Keep in Mind

Sermon by Cantor Eyal Bitton
February 7, 2015 at Beth Jacob Synagogue
PARASHAT YITRO


In his classic anti-war song, Give Peace a Chance, John Lennon sang:

Everybody’s talking about
Bagism, Shagism, Dragism,
Madism Ragism, Tagism, this-ism, that-ism
Ism ism ism

Yes, there were many “isms” during John Lennon’s era. After all, he was living in a century that had seen some powerful ideologies influence humanity. Liberalism. Fascism. Conservatism. Socialism. Maoism. Capitalism. Communism.

One of my favourite professors at McGill, Ruth Wisse, who went on to teach at Harvard and has published a number of books, said something in class one day that continues to resonate with me. She said, and she has repeated this idea in various publications, that the most successful ideology of the 20th Century was anti-Semitism. It’s a disturbing notion but a compelling argument. I have come to agree with her assessment.

Last week, on January 27, the world commemorated International Holocaust Memorial Day and marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Seventy years after the end of the Holocaust, it is worth examining where we stand today. It is worth asking, “How is anti-Semitism faring at the start of the 21st Century?”

Well, let’s take a far-from-comprehensive look at the last fifteen years.

Concordia

In September 2002, Israeli politician Benjamin Netanyahu came to speak at Concordia University in Montreal. Pro-Palestinian protesters bypassed security and blocked the entrance to the venue. What ensued was a riot. But keep in mind, it was because they were upset with Israel.

Really? My rabbi’s wife, Norma Joseph, was punched in the chest. Rabbi Howard Joseph was also assaulted. Tom Hecht, a 73-year-old Holocaust survivor and chairman of the Canada-Israel Committee Quebec Branch was struck in the groin. But keep in mind, the protesters were upset with Israel.

Ilan Jacques Halimi

In January 2006, Ilan Jacques Halimi, a 23-year-old Parisian Jew was kidnapped by a gang of Muslims calling themselves The Gang of Barbarians. Halimi was then subjected to torture for three weeks. He was released but died on his way to the hospital. But keep in mind, this was a gang of thugs. And they must have been upset with Israel.

Oslo

In January 2009, during an Israel-Hamas war, a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Oslo turned violent and led to several riots. Shouts heard at the demonstrations included: “Death to the Jews!” “Blow the embassy up!” and “Gas the embassy!” Rioters attacked restaurants and shops that were thought to have business with Israel. At an earlier protest, a local website published footage of a seventy-three-year-old man carrying an Israeli flag being kicked to the ground. The attackers shouted, “Bloody Jew – get him!”

But keep in mind, these protesters were upset with Israel because of what the Israelis were doing to the Palestinians in Gaza.

Toulouse

In 2012, Mohammed Merah rode his motorcycle to a Jewish school in Toulouse. He shot and killed a teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Sandler and one of his sons. The other son tried to crawl away. Merah shot and killed him, too. Gabriel was 3. Aryeh was 6. Merah then entered the school grounds, chased an 8-year-old girl, grabbed her by the hair, and shot her at point-blank range. Myriam Monsonégo was 8. Sure, it’s misdirected, but keep in mind, he was outraged because “The Jews kill our brothers and sisters in Palestine.”

Brussels

In May 2014, Mehdi Nemmouche, a French citizen of Algerian origin, attacked the Jewish Museum in Brussels and killed four people: Emanuel and Miriam Riva, Dominique Sabrier, Alexandre Strens. But keep in mind, the shooter was a radicalized member of ISIS and he’s misdirecting his anger at what the West is doing to his people.

Paris Kosher Supermarket

On January 9, 2015, Amedy Coulibaly entered a kosher supermarket in Paris, Hyper Cacher, and murdered four Jews: Yohav Hattab, Yohan Cohen, Philippe Braham and François-Michel Saada. But keep in mind, he was an extremist who was upset with France’s treatment of Muslims. And keep in mind, we don’t really know for certain if he picked this place because it was a Jewish supermarket.

At the unity rally that followed the attack on the supermarket and at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, BBC reporter Tim Willcox spoke to a local Jewish woman who said, “We have to not to be afraid to say that the Jews are the target now.” Willcox interjected and said, “Many critics, though, of Israel’s policy would suggest that the Palestinians suffered hugely at Jewish hands as well.” In other words, ‘But keep in mind, this is payback for what Israel does to the Palestinians – and Jews are collectively responsible for that.’

Where The Problem Lies

Well, I, for one, will not keep that in mind when faced with violence. I refuse to keep any of that in mind when faced with bigotry, discrimination, or hatred.

As I learned from Ruth Wisse, when confronted with an anti-Semite, we can’t answer, ‘Jews are good because of X, Y, Z’. It will not change that person’s mind. It is the same thing when confronted with an anti-Zionist. The problem does not lie with the Jew. The problem does not lie with Israel. The problem lies with the anti-Semite or the anti-Zionist.

When is the last time that the argument, “Israel has a Gay Pride parade” ever changed the mind of a member of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid? When is the last time that the argument, “Not every Jew has money” ever changed the mind of a member of the KKK or Stormfront? When has the argument, “Palestinian citizens of Israel have complete equal rights, and are represented in the courts and in the government” ever changed the mind of a member of the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace?

No, we are not the problem.

Jewish People’s Success

The Jewish people are a success. While other groups may be at war with each other, we are not; we know how to manage inner disagreements. While other groups continue to blame their inability to move beyond real or perceived problems on colonialism, racism, classicism, the Jewish people do not.

The success of the Jewish people and the success of Israel is that we did not look for scapegoats. We did not look to those who persecuted us – or others – to better our lives. We looked to ourselves. We looked to our heritage – cultural and spiritual.

The Ten Commandments, which we read today, are an introduction to all the laws, all the mitzvot, that God asks of us. Pay attention to how each one begins:

1. I am the Lord your God…
2. You shall have no other gods…
3. You shall not swear falsely…
4. Remember the Sabbath…
5. Honour your father and your mother…
6. You shall not murder…
7. You shall not commit adultery…
8. You shall not steal…
9. You shall not bear false witness…
10. You shall not covet…

Responsibility

Whether in our relationship to God or in our relationship to each other, our actions are our own. The responsibility for our actions is our own. The credit, the consequences – our own. This mentality has been inculcated into us since we stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and accepted the Ten Commandments.

In today’s Haftarah, the prophet Isaiah has a vision of God and cries:

Woe is me; I am lost! For I am a man of impure lips and I live among a people of impure lips…(Isaiah 6:5)

The prophet recognizes that his speech is his own and the people’s speech is their own. Their speech, their actions, are certain to fall short of being acceptable to God – and the fault for that lies entirely on themselves. They are all responsible for what they say and what they do.

Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, we must understand that it is this sense of responsibility that ultimately led us to overcome being victims of history’s most heinous crime. We are not gone. We are here. We’re not stuck seventy years in the past. No, we have not forgotten but he have not let the scars of the past prevent us from moving forward and living in free and open societies with freedom of expression and freedom of religion.

Regrettably, seventy years after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is indeed faring very well. We must not deny it nor ignore it. But we must not let those who excuse it, justify it, explain it, or rationalize it have sway. When it comes to anti-Semitism, “But keep in mind…” is unacceptable.

When Jews have to cower in a synagogue in Paris because demonstrators are attacking them, don’t ask me to keep in mind that they are upset with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in Gaza. It is anti-Semitism and it is unacceptable.

When random Jews are attacked in England and anti-Semitic incidents are at the highest levels they have ever seen in the UK, don’t ask me to keep in mind that it is because of the Israel-Gaza conflict. It is anti-Semitism and it is unacceptable.

The anti-Semites blame their actions on others – on us and on Israel. But we Jews are not responsible for their hate. We Jews are not responsible for their intolerance. We Jews are not responsible for their violence. They are responsible for their hate. They are responsible for their intolerance. They are responsible for their violence.

When we look inward, it is not to change the anti-Semite’s twisted view. That’s their problem, their responsibility. When we look inward, it is to better ourselves, to better our world, to take responsibility for what we say and what we do. This is what the Ten Commandments teach us. And that is something that we must all keep in mind.

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Shabbat shalom.