Holy Week, Part 1: The Immediacy of Passover

(’76 Contributor) This evening, for the second time in a decade, I decided to add some of my own thoughts to our family’s Seder. I love to hear myself talk of course, but I’m completely unqualified for actual sermonizing. Believe me, it’s a bit of a relief not to have a rabbi as a guest this year. But I do follow the news occasionally (ok, compulsively) and that made me feel a few additions were called for.

I gave my additions after we shared—abbreviated for the kids’ benefit—the story of Passover, how the Jews were enslaved in Egypt and how God came to our aid—a story which is, of course, about freedom—and before we came to the portion of the Seder involving the three matzos on the table.

I began by asking: Why are there three? One is are that there are three kinds of people—those who are unfree, those who don’t care about the freedom of others , and those who are free and work to help others become free.

We are fortunate to live in a country where, for all our domestic political squabbling, freedom is still a central value. For the Jewish people as a whole, we are able to count on the State of Israel as a beacon of freedom—sometimes the only safe haven for Jews in lands that oppress them. And because of the shared centrality of liberty, Israel is America in the Middle East.

Just as in the time of Moses and Pharaoh, there are many who don’t want the Jews to be free. With respect to Israel, the first approach was military. Israel has survived existential attacks including the Sinai War in 1956, the Six Day War in 1967, and the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

Next came terrorism. Nine years ago, as part of the second Intifada, Hamas launched a brutal attack at Netanya on a Passover Seder much like this one—a peaceful gathering of friends and loved ones—killing 30 people and injuring 140 others. And if something in my remarks makes you angry let it be this: Not even three weeks ago, the Palestinian Authority celebrated the attacks and awarded the family of mastermind Abbas Al–Sayed an official, festive plaque celebrating the anniversary of the attacks.

Of course, terrorism is ongoing. Eleven days ago an Israeli school bus was shot with an anti–tank missile, and a month ago an Israeli family including a baby and two small children was brutally stabbed to death as they slept in a West Bank settlement.

But what I want to talk about today is delegitimization. Delegitimization is the organized —and you’d better believe it is organized—effort to undermine the moral standing of Jews and of Israel—including especially Israel’s right to exist, its right to exist as a Jewish state, and its right to defend itself and its citizens. Golda Mier famously said, “Better a bad press than a good epitaph,” but today, survival as a member of the global community depends upon the acceptance of the global community.

Of course, delegitimization is nothing new—in 1975, the UN passed an abominable resolution declaring that Zionism is racism. But in recent years it has moved from a fringe tactic to a mainstream strategy. Some of it is petty—like anti–Israel students at Columbia protesting the presence of Israeli hummus in the cafeteria. Much of it is small scale—a campaign by the anti–war group Code Pink to boycott Ahava skincare products because they are made on a Jewish settlement in the West Bank—but clearly exhibit the double standard inherent in delegitimization—do Code Pink’s leaders seriously believe it is a human rights violation to respond militarily to thousands of rockets being fired at civilians? Would they feel the same way if Vancouver were shelling Seattle? Of course not, but somehow defending Jewish lives is less worthy.

Twenty–first century delegitimization can be deadly serious. Isn’t it something new and frightening when the government of Turkey supports the dispatch of a flotilla of armed radical Islamist fighters, some seeking martyrdom, with cargo to Hamas in Gaza with the purpose of providing a confrontation with Israel and calls it “humanitarian”?

And of course I want to talk today about the Goldstone Report. This was the document produced by the so–called United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict. I say “so–called” because there was very little actual fact finding. Taking you back, from 2005 through 2008, Palestinian—mostly Hamas—forces in Gaza had fired about 3,000 rockets at civilian targets in Israel. At the end of 2009, Hamas launched “Operation Oil Stain,” firing 87 mortar shells, Katyusha and Qassam rockets at Israel in a single day. The next day, then prime minister Ehud Olmert went on al–Aribiya television giving a final warning to Hamas to stop the shelling—this warning was answered with more Qassam rocket fire. The Israeli military then initiated Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza, hoping to put an end to Hamas’ attacks on Israel’s innocent citizens.

After the end of hostilities, the UN Human Rights Commission—consisting of such even–handed pillars of human rights as Pakistan, Cuba, Algeria and Saudi Arabia, decided to “investigate” the conflict.

The truth of Israel’s conduct of its military operation, and I’m quoting here directly from the former head of British Forces in Afghanistan, is this: “During Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli Defense Forces did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare. Israel did so while facing an enemy that deliberately positioned its military capability behind the human shield of the civilian population. The truth is that the IDF took extraordinary measures to give Gaza civilians notice of targeted areas, dropping over 2 million leaflets, and making over 100,000 phone calls. Many missions that could have taken out Hamas military capability were aborted to prevent civilian casualties. During the conflict, the IDF allowed huge amounts of humanitarian aid into Gaza. To deliver aid virtually into your enemy’s hands is, to the military tactician, normally quite unthinkable. But the IDF took on those risks.”

Perhaps no one should have been surprised, but the UN report, which came to be known as the Goldstone Report after the judge who led the team, had a different finding. It was nothing short of a blood libel: that Israel specifically and purposefully targeted civilians for military strikes as a matter of policy.

Of course, that conclusion was false. In fact, two weeks ago, Judge Goldstone himself retracted his finding that Israel targeted civilians. But the damage is done. The report shocked the world, and led many governments to take specific anti–Israel actions undermining Israel’s legitimate sovereign rights. These bodies included the governments of the European Union, France, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, China, Nigeria. Global NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch used the report as an excuse to ramp up their criticism of Israel. The damage to Israel’s legitimacy is incalculable, and Hamas and other terrorists and enemies of freedom have pointed to the Goldstone report time and again to incite or justify violence. And, while the accusations bear the full imprimatur of the United Nations, the recanting was accomplished with nothing more than an op–ed in the Washington Post. Indeed, the UN human rights council spokesman said, “the UN will not revoke a report on the basis of an article in a newspaper.”

A great president once said, “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction”—and that was never more true than today for the Jewish people. We must be the people of the third matzo—those who work for the freedom of others.

YES—it matters that Columbia students have the choice to eat Israeli hummus. YES—it matters that Jews in the West bank be free to sell skincare products.

BUT YES YES YES—it matters that there is no moral equivalence between disciplined, restrained self defense and the brutal murder of infants asleep in their beds or children riding on school buses.

According to Isaiah, “I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ Isaiah responded, ‘Here am I. Send me!’” But my answer is, send all of us.

All I ask of you is to speak up. Don’t let these dangerous, bigoted strategic slurs go unanswered. Use your voice. Say something. Be firm. Be loud. The freedom of the next generation depends upon it.

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