By Rabbi Philip Graubart
LA JOLLA, California–Last night at dinner, my son commented, “Don’t you think it’s time we forgave Haman?” We all nodded, yes, absolutely. Talk about keeping a grudge! It was all some good pre-Purim fun, but it made me ponder that concept of eternal, mythic enemies, and the challenges the idea throws on any culture. Christians, for example, have to deal with the New Testament naming Jews as their eternal enemy. James Carroll, a scholar and former Catholic priest – author of the well-known Constantine’s Sword – recently spoke at my synagogue about the tragic consequences of seeing a living community as a mythic adversary.
For Jews, at least, the eternal enemy – the Amalekites, Haman’s people – have disappeared. We don’t persecute contemporary Amalekites; we shake graggers when we hear Haman’s name. There are no Amalekites. But the concept still presents serious problems. There’s always the temptation to label contemporary enemies as Amalekites – and therefore condemn them as eternally cruel and wicked, people we should destroy, not engage. I’ve heard Palestinians called Amalekites, but also Russians, Iranians, Saudis, and even the French.
But the deeper concern, it seems to me, is how this notion of an eternal enemy influences how we see ourselves. The Torah commands us to “Remember what Amalek did to you,” and the Passover Haggadah warns that “In every generation they rise up against us to wipe us out.” If eternal, mythic enemies surround us in every generation, that makes us eternal victims – eternally harassed, persecuted, threatened. If we’re always victims, always chased by implacable enemies, then our best responses are either to hide, or lash out – and neither is a healthy way to live.
In fact, the modern Zionism movement came into being to counter our deeply internalized feelings of victimhood. We’re not victims, the early Zionists proclaimed; we’re in control of our destiny. We don’t need to hide or lash out, we can build, strategize, negotiate, and also fight, but strategically, and only when necessary. And, of course, the early Zionists didn’t see themselves as surrounded by mythic, implacable enemies. The Turks, British, and Arabs were all challenges to confront, sometimes by fighting, sometimes by negotiating, sometimes by embracing in friendship – but they were never Amalek, the eternal enemy who rises up in every generation to wipe us out. I came of age during this Zionist time, this great experiment with pragmatism, this rejection of ancient myths. I’ve given sermons and written articles along these lines – challenging the Jewish predilection for victimization, for finding mythic enemies in ordinary adversaries.
But, starting a few years ago, each time I wrote disparagingly about the demons of the Jewish psyche, a particular demonic image popped into my mind: the gates of Auschwitz. I’ll never forget the first time I saw those perfectly preserved gates in person on a trip to Poland, how they seemed to escape full-bodied from my nightmares, and materialize in front of me, like the devil himself. It’s Amalek, I whispered to myself, staring at the infernal German words Arbeit Macht Frei. Is it true? I wondered. Does Amalek try to destroy us in every generation? Think of our bloody history: expulsions, Crusades, Inquisitions – or just the 20th century: Hitler, Stalin. And this is real history, not myth.
And what about today? Ahmedinajad, like Haman, a Persian, is not a figment of our paranoid imagination. Our most respected Jewish organizations don’t warn against an Iranian nuclear holocaust because of our psychic demons. We oppose him – we fear him – because he explicitly threatens to destroy us, and he’s building a bomb. Is Ahmedinijad another manifestation of Amalek? Is he another implacable enemy, proving the Haggadah correct?
My short answer is no, but I’m not as confident as I used to be. Nowadays two inner voices compete for attention when I contemplate Israeli’s enemies: the Zionist pragmatist; and the mythic, traditional. It’s Amalek, one whispers, when I think of Hamas, or Hezbollah, or Iran. No, the other says, they’re not demons, they’re just human beings, responsive as anyone to incentives, to threats and promises. I never fully harmonize the two voices, but I’ve cobbled together a rough synthesis, that, for what it’s worth, goes something like this. There will always be evil people trying to destroy the work good people do. These evil people are not merely adversaries, they are enemies, committed to malicious destruction. We can call these people Amalek. But they’re not a specific group; there’s no demonic genetic thread that ties them together. Nevertheless, like infernal weeds, they pop up in every generation.
Rabbi Graubart is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El in La Jolla.
PRESS RELEASE (WJC)–The European Union’s high court has ruled that Israeli goods produced in the West Bank cannot receive EU tariff breaks.
The decision handed down Thursday by the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice drew a legal distinction between Israel and areas located over the Green Line, according to the French news agency AFP.
The case before the court dealt with the German company Brita, which wanted to import drink makers and syrups from Soda-Club, which is based in the West Bank near Jerusalem. A German court had refused to extend EU trade privileges to the goods.
The EU court upheld the German court decision.
The ruling said that “Products originating in the West Bank do not fall within the territorial scope of the European Community-Israel agreement and do not therefore qualify for preferential treatment under that agreement.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry has not yet commented on the ruling.
PRESS RELEASE (WJC)–Anti-Semitic incidents in Canada rose to record levels. An annual showed an 11.4 percent increase in incidents in 2009 over the previous year to reach the highest number ever reported in the audit’s 28-year history. There were 1,264 anti-Jewish incidents last year, which encompassed acts of harassment, vandalism and violence. That compares to 1,135 incidents in 2008, and represents a five-fold increase over the last decade, B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights said. The highest number of incidents for the year, 209, occurred in January, coinciding with Israel’s war in Gaza. Last year in Canada saw 884 cases of harassment, 348 of vandalism and a doubling from 2008 of acts of violence, at 32.
The majority of incidents, 672, occurred in Ontario. That represents a slight drop over 2008 of 1.5 percent, while incidents in the Greater Toronto Area decreased by 11 percent. However, incidents in other parts of Ontario rose by nearly 50 percent. There were 373 incidents in Quebec, a 52.5 percent rise over the 2008 data. Of these, 319 incidents took place in Montreal, representing an increase of 58.7 percent over the year before.
Nationally there were 111 incidents targeting Jews in their own homes, compared to 105 in 2008, and 137 incidents on university campuses, well above the 76 reported in 2008. Another spike in incidens occurred just before Yom Kippur, when 10 synagogues were vandalized across the country, including four in Quebec on one night.
Preceding provided by World Jewish Congress
By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal
SAN DIEGO–When the singer Madonna, who is a disciple of the Kabbalah Center, decided that she wanted a Hebrew name, I found it ironic that she chose “Esther.” Esther is not a Hebrew name. Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther in the Bible, informs us that Esther’s Hebrew name was Hadassah, which means “myrtle.” Esther was her Persian name and is derived from the goddess Ishtar. So Madonna choose a Hebrew name which is really a Persian name which means “Ishtar, the pagan goddess.”
But one can hardly blame Madonna because the truth is that Esther is commonly used as a “Hebrew” or “Jewish” name. In fact there are many Hebrew names which were adopted from other cultures and languages, including Mordechai, Alexander, and Moses (an Egyptian name.) The adoption of such names into Jewish culture indicates that Judaism has always been open to outside cultural influences, sometimes to a greater and sometimes to a lesser degree.
But the division between Jewish and non-Jewish is permeable in both directions. Especially in the United States we find many influences of Jews and Jewish tradition on American culture.
One example: I stopped at a local coffee cart this week and prominently displayed on the pastry shelf was a jar filled with hamantaschen and labeled as such. Yiddishisms have crept into the American vocabulary (kosher, shmooze, shlep, etc.), and bagels and lox have become as American as hot dogs and apple pie.
When Haman approached the king and asked permission to kill the Jews, one of his arguments was: “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people, and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.” (Esther 3:8) That is, Haman’s strongest argument against the Jews of Persia was that they were different.
That argument would be difficult to make in America for while we Jews still are a unique cultural and religious slice of the American population, we certainly fit in. Not only have we wholeheartedly bought into the American dream and American culture, many aspects of Jewish culture have become American as well.
The positive of this is diminished anti-Semitism and widespread acceptance of Jews by most Americans. The downside is our concern that one day the barrier between Jew and non-Jew will become so permeable that the former will simply osmose into the latter. Such is the challenge to Jews and Judaism in an open and tolerant society.
Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue
PRESS RELEASE (WJS)–The trial in Germany of alleged Nazi death camp guard Ivan Demjanjuk will take months longer than had been anticipated, prosecutors have said. The trial in Munich on charges of helping to kill 27,900 Jews while a guard at the Sobibor death camp had been expected to end in May, but with proceedings taking longer than expected, a new timetable from the court foresees scheduled sessions until at least September.
Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk was deported from the United States in May 2009 and has been on trial since November. Although there are no living witnesses able to positively identify Demjanjuk, the prosecution says it has an SS identity card proving he was at a training camp for guards and that he was then transferred to work at Sobibor, in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Demjanjuk, whose family says he is gravely ill and who has appeared in court on a stretcher, denies the charges but has so far declined to address the court. Proceedings are restricted to two 90-minute sessions per day. Several sessions have been curtailed or postponed due to Demjanjuk’s health complaints.
Preceding provided by the World Jewish Congress
By Dorothea Shefer-Vanson
MEVASSERET ZION, Israel–At a recent event entitled ‘Any Questions,’ organized by the British Zionist Federation and the Israel, Britain and Commonwealth Association, a panel replied to questions submitted in advance by members of the 400-strong audience who had come to Jerusalem from all over Israel.
Most of the audience and the panel consisted of representatives of Israel’s English-speaking population. The attraction was the presence of the British Ambassador to Israel, Tom Phillips, on the panel. The questions, which were read out by Zionist Federation chairman, Andrew Balcombe, related to a variety of subjects which concern Israelis today. These included the negotiations for the return of the kidnapped soldier, Gilad Shalit, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the attitude to and repercussions of the Goldstone Report and concern about the growing influence of NGOs both inside and outside Israel.
But the question which stirred up the most interest (and reactions from the audience) was the one which related to the growing groundswell of anti-Israel opinion among both the Jewish and the general public in the UK. Ambassador Tom Phillips, tried to play down this trend, citing the consistent support of the British government for Israel irrespective of which party is in power, the strong trade links between the two countries and England’s advocacy of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian problem. Nevertheless, he could not deny that there was a constant and consistent process of denigrating, demonizing and delegitimising Israel in the international press, including that of Britain.
When the ambassador referred explicitly to ‘the occupied territories’ several audience members protested, while others tried to suppress the hecklers. Miri Eisin, former international media advisor to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and a member of the panel, rebuked the protesters for failing to display the courtesy to the speaker that the situation required and order was quickly restored.
Ambassador Phillips expounded his view of what influences the tenor of opinion in the UK, noting that the British generally tend to support the underdog, and this is how they now perceive the Palestinians. This was in stark contrast to the general perception of the situation prior to the Six Day War in 1967, when the British public tended to sympathise with Israel. Now the David and Goliath situation is regarded as having been reversed, and the climate of opinion in Britain has shifted accordingly.
This reminded me of what a woman in the street said to me in London last summer, when a pro-Palestinian demonstration went past us. “What’s it all about?” I asked. “They just want their own country, dear,” she replied. Ah, if only things were that simple.
But to get back to the panel discussion. Replying to the question about the NGOs, Ambassador Phillips said that Israel should be proud of their activities, as they constitute proof of Israel’s openness and freedom of debate. He stated that he had visited Hebron as the guest of one of these and had been deeply impressed by the work they were doing in bringing information out into the open. He added that even if in some instances the information they provide is distorted by others and used for anti-Israel propaganda purposes their existence is nonetheless admirable.
Of course, no such discussion could end on a serious note, so we were treated to a final question about what each member of the panel would change in Israeli society. The overwhelming majority was in favour of improving the driving habits of the average Israeli. But let’s be realistic, that is not very likely to happen. However, as Ben Gurion once said, anyone in Israel who doesn’t believe in miracles isn’t a realist.
Shefer-Vanson, a freelance writer and translator based in Mevasseret Zion, can be reached at email@example.com .