Among the bitterest aspects of the ancient tragedies commemorated during our recent national period of mourning was the crushing disappointment felt by the Jewish people when we were betrayed by our erstwhile allies: “I called for my friends [those who had professed love for me] but they deceived me” (Eicha 1:19).
Rashi comments that this refers to the infamous episode in which the Arabs, our putative cousins, distributed salty foods to the Babylonian exiles on their death march, and then offered flasks that contained nothing but air – and the Jews perished of thirst.
So, on whom can we rely in this world when times are tough for Jews but on each other, on the shared bonds of peoplehood? And therein lies the problem and one of the enigmas of the exile today.
Visiting the Chabad of Salt Lake City, I picked up a few pamphlets Chabad distributes about mitzvot, Shabbat, Jewish life – and one called “Love Your Fellow Jew,” a primer on that most indispensable, definitive mitzvah. Its language is both instructive and inspirational:
Nothing has been as detrimental to the Jewish people as the modern idea that Judaism is a religion. If we are a religion, then some Jews are more Jewish, others less Jewish and many Jews not Jewish at all. It’s a lie. We are all one. If one Jew stumbles, we all stumble with him . We are not a religion. We are a soul. A single soul radiating into many bodies, each ray shining forth on its unique mission, each body receiving the light according to its capacity . A healthy Jewish people is one big, caring family where each individual is concerned for the other as for his own self.
Clearly, this is not a universally shared perspective, as the pamphlet continues:
Some don’t think that Jews should single out Jews for special treatment . We need to get down to reality and human nature: If someone ignores his own brother’s needs, what’s behind his kindness to others? First we learn to care for our own family, and then we can truly care for everyone else . There’s another reason to start with your own fellow Jew: If we do not take care of our own, who will? Perhaps this is the secret of our survival: We are unique, for to this day, when one Jew hears of another’s plight somewhere across the globe, he identifies with that Jew, feels his or her pain, and is moved to do whatever he can to help.”
What beautiful sentiments, and the more I read, the more I wished they were true.
By coincidence, I read this on the same day the Russians extricated their ten spies from the United States by orchestrating an exchange within a week of their arrests, and I wondered to myself – again – what is wrong with the Jewish people? How is it that we sit with such equanimity while Jonathan Pollard now sits in prison for more than 9,000 days, and Gilad Shalit sits for more than four years in some dark abyss, absent without a trace?
Too many Jews say, “Well, Pollard was a spy who committed crimes, so he should sit. And Shalit, well, the government in order to free him has to find the right number of terrorist murderers to free to create more mayhem, so it is really up to us.”
And many say, “Well, Sholom Rubashkin deserves 27 years in prison for bank fraud, and the desecration of God’s name, and the like. And Israeli MIAs Zachary Baumol, Yehuda Katz and Tzvi Feldman can disappear into Syrian custody, and Ron Arad can evaporate off the face of the earth, and that’s just the way it is. And Eli Cohen, the Syrians don’t have to return his body for burial even 45 years after his execution, because ” I’m not quite sure why.
We have a rationalization for everything, and I’m left to wonder: what is wrong with the Jewish soul? We pay lip service to ahavat Yisrael (love for our fellow Jew), but do we really believe it, or ever act upon it when it is personally inconvenient? The Russians extracted their spies in the blink of an eye; the Chinese community in the 1990s rallied around a Chinese-American spy and he was released after two years; a non-Jewish American naval officer named Michael Schwartz who spied for the Saudis in the 1990s was never even prosecuted, just court-martialed and dismissed.
Somehow, Japanese-Americans kept their unjust internment during World War II in the forefront of American consciousness, and blacks do not let anyone forget the slavery that ended a century and a half ago. Their communities rallied around, and rally around, any victim of perceived injustice. And where are we?
Rubashkin was sentenced to 27 years for defrauding a bank of $27 million dollars – more prison time than the prosecution even requested, and after they initially sought a life sentence. Yet Jeffrey Skilling, former president of Enron – which defrauded banks and investors of billions of dollars, and cost people 20,000 jobs plus their pensions – was sentenced to 24 years, less time than Rubashkin, and Skilling’s sentence was just vacated on appeal, and he may be free in a relatively short time.
Bernie Ebbers (WorldCom) was convicted of defrauding investors of $100 billion dollars, and received less prison time than did Rubashkin. Dennis Kozlowski (Tyco) was convicted of stealing five times as much money (and pocketing it) than Rubashkin was accused of – and also received less jail time than Rubashkin. And most recently, Hassan Nemazee, an Iranian-American fundraiser for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, was sentenced to just 12 years in prison for defrauding banks of $292 million dollars, half the incarceration for more than ten times the fraud.
Granted, no two cases are identical, but the contrasts are still jarring. And one need not argue for the innocence of Pollard or Rubashkin to be outraged at the disproportionate sentences each received. How is this possible? Is there a Jewish surcharge? Do the courts increase a Jew’s sentence because of the chillul Hashem involved? Where are we?
Further, why does Israel tolerate the kidnapping of its soldiers, and continue to provide Gilad Shalit’s captors – the residents of Gaza who voted Hamas into power – with food and electricity? Has Israel insisted that Shalit be visited by the Red Cross, as is his right under international law, in exchange for those provisions? Has Israel verified that Shalit himself is a beneficiary of that same food and electricity? Jews bend over backward to be more moral – after all, who wants to be accused of collective punishment – but instead we are less moral, lacking even in elementary love for our own flesh and blood, our own people.
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Whither our ahavat Yisrael? Maybe we don’t really care as much as we say we do. Maybe in our drive not to be seen as parochial and overly concerned with only Jewish causes we have robbed ourselves of our natural instinct to help our own. All the hospitals and museums Jewish money provided for the general community have not bought any good will, at least not in the legal system. All the politicians we fund, and whose shoes we run to shine if only they will take a picture with us, surely must mock us behind our backs – because we don’t take care of our own. We don’t protest, we don’t scream. We rely on platitudes and empty promises, and accomplish little for our own people in distress.
On a recent trip to Washington, I visited the Newseum, a fine museum dedicated to the history of journalism. The museum screened a documentary titled “The Media and the Holocaust,” describing in great and painful detail the “paltry, embarrassing coverage” (Abe Rosenthal’s words) of the Holocaust by the American news media, especially The New York Times.
It is not that the Holocaust wasn’t covered – it was. The New York Times alone ran 1,100 Holocaust-related stories during that era – but almost all were buried on the inside pages.
Item one: a tiny story on page 6 in July 1942 reports that “700,000 Jews have been murdered.” That same day’s newspaper devoted a lengthy page-one article to New York Governor Lehman’s decision to donate his tennis shoes to the war effort.
Item two: an April 1943 report on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising – a cover story – failed to mention that the insurgents were Jews; they were described only as Poles.
Item three: The Times reported in July 1943 on the death of “350,000 Jews” in a little blurb on page 5. The front page that same day contained a long piece on the July 4 traffic.
Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum said the disgrace was that the media reported that “A million Jews have been killed,” when they should have shouted – in 16-point type – “A MILLION JEWS HAVE BEEN KILLED!” They did not scream when they should have. We too do not protest or scream or get angry or threaten to turn off the spigot of financial contributions Jews make to (usually Democratic) politicians. We will occasionally have a very tepid demonstration, addressed by the same array of politicians and professional Jewish leaders with predictable speeches that send everyone home thinking something has been accomplished. How many Jewish leaders who meet with President Obama ask about Pollard? How many leaders who met with Prime Minister Netanyahu recently asked him if he requested Pollard’s release?
We look back with disdain at the apathy of American Jews during the Holocaust. Granted, this is not the Holocaust – but have we really improved that much? I don’t see how we are any better. Our excuses are more clever and articulate, and sound more reasonable – but our devotion to the preservation and well-being of every Jew still needs enhancement. We are often told our leaders have bigger fish to fry; but human beings are not fish. “I have called for my friends, and they have deceived me.” Will that be Pollard’s legacy, and Shalit’s, and others?
According to our Sages, the Second Temple was derstroyed due to the baseless hatred prevalent among the Jewish people. And perhaps if we cannot find it in our hearts to protest every injustice against a Jew and to instinctively defend every Jew, we are presently unworthy of redemption.
There is a fine line between being so provincial and insular that we are indifferent to others – and being so cosmopolitan, so universal, that we are effectively indifferent to our own. In the not-too-distant past, Jews changed their names and noses in order to curry favor with our neighbors; now, they merely have to disconnect from other Jews and identify with the cosmopolitans, and some even with our enemies.
For too long, we have so feared being stigmatized as narrow-minded that we have become too judgmental and unforgiving towards our own people. But in reality, there is no stigma. Every group naturally takes care of its own before others – whether Americans or Russians, whether Muslims or blacks. That is natural. We have become unnatural, and many Jews are emotionally estranged from our own people.
We can – and should – condemn crime and criminals (and ostracize those who have intentionally harmed Jews), but that does not mean we also have to accept double standards and abandon our own when unjust punishment is meted out. We do not have to tolerate that Jewish prisoners of war never survive the experience, and are held incommunicado in gross violation of the rules of war. We do not have to tolerate the cruel and heartless treatment of them by our enemies (enemies that are otherwise celebrated by the civilized world) that is their now customary fate, and negotiate with them as if they are decent, respectable people.
We have to get angry, in a positive and constructive way. We have to take our inspiration from the Tea Party that is trying to transform the American political culture from the grassroots, because the elitists of both parties have not been responsive.
We need a Jewish Tea Party that can reflect the voice of the average, simple Jew who loves Jews and loves justice, and is ill-disposed to making the crass political calculations that sacrifice human beings on the altar of expediency.
Israel is not a powerless country. An Israel that even feigns anger for the sake of Jewish life – and demands to know the fate of Katz, Baumol, Feldman, Arad, Pollard, Shalit and others – can achieve surprising results. We need to bolster the sense of unconditional love that always emerges during crises, and join together to advocate for Pollard and Rubashkin, for Shalit and Arad, and not simply each sub-group for its own. Ahavat Yisrael is a difficult mitzvah, but it is a mitzvah nonetheless. Now is the time.
When we have self-respect, others will respect us. When we are fearless, others will fear us. When every day we pray for suffering Jews and envision ways to liberate them from their afflictions, when we hold our politicians and leaders accountable rather than sit silently as they take our money while acquiescing in the demeaning of Jewish life, when we show that Jewish blood is not cheap and Jewish life is precious, we will be a people worthy of redemption and the restoration of God’s kingdom on earth.
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey, and author most recently of “Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim” (Gefen, 2009). His writings and lectures can be found at Rabbipruzansky.com.