It was one of those idyllic Israel moments – a gorgeous succa, spectacular food, thoughtful and well-read people talking about things that truly matter. Suddenly one of the women present posed a question that gave us all pause.
“We all criticize American Jewry for all that it failed to do during the Shoah,” she said, “and rightly so. But we see the threat to the Jewish people and Western civilization everywhere, and what are we doing? Are we any better?” “We need to awaken people to the danger,” someone responded, “because they still just don’t get it.”
“Like the sermon that Rabbi Lewis gave in Atlanta,” said another participant in the dinner. I was shocked – Rabbi Shalom Lewis is a Conservative rabbi, and here was this leader of a landmark Orthodox synagogue saying, “It’s one of the best sermons I’ve read in years.”
I hadn’t heard of the sermon, so he promised to send it to me, and did.
“Three years ago on this bima… I cried out, ‘Ehr kumpt – they are coming,’” Rabbi Lewis said to his congregants.
“Three years later on this bima... I cry out not ‘Ehr kumpt – they are coming’; I cry out, ‘Ehr daw – they are here.’” The “they,” of course, is radical Islam.
“Time is no longer a luxury we possess,” said the rabbi. “We are being threatened like no time before, by an enemy obsessed with an apocalyptic endgame that will bring only disaster.”
The rabbi then noted that if there are one billion Muslims in the world, and if authorities agree that about 5 percent of them are committed Islamists who embrace terror, that means there are 50 million such people. But he addressed non-radicalized Muslims, too, people he explicitly stated were decent, committed to democracy, potential partners in building the societies in which we want to live.
Still, he said, for the most part, they’re not speaking out. “A silent partnership is no partnership. Sin is not just in the act of commission – it is also in the act of omission.... Stand up righteously or get out of the way.”
There was, of course, the critical recognition that despite the horrors of radical Islam, it is Israel that lives under the microscope. “Russia invades. Nigeria enslaves. China oppresses. Pakistan rapes. Iraq slaughters. North Korea starves. Iran nuclearizes. Syria massacres. Venezuela plunders. Afghanistan tortures. Sudan annihilates. ISIS beheads, and Israel is the pariah state, put under the microscope by the morally noxious.”
There was much more, but none of these quotes do the sermon justice. The real story was the response. Iranian TV claimed that “an American rabbi has called for the genocide of all Muslims” – not exactly the most exacting read of what Rabbi Lewis had to say.
The Iranians weren’t the only ones who were upset. Mondoweiss, a notoriously anti-Israel website run (of course) by Jews, posted a letter from the (equally anti-Israel) Jewish Voice for Peace, which read, in part, “Because we believe strongly that people of conscience must speak out to challenge bigotry in all its forms, [we call on the Jewish community] to take a stand against anti- Muslim and anti-Arab racism in their synagogues and organizations.”
Mondoweiss said that it was “dismayed by the lack of response from the rest of the Jewish community.” A truly heartwarming sentiment. But go search the JVP website (jewishvoiceforpeace.org) and see if you can find a single article supporting Israel or critiquing Muslim hatred of Jews. Or try the same with Mondoweiss, and then see how seriously we ought to take their crocodile-tear “dismay.”
Yes, it would have been surprising had Iranian TV endorsed Rabbi Lewis’s sermon. It would have been even more surprising if Jewish Voice for Peace had done the same. But is it too much to expect that the Jewish political mainstream, even if it would not deliver a sermon like that, would at least give Rabbi Lewis credit for finally calling on Americans to recognize the threat to their civilization? We’re not there yet. The executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council (a personal friend and a devoted, passionate supporter of Israel) responded to the sermon by saying that “terms such as ‘extermination’ shouldn’t be used by a rabbi.”
I was dumbfounded. “Extermination”? How had I missed it? I’d read the sermon several times (annoying my wife by saying, “And listen to this,” while she was trying to read something else), and hadn’t seen any call for extermination.
So I searched the text.
No “extermination.” I tried “exterminate.”
And yup, there it was.
“The fury of ultimate evil is upon us and we must act – not to contain it. Not to degrade it. Not to manage it. Not to tolerate it, but to exterminate it utterly and absolutely.” What’s wrong with calling for the extermination of evil? How is that different from Churchill’s insistence that: “Even though large tracts of Europe... have fallen or may fall into the grip of... the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end... we shall fight on the seas and oceans... we shall fight on the beaches...we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
Churchill knew evil when he saw it, and in the language of the 1940s, pledged to eradicate it. Some 18 months later, president Roosevelt spoke to the nation after Pearl Harbor and said, “No matter how long it may take... the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.... [W]e will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.” That, too, was a call for eradicating the evil.
Do you prefer “eradicate” to “exterminate”? Fine. Advocate a word change. But beyond the text of the sermon, there’s another lesson to be gleaned from Rabbi Lewis’s message: We have no Churchill, and we have no FDR; we have not yet reached the point where we are willing to acknowledge that, as Rabbi Lewis notes, we are already at war, fighting for the future of civilization as we know it. Will the tide turn? Will we awaken before it is too late? It is too early to know.
But until we do, sermons like Rabbi Lewis’s are critical. We cannot defeat an enemy we do not admit exists. And most of us – though thankfully not all – still want to pretend that this is a war against ISIS or jihadists, not a global attack on our world that we must eradicate.
Are we therefore like the American Jews who did very little during the Shoah? No, for the situation is actually worse. Then, at least, American Jews acknowledged that there was an enemy. Today, most of us haven’t even gotten that far. ■
The writer is senior vice president, Koret distinguished fellow and chair of the core curriculum at Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college, in Jerusalem. His latest book, Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, was recently released by NextBook.