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In its never-ending quest for editorial balance and integrity, the venerable New York Times gave equal time to Israeli and Palestinian news channels in its reporting of the devastating fires sweeping through Israel.
Israeli news expressed the widely-held opinion that arson is behind the unprecedented rash of urban and forest conflagrations, the latest tactic of Palestinian terrorism.
Palestinian news reported that fires in Israel are started primarily by discarded cigarette butts and children playing with matches, with the remainder caused by electrical malfunction.
An Arab spokesman observed that Israel should take measures to ensure that these causes are addressed to prevent future fires. He failed to explain why fires anywhere near this scale have been unknown for the entire 68 year history of the State of Israel.
Thank you once again, New York Times, for honoring your famous motto:
All the news that fits, we print.
With a fury reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina, Typhoon Lionrock savaged northeast Asia two weeks ago, unleashing floods that left 100,000 North Koreans homeless and more than half a million without water. The devastation was so extraordinary that the North Korean government responded in a way equally unprecedented — by turning to the West for help.
I confess that my initial reaction was smug satisfaction. There’s something providential about a rogue nation responsible for instigating so much strife and apprehension around the world coming hat-in-hand to beg for international aid and succor.
However, after a moment’s reflection my feelings of moral superiority evaporated instantaneously. The victims here are not corrupt government nabobs; rather, they are the self-same people already victimized by the congenital corruption of their rulers. Even if the Orwellian tactics of the Kim dynasty have successfully hypnotized and lobotomized the people of North Korea into abject reverence, those hapless people hardly deserve the added suffering and indignation of a world denying them aid because of the sins of their overlords.
Divine justice will have to wait a bit longer.
To complicate matters further, just last week North Korea conducted yet another nuclear test in violation of its already-violated non-proliferation treaty. And so, with the UN blustering about increased sanctions and South Korea preparing for “the worst-case scenario,” humanitarian organizations are grappling with the logical and logistical problems of aiding the unfortunate citizens of a terrorist nation without helping the nation itself.
Of course, this is hardly a new dilemma.
Who knew a trip to New York could be so emotional?
I didn’t want to go in the first place. As my 92-year-old student likes to quote: Travelling is for peasants.
But my wife convinced me with simple arithmetic. Four tickets to bring three kids and son-in-law home or two tickets to visit them. No-brainer.
So I went grudgingly, confirming in the end the truism that some of life’s most profound moments come not only unexpected but against our will.
Our first stop was the 9/11 museum. I marveled at the artistic vision that had conceived the memorial pools, the water channeling down in rivulets that mirrored the face of the fallen towers, the continuous downward rush balanced by the redemptive feeling of water — the source of life — returning to the heart of the world. Here there was solace, closure, and consolation.
But a very different feeling accosted me inside. Almost upon entering the doors a single word brandished itself across my mind’s eye: Holocaust.
Let me explain.
To begin… obviously there is no comparison between the monstrosity of wantonly dehumanizing genocide and any single act of terror; obviously there is no equivalence between the systematic psychological, spiritual, and physical destruction of millions and a few thousand relatively instantaneous murders.
But then again, yes there is.
First, there is the shock value. 3000 murders compressed into 102 minutes is mathematically equivalent to six million in 139 days. Add to that the psychological trauma upon a nation that thought itself secure within its borders, the ensuing economic crisis, the emotional aftermath, the agonizing reappraisal, the moral uncertainties, and the recriminations that followed and remain woven into the social fabric of America to this day. Then add in the ideology of death that rejoices in the destruction of perceived enemies even (or all the more so) through self-destruction. Finally, add in the certainty that it could happen again.
These two abominations have much in common.
The images in the 9/11 museum are haunting from the first. The twisted support beams, the bits of recovered debris, the walls of smiling faces of victims all conspire to pierce our hearts with the helpless torment of senseless violence. And around every turn, or so it seemed to me, the words “Remember” and “Don’t forget.”
Whether the architects of the memorial intended this biblical resonance I cannot say. But those three words are so much a part of Jewish tradition that for me they sealed the connection between the fate of the twin towers and the fate of European Jewry.
Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out from Egypt; how he came upon you and struck down from behind all who were faint and weary; and he feared not G-d. Therefore it shall be… that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget.
Who is Amalek? He is the first terrorist nation in recorded history, the prototype of ideological nihilism and a culture of moral anarchy, the spiritual progenitor of every philosophy of hate and violence and, according to the traditions handed down by the sages across the generations, the ultimate ancestor of the German nation.
Remember what Amolek did to you, and remember why: to erase all awareness that a culture of moral integrity can flourish on this earth. Don’t forget, lest you leave yourself vulnerable to his never-ending mission to destroy you. There is only one way to deal with terrorist: blot them out from under heaven, or else they will do the same to you. It is a simple matter of self-preservation.
In 3,300 years, little has changed.
My handkerchief was damp before I left the museum. The magnitude of the destruction perpetrated by unadulterated hatred and evil was overwhelming. If we don’t fight against it, we become party to it. If we don’t acknowledge it for what it is, we allow it to consume us. And yet every visitor will leave this hallowed place and promptly lose himself in the vanities and trivialities of everyday life… myself included.
But this was only the first part of my New York epiphany. The second would come a few days later, when my wife led me into Federal Hall.
The site of George Washington’s inauguration provided as emotional an experience as the 9/11 museum. Here was a shrine to visionary ideology, not distorted into evil but elevated to the highest imaginable strata of human aspiration. Here, a fledgling nation conceived in the minds of practical dreamers took its incipient steps toward the lofty goals of justice, virtue, and equality before the law in a true meritocracy. Here, the noblest impulses of man forged a society out of shared values that had never been applied, never been attempted, never been imagined beyond the musings of political fantasy.
The obstacles had been myriad and megalithic. The chances of success had been spare. The need for compromise and cooperation had required superhuman resources of selflessness, humility, and a sense of common purpose. The collective will to succeed in their grand vision was the bond that overcame their differences, and the resourcefulness born of desperate times guided them to find solutions to their most intractable problems. And if our democracy today is slipping into a sad shadow of what it was conceived to be… well, it still stands alone in the world as a symbol of the ideals and the responsibilities of freedom.
Vision and ideology — the sources of unimaginable heroism and of monstrous evil. This is what we must remember. This is what we must never forget.
May we find the wisdom to follow the way of heroes.
It was Judgment Day — exactly one week after the World Trade Center buildings collapsed and so many illusions along with them.
“Judgment Day” is the expression found in the traditional liturgy for Rosh HaShonah, the first day of the Jewish new year. And as I stood in the midst of the congregation intoning the High Holiday prayers, the vision of exploding passenger planes and twin towers crumbling to dust hovered before my eyes.
On Rosh HaShonah we will be inscribed … who will live and who will die … who by water and who by fire … who by storm and who by plague … Who will have peace and who will suffer … who will be cast down and who will be exalted.
The judgment upon Jews became kinder after the United States opened her doors to us a century ago. Where no one else would have us, America took us in, allowing us to live both as Americans and as Jews without persecution.
Yet for all that, American Jews often feel torn by opposing cultural forces, especially approaching our Day of Judgment in a society where there is no greater sin than “judgmentalism.”
Without judgment, however, society cannot endure. As good citizens we must judge others – not based on race or religion but upon actions and behavior. And we must judge ourselves as well, by constantly reexamining our motives and our prejudices and our values and our goals. To condemn even this kind of judgment as a threat to freedom is to retreat from our responsibility to discern right from wrong; it is to embrace the illusion of absolute theoretical freedom – moral anarchy – which is in reality no freedom at all.
September 11 brought us face to face with moral anarchy in the form of incomprehensible evil. Perhaps the first step toward confronting it is to remind ourselves that freedom is not a right – it is a privilege, and privileges carry with them obligations that are often inconvenient and occasionally painful. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that the tree of liberty must sometimes be refreshed with the blood of patriots, he warned that the threat against freedom can only be met by not taking freedom for granted.
Freedom is not democratic, as less than a score of suicidal zealots understood when they commandeered four transcontinental airliners. The duties of freedom are non-negotiable, as New York firefighters and policemen understood when they rushed into crumbling skyscrapers. And the rules of freedom cannot always be legislated: sometimes we have to choose between necessary evils, as the passengers aboard United Airlines flight 93 understood when they drove their plane into a Pennsylvania field.
These are the kinds of judgments we must make, every day and every year, to preserve our society, all the more so in a nation built out of so many cultures and beliefs as ours. Every freedom of the individual cannot be permitted if it threatens the collective, nor can every interest of the collective be observed if it oppresses the individual. But when we share the collective will to make our society stable and secure, then the individual will set aside his personal freedoms for the national good and the nation will bend over backward to protect individual freedom.
This is the mark of a great civilization, and it rests upon an informed and devoted citizenry prepared to debate, sometimes passionately but always civilly, the moral direction of our collective journey.
This Rosh HaShonah I stood shoulder to shoulder with friends and neighbors singing ancient liturgical poems in praise of our Creator, just as so many Americans stood together the week before singing “G-d Bless America.” There were no agendas, no politics, no grudges, no rivalries. All of a sudden we were one nation, indivisible, a people with one noble history and many noble ideals whose differences vanished in the shadow of our many common values and common goals.
As the Jews have had ample opportunity to learn, now America has learned that nothing brings us together like a common enemy. What we have yet to learn is how to continue to stand together even in times of peace.
And true believers don’t send children as martyrs in place of themselves. The perpetrators of last week’s vicious attack on a Kurdish wedding in Turkey believe in nothing so much as violence as a means to their own power. It’s a sad sign of the times that we can almost admire the zealots of a few years ago who willingly gave their own lives for their ideals, no matter how convoluted those ideals may have been.
When fanatics eagerly give the last full measure of devotion — for which Abraham Lincoln praised the Union soldiers who sacrificed their lives at Gettysburg — we have to ask ourselves if we are prepared to sacrifice as much for our noble values as our enemies readily sacrifice in the name of terror.
Rabbi Mici Mark, the beloved Executive Director of the Torat Shraga talmudic academy in Israel, was murdered by terrorists last month while driving his car on his way to Jerusalem to celebrate his mother’s 80th birthday. He was 46 years old. His wife, Chavi and 2 of his 10 children were in the car with him and, with G-d’s help, are recovering from their injuries.
The community of Otniel has suffered greatly from terror attacks. Mici, was the 11th victim.
Please participate in the Go Fund Me campaign to sponsor a bullet proof van to prevent the Otniel community from further tragedy and trauma.
Details can be found by clicking here.
I’ve had too many opportunities to repost this article. Violence begets violence, and as chaos becomes the new normal we have to find a way to restore order and civility to our societies. If we do, we can make Ft. Myers and Munich and Dallas and Boston nothing more than the names of cities once again.
Listen in on my interview with Clint Bellows last week discussing the challenges facing Israel and America. Interview begins at about 49:00.
Whether or not the cause of the EgyptAir disaster turns out to be terrorism — and regardless of whether Donald Trump was right or wrong to call it terrorism before any information was in — that was and is everyone’s first thought in these dangerous times. We don’t believe in accidents anymore; experience has been too stern a teacher and the lessons of fanaticism have been too painful.
Presumably, such incidents will only make TSA lines move slower and slower. Which wouldn’t matter if that actually made us safer and safer.
My neighbor told me recently that his son flew to Australia by way of Istanbul and Qatar. Changing planes in Qatar’s Hamad International Airport, he was ushered through customs without even breaking stride — along with every other Caucasian on his flight — while every single Middle-Easterner was detained, searched, and questioned at length.
Interesting that the Qataris have no qualms about profiling their own people, while here in the open-minded West cling desperately to the illusion that every passenger poses an equal threat to our security.
Is it possible that the Qataris know something we haven’t figured out yet?
If terrorists were dressing up as Orthodox rabbis, I would want TSA to profile me and those who look like me. Instead of taking it personally, I would be grateful for their common sense and conscientiousness.
But I guess that’s just me.
After yesterday’s terrorist bus bombing in Jerusalem, the first in years, Jews around the world felt the painful reminder of our precarious place among nations dedicated to our destruction. With the Passover festival approaching, these thoughts from 2005 remind us that Holocaust is not a phenomenon of the last century, or even the last millennium.
The extermination of six million Jews in the Nazi death camps represents but the most recent in a long history of Jewish holocausts. It was preceded by the Chmielnicki massacres in 17th century Poland, the Almohad massacres in 12th century Spain, the Inquisition and the Crusades and the relentless spilling of blood by the Roman legions — all these and similar chapters in the long, brutal history of attempted genocide against the Jewish people.
When did it all begin?
According to Jewish tradition, it began 3328 years ago, when nearly two and a half million Jews died in a single night.
It was the beginning of the plague of darkness, the penultimate blow in the systematic destruction of the Egyptians and their empire. Pharaoh had already released his Jewish slaves from their oppressive labor midway through the cycle of plagues, driven by the desperate hope that he could appease the G-d of the Jews. But he refused to grant them permission to leave.
For some Jews, the relaxation from their burdens offered an opportunity to reflect upon the responsibilities of freedom and the opportunity that had been promised them to build their own nation. For others, however, it gave time to grow comfortable in the paradise that was Egypt, to adopt an attitude of entitlement for their new-found prosperity, to forget that freedom is never free.
During their 210 years as slaves in Egypt, the Jews had gradually absorbed the corrupt values of that culture, its idolatry and its immorality, retaining only their names, their language, and their style of dress to set themselves apart from their Egyptian hosts. With no merit to deserve divine redemption, the Jewish people received their exodus on credit, credit to be repaid by accepting the Ten Commandments at Sinai and committing themselves to the higher moral and ethical standards of G-d’s chosen people.
600,000 Jews — 20% of their total number — accepted these terms, preparing themselves psychologically and physically to exchange the comfort and familiarity of Egypt for the uncertainty of the empty desert. Four times as many rejected the condition, refusing to make good, as it were, on the credit extended them from heaven, convincing themselves that, with the Egyptians humbled and the yoke of slavery removed from their necks, they could void their contract with the Almighty and remain unencumbered in the land of their former servitude.
The human condition, however, is never static. One who stops growing immediately begins to die; one who stops moving forward instantly begins to slip backward. There is no standing still, no place to rest in this restless world, and the 2,400,000 Jews who thought to deny their destiny, who imagined they could stop the sands of time and were buried by them instead.
The fate of the 80% was not divine vengeance; it was spiritual inevitability. To survive for thirty three centuries, the Jewish nation would have to appreciate that it had no alternative other than survival. Assimilation, conversion, or abdication of Jewish identity may at times have seemed an attractive option to the burden of living as Jews, but the consequences of spiritual extinction are every bit as grave — indeed, much more so — than those of physical extinction.
Ask the Spanish Jews who converted to Christianity, only to be called marranos — pigs — by their Christian brothers and to be burned at the stake in the auto-de-fe of the Inquisition, if their abandonment of Jewish identity was worth the price. Ask the assimilated German Jews stripped of their property, forced to wear yellow stars, and incinerated in Nazi crematoria if they met a better end than those who refused to disavow their Judaism.
Indeed, the narrative of the exodus testifies that, as the Jews prepared to leave the ruins of Egypt after the plague upon the firstborn, “the Almighty gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians.” As slaves forfeiting their identity within Egyptian society, the Egyptians regarded the Jews only with disdain. Once the Jews began to act with Jewish dignity, their former oppressors could not help but respect them.
And so it has been ever since. When we live as Jews, the rest of the world respects us for our values and our conviction. When we shirk our responsibility as upholders of morality to accommodated the ever-changing moral whims of the world around us, we bring upon ourselves nothing but suffering.
The freedom we celebrate at Passover is the freedom to remain true to who we are, who we always have been: The nation that introduced the world to the very concept of freedom, and the nation which has shown the world through the ages that the price of freedom is far less dear than the price of forsaking it.