Saturday, November 20, 2010

United we must stand

My latest article in Kaminando y Avlando, the Sephardi Hebrew Congregation of Cape Town's monthly publication:


The more I study Israel’s history, the more I am disappointed and infuriated by the constant strife we’ve created for ourselves, amongst ourselves. Be it the clashes between the religious and the secular, or between the political right and the political left, or the Ashkenazim and the Mizrachim, we always seem to create harmful rifts within our nation. Although this is not a recent phenomenon, it’s something that continually needs to be addressed as it’s as dangerous an enemy to the Jewish people as terrorism and assimilation are.

Although they only refer to strife amongst family units, the first few parshiyot of the Torah teach about the destructive consequences of strife and the necessity to eliminate it. In Bereshit When Cain’s sacrifice to Hashem wasn’t accepted and Abel’s was, Cain became extremely jealous of his brother. The resulting strife led Cain to ‘rise up’ and kill his brother. Within a few parshiyot of this tragic story, the Torah teaches us how we must handle strife. In Lech Leca, Avram’s shepherds rebuke Lot’s shepherds for allowing their herds to graze on other people’s pastures (Rashi). Avram, unlike Cain, approaches his nephew and tries to stop the conflict from causing further turmoil, “Please let there be no more strife between me and you, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen, for we are kinsmen,” (13:8). Although Avram eventually allows Lot and his herds to move to more fertile grounds, his actions teach us an important lesson. When faced with strife, even due to legitimate reasons, one must find a way to discuss the problem, make peace and coexist. Friction, be it between brothers, amongst a family or within our nation, will almost always lead to negative consequences. Hence, one must approach it and look for a peaceful resolution to end the conflict, unless of course no such option is available. (An example from the Torah being the sale of Joseph in Va’Yeishev – see Sforno’s commentary.) Rashi sums it up nicely when, during his commentary on Parashat Noach, he asks which generation’s sin was greater, the generation of the flood, which did not plan a rebellion against Hashem, or the generation of the Dispersion (Tower of Babel), which did? His answer is the former, as the generation was comprised of robbers who quarreled with each other and were completely destroyed in the flood, while the latter dwelt harmoniously together, and hence were spared despite their blasphemies. Surely this demonstrates how dangerous strife is and how great unity is! 4:1-16, we learn about the tragic story of Cain and Abel.

In the years leading up to and in the aftermath of the creation of the State, Israel twice was on the verge of Civil War. In late 1944, the Jewish Agency and the Haganah were convinced that Menachem Begin’s Irgun (aka Etz”l) were eager to take over the leadership of the Yishuv. The tension between the two organizations reached a boiling point in 1945 when Eliyahu Hakim and Eliyahu Bet-Zuri (members of the Stern Gang) assassinated Lord Moyne in Cairo. After the assassination of Lord Moyne, who was responsible for implementing the White Paper (the document that kept thousands of desperate Jews from immigrating to the British Mandate during World War II), the Jewish Agency implemented the “Hunting Season” (the Season for short), during which the Haganah actively worked with the British police to capture Irgun and Stern Gang members. Did the Irgun respond with violence as their brothers betrayed them to the British? No, their response had already been outlined in their famous pamphlet in 1944:

“Yes, the dread of the loyal Jew is understandable. Are we to witness our children raising their hands or aiming their weapons against one another? What will they do, those persecuted people against whom the terrible edicts are directed? How will they defend themselves? ...These are grave questions, and we feel it our duty - on our own behalf and on behalf of the Irgun Zvai Le'umi in Eretz Israel - to provide an answer. And this is our answer: you may stay calm, loyal Jews; there will be no fraternal strife in this country...”

The Season gradually came to a halt due to massive public pressure, but only after almost one thousand Jews were handed over to the British. Am Yisrael almost allowed jealousy and lack of trust to cause itself tremendous damage. Unfortunately, the lessons of those dark days were not learned and the country was placed in a similarly frightening situation within a few years.

Shortly after Israel’s Declaration of Independence, a ship carrying almost 1,000 Irgun members and large quantities of ammunition made its way to Israel from France. The Altalena was given permission by David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s prime minister, to land the ship as long as it was done quickly. The cooperation quickly soured when Begin requested that most of the weapons go to the IDF’s newly incorporated Irgun battalions, a move Ben-Gurion thought would reinforce the false notion of ‘an army within an army.’ Ben-Gurion refused to accept Begin’s reasoning and the boat left its original docking area of Kfar Vitkin, and proceeded to Tel Aviv, where Ben-Gurion had the IDF concentrate large forces on the beach. The ship was shelled, and it caught fire. With chaos on board, many jumped overboard and were met by rafts of concerned Israelis. Jewish fire still continued to strafe the deck of the ship despite the captain waving the white flag (In ‘The Revolt,’ Menachem Begin writes how the fire was continually aimed at him – was it an assassination attempt?) Many of the Irgun fighters who swam towards the beach were greeted with grenades. By the end of the tragic day, sixteen Irgun members and 3 IDF soldiers were dead. Instead of allowing this horrifying event to rip the country apart and take away focus from defeating the invading Arab armies, Begin made the famous ‘Speech of Tears,’ which highlighted the necessity of finding a solution to strife, even after such a tragedy:

“We shall continue to love the people of Israel, and we shall continue to fight for the people of Israel...Help me to persuade my people that it is forbidden for brother to raise a hand against brother, that it is forbidden that a Hebrew weapon be used against Hebrew fighters.”

In late 1967, Ben-Gurion remarked that had he then known Begin as he did now, the face of history would have been different.

There are obviously many more examples than those presented; the message however is clear enough. We can be our own worst enemies, or we can do our best to find common ground and make peace amongst ourselves despite our differences. The key here is not just to overcome the strife, which every relationship – be it on a small family scale or large national scale – has, but to build unity amongst our people. There’s a famous midrash that says that G-d would forgive Am Yisrael if its people practiced idolatry in unity. A sin of that magnitude, entered into on the national level, can be forgiven if the whole nation commits the sin together. Think about that. How powerful and important must unity (אחדות) be? In fact, if we look at one of our most important daily prayers, the Shema, we’ll see unity again being stressed. In the Shema, we say ‘Shema Yisrael’ – Hear O’ Israel. The ‘hear’ should be written ‘Shimu’ – listen in the plural – as it’s addressing the people of Israel. However it is written as a singular. In the daily reaffirmation of our faith, we are acknowledging the importance of being a united nation. Our continuous ability to hurt ourselves was highlighted, ironically enough, by Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president who was in office during the Yom Kippur War (1973) and then proceeded to sign a peace treaty with Begin and Israel (1979). When asked how one can destroy Israel, he answered smartly, “Leave them alone in peace for 25 years.” Sadat’s negative advice should be taken by us as an important lesson – unless we continually work on strengthening and unifying Am Yisrael, we are setting ourselves up for unnecessary tragedies.

** How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity (Pslam 133:1) **

1 comment:

Melanie said...

i thought this was an excellent article