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Understanding Our Pain

An Urgent Message

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

During the period that I served as the director of the Martin Steinberg Center for Jewish Artists, I attended various conferences, institutes, and retreats where Jews of diverse backgrounds and beliefs were gathering in order to explore their roots. Over twenty years ago, I was invited to attend the planning conference for the development of a new Jewish progressive organization called, "The New Jewish Agenda." The conference was held at Fellowship Farm in Pennsylvania, U.S.A., and various progressive Jewish activists from across the United States and Canada attended. A good percentage attending this conference were Jewish activists from leftist organizations who were just beginning to discover their Jewish identity and who had little knowledge of Judaism, Jewish culture, and Jewish history. There were other activists, like myself, who had some Jewish education and who were already involved in the Jewish community.

At the opening meeting, one activist spoke about how the Jewish people had become a nation of "oppressors," and he repeated all the slogans of the P.L.O. and other Arab groups. After he finished, I got up to speak, and as I stared into his eyes, I told the group how the Latin American revolutionary, Che Guevera, said that one cannot be a true revolutionary unless one loves his own people. I also explained that one cannot begin to criticize one's people unless one first understands and feels their pain. And I added: "I did not feel any love in some of the remarks that were expressed previously." The previous speaker had a stunned look on his face. For the rest of the three day conference, he was somewhat subdued, and he seemed to be truly listening to what others had to say.

Social Activists need to remember that the young Moses could have had an easy life as a prince in Pharaoh's palace. He was spared the fate of his people when the Egyptian princess adopted him. Yet the Torah tells us: "It happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew man of his brethren. He turned this way and that and saw that there was no man, so he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand." (Exodus 2: 11,12).

The Midrash explains that the Egyptian was beating the Hebrew to death. Moses saw that "there was no man" - no official to whom he could appeal to justice. A similar expression is found in the Book of Isaiah where the Prophet describes how the Compassionate One will deliver the People of Israel from the persecution of the other nations: "... And the Compassionate One looked round and in His eyes it was an evil thing that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man and was astounded that there was no one who would intervene; therefore, His arm wrought salvation to him (Israel), and it was His benevolence that became his support." (Isaiah 59:15,16)

Moses saw that there was no one who would intervene on behalf of the persecuted Children of Israel. He felt love and empathy for his persecuted people and he risked his own safe and secure position in order to help them.The realization that no one else would come to the rescue of his brother who was being beaten to death was his first lesson in "Jewish history."

Our Sacred Scriptures record that whenever the People of Israel were in danger, they would be betrayed by their allies and friends who refused to come to their aid. Their only choice was to return to the Compassionate One Who redeemed them from Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land.

You don't have to be an expert in biblical history, however, to know that we cannot rely on the nations of the world. During the Holocaust, most of the world deserted the Jews, and refused to admit Jewish refugees, and even the United States refused to admit a boat full of refugees fleeing the Holocaust. The boat was forced to go back to Europe, where many perished. During the first part of this dark period, news of the Holocaust was kept from the American public, and when the editors of the prestigious New York Times received a report of the genocide against Jews that was taking place, they buried it in a small paragraph near the back page. Perhaps the assimilated Jewish owners of the New York Times did not want to appear too "Jewish."

Jews once again felt alone in the weeks before the Six Day War when the Arab nations were publicly expressing their desire to destroy Israel and "push the Jews into the sea." I recall watching the hysterical mobs in Cairo and Damascus on television calling for the death of the Jews. The State of Israel and Jewish leaders all over the world turned to the governments of all the major nations, including the United States for help, as Egypt, Syria and other Arab nations were mobilizing their troops; moreover, Egypt had asked the United Nations to withdraw their troops from the Sinai Peninsula, so that the Egyptian troops would not be blocked. The United Nations quickly agreed to the request!

In addition, Egypt blocked access to Israel's port of Eilat, which according to international law, is an act of war. In response to Israel's call for help, a few world leaders expressed their "sympathy"; however, they also warned Israel not to take any military action to defend themselves. Even the major Christian organizations were indifferent to our plight. In fact, I called a few liberal Christian ministers that my father had worked with in the civil rights movement and other progressive causes, and I asked them to speak up on behalf of Israel's right to live. They told me quite frankly that the threat to Israel's survival was "none of our business."

During the last few months, many Israeli Jews have been afraid to leave their homes due to the growing terror, and the Passover massacres traumatized Jews all over the world. (One of the massacres, which did not receive much publicity in the western media, was in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Yovel, a mile from my home.)

This morning, I received a call from Hazon participant, Ariel Cherrnofsky, who lives a few blocks away from the site of the massacre that took place by Jerusalem's central market, this past Friday, as people were shopping for their Shabbos (Sabbath) needs. Ariel heard the explosion and ran to the site, where he discovered a 14 year old boy who was in a state of severe shock. The boy had escaped injury, but was traumatized by the carnage around him. Fortunately, Ariel had with him a canteen of water, and he gave the boy some water which seemed to help.

In the meanwhile, world leaders, including Bush, tell us that, unlike America, we are forbidden to take military action against the terrorist structure; instead, we are to sit back passively and hope that the leadership of the P.L.O. will have a change of heart, despite their record of broken promises and constant deception. The world leaders conveniently "forget" that they witnessed how the Palestinian leader would condemn the terrorists to western diplomats and reporters, but praise the terrorists to his own people and the rest of the Arab world.

As the terror against Jews in Israel increases, violence against Jews in other parts of the world is increasing, and "some" of the media has reported on anti-Jewish violence in countries such as France, Australia, Canada, and the United States. (See the attached excerpts.) These developments have caused Jews all over the world to begin to unite, despite the political and religious differences that divide the Jewish people. Jews are also aware of the reports that Syria, Iraq, Iran, and other Arab States may soon join the Palestinians in their war against Israel.

The growing danger to our people is reawakening the love that most Jews - including many unaffiliated Jews - have for their people. In this spirit, I want to share with you the wise and loving words of a young Jewish woman in America who belongs to a leftist Zionist youth group which has some members who have been critical of the policies of the Israeli government. Given the Palestinians' violent reaction to the previous peace offers of the leftist Barak government, and given the ongoing deception and violence of the Palestinian leadership, many of us have difficulty understanding this criticism. What is especially comforting and moving, however, is that a good percentage of these critics have decided to stand with Israel and the Jewish people during this hour of great danger; thus, the words of this young woman are a reminder that you can't truly love the world if you don't love your own people:

Dear ______,

I am writing this email as I sit here organizing to bring my students to the National Israel Solidarity Rally taking place near the US Capitol on Monday, April 15th at 1:00 pm. I say this because, as an educator, I find it extremely important that we define our terms and realize what it is that we are talking about when using certain terms and words.

To "stand with Israel" or "express solidarity" does not necessarily mean that one is standing behind the policies of the current government, or supporting every move of the IDF. Rather, "to stand with Israel" and "express solidarity" with the people of Israel means that when my brother leaves his home, I worry for him. When my friends board a bus, I worry for them. When there is a bomb at a Pesach Seder, I cry and am astounded and enter a state of mourning. When someone I do not know lives in fear of their kindergartner making it home from school alive, I worry.

To "stand with Israel" or "express solidarity" means that we support the PEOPLE OF ISRAEL, our brothers and sisters living out the Zionist dream in the Land of Israel, the Jewish State, the State for the Jews, the Jewish homeland. We are one people, Am Yisrael, and while we represent many different, many conflicting, viewpoints on how situations are to be handled, we all agree in the RIGHT OF THE STATE OF ISRAEL TO EXIST.

It is this premise on which the concept of the solidarity rally is built. We as Jews who support the existence of a State of Israel have an obligation to support the people of Israel, those who in opening their doors in the morning are walking into a battleground as they go to work, to school, to the grocery school.

To rally in solidarity means that, despite our differences in opinion, we are Jews and in this time of rising anti-Semitism and in this time when the State of Israel and the People of Israel are being threatened in their streets and on their busses, we stand together as one community, and one voice of diverse opinion, as Jews and as members of a worldwide Jewish community.

To me, THIS is what "solidarity" and "standing with Israel" means.

Aileen Goldstein ________

In previous Hazon essays, we have emphasized the importance of spiritual renewal as the major solution to the dangers facing us. Nevertheless, we need to remember that our tradition also teaches that Jewish unity is a prerequisite to our ultimate renewal and redemption. Loving each other and feeling each other's pain is therefore the first step towards the renewal and redemption that we yearn for. As we pray each month on the Shabbos before the New Moon:

"May the One Who performed miracles for our ancestors and redeemed them from slavery to freedom - may He redeem us soon and gather in our dispersed from the four corners of the earth; all Israel becoming friends, and let us say" Amen!"

With blessings of love, and with prayers for our unity,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen



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