Culture, Identity, Israel, Mishegas, Politics

A vote for reason

The following is a sermon I delivered to my congregation, this last Shabbat, on the published remarks in the Atlanta Jewish Times by Andrew Adler calling for a US President to be assassinated by Mossad agents.
Parashat Bo – 5772
As Napoleon waged war and sent French troops into Russia in 1812, the rabbis of the shtetlakh were faced with a serious political dilemma – who should receive the support of the Jewish community; Napoleon or Czar Alexander I? On the one hand, the experience of the Jews of Russia and Poland had been incredibly challenging, to say the least. Starting in 1791with Catherine the Great, the Jews of Russia were relegated to what was known as the Pale of Settlement, a swath of land comprising of modern-day Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and parts of Western Russia. Jews in the Pale were very poor and the Cossack cavalries made life generally dangerous for them. Life for Jews under Napoleon was very different. Once Napoleon took the helm in France in 1804, Jews were given full and equal rights under the spirit of the French Revolution. However, this came at a cost – part of Napoleon’s grand plan was to allow for the recognition of the Jewish religion while working hard at eliminating its practices. Once the Jews received full rights in France, anti-Semitism grew in French cities. Napoleon is quoted as responding to the rise in anti-Semitism by saying:

This is not the way to solve the Jewish question. I will never accept any proposals that will obligate the Jewish people to leave France, because to me the Jews are the same as any other citizen in our country. It takes weakness to chase them out of the country, but it takes strength to assimilate them.

In 1806, Napoleon convened the Jewish communities of France to explain to them their responsibilities as French citizens; what Napoleon was offering the Jewish people of France was to assimilate or take the risks being ostracized.  From the perspective of the rabbis of the Pale of Settlement, life may have been poor and challenging, but at least the observance of Jewish custom and tradition was never threatened; quite to the contrary, life in the secluded shtetlakh actually protected Jewish practice. However, if Napoleon were to conquer Russia, the Jews of the Pale of Settlement would fall under the same design of mass assimilation Napoleon had created for the Jews of France. As Napoleon planned to further his military attacks, in the same year in which Napoleon advocated mass forced assimilation, French diplomats began spreading the word through Eastern Europe that, “all Jews should look upon Napoleon as their messiah.” Why? For three reasons: one, because Napoleon was liberating Jewish communities from oppressive monarchies in Eastern Europe; two, because Napoleon had reconvened the Sanhedrin, the rabbinic court destroyed by Titus in 72 CE; three, because Napoleon was the first person to actually advocate for a modern Jewish State in Palestine as early as 1799. Decades before Theodor Herzl was even born, before the word Zionism was on any person’s tongue, Napoleon had advocated for a Jewish State in our ancestral homeland. This, truth be told, made the rabbis of the Pale and incredibly worried because they knew, all too well, the dangers which false messiahs had brought on the Jewish people in the past – from the first century onwards. The rabbi who led the political fight amongst the Jewish communities of the Pale of Settlement against Napoleon was the founder of the Chabad Movement and the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, also known as the Alter Rebbe. He wrote to a friend of his in 1812 as he fled from Napoleon’s armies as they reached the Pale:

Should Napoleon be victorious, wealth among the Jews will be abundant…but the hearts of Israel will be separated and distant from their father in heaven. But if our master Alexander will triumph, though poverty will be abundant…the heart of Israel will be bound and joined with their father in heaven…And for God’s sake: Burn this letter.

So there you have it, the Alter Rebbe deemed it better for future generations to fight a liberator of Jewish people and rather support an enemy of the Jewish people in the name of fighting assimilation to prevent the spread of the dangers of messianism and saving what he called “the heart of Israel.” It may raise some eyebrows when you hear me say it, but, my friends, the Alter Rebbe was right. Russia may have defeated Napoleon’s armies in 1812 but history has shown that wealth in Jewish communities increased while commitment to our religious ideals has clearly decreased.  At the end of the 19th century, a new debate sent shockwaves through the global Jewish communities – whether or not to support the Zionist endeavor in actively repopulating the Land of Israel with Jewish residents. One aspect of this history which we often forget is that adherents of Zionism in the Jewish communities of the world were a minority until, according to some historians, after the Israeli victory in the 6 Day War in June 1967. After that speedy victory when Israel was attacked by enemies on all of its borders following Israel preemptively attacking the Egyptian Air Force in the Sinai Peninsula, the Jewish world recognized just how vulnerable the young State of Israel was and how important it was to support it. Specifically in the Jewish communities in the United States, I do not think most people could foresee what would ensue in the following 45 years. Support for the State of Israel skyrocketed and the Jewish people in America put themselves on the front lines of ensuring global support for the Zionist enterprise and the State of Israel. In many ways this was successful beyond imagination. However, especially in recent years, organized Jewish communities in the United States have noticed a drastic drop in support and connection to the State of Israel amongst Jewish Americans, especially against young Jewish Americans. We have also seen a drastic increase in claims we are all too familiar with: that Jews hold a dual loyalty and that the Jewish political lobby exerts a disproportionate amount of power in the halls of Congress. I would like to put these claims aside, for the time being, and address, instead, something of particular relevance in an election year.
While it has been statistically proven that young Jewish Americans find it increasingly difficult to support and have little connection to Israel or Israelis, there is also a large contingent in the United States of what some have deridingly called “Israel-firsters.” These are people who put Israel first in their political considerations for the future of United States. There are voters who choose their candidates based on the nature of their support for the State of Israel. In the spirit of “Israel-firsters” taken to a whole new extreme, I want to read you something which was written and published earlier this month in the Atlanta Jewish Times by that papers owner and publisher, Andrew Adler. In his column on January 13, Mr. Adler addressed concerns of a future war in the region. He proposed three ideas to prevent a large-scale conflict between Israel and its neighbors in the future. Mr. Adler wrote that Israel could preemptively strike against Hezbollah, acknowledging the civilian casualties sure to arise from such an act. He then proposed that Israel attack Iran and destroy their nuclear facilities, acknowledging the outcry which would surely come from the international community. He then proposed his third idea, and I quote:

Three, give the go-ahead for U.S.-based Mossad agents to take out a president deemed unfriendly to Israel in order for the current vice president to take his place, and forcefully dictate that the United States’ policy includes its helping the Jewish state obliterate its enemies. Yes, you read “three” correctly. Order a hit on a president in order to preserve Israel’s existence. Think about it. If I have thought of this Tom Clancy-type scenario, don’t you think that this almost unfathomable idea has been discussed in Israel’s most inner circles? Another way of putting “three” in perspective goes something like this: How far would you go to save a nation comprised of seven million lives…Jews, Christians and Arabs alike? You have got to believe, like I do, that all options are on the table.

I can only hope that you are as shocked hearing this now as I was when I first read it. Needless to say, in the aftermath of publishing such an offensive and horrifying statement, Mr. Adler has resigned in disgrace and is now being investigated by the Secret Service. In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, we read that Pharaoh continued to harden his heart against the Jewish people – Mr. Adler has clearly hardened his heart against reason and civility.
When Jews adopted the model of nationalism which spread through Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was only a matter of time until this type of insanity came to be acceptable. I would frame it like this, as Jewish communities simultaneously assimilated to secular society and adopted nationalism, nationalism began to replace Judaism. Following 1967, when Zionism became accepted on a wide scale throughout the Jewish community, not only did Zionism become like a religion in the Jewish people, but the State of Israel became our Third Temple. Now, it is certainly true that I would hope and imagine that a majority of Jews in America would never proscribe to such obscene thinking and poor judgement as Mr. Adler displayed, but the truth of the matter is that there are many American voters who select their candidates based on their allegiance to Israel. This is not only an anathema to the democratic process; it is dangerous to the very fabric of American democracy. And this, in my opinion, is but one part of the dangers of nationalism and why it is so important that the Jewish people, to borrow the language of the Alter Rebbe, bind and join our hearts to the Torah rather than binding and joining our hearts to a nationalist ideology that can sometimes be in opposition to basic Jewish values.
By no means am I advocating abandoning Israel. By no means am I advocating severing our relations with the Israeli people. Rather, I think it would serve every Jew in the world to reflect on the natural progression of nationalist movements throughout history – I can say very firmly that every single nationalist movement of which I am familiar either started out as a militaristic movement or evolved into one; and Zionism, it pains me to say, is no exception.
It is peculiar and paradoxical that while Zionism, in many regards, has sought to combat assimilation, the concept of nationalism itself is an assimilation of 19th and early 20th century European ideals; those same European ideals that fostered the growth and spread of anti-Semitism. I would encourage those Jews in the United States who would put Israel first in their voting to live up to their nationalist ideal and fulfill the birthright of the Jewish people to live in the land of our ancestors – aliyah is an option for any person who qualifies under the Law of Return. Yet, to those Jewish citizens of the United States who adhere to the democratic ideals of this nation, who see the democratic process as an important development in the human experience, to live up to those democratic ideals and place their vote based not on a narrow vision of foreign policy, but on a holistic consideration of the harsh realities which face our nation today. I would urge you to not harden your hearts to reason, but to recognize that the state of our nation demands a strengthened democratic process and the future of American society depends on our embracing both the fragility and power of our political processes. Mr. Adler, in writing his column, either showed an incredible disregard for the experience of Jewish Americans and the ways in which we have been welcomed and supported in this nation, or, at best, showed an egregious lapse in judgement. I urge you to join others who have condemned his words and his actions.
I invite you to pray with me that the Jewish people see a day when we can actually live up to the ideals put forth by our prophetic tradition – that nation should not lift up sword against nation, that we function in the world as a light unto the nations, that justice and compassion fill the world. I truly hope that we can see a day when reason, civility, truth and justice win out over the disgrace shown by Mr. Adler and those who would agree with him. I hope for those who wish to put Israel first, that they do so by making aliyah to the State of Israel and making it the best nation it can be and bring their democratic vote their elections. I urge those who hold dear the democratic ideals of this nation expressing that value by voting based on the needs of our own nation which, perhaps more than ever, truly needs all of us to participate in the democratic process.

2 thoughts on “A vote for reason

  1. I’m amazed to find how tolerant Napoleon was, when most other countries were trying to eradicate the Jewish population. You might also be surprised to learn that Rasputin was a great proponent of equal rights for Russian Jews, which was the reason he was vilified by the Russian aristocracy.
    Delin Colón
    author of “Rasputin and The Jews: A Reversal of History”

  2. I do have a vague recollection that Rasputin was more tolerant towards Jews. I’m not so clear on his dates, but I know he advised Nicolas II who oversaw some of the bloodiest pogroms in Jewish history… At what point was Rasputin involved in advising the last czar?

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