Acting like Jews

Joseph Aaron

Mazel tov. Finally. Finally a Jewish leader, finally a rabbi speaking out about, calling us out to do something about Syria.

After many years of working in Jewish journalism, there are still some things that totally baffle me about Jews. One of them is how we are showing so little outrage, are doing so very little about the situation in Syria.

As the Chosen People, we are called to be a ‘light unto the nations.’ That means we are to be a role model, an example, are to be a people that are the first to shout when we see injustice, see things that are not right.

And, thankfully, there are many times when we do our job. The sainted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel was at the forefront of many Jews who took part in the civil rights movement. Jews played a key role in anti-Vietnam War protests. Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan and other Jewish females were leaders of the women’s rights movement. And when disasters occur anywhere in the world, Jews and Israel are usually the first on the scene to help.

That’s all to the good, part of our mission. We don’t deserve and shouldn’t expect any particular accolades for those things. It’s Jews doing what we are called to do. We do, however, deserve to be chastised when we don’t do that. Except for Elie Wiesel, Jews were silent about the Pol Pot massacre of Cambodians. Jews were not there for Rwanda or Bosnia, Israel was one of the few countries on earth that had diplomatic relations with, sold arms to apartheid South Africa.

Too often too much, perhaps understandably, we worry only about ourselves. There are, of course, reasons for that. For most of our history, no one else seemed to care about us, help us. For most of our history, we were under siege and under fire and so had to tend to ourselves, did not have the luxury to worry about the plight of others.

But that is not the Jewish situation today. We have a Jewish state, vibrant and powerful. Jews in the United States, Jews around the world are free and safe. Yes, of course, we have our challenges, but we are not threatened as we have been in the past, we are secure and cared for unlike we have been in the past.

Now is the time when we can, we should, we must fulfill our mission, be a light unto the nations, lead the way, call out wrong when we see it, stand up for others as we wish others had stood up for us when we were in need of friends, when we were in danger.

And so the Jewish people, the Jewish world should be standing up for the people of Syria. Men, women, children, are being massacred in Syria, have been massacred by the hundreds of thousands, are being gassed with chemical weapons. We should be screaming about that, calling on the world to do something about it, doing all we can to bring attention to it and to make it stop.

That we are not doing that — yes, a few of our organizations may be going through the motions, putting out press releases — that as a community we are not making this a priority, not raising our voices, holding special meetings, is betraying the essential role Jews are to play in the world.

Which is why I was so pleased to see that the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel recently said Jews have a “moral obligation” to end the “cruel genocide” taking place in Syria. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, a cruel genocide is taking place in Syria, including women and children, with weapons of mass destruction,” Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef said. “There is a moral obligation not to remain silent and to try to stop the massacre. As Jews we have been through genocide, as Jews whose Torah is a light to the nations, it is our moral obligation to try to prevent the massacre.”

Good for him. It is about time we hear one of our religious leaders call it a moral obligation for Jews to act, say that the Torah calls on Jews to do what we can, all we can to prevent the massacre going on in Syria.

We need more Jewish voices like that. And we need more Jews to listen to those voices – and then to act. We need to raise all of our voices, to put our words into action, to not sit by while such a thing is going on anywhere in the world, and certainly not when it is going on mere miles from our holy city of Jerusalem.

Jews are so quick to kvetch about our problems, so quick to say no one is there for us, so quick to keep bringing up the past and how the world has over and over abandoned the Jews. But where are we when the time calls for us to speak up, stand up?

How many Jews look back and complain that during the Holocaust, the world said ‘why should we get involved, it’s just Jews, what does that have to do with us,’ even as today too many Jews are saying it’s ‘just Arabs, Syria is a mess, it’s not our business, why should we care if Syrians are killing Syrians, it’s not for us to get involved, we’ve got our own problems.’

Shame on us. We should be caring about and doing for the people of Syria because people are being slaughtered and we know what that feels like. We are Jews, which means, as Rabbi Yosef said, we have a moral obligation, are called on by the Torah to do all we can to stop the horror.

Let’s end on a lighter note. I have always believed in G-d, but the more I see how the leaders of the Jewish world act, how the leaders of the Jewish state act, my faith has deepened. G-d must be watching over us, protecting us, because we too often are a bunch of clowns.

Let me tell you a little story. Israel will soon be celebrating its 70th anniversary. That’s a big milestone marking a blessed event. You’d think we’d have our ducks all in a row about that, make sure that the important occasions marking it are conducted with grace and dignity.

But listen to this, every single word of which is true. Every year, for Israel Independence Day, a ceremony is held on Mount Herzl in which twelve torches are lit. Lighting them are prominent Israelis, with one torch lit by a member of diaspora Jewry. The ceremony for the 70th anniversary, of course, is extra special. And yet it’s been handled like we’re all shmendriks.

For starters, three people who were supposed to light torches are not going to. Basketball star Omri Casspi, the president of Honduras, and actress Mayim Bialik.

Bialik had made a pitch to light a torch as the representative of diaspora Jewry in a Facebook post. Hundreds of her followers sent nominations to the Diaspora Affairs Ministry. But after she was chosen, she discovered that she would not be able to attend due to the shooting schedule for the television series “The Big Bang Theory,” where she plays nerdy neuroscientist Amy Farrah Fowler. So she asked for it, she got it and then said she can’t do it.

And so, get this, at the 70th anniversary torch lighting ceremony, one of the most important events on the Israeli civil calendar, there will be no diaspora torch lighter. Nobody representing diaspora Jewry. Evidently, if Mayim can’t make it, no one else can fill in.

Meanwhile, Omri Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the National Basketball Association, had been asked to light a torch, but declined because his team, the Golden State Warriors, would not release him at the start of the playoffs to attend. A couple of days ago, Casspi was cut by the Warriors.

Then we have the president of Honduras. For some reason I still can’t figure out, Juan Hernandez, president of Honduras, who is not Jewish, was asked to light one of the 12 torches. Indeed, he is the first foreign head of state ever given that honor. The only thing I can figure is that he was asked by Bibi because Hernandez has indicated that Honduras might move its embassy to Jerusalem. So far only one country has followed the American lead in doing so. That country is Guatemala. Why the president of Guatemala was not asked but the president of Honduras was, I don’t know.

But here’s where it gets complicated. After saying he would come and light the torch, Hernandez got mad and canceled his trip to Israel and his participation in the ceremony because of accusations by the chairwoman of the Meretz party that his country is guilty of gross violations of human rights. So Israel, light unto the nations, had invited the non-Jewish president of Honduras to be one of only 12 people on the planet to light a candle to mark Israel Independence Day, even as his country is a violator of human rights. And Hernandez himself has been accused of corruption.

But it doesn’t end there. Seems there is a longstanding policy in Israel that the presence of a foreign president at an official state ceremony obligates the attendance of the Israeli prime minister. Hernandez’s participation in the torch lighting would have mandated that Netanyahu be present. Indeed, some suspect Bibi invited Hernandez specifically because of that. Traditionally prime ministers do not attend the ceremony. Rather, the highest-ranking government official at the ceremony is the speaker of the Knesset, currently Yuli Edelstein. Indeed, when Hernandez was invited, which meant Bibi had to be there, Edelstein threatened to boycott the ceremony because he said he was protecting a tradition by which only the Knesset speaker, as the head of a body meant to represent all Israelis, gives an address. And if Bibi was there, he would have to give a speech.

After much wrangling, a compromise was reached that will have Netanyahu lighting a 13th torch, something never before done, and giving a short speech, with Edelstein giving the keynote address. And for some reason, the compromise calls for the prime minister to attend the ceremony every ten years from now on. Go figure.

So 13 candles instead of 12, two speeches instead of one, no candle for the diaspora and an overall mess, with hurt feelings, game playing and dirty politics all around. Maybe if we acted like Jews toward Syria, we’d know how to be mensch enough to celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary.

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