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Isha Bekia

Jerusalem Post columns

Dec 7, 2011 | Israeli affairs, Israeli Media


 1. Apartheid Lies and the Wars of Words – 25 November 2011
One of the worst modern libels against the Jewish people and the Jewish State is that Israel is guilty of apartheid.  The latest manifestation of the apartheid lie was the so-called Russell Tribunal, which recently convened in Cape Town to put Israel on trial for “apartheid crimes.”   
The Russell Tribunal itself is a lie, and epitomises the lie of the apartheid accusation against Israel.  The word “tribunal” implies a judicial process.  For a body to be called a tribunal it must conform to the most fundamental principles of justice: have impartial assessors, and both sides presenting their case.  This “tribunal” had neither; it was merely a conference of the like-minded, expressing their well-known and one-sided condemnation of Israel.  All of the assessors had previously expressed their anti-Israel rhetoric, only one view was presented, and the pre-ordained verdict was delivered at a well-publicised press conference, the culmination of the event’s theatrics. 
How should Israel and Jews around the world respond?  Many take the view that we should ignore such outlandish accusations.  Some are guided by the philosophy of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion who said, “It doesn’t matter what the gentiles say, but what the Jews do.”  This approach is wrong.
“The Torah speaks in the language of tomorrow,” said Rabbi Mordechai Pinchas Teitz of Elizabeth, New Jersey; we turn to our Torah’s prescient and eternal principles to contend with any challenge.  Judaism is not only about religious services, it is also G-d’s blue-print for every aspect of life and society, for all times and places. What is the Torah’s approach to the modern State of Israel’s foreign policy?   The Talmud says that “ways of peace” must be the guiding principle of our dealings with the nations of the world and  that “eivah”, hatred, towards Jews potentially causes physical danger. Obviously, the almost super-natural persistence of anti-Semitism cannot be blamed on Jewish behaviour, but it is this very reality that obligates extra measures to mitigate its effect. Anything which can generate such high levels of hatred triggers the halachic principle of pikuach nefesh (saving life), which takes priority over almost all mitzvoth. Pikuach nefesh clearly applies today to Israel’s reputation among the nations of the world. For example, military decisions which directly jeopardise the safety of Israeli soldiers and civilians are influenced by public relations considerations. Israel’s poor image also poses a physical threat to Jews around the world.  Whenever there is an increase in tension and hostility in the Middle East with its attendant negative publicity, there is an increase in anti-Semitic incidents worldwide, many of which endanger lives. 
The apartheid lie, in particular, poses an existential threat to Israel.  Like any South African who lived through the anti-apartheid sanctions campaign, especially during the 1980s, I saw first-hand how the morale of the National Party regime and its supporters was drastically weakened.  Sanctions damaged the economy, but also humiliated white South Africans.  As trivial as it sounds, even the embarrassment of the boycott of international music celebrities and sports teams had a detrimental effect on the white population’s will to continue.  And that was at a time where South Africa faced no military threat.  Such an international campaign against Israel could, G-d forbid, seriously undermine the will of Israelis to risk their lives in defence of a perceived pariah State. The stakes could not be higher.
There is another  halachic  principle guiding us:  the  mitzvah of  Kiddush Hashem,  sanctifying G-d’s name, which mandates promoting the truth of Torah and the reputation of the Jewish people and of Hashem.  The apartheid accusation – the reincarnation of the disgraceful United Nations “Zionism is Racism” Resolution of 1975 – is a chillul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s name, because it seeks to bring the Jewish people into disrepute in the most fundamental way, striking at the heart of our core values.  It accuses the Jewish people of desecrating one of the founding principles of creation: that, in the words of the Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 3:18), “Beloved is the human being created in G-d’s image.”  It is our Torah which gave the world the very notion of equality and dignity, as the famous Catholic historian, Paul Johnson wrote: “To them [the Jews] we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind.  Without the Jews it might have been a much emptier place.”  Johnson errs in ascribing these insights to the Jews themselves; Jewish law’s righteousness comes from its Divine origins, as the Torah says (Deuteronomy 4:8): “And which is a great nation that has righteous statutes and laws such as this entire Torah that I place before you this day?”
The Government of Israel and Jews around the world must embrace our Torah duty and redouble our efforts in responding to defamatory accusations. We must never underestimate how very powerful and dangerous lies can be    As Joseph Goebbels said, “If you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth.” Although the apartheid defamation is outrageously false, we cannot leave it unchallenged. Throughout our history the most outlandish lies have become true in the minds of the masses, and have caused terrible atrocities.  What could be more ridiculous than the blood libels of Europe?  Yet this did not make them any less dangerous.  The apartheid and racism accusation is nothing short of a modern blood libel.
Many diaspora communities have joined the battle to defend the reputation of Israel. I am proud of the South African Jewish community’s sterling work in this regard, most recently in discrediting the Russell Tribunal.  But the ultimate responsibility rests on the Government of Israel, which must to harness the full might of its strategic, financial and human resources in order to fight the battle of defending Israel’s reputation.  It is a halachic imperative, and the Torah’s principles must be applied in crafting truly Jewish policies governing Israel’s diplomacy. 
There is much fertile ground for anti-Semitism in the world and the odds in the public relations battle we must wage seem overwhelmingly against us.  But the many military battles Israel has fought and won have been no less daunting and yet this tiny country has over many decades, with G-d’s help, established itself as one of the world’s strongest military powers.  Israel needs to invest the same kind of financial, human and strategic resources and brain-power in establishing the world’s best diplomatic army in order to defend Israel’s reputation and especially to fight the current international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, which poses an existential threat to the future of the Jewish State and endangers Jews everywhere.  Our enemies understand all of this, which is why they invest so much time, money and effort in the campaign. 
How ironic that the Jewish state has won the war of guns and tanks, but hopelessly lost the war of words and ideas.  We cannot accept defeat in the war of diplomacy and public relations; for without victory in this arena, the military battle can never truly be won and the Jewish State and Jews around the world can never truly be safe.  A Jewish State needs a Jewish foreign policy.  The time has come to move away from the philosophy of David Ben Gurion and go back to our Torah philosophy of how to engage with the world, guided by the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh and “ways of peace,” preventing hatred and promoting the cause of truth, and performing a true Kiddush Hashem.
2.  Days of Miracle and Wonder – 11 November 2011
A momentous event took place last week:  the largest gathering of rabbis in Warsaw since World War II.  The Conference of European Rabbis convened in this historic city, bringing together, among others, the Chief Rabbis of Israel, France and the Ukraine, Rome and Moscow, Austria and Poland; and Dayanim from the Batei Din of London, Paris, Strasbourg, Lyon and Amsterdam.  The conference generously invited me from far-away South Africa to deliver a speech and participate in the discussions. 
There was one moment in particular during the conference that captured the awe and miracle of Jewish destiny: the mincha prayers in the Nozyk Shul, the only shul not destroyed by Germans because they had turned it into a stable.  As we began mincha, I looked around the shul.  Seeing two hundred rabbis, representing almost two million Jews in communities across Europe, the words from the Book of Psalms came to mind: “Some come with chariots and some with horses but we call out in the name of Hashem our G-d.  They are brought to their knees and fall, but we rise up and stand firm.” 
Who would have thought, at the height of Nazi power, when Jews were being murdered in gas chambers and when the Nozyk Shul was desecrated, that one day rabbis representing Jewish communities throughout Europe would return with strength and confidence to this very shul?    Who would have thought that in Germany, of all places, a Yeshiva to train a new cadre of young German rabbis would be established?  The Third Reich brought horrific destruction; but in the end, it lost the war against the Jews.  In defiance of any normal laws of history and human nature, through the awesome miracles of G-d, the Jewish people has survived.
These are indeed days of “miracle and wonder.”  Some 250 years ago, long before these modern miracles, Rav Yaakov Emdin wrote that the miracles performed by G-d to ensure the survival of the Jewish people throughout the many years of exile are even greater than the awe-inspiring miracles of the Exodus from Egypt – the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea, the manna falling from heaven and the Clouds of Glory.  Jewish destiny defies the normal laws of history.  By any logical and rational assessment, we should not exist as a separate, identifiable people after almost two thousand years of exile, dispersion and persecution.  But G-d’s plan for us rises above the limitations of the physical world.  At the heart of His plan is His Torah.  The miracle of the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, which we have been privileged to witness in our time, is a remarkable endorsement of the prescient words of Rav Yaakov Emdin.  Torah is flourishing once more, with the great yeshivas of Europe re-established in Israel, America and all over the world; Ponivezh, Mir and Gur are alive and thriving once again.
Before the conference started, my son and I went to see one of the last remaining walls of the Warsaw ghetto.  As we entered, a group of Israeli soldiers left.  On their lapels was proudly emblazoned the Magen David, now the emblem of the sovereign Jewish State.  It struck me how decades ago, when Jews wore the Star of David on their clothing, it was a badge of dishonor, symbolizing their certain death.  It has now become a badge of life, strength and pride. 
Yet this kind of miraculous rebirth can be intoxicating.  It is easy to forget that even now, when we have brave, strong soldiers who can defend the Jewish people, our destiny is in Hashem’s hands.  We learn this lesson from King David, one of our greatest military and political leaders who bravely led and defended the Jewish State.  King David was known not only for his political power and military genius but also as a great spiritual leader, learned in Torah and imbued with deep devotion to G-d, whose faith and connection to Hashem he expressed so eloquently in his Book of Psalms, which contains the above verse: “Some come with chariots and some with horses but we call out in the name of Hashem our G-d.”
According to Rashi, these words were composed by King David as a prayer for his soldiers going out to battle under the command of his general, Yoav.  Rashi quotes the Gemara (Sanhedrin 49a) which states that the military victory of Yoav and his troops was in the merit of King David’s prayers.  Rashi interprets the verse “some come with chariots and some with horses” to mean that some of the nations of the world place their trust in chariots and horses but we rely on Hashem because ultimately all salvation and victory comes from Him.  Our Sages teach us that we are not allowed to rely on miracles.  Thus, in order to defend Jewish life and the Jewish State, it has been necessary for us to create a powerful army.  But King David reminds us that the success of our modern-day chariots and horses – the tanks, fighter jets and missile defense systems – is completely in G-d’s hands.
King David also reminds us of our destiny.  He of all people knew the great necessity of a strong army, but he also knew that we cannot be defined by it.  We are defined by our moral vision, which G-d gave to us at Mount Sinai.  It is through this Divine mission and destiny that G-d grants us the power to rise above the normal laws of history.  The future of the Jewish people – and indeed of any society – does not depend on chariots and horses alone.  Throughout history, many civilizations and empires with mighty armies have come and gone; yet the Jewish people have remained throughout.  Chariots and horses are of this earthly world and therefore transient; our Torah and our Divine destiny are eternal.  Physical things, no matter how powerful, eventually, like the human body, turn to dust, whereas G-d, His Torah and spiritual world are immortal. In the end, those who believe in their chariots and horses “are brought to their knees and fall.”  But we, who believe in G-d, His Torah, and our eternal destiny, “rise up and stand firm.” 
3.  Gilad Schalit – Split Screen and Split World – 28 October 2011
News channels used the dramatic technological device of a “split screen” in reporting the release of Gilad Shalit. This may seem like a trivial detail in the context of a momentous event that touched the hearts and minds of Jews the world over, but the split screen actually symbolises what we all experienced last week: on the one side, the joy and relief as Gilad Shalit was being reunited with his family and his people after more than five years in captivity; on the other, our pain and fear as sworn enemies of the Jewish State and the Jewish People were released, unrepentant of their violence.
The split screen also demonstrates the perverted moral equivalence that the world ascribes to the Arab–Israeli conflict.  The split screen and the term “prisoner swap” imply reciprocity, when, in fact, there is no equivalency between the release of more than a thousand convicted terrorists, who were accorded full legal and human rights, and the freedom of one soldier kidnapped and held cruelly in violation of international law – without trial and horrifyingly incommunicado.
But there is another powerful message reflected by the split screen: the dichotomy of values. One of the visionary rabbinic leaders in the United States during the twentieth century, Rabbi Mordechai Pinchas Teitz of Elizabeth, New Jersey, used to say, “the Torah speaks in the language of tomorrow.” G-d gave us the Torah for all times, all places and all situations.  The Midrash says that “G-d looked into the Torah and created the world.”  The Mishnah says, “Turn it [the Torah] over and over for everything is in it.”  Torah, being the blueprint for the world, contains everything.  By referring to “the language of tomorrow”, Rabbi Teitz took this one step further, saying that the Torah, given thousands of years ago, contains many ideas which we are only able to understand as history unfolds.
“I have placed before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; and you shall choose life” (Devarim 30:19).  For generations commentators have grappled with the meaning of this verse: why does G-d have to give the instruction to choose life?  Is it not obvious?  If the choices before us are life and death, who would choose death? Over the centuries many answers have been suggested.  In our generation, a new insight to this verse has been revealed.  Certain terrorist groups and leaders have perverted their religion into a celebration of death.  As Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah infamously said in 2004 after a prisoner swap, “We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable.  The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them.  We are going to win, because they love life and we love death.”  And as Hamas member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Fathi Hammad, once said: “For the Palestinian people death became an industry at which women excel … and the children excel … We desire death, as you desire life.” 
It is true that throughout history there have been many people who have had no compunction about killing Jews; but what distinguishes Hamas, Hezbollah and their cohorts is their glorification of death and martyrdom.  Their signature crime is the suicide bomber, who glorifies not only the murder of others but even his own death.  Even mothers celebrate their children becoming martyrs.  When the Torah says “you shall choose life,” its message is in contrast to those who choose death.
The split-screen coverage of Gilad Shalit’s release reflects the two sides of the verse: “I place before you life and death …” On the one side of the screen was the celebration of death, where those guilty of perpetrating the most horrible crimes against innocent men, women and children, were welcomed as heroes.  On the other side of the screen is the picture of a gaunt, pale and lonely soldier, for whose freedom an entire nation prayed and rallied and for whose life a nation was willing to risk its own safety.  What other people or government in the world would release more than a thousand convicted, unrepentant terrorists for the freedom of one hostage?  This decision seems counter to the rational, political and military considerations that governments and people normally undertake. Who else would do such a thing?  Where did such a decision come from?  
Let’s consider these questions from a psychological perspective, and not from the perspective of right and wrong, which must be determined by halacha as ruled upon by a great posek comprehensively analysing the Talmud, Codes and Responsa, with cognisance of the political and military realities. Indeed, many have argued in this regard that the decision was wrong precisely because of the sanctity of life. But let’s look beyond the intellectual merits and try to understand the decision as a psychological–societal phenomenon.  What psychological forces led Israel to agree to this deal? Why is it that only a Jewish state could possibly have done this? The answer to these questions lies in the values buried deep in the Jewish psyche from the time we received them at Mount Sinai, where G-d gave us the Torah 3323 years ago.  Generations of Jews have been born into the inspiring ethos of “and you shall choose life”, and infused with the lofty spirit of the Mishnah that to save one life is to “save the world”, and enlightened by the halachic principle that  pikuah nefesh overrides almost all mitzvot.  The government and the people of Israel supported the release of Gilad Shalit instinctively and emotionally because these Torah values are so deeply ingrained in our national psyche.  It is a decision no other country would have made. Or, in the words of our Shabbat afternoon prayers, “Who is like Your people Israel?”
Let us set aside our anguished deliberations about the wisdom of this decision, which is now a reality, and rather feel proud at the bold and eloquent message that went out to the nations of the world who watched the Jewish state defy the normal laws of human nature and society to sacrifice and risk so much to save just one life.  Remarkably, the Haftarah of the week of Shalit’s release spoke in the language of tomorrow where the prophet Isaiah said in the name of G-d : “I called you in righteousness, and have taken hold of your hand; … I have appointed you … to be a light to the nations; to open blind eyes, to bring prisoners out of a dungeon, those who sit in darkness out of a prison.”