It’s been a testing time for Jews everywhere.
International concern for the welfare and safety of innocent Gazans has morphed into anti-Zionism and from there, it’s been a short hop to antisemitism. With boycotts, desecration of communal buildings and antisemitic outbursts, the climate has turned increasingly hostile, leaving many of us feeling vulnerable, unsure of how to respond.
Some Jews courageously campaign for Israel, explaining why she needs to defend herself from the constant barrage of rockets soaring into the country and the warren of terror tunnels which have been dug beneath it. They patiently publicise how Israel has worked to minimise civilian casualties, despite the placing of enemy rockets in schools and hospitals.
Others are more wary of taking a stand. They keep their heads down, hoping not to be identified as Jews, or protest that their Jewishness does not necessarily link them to their brethren in Israel.
How far need diaspora Jews go in their defence of their co-religionists? Jewish tradition suggests that this has been an eternal question.
When Abraham, as the first Jew, was persecuted for his monotheistic beliefs, a midrash suggests that his brother Nahor sat on the sidelines. He adopted a wait and see policy. He calculated that if his bother survived, he would join him and embrace the new monotheistic faith, but if Abraham was killed, it would be more prudent to align himself with his brother’s persecutors. Nahor was relieved to see his brother emerge unscathed, but, as the rabbis note with a dose of schadenfreude, his fence-sitting did not save him. He was seized and executed by the idolaters.
According to some, even Moses, our greatest Jewish leader, faced similar dilemmas. When he saw an Egyptian taskmaster striking a Hebrew slave, Moses “looked this way and that, but when he saw there was no man”, he killed the oppressor (Exodus 2: 12). The straightforward interpretation is that he was looking out for witnesses who might inform on him. But with sharp psychological insight, one commentary suggests that Moses was actually delving into his own personality.
Momentarily, Moses wavered between fond memories of his palatial Egyptian guardians and loyalty to his own Israelite family. Realising that such a conflicted personality created “no man”, he heroically sided with his people and killed the Egyptian taskmaster.
We all encounter situations which parallel these biblical precedents. Each of us faces situations where it would be convenient to hedge our bets, hide our Jewishness or evade standing up for our people. Indeed, I write these words from a holiday in Ecuador, where on arrival, we were instructed that for our own safety, we should remove our kippot and wear caps instead.
Still, the need for Jewish loyalty is a defining feature of our faith. Basing themselves on the order of words, in Ruth’s statement: “Your people will be my people and your God will be my God” (Ruth 1: 16), the rabbis ruled that a person wishing to convert to Judaism must first declare their dedication to our oft-persecuted people; only then, do we consider them worthy of being taught about our religion (Talmud Yevamot 47a).
Maimonides argued that even a Jew who keeps all the commandments, but fails to empathise with the fate of the Jewish people is unworthy of a place in the world to come —the ultimate statement of unworthiness for a Jew (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 3: 10).
While much of the media portrays the Gaza conflict as a war between heavily armed professional soldiers against defenceless Gazans, from Israel, the scene looks very different. We are all aware of the continuous barrage of missiles which can land anywhere at any time. We all know infants, elderly people and handicapped persons who cannot race to a shelter in the few seconds available when the sirens wail. All of us live in fear of the consequences of tunnels under our country. The situation is intolerable.
When Mordecai warned Queen Esther about Haman’s genocidal threat to the Jewish people, her first response was to shy away from the need to speak to her husband, the king. It was too risky; it might put her in danger. Her uncle was contemptuous. He told her that one way or another, the Jewish people survive and flourish, but that she still had a personal responsibility to play her part (Esther 4: 10-14).
There is nothing holier than the search for a just and lasting peace which will create co-existence and tolerance with our neighbours with justice and democracy for all. These must always be our long-term priorities and the priorities of the state of Israel. Such activity should never cease.
But while Israel is under attack from enemies dedicated to our destruction, and our soldiers are taking extraordinary risks to avoid civilian casualties as they fight to defend us, equanimity is not an option. We must stand proud as Jews and as Zionists. To disown those who defend us would be the ultimate act of treachery.