Victimhood is No Virtue – Jewish Ambivalence Toward Our Own Strength: Rabbi Eric Yanoff

Kol Nidre Sermon 5775, October 3, 2014:

............There is enough tzures in the Middle East that Ron Prosor can actually sit back and not talk about Israel. But in truth, that’s only because he has had this conversation more times than he can count – justifying our existence in a difficult region. And after this past summer with Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, but not only because of this past summer…. Given the current political climate, but not only because of the politics – we as Jews are at a point in our history as a Jewish People where responsibly, we cannot not talk about Israel.

Just before Rosh Hashanah, the New York Times circulated an article describing the dilemma that rabbis are facing: How should we talk about Israel on the High Holidays? The underlying implication in the article was that, this year especially, Rabbis “HAVE TO” talk about Israel. But maybe I’m weird. The truth is, I LOVE talking about Israel. I love Israel. I love its importance in our history, and I love its modern struggles and its miraculous achievements against all odds.

But it is true, that this year, talking about Israel has been so painful. I am hurting – because Israel is hurting. And yet, in solidarity, I am resolved to keep hurting – because the alternative is to give up caring. And that I refuse to do. That, we should all refuse to do.

Friends, I wish I didn’t have to give this sermon. But we, as a Jewish people and Jewish community – we are hurting.  We are in pain.  And so tonight, on these High Holidays – although some of you may want or expect a political briefing, I’m not going to offer a political briefing.  Instead, I want to go much deeper, into the pain– at what I think is at the core of it all. To the questions that make us squirm, as we sit in, arguably, the most comfortable Jewish community in the history of Judaism. You may be uncomfortable with what I’m about to say – but as you’ll see – that discomfort is actually the proof that there’s truth to it, at the core. Here’s the core of it, to me:

 Why does the world hate us? It is an inversion (and a perversion) of history to say that it’s because of Israel. Israel is the answer to millennia of hatred and persecution – it is the result, not the cause. But it is true that Israel’s existence has become a pretext, certainly a lightning-rod, for the world’s anti-Semitism. It’s actually a fitting metaphor – because removing the lightning-rod does not get rid of the lightning, (in this case) of anti-Semitism; removing the lightning-rod would just make it more likely that our homes and our lives would be burned and destroyed by fire – the lightning of anti-Semitism that strikes no matter what, and always has.

“Burned, destroyed” – this is no metaphor for the world’s animosity toward us. Synagogues in Paris firebombed? We have a word for that, even in 2014: There was a pogrom in France this past summer. And this was far from the only anti-Semitic provocation before, during, and after the war in Gaza this summer. The world is uncomfortable with Israel at least in part because the world is uncomfortable with  Jewish strength. Let me say that again – because it is painful in its simplicity, and difficult to hear: The world doesn’t like strong Jews – Jews who do not live or die at the whim of a czar or king or emperor or dictator, but who live in a time when we can self-assuredly thrive as the determinants of our own fate as a people. And that confidence is what Israel provides. I didn’t make this up : In 1903, the early modern Zionist Max Nordau (a contemporary of Theodor Herzl) envisioned what he called “a Jewry of Muscle” – literally, “tough Jews,” [muscles] who literally went to the gym, and got strong, to be able to assert ourselves and defend ourselves when needed.

There is nothing new about the need to be able to defend ourselves. But there IS a more troubling, modern trend that, I believe, cuts to the core of our pain over Israel, the reality that Israel is no longer the unifying source of pride, but a division within our community. The world would rather us be victims. Israel stands in the way of that; the Jewish State sees itself not only as a haven, but if need be, a defender, of Jews throughout the world.

The world would rather us be victims. But that is not a new problem. The challenge we face NOW is, actually even worse: WE as a Jewish People have internalized that critique, accepted it as our reality – so that WE feel a need to apologize for our own strength and our ability to self-determine our fate – through a strong, secure Israel.

Friends, it’s Kol Nidre: Tonight is the night when we stop worrying about everyone else’s imperfections, and how they might explain or even justify our own weaknesses. Tonight we start looking in the mirror, and seeing how WE have contributed to the parts of our existence that are unacceptable, untenable, unsustainable. And so, it’s one thing for the world to believe that “the only good Jew is a weak Jew” (a small, offensive step up from “the only good Jew is a dead Jew”). But it is less excusable for US AS JEWS to have internalized this idea of the virtue of being a victim.

Now, some of you look skeptical. Let me illustrate it for you: The contemporary author Nathan Englander recently published a story entitled “How We Avenged the Blums.” Englander is only a couple of years older than I – but in the story he imagines a scene from the middle of the last century: Do any of you remember running (not walking) home from school, to avoid getting beaten up by an anti-Semitic bully? Do you remember an older brother, maybe, who took a few hits because of such anti-Semitism?  Englander writes of a bunch of Jewish kids who find their friend, Zvi Blum, beaten bloody – and they vow revenge. They organize themselves into a little Jewish army, they train, and they prepare themselves for the day when, knowing that the anti-Semite was going to wait for them, instead, they skip shul, lie in wait for him first, and beat him senseless. And then Englander, as narrator, writes the words that have troubled me all summer long: “As I watched [“the Anti-Semite, bloodied and now writhing before us,”] I knew I’d always feel that to be broken was better than to break.” To be broken was better than to break, he writes – and then he adds a gloss, a comment:  “To be broken was better than to break – [this was] MY FAILING.” Englander is observing something different here: That somehow, we have accepted upon ourselves that, Jewishly, there is some virtue in being a victim. But this is not the case – certainly not anymore. Indeed, for our enemies (and yes, sadly, not by our choice, but by their declaration, we have enemies) – for those who wish us harm, our idea of “virtuous victimhood” may uncover our greatest weakness, despite our considerable ability to defend ourselves.  Today, we are blessed to live in an era where Israel DOES have the power to break others, when need be, when threatened. There is no doubt about that. Rockets and tunnels and stones and terrorism DO kill – but we have a strong Israel that can defend herself. That was what this past summer was about – Israel’s moral obligation to defend its citizenry. Over two hundred rockets fell unanswered in the single MONTH before Israel responded; thousands of rockets over past few years. What would you do? What could ANY of us be expected to do? And then for the world and the media to actually invert the narrative? I’ve heard it described this way, when Hamas turns to the world with pictures of their victims – some real and tragic, but some doctored, some actually pictures from Syria’s victims over the past few years: It’s like when a teacher breaks up a playground fight, and demands to know what happened, and the instigator says, “It all started when he hit me BACK.”  

It all started when Israel struck back?! And yet that is the narrative that the world swallows. You know what? FINE! That’s what the world wants to believe – because somewhere, deep inside, a lot of people just don’t like us – and they really don’t like it when we’re strong and we stand up for ourselves.

 ...It bothers me that WE ALSO accept that narrative, to some extent. Since 1967 (with the exception of the Yom Kippur War in 1973), we have been allowed to see ourselves as strong, as masters of our own destiny, as asserters of the right of self-determination – and yet we spend more time than we should apologizing for that strength, atoning for it (if you will; ‘tis the season).

We can – and should – be STRONG. The fact that the world is uncomfortable with that, even blames us for anti-Semitism because of our strength and self-determinism? Well that’s the world’s problem. But the fact that WE are ambivalent, sheepish and squeamish, about our own strength is intolerable and self-defeating. It accounts for something more damaging than anti-Semitism from the outside – something more insidious, something that has sowed the seeds of Jewish tragedy throughout history – and that is dissent among our people. Israel should not be the most divisive element of Jewish identity; it should be the most bolstering, pride-inducing, unifying aspect of modern Jewish life. And we JEWS are guilty of making it that divisive – by not embracing our strength, but rather being embarrassed by it, sheepishly accepting and internalizing the world’s external critiques (which are unbalanced, only directed at Israel, and untenable in the content of their very claims) – and then turning those same critiques on ourselves, from the inside.

ALL of us are complicit in this divisiveness over our own power: Regardless of our individual politics, we are all uncomfortable with strength: If you’re on the left, you are uncomfortable with a show of so-called “disproportionate” strength by the Jewish state. If you’re on the right – you are uncomfortable that we were too uncomfortable, too ambivalent about our strength to get the job done decisively. But either way – no matter our individual politics – we are ALL uncomfortable with a show of Jewish strength.

It is certainly a point of debate, but I personally do not believe that we are, right now, at a moment of an existential, live-or-die, kill-or-be-killed cliff – either in Israel or in the United States. (European Jewry may be closer to this – and as part of the worldwide Jewish People, we should consider how we and Israel should participate in their defense and advocacy.) While we are not in a kill-or-be-killed moment, Hamas has made it painfully clear that they will not stomach a live-and-let-live. But the existential question that **IS** upon us is this question of how we will embrace Jewish strength. It is not that Israel is always right, by all definitions. Indeed, David Ben Gurion envisioned this, when he said, “We will have come into our own as a nation when we have Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conducting their business in Hebrew.” The business of being a real nation, able to defend ourselves against historically unparalleled animus and able to defend its citizens worldwide against the world’s oldest hatred – it is messy business.  Yes, tragically– undeserving victims of Hamas on BOTH sides of the Gazan border were killed – Israeli and Palestinian victims of Hamas. There are no clear answers out of this mess. And we should always work to be better, even as we ARE more humane than any other army in the history of armies (warning our targets before they are hit… Can you imagine Napoleon telling a village in Europe or Russia, “Nous venons – We’re coming….?!” Or Paul Revere riding his horse toward the British sitting in commandeered pubs outside Lexington shouting, in the name of fairness and proportionality, “Take arms! The Americans are coming! The Americans are coming!” Or American drones over Tora Bora giving leaflets or warnings or text messages before a strike against the Taliban or ISIS, for example?!)

And still, the world criticizes – holding us to a higher standard. But you know something? I WANT to be held to a higher standard. I am PROUD to expect more from the Israeli Defense Forces than I would from any other army. I am SAD that Golda Meir’s observation still holds – that “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children” [think, the human shields that Hamas leaders proudly accepted as a war crime]. Golda concluded that quote, “We will only have peace with the Arabs... We will only have peace when they when they love their children more than they hate us.”

We ARE the people who choose life instead of loving death; despite the fact that the extremist terrorists see that as our weakness, I see it as our strength.

And yet, even so, this was a messy, sad, summer of despair. We are not perfect. But we would be among the first to help rebuild a Gazan hospital or school or mosque that did NOT have an armory in its basement or terror tunnels below that basement. We can strive to rebuild and be better – but we should never retreat from, never atone for, this FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT TO SELF-DETERMINATION – the right to chart our destiny as a people, not as subservient to another ruler’s whims or prejudices, but as a strong, unapologetic Jewish People. I have my things to tap my chest and say “Al Chet” about this Yom Kippur, and Israel has her imperfections too – but for this right to self-determination of the Jewish future, as a Rabbi and as a Jew, I will never apologize.

We should never apologize for our strength – because WE have been the people who were too weak, too dependent on the always-too-fleeting kindness of others. We have been the Yazidis in Iraq:  We have been on a mountain, surrounded and besieged by people intending to starve us or kill us: For us as Jews, that mountain was Massada, 1940 years ago. There was a time, when the narrative of Massada praised the bravery of martyrs who chose to take their own lives instead of allowing the Romans to pillage and rape and enslave us. That martyrdom was praised as a pinnacle of Jewish strength.

But no more: The modern Israeli narrative of Massada is not to aspire to martyrdom – NO: Do you know what Israelis say about Massada? They declare, “Sheinit lo tipol M’tzada – Massada should never fall again.”    Modern Israelis pledge that we will NEVER AGAIN be faced with such existential threat.  Never again should we be forced into a position of life or death. We should be strong enough to never again be so trapped.

Yes, that “never again” is certainly a call to the rest of the world, that the atrocities of the Holocaust should never be repeated. But it is equally a call to US: It is on US to be unapologetically strong, to chart our own destiny, to ensure that we are strong enough to never again be victimized. That is why, in Israel, the name for Holocaust Commemoration Day is not Yom Ha-Shoah, a day to remember those lost in the Shoah – but rather Yom Ha-Shoah ve-ha-Gevurah – Day for Commemorating those lost in the Shoah and those who were HEROIC in that dark time. The date of Yom HaShoah is not the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (as it is marked worldwide) – but the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. That is what modern Judaism means when we declare “Never Again.” We vow never to be victims. And never to apologize for the strength that ALLOWS us to never again be victims. And that strength, that confidence on the part of Jews worldwide, has one source:  the Modern Jewish State of Israel.

Yes, it is true that tomorrow we will recite a liturgy extolling the martyrs of Jewish history – but because of Israel, we do not hold that martyrdom up as an ideal. Believe me: Neither Rabbi Akiva of ancient times, nor Mordechai Anielewicz of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, relished their fates as martyrs. They would rather have lived, to teach, to thrive in a sovereign, secure Jewish nation!  Because of Israel, it is no longer a virtue to be a martyr, to “survive against all odds” – and the recent miraculous successes of the Modern State of Israel (in defense, in technology, in human rights, and in providing a haven for world Jews and a help for other victims of tragedies, regardless of whether those victims are Jewish, in places as far-flung as Haiti and South Sudan and Washington State) – all of this only serves to show what we can be when we shed the yoke of “virtuous victimhood” – when we reject the idea that there is greater merit in being weak and victimized, that it is better, more virtuous, to be broken. When we are threatened, and there is no choice, and we exhaust all patience and other options – nowadays, there is no virtue in victimhood. It is no longer better to be broken than it is to break. That is what Golda Meir whispered to then-Junior Senator Biden, as they were standing for a photo op: “Joe,” she said, “you know, we have a secret weapon.”.. “Our secret weapon is that we have no other place to go.” We should not enjoy our strength – and we don’t. We should not want to fight – and we don’t want to fight. But when it is necessary, when we have no other choice, no other place to go, then in defending this land, we cannot be squeamish, we cannot be ambivalent; we cannot apologize for our strength.

Because if we can get to the point of being proud of our strong Jewish self-determination of our future – we will make history. Not since the time of Kings David and Solomon, almost 3000 years ago, have we Jews been unapologetically strong in the ability to determine our own destiny as a people. King Solomon didn’t feel the need to atone for that privilege. Neither should we. We have to get good and confident at being strong. King David was once young David, who stood up to Goliath. The young David then had certain strengths – resourcefulness, brains, and quickness of wit and of movement – that led him to his first improbable victory. Later in his career, even as the victories became more probable because he gained an army and a crown and legitimacy as king – he was still the same David, and he did not apologize for those strengths. It is true – King David did not get to build the Temple because he had blood on his hands, from unapologetically asserting the Israelite People’s right to self-determination of our fate. His  son,  King Solomon, built the Temple. And by that measure, everyone wants to be King Solomon. Who wouldn’t? Living in a more secure time, with more riches, more luxury, more wisdom and culture, Everyone wants to be King Solomon. But it’s easy to forget that King Solomon could only do that because his father had set him upon a more secure foundation.

You know, maybe God’s decision that David would leave the Temple building to King Solomon was not intended to be a punishment for King David. First of all, take it from someone who knows, after this past summer’s capital improvements: Temple Building is no easy task. But no: It was not a punishment for King David; it was just a fact, that HE and HIS GENERATION would be responsible for asserting the right of the People of Israel to live in safety and security on our own land, and THEN in the next generation, that of Solomon, we would get to work building the divine Home. The future generation’s idealism and success is  reliant upon, predicated upon the earlier generation’s hard work: How could we ever seek to bring God and God’s Home to an unstable, insecure Jerusalem? So first, David had to do his part – and even as he did it, the Ark of the Covenant led the way into battle, holding us to a higher standard of purpose and values and humanity, even in the difficult and messy act of fighting for security and self-determination. But once we were finished fighting, King David gave way to a next generation, that of King Solomon – whose name means peace, Sh’lomo…. Whose reign was marked by a pinnacle of cultural, intellectual and spiritual development – most significantly, the construction of the Holy Temple, where the Ark of the Covenant rested, finally, peacefully, in the Holy of Holies. Only after David did the messy work, could Solomon properly welcome God into our midst. We’d all RATHER be living in a King Solomon time. Who wouldn’t? But the fact is, we live in a King David time – when we need to unapologetically assert our strength and our right to the self-determination of our future. We need to work hard as Davids now, not relishing it, but without reservation or apology – so that someday, we can be Solomons.

Friends, I wish I didn’t have to give this sermon. I wish we were as soberingly, sadly resolved to Israel’s strong defense as almost all Israelis were this summer. I imagine that these words have challenged, maybe even angered some of you, to hear that we have to be Davids to let future generations enjoy being Solomons. Certainly this message may have frustrated many of you – and know that I too am frustrated. I do not want to be a David. I am a wanna-be Solomon. For that, too – for our desire to live one day in an era of peace - we should not apologize.

I pray that now, we are resolute – so that next year, or sometime soon, that we be privileged to witness that shalom. Oseh shalom – God, You who can bring Peace, let us be your Partners in bringing peace, security, trust, and hope to Israel, to her neighbors, to Europe, to us here in the United States – and throughout the world. [SING “OSEH SHALOM BIMROMAV”]  V’imru: AMEN.