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The Jewish Angle

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It was two days after the cataclysm that was September 11 before my server was up and I was finally able to receive e-mail again. A good number of the more than one hundred messages awaiting me, like so many of the phone calls that had managed to get through in the interim, were expressions of hope that all was okay at Agudath Israel, whose offices are but a few blocks from what was, until that terrible Tuesday, the World Trade Center. Everyone, thank G-d, was fine, I responded to each. The office had been quickly evacuated; and, as for me, what would have been my usual walk along lower Broadway at just about the moment the catastrophe unfolded was prevented by a fortuitously timed dentist appointment.

But, of course, all was far from fine, not only for us but for all New Yorkers and all Washingtonians -- indeed, for all Americans everywhere. The personal tragedies had only begun to emerge; there were horribly many horribly lost lives and limbs. There were traumatized survivors, and a traumatized nation.

But while the victim of the tragic assault was our entire country, the Jewish angle certainly isn't hard to discern. The terrible hatred that motivates Islamic extremists, which was not only behind the recent attacks but has caused the civilized world untold tragedy and pain over the years, is most commonly expressed these days as hatred of Israel (read: Jews) and Zionism (ditto). The suicide-celebrating savages may despise Western mores or culture; they may revile democracy or Christianity; they may loathe pluralism or technology. But above all, they hate Jews.

There is concern among some in the American Jewish community that part of America might come to wonder if our nation s special relationship with the Jewish State is really worth the risk. They recall things like the bumper stickers that appeared during the 70s energy crisis reading Burn Jews, not oil. And indeed, just two days after the attacks on New York and Washington, a letter writer to The New York Times delicately suggested that Americans begin to reflect on the hatred that begat the recent carnage, where it comes from and how we are implicated in its origins. There have been reports of Jews becoming the targets of angry catcalls from passing cars in recent days.

Others, like me, are nevertheless optimistic, heartened both by things like the Bush administration's principled statements and actions (like its withdrawal from the Durban hatefest) and by a gut feeling that the American public is overwhelmingly fair-minded, and possesses insightful qualities that tend to result in good will toward Jews and support of Israel's security. Orthodox Jewish rabbinic leaders have often referred to the United States as a "malchus shel chessed" -- literally, a kingdom of kindness, a beneficent and principled country. Ours may well be the only nation on earth with a Jewish population that it has never chosen to persecute.

And so, while mindful of Jewish tradition's warning never to place ultimate trust in any human being, some of us American Jews dare to hope that our nation, leaders and populace alike, will continue to show the courage of their convictions. That they will recognize evil for what it is, and seek not to keep it at bay. We have all-too-vividly seen the dangerous futility in that approach. Instead, they must choose to obliterate it.

At the same time, though, just as the recent disaster has a Jewish angle, it also has a Jewish response.

It most certainly does not lie in targeting innocent Arabs or Muslims for verbal abuse, as some have reportedly done.

Nor does it lie in satisfaction with any military action that may be taken. Though such action is necessary and proper, it will in the end remain an imperfect conclusion. If insufficiently discriminate, it would be wrong. Turning Afghanistan into a lunar landscape might satisfy some, but taking innocent lives in revenge is hardly more moral than doing the same in a terrorist attack.

Targeted killing of terrorist leaders is certainly a fine option (one for which our government may have a newfound appreciation) but that approach has its own problems. There are always less prominent haters waiting in the wings, all too ready to take over from their violent teachers. And Islamic terror is a broad and diverse ugliness. Is the civilized world truly willing (or able) to destroy the entire multi-headed monster? Will we have the commitment to go after terrorists wherever they are, in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Libya and Syria too? Not to mention areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority -- now there's a trenchant thought.

Some military response, to be sure, is certainly called for. But the ultimate Jewish response is not the sword but the book, not the hands of Esau but the voice of Jacob: Our rededication to our religious tradition, our re-embrace of our Torah, and our heartfelt prayers to our Creator who gave us human beings the free will to choose evil or good, and the power to beseech Him.

We might start with Psalm number 83, where King David declares to God: "Behold, Your enemies are in uproar; those who hate You have raised their heads. Against Your nation they plot deviously, and say come, let us cut them off from nationhood, so Israel's name will be remembered no more.

"Pursue them with Your tempest and terrify them with Your storm. Fill their faces with shame, so that they will seek Your name, G-d. Then they will know that You alone are G-d, the Highest One above all the earth."


Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.



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