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Distorting the Past, Defending the Future: Lessons from Abraham For How We Speak About Israel©

Parashat Chayyei Sarah 2023/5784

Rabbi David Baum

At the end of the movie Schindler’s List, as Schindler’s Jews are liberated from the camp where they were protected during the last months of the war, a Soviet officer marches into the camp on horseback and proclaims, “On behalf of the Soviet Army, you are liberated!”

One of the Jews asks, “Have you been in Poland - are there any Jews left?” 

The officer was silent.

Another Jewish prisoner stands and asks, “Where should we go?”

The officer responds, “Don’t go east, they hate you there. I wouldn’t go west either if I were you.”

The stateless Jews begin their journey, the screen changes from black and white, to color, and we see them as seniors walking to Jerusalem, to visit the grave of Oskar Schindler. The message is clear: the Jews need a state, because they have no place else to go. The Holocaust is not the reason why Israel was created, but it emphasized the imperative for a Jewish homeland and a safe haven. But what is often ignored is that there has been a constant Jewish presence in the land of Israel from the pre-second Temple period until today.

I was recently watching an interview with pro-Palestinian protestors. The interviewer asked one of the protestors, a blond-haired blue-eyed girl from Ohio, what their favorite Palestinian slogan was and they said, “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea.” The interviewer asked, what do you mean by that? What would happen to the Israelis? She said, “They would use their second citizenship to return to the countries they came from?” 

But, he answered, most Israelis were born in Israel and have no second citizenship. So where should they go?” She answered, “back to where their families came from outside of the Middle East.” 

The interviewer answered back, “Should they go back to Yemen, to Lybia, to Syria, to Lebanon?” And she said yes! Here’s the problem - people with Israeli passports can’t even travel to those countries. 

What the last month has proved is that Jews are even less safe in the world than they were after the Holocaust. 

It is during this time when I hear these people telling us where we should live that I think about the Soviet officer from Schindler’s List when we ask, “Well, where should we go?”

“Don’t go east, they hate you there. I wouldn’t go west either if I were you.”

This week, we marked the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass that occurred across Germany on November 9 - 10, 1938. The state-sponsored pogrom represented one of the most important turning points in the Nazi antisemitic policy. Historians have noted that after the pogrom, anti-Jewish policy was concentrated more and more concretely into the hands of the SS. Moreover, the passivity with which most German civilians responded to the violence signaled to the Nazi regime that the German public was prepared for more radical measures.

According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “The Nazi regime expanded and radicalized measures aimed at removing Jews entirely from German economic and social life in the forthcoming years. The regime moved eventually toward policies of forced emigration, and finally toward the realization of a Germany “free of Jews” (Judenrein) by deportation of the Jewish population “to the East.”

Kristallnacht was an essential turning point in Nazi Germany's persecution of Jews, which culminated in the attempt to annihilate the European Jews.

Perhaps no headline so aptly summarized the danger for the Jews under the Nazi regime than that published on the front page of the Los Angeles Examiner on November 23, 1938: “Nazis Warn World Jews Will Be Wiped Out Unless Evacuated By Democracies.”’

But the Nazis added something to their barbarism that they had never done before: they desecrated Torah scrolls and Bibles. All over Germany, Torah scrolls were either burned or opened up on the streets and the Jewish Germans were forced to march on the words. According to historian Dr. Alon Confino, this act was quite significant as it was a message to the German people and the world. The Jews represented the past, that is what the Bible represented. The burning of the Bible was part of an effort for the Nazis to create a new identity for the Germans; a world where the Jews would not be part of. Not only would they not have a future, but by burning the Torahs, the Germans tried to distort and destroy the past. 

What we are facing today is a similar re-visioning of the past to create a future without Jews. 

Eighty-five years later, on October 7, our people experienced a tragedy that is on par, if not more horrific, than Kristallnacht in 1938. The reverberations of October 7 are still with us, with every Jew in the world who now feels targeted. 

During these last few weeks, we have seen the slogans that were usually chanted at fringe demonstrations on college campuses enter into the mainstream. But now, we hear words like"decolonization" "genocide" "settler and imperial-colonialism” being thrown around like everyone understands these complicated terms. These terms have real-life consequences. They are trying to change not just the future, but the past.

"The decolonization narrative has dehumanized Israelis to the extent that otherwise rational people excuse, deny, or support barbarity. It holds that Israel is an “imperialist-colonialist” force, that Israelis are “settler-colonialists,” and that Palestinians have a right to eliminate their oppressors. (On October 7, we all learned what that meant.) It casts Israelis as “white” or “white-adjacent” and Palestinians as “people of color.’

This ideology, powerful in the academy but long overdue for serious challenge, is a toxic, historically nonsensical mix of Marxist theory, Soviet propaganda, and traditional anti-Semitism from the Middle Ages and the 19th century. But its current engine is the new identity analysis, which sees history through a concept of race that derives from the American experience. The argument is that it is almost impossible for the “oppressed” to be themselves racist, just as it is impossible for an “oppressor” to be the subject of racism. Jews therefore cannot suffer racism, because they are regarded as “white” and “privileged”; although they cannot be victims, they can and do exploit other, less privileged people, in the West through the sins of “exploitative capitalism” and in the Middle East through “colonialism.”

This leftist analysis, with its hierarchy of oppressed identities—and intimidating jargon, a clue to its lack of factual rigor—has in many parts of the academy and media replaced traditional universalist leftist values, including internationalist standards of decency and respect for human life and the safety of innocent civilians. When this clumsy analysis collides with the realities of the Middle East, it loses all touch with historical facts.”

According to this worldview, the Jews do not have a claim to the land of Israel. I think it is fitting that we read this week’s parashah, Chayyei Sarah, as we grapple with these fundamental issues of how the world views us, the Jewish people, and our relationship to the land of Israel.

In this week’s parashah, we read the following:

“The field which Abraham purchased from the Hittites; there was Abraham buried, and Sarah his wife.”  (Genesis 25:10)

God had promised Abraham and his descendants the entire land of Canaan, today the land of Israel.  Nonetheless, when his wife Sarah dies at the beginning of this portion, Abraham has no place to bury her.  Abraham goes through a difficult and expensive negotiation with the Hittites to buy a small piece of property, the Cave of Machpelah.  In the end both Abraham and Sarah will be buried there along with their descendants Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. 

What is interesting here is that Abraham reveals himself to be the worst bargainer in history! Not only does he turn down a free offer for the land, he ends up paying a higher amount for the land than one normally would. 

One might think that the man of faith was trying to hedge his bets. God promised Abraham the land, but he still did not own even a small piece of land until he buys it from the Hittites. Abraham does not buy the land for himself though, and perhaps not even for his wife Sarah, but for his offspring whom he does not know, nor will know in his lifetime. 

The Rabbis look at this story as one of Abraham’s tests of faith. In the Talmud, the Rabbis envision Satan saying to God, “Lord of the universe, I have traveled the entire world and I have not found anyone as faithful as Your servant Abraham, to whom You said: “Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it to you” (Genesis 13:17). And even so, when he did not find a place to bury Sarah before he purchased a burial site for four hundred silver shekels, he did not find fault with Your ways or complain about the fact that you had failed to fulfill Your promise.” (BT Bava Batra 15b).

Abraham had a long-term faith, that despite the challenges of the present, his offspring would have a future in this land. 

Imagine how the early Zionists felt in the 1800’s, or how the Jews felt in the 1930’s and 40’s? Imagine how Jews felt after Kristallnacht? Our secret is our ability to have a long view of the future, and never give up on our dreams. We must never forget our past, that we are not colonizers, we have a rightful claim to this land. Of course, we are not the only people who have claim, and I don’t think any Israeli seriously imagines a world where we will not share the land with the Palestinian people. As an extreme right-wing cabinet minister named Matan Kahana begrudgingly admitted last year: “Apparently we (the Palestinians and us) were destined to exist here [together] on this land in some form.”

In the face of challenges and distortions of history, we, as a resilient and enduring people, must draw strength from the legacy of our forefather Abraham. Abraham's unwavering faith and commitment to securing a future for his descendants, even when faced with difficulties and uncertainties, serve as a powerful reminder. As we reflect on the events of Kristallnacht, the tragedy of October 7, and the contemporary attempts to rewrite our past, let us emulate Abraham's long-term vision. Our connection to the land of Israel is not just a historical claim, but a testament to our enduring hope and determination. Just as Abraham bought the burial site for future generations, we, too, must stand firm in the face of those who seek to distort our narrative and erase our history. Through remembrance, resilience, and an unyielding commitment to our heritage, we can navigate the challenges of the present and continue to shape a future that honors our past.

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