We all may remember the reports and images a few months back of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men spitting at women and little girls because of their dress, or because they were walking on sidewalks that they had forbidden to women. Last June, the Sephardi Chief rabbi of Israel declared that Reform and Conservative rabbis--that I--am no better than a terrorist because I am seeking to destroy the Jewish people. These developments, as well, are tragedies of an order that transcends mere differences of religious opinion and practice. All of these are tragedies of the human spirit, and they’re happening to our people in our Jewish homeland. And all of these are happening in a wider middle east beset by intense anti-Israeli and anti-American violence and hatred.
Today, I present these tragic developments not to further our despair, or to fuel our own angers and hatreds. Quite the opposite. Today, I want to offer a remedy, a way out of this spiral into hatred and violence in Israel. I will show how Israelis really can overcome these tragic developments and maintain their moral high ground. Finally, I will show us today that we here in the States really can stay proud and inspired by everything that Israel is. It just takes some honest acknowledgment--for all Jews everywhere--of some deep-seated beliefs that we all share, beliefs that hinder pride and hope; beliefs that can contribute to these tragedies.
When we reflect on the modern State of Israel in the world, we identify one idea that always seems to hover, in many forms, around any and everything about the Jewish State. The concept can be summed up in one word: ‘victim.’
The story of Israel in the world has long been one about victims and victimizers, of oppression, and then hope rising out of that oppression. We Jews were victimized for centuries, most recently in the Holocaust and by Arab aggression. But we’re not alone in our sense of victimhood. For the Arabs, and for their supporters, especially in Europe, it is the Jews and the Israelis who are the aggressors and the victimizers. And within the Jewish State, the religious-secular divide falls along victimization faultlines. The religious often feel threatened and besieged by the secular heresy, and the secular Israelis feel victimized by Jewish religious oppression.
At least in our setting here in Washington, I can safely say that we here, no matter our political persuasion, all can agree on a few matters: we agree that Israel is unfairly portrayed and cast in world opinion; we agree that, despite fringe outbursts like those teenagers, there is no equivalence between our sentiments and the generally-accepted anti-Jewish sentiments rooted in the elite power-structure of Arab-Muslim societies...and that the response to anti-Jewish incitement is not more violence, but education and engagement -- and that difference is profound; we agree that antisemitism is still at play in the world against us and against Israel; ; we all want peace that brings real security and a real end to the conflict with the Palestinians and, until that is achieved and even when that is achieved, we all want a strong Israel capable of protecting itself against the real threats it faces because – most importantly – we don’t want to be the victim of anyone or anything ever again.
But now that we know what we generally agree on, why can’t we do more to fix it? Today, we’re not going to point any fingers of blame on anyone or on any side. And we’re not going to guilt ourselves either for all the ills of Israel. We’re just going to become more aware of how we all, as human beings, share deep and often unquestioned beliefs about victimization.
Not long ago, I had a conversation with a Jewish woman who lives in New York with a very loose affiliation with Judaism. She told me she was concerned that her son, who was going to a very elite prep school in Manhattan, wasn’t getting enough of a Jewish identity. So what did she decide to do to fix the problem? She took him to Washington, to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Now, the Holocaust Museum is an extraordinary resource in the world. I believe that its existence and its work are critical not only for the Jewish people, but for the whole world. That being said, think about it for a minute: a Jewish woman who wanted to give her son his first real taste of Jewish uniqueness, what it means to be a Jew in the world, and her impulse was to begin the story with the Holocaust. Consider for a moment what her choice reveals about her own sense of what it means to be Jewish in the world. It begins with the nightmare of genocide, of the ultimate victimization. I think that we’re all, consciously or not, very much like her. All of us Jews here, in Israel, around the world, have a tragic conflation of elements in our minds: we have automatically confused past victimization with who we are--as Jews, even as individuals! No one will deny for a moment that we have been victimized repeatedly for many centuries. But history is not identity. History most certainly can shape our identity, but it doesn’t have to define it.
The Talmud# tells us a story of the great Rabbi Akiva, who was travelling with his rabbinic colleagues 2,000 years ago on Mount Scopus. They came to the top and looked upon the ruins of the Temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Romans. All the rabbis wept, except for Rabbi Akiva, who laughed. How could you be laughing, they asked him. How could you be crying, he responded! Because the Romans are victorious and our nation and our Temple have been destroyed, they said. Well, that is exactly why I’m laughing, Akiva said. He then explained: there is an ancient prophecy that that Jewish people will yet flourish and grow old in Jerusalem even after the Temple is destroyed. Now that it’s destroyed, I know that this prophecy will come true! And the rabbis responded, ‘You have consoled us, Akiva. You have consoled us.’
Now this story is not just a poignant story about destruction and Akiva grasping at straws for hope. Rabbi Akiva here embodies the deepest spirit of the Jewish people, and who we are in the world, despite the reality of destructions and persecutions and genocides: we are a people that survives. This is the refrain over and over in our Biblical prophecies: no matter what nightmares we may experience, we will see the light of day again. And these aren’t just religious ideas of abstract belief. These are also facts. We’re one of the oldest surviving peoples in the world. We have been persecuted non-stop, and yet no one can destroy us. That’s the message of Judaism. That’s the message of history too. The Akiva story is really all about how you can choose to look at history. You can let destruction define you, or you can find resolve and strength in our traditions, in our past survival, and in what we stand for as a people. In other words, in every moment, we can choose to see ourselves as victims or not. And as the generations and centuries go on, we have to keep choosing anew.
The Akiva story shows us very clearly that it was always all too easy to conflate past experience with our identity. But Akiva laughs and shows us not to fall for that. We have a role to play in the endgame of the human race, and if we get a little clarity about that, we can see that we’re not going anywhere. Akiva’s wisdom began centuries earlier, in the very words of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy: “I call heaven and earth to witness before you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse,” “Uvacharta Bachayim,” “therefore choose life that you may live, you and your descendants.”#
Jews really were victims in the past. There are countless proofs to this truth. But if we keep looking, we were also countless survivors. The message I bring today isn’t just a half-empty or half-full message. My point is that each of us, right now, can find all the proofs we want on either side of the victim issue, to back up our choice of being victims or not. The point of being Jewish in the world is that we are the ones who “bocher bachayim” we choose the path of life, of light, of hope. That’s our job, our purpose. That’s what being a holy nation is all about.
I choose to found my Jewish identity on the rich ground of a three-thousand year old tradition, one of justice and kindness. It’s a tradition that really is a light to the world. It’s the message that life has meaning and that the possibility of joy never vanishes, that darkness and death never triumph over the human spirit. That’s what Jewish identity means to me. I invite us all to choose that identity on this New Year.
I also cherish the memory of every victim of the Shoah, and of all the many persecutions and terrorist attacks that we have endured through the centuries. I choose to learn the lessons of history, to fight hatred and antisemitism wherever it arises, and to ensure a safe future for my people here and in Israel. But past victimhood is not who I am. If I am anything as a Jew, I am the response to that victimhood. I am the affirmation of life’s potential for renewal. If I am anything, I am the laughter of Akiva, which is also the name of our ancestor Isaac--Yitzhak, (literally, laughter) the laughter of life miraculously arising when all hope is seemingly lost. I invite us all to be that laughter as well.
Finally, I invite us all to be the ones to imagine the story of an Israel that is free of victim identities. What if we stopped projecting our nightmares about potential destruction onto Israel and the world around us? Now, we all recognize and appreciate the seriousness and sobriety of debates happening right now inside Israel about attacking Iran. We respect and support that the elected government of Israel bears immense responsibility – indeed, the ultimate responsibility – to protect its people for any and all nightmarish possibilities. At the same time, it really is possible for us, as individuals to walk the streets of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv today with no feeling of oppression or fear of victimization -- even as terrorists and hostile neighbors still reside on all sides. It really is possible for us to be free of gnawing angers and resentments and fears in the backs of our minds about Israel. It really is possible--indeed, it is essential-- to hold nothing but a feeling of gratitude and celebration for Israel’s strength and bright destiny, even in the most fraught and tense of times. If you’re like me, you might, at first, react to these ideas and call them foolishness. That’s okay. Keep envisioning it; try to move right past our assumption that this is a dangerous pipedream. Now, we can ask ourselves this question: Can we absolutely know that we will be destroyed if we willingly let go of our fears of being victims? I know what you may be thinking: Yes! Of course we would be destroyed: it’s lovely to decide to relax and be peaceful; but if our enemies don’t make that decision, that’s just suicide. I hear that fear, and I choose to believe that the opposite will happen. Imagine with me who we would be, responding to terrorism and threats from hostile enemies with no fear and no anxiety, with no feeling of impending victimization or doom.
What would that be like? I’ll tell you what it would be like: we would respond with clarity, with strength, with balance, with a sense of urgency and care, with all our judgment unclouded by hatred or fear, ready to effect real justice, undaunted in our search for peace. We would be free of a victim identity, and we would be truly fulfilling the dreams of all the founders and pioneers of the Jewish State. The very essence of Zionism itself arose as a reaction to centuries of victimization of our people around the world. The core of our Zionist dream-- which is the sacred purpose of Judaism as well--is that we will live in our Jewish homeland once and for all, never living as victims to anyone. The real meaning of being an Israeli, and a Jew, is that we are never victims. Not ever.
One thing I feel sure of: those Israeli teenagers who attacked that Palestinian boy did so because they felt themselves to be the victims of the Palestinians.
A friend once said something that really stuck with me. She said ‘victims can be the most dangerous people.’ The more I think about it, the more that’s true: so much bloodshed in history has been caused by those who believed that they were the victims of those whom they killed.The root of the problem lies in conflating victimhood with identity. But there is another way. Uvacharta bachayim: it’s about choosing to be free. It’s about choosing to see all the ways that we are so strong, so blessed, and so purposeful. We are the people who bear a vision of the world as a better, more just place; a world of holiness and kindness. We’re part of the solution to all the problems of this world. That’s our destiny, and we’re not going anywhere.