit down and listen.”
Maybe I am like that little boy. And today I do get to stand up in front and yell. I don’t intend to yell at you, but I do want to shout out loud and clear why I feel so passionately proud of Israel and have so much gratitude for the Israel Defense Forces.
The Torah reading tomorrow morning illuminates this very point. In that passage, our Father Abraham is commanded by God to take his beloved son Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice. The very thought is horrifying. It seems contrary to everything we know of Torah values. The end of the brief story relieves us when we see that God was testing Abraham’s faith and would not have permitted the sacrificial act to take place. Instead, the ram is sacrificed. To this day, one significant interpretation of the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn, is to remind us of this event. So many questions can be asked about this troubling tale, and indeed, over the centuries, they have been asked and much, much ink has been spilled answering them. But one interpretation appears to be obvious: God does not approve of human sacrifice.
Some people reading this 3,000 year old story may wonder about its relevance. Sadly it is as relevant today as ever. The current worst enemy of the Jewish people, and frankly the world, is Hamas, and it is guilty of this very crime. But isn’t the world’s greatest enemy ISIL? But call it ISIL or ISIS or Al Qaeda, or Boko Haram, or Taliban or Hamas – at the end of the day, they are all the same. It is a many-headed hydra. And yet, at the UN and in world media, it is Israel that is portrayed as a villain.
Early this summer I received an email that shook me to my core. It began with these words, “Rabbi, thank you for your ongoing support of genocide against innocent Palestinian civilians. You truly believe in your own propaganda.”
That horrifying message arrived in my inbox on July 18, just ten days into the conflict between Hamas and Israel. But as I thought about it, it is no wonder that someone would come to think that way. This entire summer the media was fixated on Israel as if there were no other trouble spots in the world. The violence in Israel and Gaza took up all the air in the room; there was hardly a mention of the butchering of Christians in Africa, the killing and displacement of civilians in Syria, or the deaths in Yemen and Nigeria. Everything took second place to the Israel-Hamas conflict. The internet, cable networks and print media published photos of bombed-out neighborhoods, listed the numbers of dead and wounded in Gaza, and when compared to the effects of the conflict in Israel, a person could easily be convinced to think like this misguided young man.
Rather than be ashamed of Israel we should be filled with pride, and I want to explain to you why I am. There is a battle in the world today between the forces of good and evil and Israel is on the frontline. In an interview with Sean Hannity, Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke about the evil represented by Israel’s enemies, and he concluded, “Coming soon to a theater near you.” As frightening as that is, I am afraid it is all too true.
At a recent AIPAC conference I heard a presentation by Mosab Hassan Yousef. As the son of a Hamas founder, he knows it well from the inside. He told us that the destruction of Israel is not Hamas’ final objective. Their ultimate goal, like that of ISIS, is building the Islamic caliphate on the rubble of every other civilization. In other words, in standing up to Hamas, the IDF is fighting to protect all of civilization, not just Israel.
We have all been sickened by the recent videos showing the beheadings of James Foley and Stephen Sotloff. It is hard to believe that such barbarity could be perpetrated in the 21st Century. Yet there it was, in living color in videos streamed all over the world, and accomplishing its purpose: to let us all know that these people are cruel beyond our imagination, competent beyond any former enemy, and well funded. If they meant to frighten us, they achieved their goal.
In response to these videos, Rabbi Shumuley Boteach and his Values Network published a full-page ad in several newspapers. The photos at the top showed an ISIS beheading victim on the left and a Hamas beheading victim on the right. The victims were in identical, submissive, poses. The large print read, “This is the face of radical Islam. If the UN is looking for genocide to investigate, here it is, not in Israel.”
Another full-page ad in the New York Times was sponsored by the Creative Community for Peace. They expressed so well the kind of thinking that makes me proud of Israel and the IDF. “While we stand firm in our commitment to peace and justice, we must also stand firm against ideologies of hatred and genocide …Hamas cannot be allowed to rain rockets on Israeli cities, nor can it be allowed to hold its own people hostage. Hospitals are for healing, not for hiding weapons. Schools are for learning, not for launching missiles. Children are our hope, not our human shields.”
The stark contrast between the morality of the IDF and Hamas is evident in the fact that in Gaza there are neither sirens nor safe-rooms. The fact is, Hamas, the government the majority of Gazans elected, chose to invest the billions they received in international aid money in buying weapons of war and constructing terror tunnels to harm Israeli citizens instead of investing in schools, hospitals and playgrounds.
I am proud of the IDF because I don’t think there is a more moral or ethical military force in the world. The IDF lives by a code called Tohar HaNeshek – the purity of arms. It was created by ethicists and guided by the Jewish tradition and every commander and soldier in the IDF must be thoroughly conversant with it.
Our Torah presents laws and values that make me so proud to be the heir of that tradition. Just two weeks ago we read the Torah passage forbidding soldiers in battle from perpetrating sexual assault against captive women. Today, 3,000 years after that text was written, rape by soldiers is accepted as a standard form of combat in the Middle East and in Africa.
Of course, the most magnificent Torah value comes from a text in the very beginning of Genesis. We are told there that God created humanity – not just Jews but all humanity – in the divine image. What flows from this passage is that all lives matter – Palestinian lives, Israeli lives, all lives. And that belief is reflected in the behavior of the IDF – and that fills me with pride. Do these regulations prevent a young soldier with a machine gun from overreacting when surrounded by a mob of fellows with kafiyas on their faces hurling Molotov cocktails? Of course it can’t do that. Like all armies, the IDF is made up of human beings. What makes me proud is how infrequently that inappropriate and abhorrent reaction occurs, and that when it does, it is swiftly dealt with.
The IDF does everything it possibly can to prevent civilian casualties. But it goes even further. Even in the heat of the conflict this summer, Israel was providing electricity to the people of Gaza, and was sending in truckloads of desperately needed food and medical supplies. It is so painful to recognize that Israel is facing an enemy that does not value in the least the lives of its own people. To the contrary, it uses civilian fatalities as a strategy of war. While Israel warns civilians to vacate a targeted building, Hamas forces them at gunpoint to stay in place. How does a civilized nation deal with such barbarism?
Moral philosopher Sam Harris is well known for his atheism. Almost ten years ago he wrote “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.” In a blog this summer he discussed how you can see the moral difference between competing forces. Listen to his words. “All you have to do is ask what one side would do to the other if they could.”
He explains, “What would the Jews do to the Palestinians if they could do anything they wanted? Well, we know the answer to that question, because they can do more or less anything they want. The Israeli army could kill everyone in Gaza tomorrow. So what does that mean? It means that when they drop a bomb on a beach and kill four Palestinian children, as happened last week, this is almost certainly an accident. They’re not targeting children.”
Harris continues, “And the other side? What would the Palestinians do to the Jews in Israel if the power imbalance were reversed? Well, they have told us what they would do. For some reason, Israel’s critics just don’t want to believe the worst about a group like Hamas, even when it declares the worst of itself. We’ve already had a Holocaust and several other genocides in the 20th century. People are capable of committing genocide. When they tell us they intend to commit genocide, we should listen. …They’ve blown themselves up on buses and in restaurants. They’ve massacred teenagers. They’ve murdered Olympic athletes. They now shoot rockets indiscriminately into civilian areas. And again, the charter of their government in Gaza explicitly tells us that they want to annihilate the Jews—not just in Israel but everywhere.”
Harris concludes, “The only thing more obnoxious than denying the Holocaust is to say that it should have happened; it didn’t happen, but if we get the chance, we will accomplish it.”
I am not proud of the IDF because they are better than Hamas. That is far too low a bar. I am proud of the IDF because they defend the only Jewish state in the world and they do so maintaining Jewish values.
Using my rabbinic privilege to speak on this holy day, I have told you a great deal. But now, the pressing question is what do you do with it? Allow me to make some suggestions.
First, we must share the truth about Israel and the IDF wherever we can: with our government representatives, with our friends and co-workers, with anyone who has been mislead by the media blitz of this past summer. We must tell them that we understand the grief, anger and desperation of the people of Gaza. But it is not Israel that is to be blamed. The guilt falls squarely on the Hamas leadership who sow the seeds of hate and tell innocent civilians to be human shields while they hide in 5-star hotels in Qatar, thousands of miles away.
We must make known the truth of what the Hamas charter says: Just listen to these two passages:
“The hour of judgment shall not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them.” Note – it does not say the Israelis; it says the Jews.
That charter says this: “Peace initiatives, so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement.” That’s Hamas, and hearing the words of that charter anyone will understand where the true obstacle to peace in the Middle East lies.
Next, we must support Israel both financially and personally. Let’s put our money where our mouth is. There are a myriad of organizations seeking our help. Choose carefully, but choose generously. And money is not all we can give – we can give ourselves. Our community is full of young, healthy retirees who travel the globe. I urge you to consider seriously spending a few months as a volunteer in Israel. Many members of our congregation have done this over the years and they will tell you that it gave them as much satisfaction as it helped Israel. Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.
The reality is that some people are not physically able to undertake even a short trip to Israel. The flight alone requires considerable stamina. Consider this: send a shaliach, someone to represent you. Offer an Israel trip to your children or grandchildren. Young people today are struggling with mortgages and the cost of school and camp. For them, a trip to Israel is just way beyond their budget. If you are in any way able, help them out. And if you cannot do it in one lump sum, consider setting up a fund to which you can add at every birthday and anniversary. Allow your progeny to inherit your values while you are here to enjoy seeing them do it. Now is when they need it most.
Here is another thought: something that can be done by people who are not in a position to be philanthropists or long-term volunteers. Stand up to the BDS movement. There are anti-Israel people all over the world who refuse to buy Israeli products and who want massive pension funds to divest from companies that do business in Israel. Don’t stand for that kind of perversion of morality. The actress Scarlett Johansson set a wonderful example for us a few months ago. She did an ad for the Israeli company SodaStream. She had been the brand ambassador for the humanitarian group Oxfam. They asked her give up her work for SodaStream because it had a factory in the West Bank. Johansson displayed great courage when walked away from Oxfam and told them that their position was wrong-headed and did nothing to promote the well being of Palestinians.
We can all stand up to the BDS movement. We have to buy Israeli products whenever we can, and tell our shopkeepers we want those products on the shelves.
Last month a hardy group from our congregation travelled to Israel. We had not set out to do anything altruistic or make a political statement. We wanted to have a wonderful vacation, and indeed we did. But at the same time, by traveling to Israel at a time when many others were not, we did do something very important. We visited institutions who told us that had not seen adult groups since the beginning of July. Our trip wasn’t just pleasurable, it was meaningful, and you don’t have to wait for another BSBI trip to show your support for Israel by traveling there. Too many people have the mistaken notion that a trip to Israel is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Nonsense. If you are fortunate enough to afford it, make your plans to visit – again and again.
I want you to understand my pride in Israel and its IDF. But what I want even more, what I pray for every day, is a world in which no IDF will be needed, when the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael will be able to live in peace, when the vision of the prophet will become a reality, when every person can sit under his vine or fig tree and none shall make them afraid. Ken Y’hi ratzon. So may it be God’s will. AMEN