Opposing Antisemitism After Pittsburgh

I am indebted to this powerful Rosh Hashanah sermon by Rabbi Angela Buchdahl at New York’s Central Synagogue, from which I borrowed some ideas and several sources.

I have stated, on more than one occasion, that this is the best time and place to be Jewish in human history.  We have never enjoyed so much freedom, success, safety, and acceptance by the wider society than we do today.  I still believe that.

But last week, we were reminded that antisemitism is very real, and it is not going away any time soon.

Last Shabbat at the Tree of Life synagogue, eleven Jews, men and women between 54 and 97 years old, were murdered while praying.  These are their names:

Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfrie, Rose Mallinger—97 years old, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, along with his brother—David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, Irving Younger.  May their memories be a blessing.

These were the most dedicated members of their community, the ones who, week after week, showed up at the beginning of services to ensure that there would be a minyan.  They are martyrs: Jews who died for the sanctification of God’s name.  

Their murderer, whose name I will not mention, shouted “All Jews must die” as he slaughtered them.

He did not care if his victims were Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox.  It did not matter to him whether they were Democrats or Republicans, or whether they leaned to the right or to the left.

All that mattered was that they were Jews.

While the shooter seems to have been working alone, his beliefs were consistent with views embraced by those who identify as part of White Power, Neo Nazi, or Alt-Right movements.  In an article in the The Atlantic last December, journalist Luke O’Brian summarizes White Nationalists’ fears of Jewish influence.

The Holohoax, as it is known, gives its adherents an excuse to blame everything they hate on a cabal of Jews: Feminism. Immigration. Globalization. Liberalism. Egalitarianism. The media. Science. Facts. Video-game addiction. Romantic failure. The NBA being 74.4 percent black. According to the Holohoax, it’s all a plot to undermine traditional white patriarchy so Jews can maintain a parasitic dominion over the Earth.

They see Jews as the top of the pyramid, the ultimate cause of everything that they consider bad.  

Saturday’s murderer had been railing against HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which is one of several agencies that partners with the Federal Government to settle refugees – legal refugees, by the way.  HIAS had sponsored National Refugee Shabbat the week before, and Tree of Life Synagogue had participated proudly.

In one of his final online posts, the shooter wrote: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people, I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”  

Who is to blame for letting immigrants in the country?  The Jews.  The ultimate Other.

Antisemitism has a long and terrible two thousand year history.  We have suffered countless persecutions: expulsions, forced conversions, torture, massacres during the Crusades, the blood libel, blame for the Black Death, the Inquisition, ghettos, the Chmielnitzki Massacres, pogroms, and of course the Holocaust.  

All of these and more were driven by hateful, antisemitic lies and stereotypes.  Jews are responsible for Jesus’ death, Jews are usurers, they are greedy, they have big noses and ears, they run the media, there is a secret organization of Jews that is controlling the world.

While these stereotypes originated in Christendom, they eventually spread into Muslim lands, where blood libels persist to this day and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is still in print.

While we seem to have made great progress after the horrors of the Holocaust, the old antisemitism is still very much with us.  

Anyone who has traveled to Europe and tried to visit a Jewish community knows that synagogues there are fortresses.  To attend services on Shabbat in many communities, you have to first send a picture of your passport.  I attended Tisha B’av services in Trieste, Italy, a few years ago.  We barely had a minyan, but we were protected by an Israeli security guard at the door, two machine gun wielding Italian carabinieri, and two undercover police officers.

A synagogue is supposed to be a welcoming place.  It is a House of Worship, a sanctuary, a place of peace.  Sadly, antisemitism prevents this.  But not in America.

Yes, there are some very large, mainly urban synagogues that employ security, but we take for granted that our shuls are open places.  We take pride in it.  As Sinai’s Rabbi, I am constantly inviting people to join us on Shabbat for services, and to stay for lunch afterwards.  I insist, with 100% sincerity, that we love having guests.

In the last week, we have been questioning this sense of safety and security.  We have learned most painfully that antisemitism in not just words and rhetoric.

While Jews in America are trusted and seen positively by higher percentages than ever, we are also seeing increasingly nasty antisemitism on the fringes of both the right and the left.  Let me give a few examples.  As I do, pay close attention to your emotions.  How do you feel as I describe the following examples?

First, the right.

A Republican candidate for State Senate in Connecticut sent out a campaign mailer this week attacking his opponent, Democratic State Representative Matthew Lesser, who happens to be Jewish.  The ad depicts a photoshopped picture of Lesser with bulging eyes, a maniacal grin, hands clutching wads of cash — not dissimilar to other antisemitic caricatures of Jews that have appeared over the past centuries.

Last year, White Nationalists held their Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, which resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer.  President Trump infamously told reporters, “I think there is blame on both sides…  You had some very bad people in that group… but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”  The Alt-Right took his words as an endorsement.

Just last week, the President proudly declared himself to be a “nationalist.”  And at a rally Saturday night, just hours after the massacre in Pittsburgh, he railed against immigrants, referring to this coming Tuesday as the “election of the caravan.”

Many have drawn connections between the President’s frequent anti-immigrant, anti-Other language and the hate-driven violence that we have recently witnessed, including the shooting of two African Americans in Kentucky, and the mailing of 14 pipe bombs to targets that the President has verbally attacked repeatedly.

That’s on the right.  How about the left?

Traditionally, the Jews of Great Britain have been strong supporters of the Labour Party.  But its current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has tolerated and even encouraged antisemitic rhetoric and actions within the party for years.  In 2012, Corbyn hosted a panel comprised of a number of Hamas members.  In 2013, he suggested that “Zionists don’t understand English irony.”  In 2014, he attended a memorial ceremony and placed a wreath for the terrorists who murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.  Just recently, the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee refused to accept the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.

Ilhan Omar is a Democratic representative in Minnesota’s House of Representatives.  This past August, she won the primary for the Democratic nomination for the House of Representatives in Minnesota’s 5th District, meaning she is all but certain to win the general election this Tuesday.  In 2012, she tweeted, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”

Liberal Jews should be natural allies for the Women’s March.  And yet, three of the Co-Chairs, most notably Tamika Mallory, have refused to denounce the march’s association with Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, who has a long history of blatantly antisemitic rhetoric, including praise of Hitler.

Just last Spring, Mallory attended the Nation of Islam’s annual gathering, at which Farrakhan praised her and declared “the powerful Jews are my enemy… the Jews have control of those agencies of government” like the FBI.  The Jews are “the mother and father of apartheid,” and they are responsible for “degenerate behavior in Hollywood turning men into women and women into men.”  When confronted with this, Mallory refused to disassociate herself or the Women’s March from him.  Quite the opposite, she has often praised and appeared in photographs with Farrakhan.

So let me ask a question.  Over the last four minutes, I spoke about antisemitism on the right and antisemitism on the left:  A Republican ad depicting a Jewish opponent with classic antisemitic imagery; President Trump’s divisive rhetoric encouraging right wing extremists.  I spoke about the leader of the British Labour Party’s tolerance, and even encouragement of antisemitic behavior.  I mentioned a soon to be elected Democratic Congresswoman who made references to global Zionist conspiracies.  And I spoke about an organizer of the Women’s March who has refused to renounce Louis Farrakhan.

Which made you more angry?  Be honest.  Who did you find yourself trying to excuse in some way?  

My guess is that those who consider themselves to be politically liberal got angrier about the antisemitism on the right, while those who consider themselves to be conservative got angrier about the antisemitism of the left.  And both sides probably found themselves minimizing, dismissing, or even rejecting the antisemitism on their own ideological side, or getting mad at me for even suggesting it.

I have been looking at myself this past week, and I have found that I have done all of these things.

On the Conservative Rabbis’ listserv, less than 24 hours had passed, and there were already arguments raging over who was to blame for the rhetoric that encouraged the shooter.  Of course, there were those who placed responsibility on President Trump for fanning the flames of hatred.  But in response, there were accusations that it was in fact President Obama who started the divisive language that led to Trump’s election and Saturday’s tragedy.

Here is what I have observed about how Jews react to antisemitism.  We blame the antisemitism of the other side.  It makes us so mad.  “Why don’t other Jews see it?” we ask in exasperation.

And then we ignore, excuse, or minimize the antisemitism on our own side.  “Those are just a few fringe elements,” we tell ourselves.  “They don’t really matter.”

What is the result?  A few things.  No antisemites change their minds.  Jews on the right and Jews on the left get angrier at each other.  We widen the rifts within the Jewish community. 

Right now, there is a small window of cooperation in our grief.  I was impressed by a joint editorial written by the ideologically opposed Editors-in-Chief of the Forward and The Algemeiner, and signed by a dozen leaders in Jewish journalism.  It was titled #WeAreAllJews.

We […] join together to unequivocally condemn this brutal act of antisemitism and all deadly acts of hate. We also condemn the climate of hate that has been building for some time now, especially on college campuses and on social media, where the veneer of anonymity has allowed antisemitic cesspools to flourish, and from irresponsible political leaders who engage in hateful speech and who are abetted by the silence of others.

I think we can all agree on the following:  Antisemitism is evil, whether it comes from the right or the left.  I can accept that you have a different opinion than me about taxes, or health care, or immigration policies.  But if there is one thing that ought to unite us, it ought to be our Judaism.  We have got to be united in opposing anyone who expresses hatred against the Jewish people, or who stokes that hatred.

What is more important?  Being a Democrat or Republican, a Conservative or a Liberal, or being Jewish?  Why would we ever let political affiliation to drive a wedge in the Jewish community?

Don’t just blame the other side.  From now on, I want all of us to commit to calling out the antisemitism that persists on the fringes of our own political perspectives.  Those who are active in progressive causes need to stay engaged.  And similarly with those involved in conservative causes.  Do not allow the organizations and movements that you care about to get hijacked by antisemitism.  Do not allow antisemitic—or any hateful language—to go unchecked.  

Racism and hatred should not have a place in our politics.  If we do not call it out, then we are responsible for allowing it to grow.

This past week, our wider Jewish community gathered together on two occasions.  The first was a service of mourning on Sunday night.  It was attended by more than 400 people who felt an urgent need to come together to express grief and offer each other comfort.

The second gathering was an Interfaith Vigil of Solidarity Against Hate, which took place on Tuesday.

It was a special event.  More than 600 people assembled at the plaza in front of San Jose City Hall.  Mayor Sam Liccardo and the entire City Council attended, along with Joe Simitian, President of the Santa Clara Country Board of Supervisors, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, and many of our other local elected officials.

There were also dozens of clergy, and laypeople of many faiths and ethnic backgrounds.  Protestant Ministers and Pastors, Catholic, Episcopalian, and Greek Orthodox Priests, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs. These religious leaders brought their congregants with them.

We came together to say that we will not succumb to hatred.  Despite many differences, we are united as human beings, and as Americans.  While the need that brought us together was tragic, the experience of standing shoulder to shoulder was so reassuring. 

How did such a diverse crowd come together?

On Saturday, as soon as news about the shooting emerged, I started receiving personal emails from interfaith colleagues and friends.  They expressed their sorrow to me and offered condolences to our community.  They said that they would be reciting prayers and lighting memorial candles during their worship services the next day.  They offered to help our community in any way possible, including standing outside our entrances during service so that we would feel safe while we prayed.

Who was it that sent these messages?  Some were members of a small interfaith group of which I am a member.  We have met every month for the past couple of years to study and learn from each other.

One email came from a representative of the Evergreen Mosque.  Last year, when that community received a bomb threat, I was one of several dozen people of different faiths who stood outside the entrance to support their community during its Friday prayers.  

Another came from a leader in the local Hindu community, who I have gotten to know through a different interfaith organization.

When we decided to hold the Interfaith Vigil, I immediately sent out the notification to my interfaith colleagues, and many of them came, on very short notice.

All of my local Rabbinic Colleagues had the same experiences.  And this is true of the countless other interfaith vigils, services, and rallies which have taken place around the country this past week.

A threat, or God forbid an attack, is uniquely personal to the community that experiences it.  Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh.  All Jews are interconnected with one another.  At the same, how remarkable it is that people from extraordinarily different traditions feel such profound empathy for one another.

Can you imagine this happening in any other time or place in history?

I suspect that many of you had experiences this week in which non-Jewish friends, acquaintances, or co-workers reached out to express their condolences and sorrow.  Why do you think they did that?

Because they see you as a whole person, and they know that being Jewish is an important part of who you are.  And they value you for that.  That is what makes America so special.  And that is why I do not think we are facing the same situation as Germany in the 1930’s, or even contemporary Europe.

Antisemitism will certainly continue to exist.  It may even turn violent.  But I have faith in the goodness of most people.  

I was reminded this week of a letter that President George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Road Island in 1790.  While his address is specifically addressed to the American Jewish community, it really expresses the best of what pluralism and religious freedom is supposed to be in America – for people of all faiths.  I would like to conclude with these words by our Founding Father.

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation.  All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship…

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

Amen.

Telephone Terrorism and Bomb Threats – Purim 5777

As you most likely know, our local Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos was evacuated on Thursday due to a bomb threat that came in via email sent to the general information address of the JCC.  We should all be proud of how professionally the staff of the four agencies that are housed in the JCC handled everything.

The JCC, Yavneh Day School, Jewish Family Services, and The Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley have undertaken extensive preparations, including practice drills.  When the real thing happened, therefore, they were prepared.

Ironically, there was an open meeting the previous night in which the security protocols were shared with the community.

As a Yavneh parent, I received notifications by text, email and recorded phone call, notifying me that the evacuation had taken place successfully, and that I needed to come pick up my children from the church next to the JCC.

From the moment I pulled up, I was impressed with the response.  The first person I saw, wearing a bright orange vest, was Mindy Berkowitz, the Director of JFS.  She was standing at the corner of Oka and Lark directing traffic and answering questions from Yavneh and JCC preschool parents who were coming to pick up their children.

Other staff were strategically placed to direct us in and answer questions.  The students were inside the church sanctuary.  They were calm and well-behaved.

On our way home, my kids had questions, but they were not scared or stressed.  I am grateful that there has been such thoughtful preparation.

I am also angry.

This whole episode, and the more than one hundred other evacuations of JCC’s, schools, museums, and Jewish organizations that have taken place over the past two months are infuriating.

I imagine that the perpetrator is some person or small group of people sitting around in a basement, googling “Jewish Community Center,” and randomly sending out these threats.  It is too easy.  And we have no choice but to take it seriously, because “what if…?”

A term that has been used to describe what is going on is “telephone terrorism.”  A simple phone call or email can prompt a huge, potentially scary response.  We must remember that this is the goal of terrorism – to provoke irrational terror in a population.  So to counter it, we must find a way to respond appropriately and realistically, recognizing that antisemitism is real, but also recognizing that the actual risk is low, and our need to continue living is great.

In trying to navigate my way through these experiences, I try to balance two opposing inclinations: naivety and fear.

I am struck by the timing, just a few days before Purim.  The story of Megillat Esther is the ultimate Jewish revenge fantasy.  Every detail in it is an extreme exaggeration.  It serves as a satirical parody of life in the Diaspora.  Consider if the themes in Megillat Esther have parallels to other periods in Jewish history, including our own.

The story of Purim is set in the Diaspora.  The Jews are a minority living among many other religious and ethnic groups.  They are not part of the dominant culture.

In the story, the government, at first, is ambivalent towards the Jews.  King Achashverosh does not even know they exist.  In the Megillah’s caricature of him, he is a buffoon who only wants to party.  Neither Haman nor Esther ever identify the Jews by name to the King.  Both of them refer simply to “a certain people.”

Haman, of course, is the wicked one.  Driven by personal hatred and jealousy, he sets out to exterminate the Jewish people from the Persian Empire.  He does it through lies and manipulation.

He tells the King that there is a certain people who are not to be trusted.  Their loyalties are divided.  They place their own laws above those of the King.  They are dispersed throughout the Empire, and thus represent a threat to his very rule.

Then, Haman promises to deposit ten thousand talents of silver, about 333 tons, a ridiculously impossible sum of money, into the royal coffers if the King will permit him to kill them all.  The King is so impressed by Haman’s report of this imminent danger, that he authorizes his scheme and declines the bribe.

Antisemitism rears its ugly head, and the Jews are powerless.  The Empire is partying and displaying its excesses, while Mordechai and his fellow refugees are struggling to eke out a living, still in shock over the Temple’s destruction.  Now, they face extermination within the year.

But then, in a miraculous turn of events, the Jews gain entry into the halls of power.  Esther, an orphan, is selected to be Queen.  She rises straight to the top.  Through her cleverness, she manages to turn the tables on Haman – in most bloody fashion.

The King claims to not be able to overturn his own decree.  Instead, he authorizes Esther’s executive order granting Jews throughout the Persian Empire permission to defend themselves against their enemies.  We don’t know who these enemies are, but they seem to be pervasive.  In two days, the Jewish people kill Haman, his ten sons, and 800 people in the capital city of Shushan.  They kill 75,000 of their enemies throughout the rest of the Empire.  Meanwhile, terror descends upon the other peoples of the lands, and a great many of them become Jews, or at least claim to be Jewish.

The story ends with Esther, Mordechai, and the rest of the Jewish people living happily ever after.

A detail that makes Megillat Esther particularly poignant is the absence of God’s name anywhere in the Megillah.  There are not even any references.  A midrash identifies the beginning of chapter six, when King Achashverosh cannot sleep, as a hidden allusion.  Nadedah sh’nat haMelekh.  The King’s sleep was disturbed.  Not King Achashverosh, but The King.  This is the turning point in the story, when things start to go well for the Jews.  Similarly, there is a tradition in many megillot for a scribe to start each column, beginning with column number two, with the word HaMelekh, putting God into the story.

We also live in a time in which God’s Presence is hidden.  It takes an act of interpretation and faith on our part to recognize God in the world.

At the end of the Megillah, Esther and Mordechai issue instructions for the annual observance of Purim, to celebrate the victory over their enemies.  How is it celebrated?  Through acts of violence to replicate the story in the Megillah?  No, quite the opposite.  Four mitzvot: reading the megillah – mikra megillah, having a Purim feast – seudat Purim, giving gifts of food to one another – mishloach manot, and giving gifts of food to the poor – matanot la-evyonim.

These are wonderful, community activities.  They bring us together in joy and merriment.  For a holiday that celebrates our violent deliverance from near annihilation, it’s pretty tame, if you ask me.  But it sets up two extreme responses to the precariousness of Diaspora life: violence and bloodshed on the one hand – and costume parties and feasting with our community, on the other.  The daily reality of Diaspora life lies somewhere in the middle.

Antisemitism is real.  We can’t be naive or complacent about that.  On the other hand, we cannot allow it to prevent us from celebrating together, from building community.

That is why our observance of Purim is so important, especially with what has been going on recently.  It helps us give voice to our fear, but also enables us to put it in context.

Thursday night, after the police announced the “all-clear” and the JCC reopened, the Yavneh school musical, Golden Dream, went ahead as scheduled.  There were so many audience members there that extra rows of seats had to be added in the back.  The musical was great.  The kids did a wonderful job.  But the evening was even more powerful given what everyone there had experienced earlier in the day.

It was a celebration of life, a celebration of our commitment to be engaged in the world despite uncertainty.

That is why I am so excited for Purim tonight and tomorrow.  I look forward to reading the Megillah together, dancing, singing, feasting, and sharing.  I hope you’ll join me.

Chag Purim Sameach.

Theodor Herzl’s Menorah – Chanukah 5776

If you ask most Jewish kids in America what their favorite holiday is, they’ll say Chanukah.  From a religious standpoint, it is not really that important of a holiday.  In Israel, Chanukah is really not that big of a deal, certainly when compared to the other Jewish holidays.  It got to be this way here in America because of its proximity to a certain other non-Jewish holiday.  “The Jewish Christmas” and all that.

At least, that is the typical complaint made by Rabbis lamenting the over-commercialization of Chanukah.

But maybe this is not such a uniquely American experience.

I came across a story written over one hundred years ago at a transitional moment in Jewish history.  A story that is as relevant  today as it was then.

HerzlTheodor Herzl, who would later become the father of modern Zioinism, is a secular Jewish journalist from Austria.  He is putting the finishing touches on his book Der Judenstaat – The Jewish State, earning him some notoriety.  He has developed a relationship with the Chief Rabbi of Vienna, Moritz Gudemann, who has become a good friend and advisor.  One day Rabbi Gudemann comes to Herzl’s home to discuss the forthcoming publication.  Rabbi Gudemann is shocked by what he finds.  Later that day, Herzl writes about it in his journal.  It is December 24, 1895.

I was just lighting the Christmas tree for my children when Gudemann arrived. He seemed upset by the “Christian” custom. Well, I will not let myself be pressured!  But I don’t mind if they call it the Hannukah tree–or the winter solstice.

Two years later, Herzl is living in Paris and reporting on the Dreyfus Affair.  The rampant antisemitism shakes him to his core and leads him to abandon his earlier assimilationist positions.  Herzl concludes that the only solution for the Jewish people is to have a homeland of their own, along with a re-embracing of Judaism.  With this realization, Herzl convenes the First Zionist Congress, and modern Zionism is born.

In December 1897, Herzl writes a short story entitled “The Menorah” which appears in the journal Die Welt, a weekly newspaper that he has recently begun publishing to promote Zionism.  The following is a paraphrased summary of Herzl’s story, utilizing some of his language.  (The full text of the story can be read here.)

Deep in his soul, he began to feel the need to be a Jew.  His circumstances were not unsatisfactory; he enjoyed ample income and a profession that permitted him to do whatever his heart desired.  For he was an artist.

Of course, Herzl is writing about himself.  He goes on to describe a thoroughly assimilated European Jew of the late nineteenth century.  When antisemitism rears its head, this enlightened Jew assumes that it will fade just as quickly.  But it does not, and his soul begins to wear down.

He begins to think of his Judaism.  Despite its alienness, he begins to love it intensely.  Gradually, his yearning crystalizes into a conviction that he must return to Judaism.  His closest friends think he is crazy, ridiculing him behind his back and even laughing in his face.  But he is indifferent to their sneers.

As an artist of the modern school and a man of the senses, he has embraced many non-Jewish habits and ideas.  How can he reconcile this modernity with his return to Judaism?  Doubt plagues him.  Perhaps it is too late for his generation, which has become so heavily influenced by alien cultures.  But the next generation, if it is trained in the proper path, will be able to make the return.

Until then, the artist has allowed the holiday of the Maccabees to pass by unobserved.  Now, however, he makes this holiday an opportunity to prepare something beautiful which should be forever commemorated in the minds of his children.

… He buys a Menorah, and when he holds the nine-branched candlestick in his hands for the first time, a strange mood overcomes him.  He grows nostalgic and sad when he recalls the memory of burning lights in his father’s house.

But the tradition is neither cold nor dead, he realizes.  It has passed through the ages, one light kindling another.

The artist begins to think about where the shape of the Menorah came from.  He sees in it the form of a tree: branches emerging from a central trunk to the right and the left, all ending at the same height.  Then the ninth branch projects to the front to play the role of shamash, servant to the others.

What mysterious meanings have previous generations passed down to the next about this simple, natural shape.  He imagines that he might be able to water this withered tree and restore it to life.  He joyfully recites its name to his children – Menorah – and delights in hearing it repeated back to him out of their mouths.

He lights the candle on the first night and tells his children what little he knows about the origin of the holiday.  The wonderful incident of the lights that strangely remained burning so long, the story of the return from the Babylonian exile, the second Temple, the Maccabees – our friend tells his children all that he knows.  It is not very much, to be sure, but it serves.

The next night, with the second candle, the artist’s children repeat back to him the stories that he had told them the night before.  Even though the stories are the same, they seem to him to be new and beautiful.

Each subsequent night is brighter than the previous.  The artist muses on the little candles with his children until the profundity becomes too deep for him to share.

When he first resolved to return to his people, he thought simply that he was doing an honorable and rational thing.  He never dreamed that he would find something that satisfied his yearning for beauty.  Yet that is what he found.

After the holiday, he sketches out a plan for a new Menorah to present to his children the following year.  The artist is searching for living beauty, so he does not limit himself to the strict traditional form of the Menorah.  Yet his design still takes form as a tree with slender branches.

The following year, he lights the Menorah with his children, the light increasing.  On the eighth night, a great splendor streams from the Menorah.  The children’s eyes glisten.  For our friend, all this is the symbol of the kindling of a nation.  When there is but one light, all is still dark, and the solitary light looks melancholy.  Soon, it finds one companion, then another, and another.  The darkness must retreat.

The light comes first to the young and the poor – then others join them who love Justice, Truth, Liberty, Progress, Humanity, and Beauty.

When all the candles burn, then we must all stand and rejoice over the achievements.  And no office can be more blessed than that of a Servant – a shamash – of the Light.

What a change!  In just two years, Herzl is transformed from a father casually lighting up a Christmas tree for his children to a Jew finding profound beauty and meaning in the kindling of the Menorah.  Such a tremendous inspiration.  What a legacy he has left us!

Chag Urim Sameach.  Happy Festival of Lights.

Va’era 5775 – France Without Jews is not France

We are still in shock over the murders by Islamic terrorists a week and a half ago of Yoav Hattab, Yohan Cohen, Philippe Braham and François-Michel Saada as they were doing some last-minute shopping before Shabbat.  Those killings, along with the attacks at the offices of Charlie Hebdo have been a wake-up call.  Much soul-searching is taking place in France, and around the world.

It seems that some people outside of the Jewish community are finally recognizing that there is a connection between antisemitic attitudes and rhetoric and terrorism – that ignoring the former will invariably lead to the latter.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared last week that “France without Jews is not France.”  To back up this sentiment, he announced on Monday that 10,000- military troops would be deployed to protect sensitive sites, and that 4,700 police officers would protect Jewish schools and synagogues.

At the rally in Paris last Sunday of a million and a half people, in addition to signs declaring “Je suis Charlie,” there were some that read “Je suis Juif.”  I am Jewish.

I imagine it must be at least somewhat reassuring to French Jews to have both the leaders of the country as well as some of its citizens taking their safety seriously and making commitments to protect them because they recognize that French Jews are citizens of the country who make up an important and integral part of the national fabric.

Not everyone is so hopeful.  On Sunday, Prime Minister Netanyahu, attending the rally in Paris, explicitly invited the Jews of France to move to Israel.  “Israel is your home,” he said.  This was not the first time that an Israeli leader urged French Jews to make aliyah.  In 2012, at a joint press conference with President Francois Hollande, Netanyahu said:  “In my role as Prime Minister of Israel, I always say to Jews, wherever they may be, I say to them: Come to Israel and make Israel your home.”

It has not only been Netanyahu.  At a ceremony in 2004 welcoming new immigrants from France, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon advised French Jews to “move immediately” to Israel to escape “the wildest antisemitism” in France.

The French were not pleased then either.

There is something of a rhetorical tug of war going on here between those who say that “France without Jews is not France,” and those who claim that there is no future for Judaism there.

This is not the first time the Jewish people have faced this question.  In this morning’s Torah portion, Va-era, there is also a tug of war over the future of the children of Israel.  At the opening of the parashah, they are enslaved in Egypt.  God has identified Moses as the prophet who will carry the message “Let my people go” to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of slavery and to the Promised Land.

Not everyone wants to see the Israelites leave, however.  Pharaoh and his court, certainly, do not want to see their enslaved workforce disappear.  The Israelites themselves are skeptical of Moses’ insistence that God is going to lead them away.  They prefer an enslaved life that they know to an uncertain life of freedom.

God knows, however, that there is no future for Israel in the land of Egypt.

God hears the groaning of the Israelites and remembers the commitment made to their ancestors generations before.  God promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that their offspring would be as numerous as the stars and would one day inherit the land of Israel.  They would be a blessing to the world.  This is a destiny that cannot be fulfilled by slaves in a foreign land.

God tells Moses:

Say… to the Israelite people…  I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage.  I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.  And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God.  (Exodus 6:6-7)

These four verbs – “I will free you, I will deliver you, I will redeem you, and I will take you” – are the four stages of redemption that our Passover Seder identifies as the basis of the four cups of wine.

In this redemption, freedom is only part of God’s promise.  God also means to build a covenantal relationship with the Jewish people.  Central to that covenant is the establishment of a Jewish society in the Promised Land.  Only then can the Jewish people become what God has intended for them to become.  Only then will they realize their potential and flourish.

This tug of war in the Torah between slavery and freedom, between Egypt and Israel, is black and white.  In the millennia since our ancestors first became free, the question of where the Jewish people can best flourish has been more complicated.  Maimonides, fleeing persecution in Spain and then Morocco, made his way to the land of Israel.  There, he found a backwards Jewish community in which he did not see a future.  So he kept going South and settled in the thriving Jewish community of Fustat, Egypt.

We are a people that is both rooted in our Promised Land, and capable of bringing our faith and identity with us wherever we go.  We have been successful at it, developing tight-knit communities whose members support one another and are a force for good in their surrounding environments.

Part of the importance of the State of Israel today is that it truly functions as the homeland of the Jewish people.  Robert Frost said “Home is the place where, if you have to go there, they have to take you in.”  Israel is that home for Jews, wherever we happen to be living right now.

Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, it has opened its doors to refugees from the Holocaust, masses of Jews fleeing pogroms in North Africa and the Middle East, Jews of the Former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.  “Welcome home,” Israel said.

So what of the Jews of France today?

The Jewish community in France is significant.  There are an estimated 500,000 Jews living in France.  The is the largest community in Europe and the third largest in the world.  It is a diverse, cosmopolitan community, comprised of Jews across the religious spectrum – from secular to ultra-Orthodox, and everything in between.

The last few years have seen a rise in acts of antisemitism.  This has led to increasing numbers of French Jews deciding to move to Israel.  Last year, nearly 7,000 French Jews made aliyah, more than double the previous year.  With continued anti-Jewish violence, that number is expected to be even higher this year, perhaps as many as 10,000.

When we consider the long history of Judaism in France, it is particularly sad that the community finds itself facing so much pressure now, because France has really come a long way.

The first Jews probably arrived about 2,000 years ago.  Attracted by economic opportunities, they did well in the early middle ages.  Charlemagne embraced the Jews, seeing them as a blessing to his kingdom.

The Crusades brought new attitudes across Europe.  Rulers stoked antisemitism, and peasants took out their frustrations on their vulnerable Jewish neighbors.

The persecutions began around the year 1000 CE.  Jewish communities were often confronted with the choice of conversion to Christianity, death, or exile.  Several waves of expulsions took place in 1182, 1306, and 1394.  Jews often had property and assets seized, or debt owed to them cancelled.  Blood libel accusations were frequent.

Don’t think, however, that it was all bad – that the middle ages were centuries upon centuries of pure suffering.  Also during this time, there were Jewish communities that thrived, enjoying prosperity and cultural flowering.  Some of the most important Jewish leaders and thinkers in history came from France.

Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, more commonly known as Rashi, is the most important commentator of the Torah and Talmud in Jewish history.  He lived and taught in Troyes, in Northern France in the eleventh century and gave rise to a school of innovative Jewish thinkers that flourished for several generations.

As the years passed, the Jews of France, as they were everywhere else in the world, were seen as other, and treated as second-class citizens, at best.

By the 1780’s there were approximately 40-50,000 Jews living in France.  They had legal status to be there, but with extremely limited rights.  They were basically restricted to the money-lending business.  Things were changing in Europe, however, especially in France.  The Enlightenment had taken hold, and there were finally some Christian voices that were calling for tolerance and acceptance of minorities.

The French Revolution of 1789, with its ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, introduced the notion that all residents of a nation could be considered citizens, regardless of their religious affiliation.

The change was sporadic and haphazard, as the chaos of the revolution proceeded and the Reign of Terror took hold, but the Jews of France recognized that something new was happening, and they were excited about the possibilities.  Jewish communities helped fund the revolution, and Jewish soldiers joined the Army of the Republic in its battles against other European countries.  Many Jews patriotically gave their lives for the sake of their French homeland.

When Napoleon came to power, he wanted to finally resolve the Jewish question.  In 1806, he convened the Assembly of Jewish Notables, naming it the Grand Sanhedrin.  Twelve questions were posed to it members, the answers to which would determine the future status of the Jews of France.  Those questions included:

• May a Jewess marry a Christian, or [May] a Jew [marry] a Christian woman? or does Jewish law order that the Jews should only intermarry among themselves?

• In the eyes of Jews, are Frenchmen not of the Jewish religion considered as brethren or strangers?

• Do the Jews born in France, and treated by the law as French citizens, acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it? Are they bound to obey the laws and follow the directions of the civil code?

• What kind of police jurisdiction do the rabbis exercise over the Jews? What judicial power do they exercise over them?

The answers the Assembly gave essentially declared Jews to be French citizens first, and Jews second.  Intermarriages would be considered binding.  French Jews would consider non-Jews to be their brethren.  Jews would consider France to be their fatherland, and would defend it when called upon, etc.

When asked if they wanted to be citizens, with all that it would entail, the Jews of France answered with a resounding “oui.”

In 1807, Napoleon added Judaism as an official religion of France.  As his armies moved across Europe, Napoleon liberated Jewish communities of other lands from the ghettos to which they had been restricted.

Emancipation was not yet complete, however.  In 1846, the Jews of France became fully equal when the French Supreme Court found the More Judaico, the Jewish oath, rooted in medieval antisemitism, to be unconstitutional.  Legally, the Jews of France were now fully French, with rights equal to Catholics and Protestants.

The social reality, however, was quite different.  Despite tremendous efforts by Jews to assimilate into French society, antisemitism was still widespread.  At the end of the nineteenth century, a traditionalist faction of army officers concocted a plot to frame a young Jewish Captain named Alfred Dreyfus for treason.  The subsequent trials were a major political scandal in France that lasted from 1894 – 1906 and that divided the country between the anticlerical, pro-republic Dreyfusards and the pro-army, mostly Catholic anti-Dreyfusards.

Theodore Herzl was a secular Jewish journalist who had grown up in antisemitic Austro-Hungary and moved to France due to what he perceived as its progressive, humanist values.  He was a strong proponent of Jewish assimilation into European culture as the solution to the Jewish problem, which had become “an obsession for him.”  (Dictionary of the Dreyfus affair, Nichol, p. 505.)  Herzl’s coverage of the Dreyfus Affair in 1895, however, led him to conclude that Jews would never be accepted by the non-Jewish world.  As much as Jews had given up to become citizens, they would never be seen as equals.

In his book, Der Judenstaat, Herzl writes:

If France – bastion of emancipation, progress and universal socialism – [can] get caught up in a maelstrom of antisemitism and let the Parisian crowd chant ‘Kill the Jews!’ Where can they be safe once again – if not in their own country? Assimilation does not solve the problem because the Gentile world will not allow it as the Dreyfus affair has so clearly demonstrated.

Herzl subsequently founded the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, creating Zionism as a political movement and laying the foundation for the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel.  If the Gentile world is incapable of accepting Jews as equals, Jews will have to establish a land of their own where they constitute a majority and are free to determine their own fate.

At the beginning of World War Two, there were 350,000 Jews living in France, a number of them having fled Germany in the 1930’s.  During the Holocaust, one fifth of France’s Jewish population were murdered by the Nazis, often with the collaboration of French officials and citizens.  There were also many enlightened French who saved Jews.  France has the third highest number of people honored as Righteous Among the Nations among any country.

Between 1948 and 1967, France was a strong supporter of Israel, with close military ties.  The Israeli nuclear reactor in Dimona was built with significant assistance from the French government in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Israeli Air Force pilots flew French fighter jets in the Six Day War in 1967.

By the end of the twentieth century, France’s population had among the most favorable attitudes towards Jews of any country in Europe.

The resurgence of anti-Semitism over the last fifteen years has come from a non-traditional  source.  While there are still antisemitic attitudes from those on the far right and the far left, the rise in anti-Jewish activity has been attributed mainly to increasing violence by people in the French Muslim community.  Flare-ups have tended to occur especially when there is political tension in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In addition to the terrorist attack on the Hypercacher grocery store, there have been other murders, acts of vandalism, attacks against synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses, anti-Jewish demonstrations and chants, and more.

That is why French Jews are increasingly nervous, why French emigration is up, and why real estate prices in Israel are soaring.

I am not French, but I doubt that we are going to see a mass Exodus of the entire Jewish community of France to Israel.  I hope and pray that there is a thriving future for the Jews of France.

Like you, I am extremely concerned for our Jewish brothers and sisters who had to cancel Shabbat services at some synagogues last week and who require police and military presence at all of their institutions.  I hope that this wake-up call to the French people will lead to action, will help them realize that the Jewish people are the proverbial canary in the coal mine, because the Prime Minister is correct when he says “France without Jews is not France.”

Blinded by Fear – Rosh Hashanah 5775 (first day)

Today is the day when Jews around the world celebrate the new year, so it is a good time for us to take stock of how things are going around the world for the Jewish people.  Let us start with a place where things are great for the Jews – Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan is one of Israel’s closest allies.  In 1991, when Azerbaijan declared independence from the U.S.S.R., Israel was one of the first countries in the world to recognize it.  A community of around 10,000 Jews live there, with the Mountain Jews tracing their roots back 1500 years.  The Jewish Agency has had a school in Azerbaijan since 1982.  There is very little antisemitism, and Jews there are an important part of society.

Israel and Azerbaijan have close diplomatic relations.  Trade connections are strong and growing.  Israel is one of the major providers of military equipment, and has helped modernize Azerbaijan’s armed forces.  They have cooperate closely in intelligence gathering and in the fight against terrorism.  If Israel ever has to launch a strike against Iran’s nuclear program, it is likely that the plan will involve the use of an Azerbaijani airfield.

In 2010, the Azerbaijani President banned the issuing of visas at the airport for visitors from every country in the world except for two, one of which was Israel.  The majority of the population of Azerbaijan is Muslim.  So there is one shining example of sanity in our world.

Of course, much of what our people have experienced around the world has not been so positive.  Our brothers and sisters suffered through a fifty day war with Hamas this summer.  Incidents of antisemitism have been on the rise in Europe.  In Belgium a few months ago, four people were murdered at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, by a suspected Frenchman of Algerian descent who had come back after a year fighting with ISIS.  Just a couple of weeks ago, there was an arson attack against a synagogue that was also firebombed back in 2010.

Two Muslim girls were recently arrested for plotting to blow up the Great Synagogue in Lyon, France.

A cell phone store in Istanbul recently posted a sign which read “The Jew dogs cannot come in here.”

European synagogues typically station armed guards outside for weekly Shabbat services.  If you visit the website of many European synagogues, you will see something like “To attend services, please bring photo identification or fax a copy of your passport.”  Jews in Europe are feeling less and less safe.  Perhaps that is why the rates of aliyah of Jews from Western Europe increased by 35% in 2013, and are continuing to increase this year.  It is too bad for Western Europe.  Historically, nations who expel their Jews tend to go downhill shortly afterwards.

So…  Did you pay more attention to the good news or the bad news?  Which evoked a stronger emotional reaction – Azerbaijan or Europe?  I am going to guess that it was the latter.

Fear is an extremely powerful emotion, one that blinds us to the blessings that stare us right in the face and often leads us to behave irrationally, bury our heads in the sand, or adopt fatalistic attitudes about the future.

If this is the time of year for taking stock of our lives, for conducting a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, then it behooves us to look both inward and outward with open eyes.  Accountants, after all, need accurate data to make their calculations.

In the Torah portion for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, fear leads to nearly disastrous consequences.  At Isaac’s weaning celebration, Sarah sees something that terrifies her.  Ishmael, her handmaiden’s son with Abraham, is playing with Isaac in a way that causes her to fear for her son’s future.  To ensure that Isaac will not have to deal with his half-brother, she demands that Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness.  Although troubled, Abraham complies after God assures him things will turn out okay.  He gives the unfortunate mother and son provisions and sends them away.

When the food and water run out, Hagar begins to despair.  Thinking the end is near, she places Ishmael under a bush so that she will not have to watch him die.  Then she bursts into tears.  She is despondent and passive.

The boy is also wailing, and his cries reach heaven.  God sends an angel to Hagar, who scolds her: Mah lakh Hagar?  Al tir’i – “What troubles you, Hagar?  Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.  Come, lift up the boy by his hand for I will make a great nation of him.”  (Genesis 21:17-18)

Then God opens her eyes and shows her a well of water.  Ishmael survives and grows to become the father of a great nation.

How is it possible that Hagar could have missed a well of water that was right there all along?  In the desert, wherever there is water, there are signs of it.  Plants grow where springs bubble up from the earth.  How could she not have seen it?

And how could she not have seen her son’s greatness, his destiny to become the father of a great nation?

It was fear.  The angel recognizes it instantly.  “What troubles you, Hagar?  Fear not…”  Fear blinds her to the blessings that are in front of her.

This story presents two different responses to fear.  Sarah reacts to her fear by lashing out.  Hagar’s fear leads her to bury her head in the sand, abandoning her son in his time of need.

Edmund Burke, the eighteenth century Irish statesman and supporter of the American Revolution, once said:  “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.”

How much are our lives controlled by fear!  Fear-filled messages surround us.  They are so ubiquitous that we do not even notice them.  Here are a few examples.

The cosmetics industry.  The marketing of makeup, hair products, age-defying skin creams and the like, is based on the premise that we should be afraid of our bodies getting old, as if that is something than can be prevented.

The organic food industry is growing at a rate of approximately 14% per year, driven by fear.  We pay more money to ostensibly protect ourselves and our children from pesticides, growth hormones, and genetically modified organisms.  Milk containers often include the following two contradictory statements:  “This milk is from cows not treated with rbST,” implying that rbST is something we should be worried about, and “The Food and Drug Administration has determined there is no significant difference between milk from rbST treated cows and non-rbST treated cows.”  So is rbST safe?  I have absolutely no idea… but am I willing to risk it for myself and my family?

Politicians are notorious for using fear-mongering to attract votes and raise funds.  To avoid setting off any partisan debates with a contemporary example, let’s go back fifty years.  The famous “Daisy” ad of 1964 features a cute little two-year-old girl standing in a field, picking petals off of a flower while she counts to ten.  As soon as she reaches nine, an ominous male voice starts counting down.  “Ten, nine, eight…”  The camera zooms in to the girl’s face and her eyes open wide as she sees something alarming in the distance.  When the countdown reaches zero, we are shown the image of a nuclear explosion and its billowing mushroom cloud.  Lyndon Johnson’s voice then warns, “These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.” Then another voice summons us to “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”  The ad was only shown once before it was pulled, but it left its mark.  Fear attracts votes.

In reporting the news, it is accepted as an ironclad law that good news will not sell more papers, but a headline about the latest ISIS attack, the spread of the Ebola virus, or the most recent grisly murder in San Jose will.  The growth of the internet and social media, and the change in the news business, have only exacerbated this.  Information moves so fast, and there is so much competition, that those who hope to share information are pressured to use any means possible to get attention, and that means fear.

Do not think that we Jews are above it.  Jewish organizations frequently use fear to garner support, whether we are talking about the the existential threats facing Israel, worsening cultures of antisemitism on college campuses, declining rates of Jewish affiliation, and so on.

The pervasive messages of fear that inundate us leave their mark.  Our world feels like a dangerous place.  The United States no longer has the influence and clout that it once enjoyed.  Our economic recovery is precarious.  Terrorism is on the rise, along with violence against women, human trafficking, illegal immigration, economic inequality, rising sea levels, pollution, drought, disease, war…  The list goes on.

Nevertheless, I am happy to report that things have never been better.

Fact:  On a global scale, we are living in the safest, freest, most peaceful time in human history.

Before we go any further, let us acknowledge that war is tragic, and violence produces real human suffering.  Nearly two hundred thousand people have been killed in the civil war in Syria, and millions have fled as refugees.  In Nigeria, Boko Haram takes schoolgirls captive and terrorizes through rape and murder.

As a people, we know what it means to be the victims of persecution and discrimination.  It has sadly been part of the Jewish experience for thousands of years.  During the Holocaust, the Nazis murdered nearly two thirds of the Jews of Europe, representing more than one third of Jews globally.  This cannot be minimized.  We must never trivialize the loss or suffering of anyone who has been the victim of violence, whether war, genocide, domestic, or other.

But speaking about humanity as a whole, we have allowed fear to blind us to the many blessings of our world.

Profesoor Steven Pinker, a Pyschologist at Harvard, wrote a book a few years ago called The Better Angels of Our Nature, in which he looks at actual data about violence throughout human history and finds that the twentieth century was the safest, most peaceful century in human history.  So far, the twenty-first is looking even better.

But what about World War One, World War Two, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, Syria, Ukraine?  Conventional wisdom says that the twentieth century was the bloodiest, most violent ever.  The problem with that claim, Professor Pinker points out, is that nobody who makes it looks at evidence from any other century.

Previous centuries saw wars with names like “The Thirty Years War,” “The Eighty Years War,” and “The Hundred Years War” (which was actually 116 years).  Five hundred years ago, the Great Power nations typically spent about 75% of their time in a state of war with each other.  There has not been a Great Powers War since 1945.

Contrary to what all of the experts forecasted during the Cold War, America and the Soviet Union never went to war against each other.  Nuclear weapons were not used since the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The truth is, the overall trajectory of human history demonstrates a falling likelihood that any given person would die a violent death.

Professor Pinker starts at the beginning.  Looking at the archaeological remains of prehistoric human skeletons around the world, it turns out that approximately fifteen percent of them show physical signs of having died by human caused violence.

In Europe and the United States through the entire twentieth century, including both world wars, approximately .6% of deaths resulted from violence.  Globally, during the twentieth century, violent deaths, including those resulting from man-made famines, account for about three percent of all deaths.  In the year 2005, .03% percent of deaths globally were the result of violence.

Violence within societies has also fallen dramatically.  A person living in England today has about 1/35 the chance of being murdered as his or her medieval ancestor.  This is true in every European country for which we have data.

Corporal punishment, once common, was outlawed in the United States by the 8th Amendment, which banned cruel and unusual punishment.

Although the US is the only country in the western world that has not abolished the death penalty, our execution rate is only about 45 per year in a country with almost 15,000 homicides.

Violent crime has been steadily declining for decades in both per capita and absolute terms in every single category, including murder, robbery, rape, assault, property crime, and so on.  Society is getting more peaceful.

Slavery was legal everywhere on earth until the middle of the 18th century.  As of 1980, when Mauritania abolished it, slavery is now illegal in every country on the planet, although it does persist as an underground problem.

Extreme poverty is also declining globally.  In 1990, 43.1% of human beings lived on less than the equivalent of $1.25 per day.  In 2010, it was down to 20.6.  We still have a long way to go, but that is a remarkably fast improvement.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the average global life expectancy was 31.  In 2010, the world average was 67.2.

Globally, 84.1% of people fifteen and older know how to read and write.  Under the Millennium Goals, between 1999 and 2007, the percentage of children enrolled in primary schools in sub-Saharan Africa increased from 58% to 74%.

Freedom is spreading also.  Approximately half of the world’s population now lives under some sort of democratic rule.

Women’s rights have improved dramatically.  While domestic abuse is still a problem, it is nearly universally condemned in the US today, as we are currently witnessing as the NFL is trying to address domestic violence by professional football players.

Gay rights have expanded at a very quick pace, with nineteen states plus the District of Colombia and the federal government now recognizing same sex marriage.

What has caused all of this improvement?  It is not because human nature has changed.  Pinker identifies several factors.  One is the expansion of international commerce.  It is in everyone’s best interest to have trade between countries, and that requires peace.  Literacy and education have also been huge factors.  The ability to read exposes a person to other ideas, other ways of living and believing.  And this expands what he calls “the empathy circle.”  If I can imagine what it might be like to stand in another person’s shoes, I am much less likely to take pleasure when I watch that person burned at the stake.

Societies comprised of people with more education tend to experience lower violence and less racism, and are more receptive to democracy.

Do not get me wrong.  Things are far from perfect.  There is still tremendous suffering, injustice, and inequality that requires a lot of focus.  Civil wars rage.  The spread of militant Islam cannot be ignored.  But as a human species, we must acknowledge that we have made incredible gains.  For vast numbers of people in the world, life has never been better.

What about in the Jewish world?

Again, I do not want to deny the seriousness of the threats facing Israel, nor of Jews in Europe who are dealing with often violent antisemitism, nor of the oppressive culture on many college campuses.  But let us take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

In his 2010 book American Grace, based on a massive survey of Americans’ attitudes about religion, the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam reports that Jews are the most admired religious community in America.  A 2009 study by the Anti Defamation League found “anti-Semitic attitudes equal to the lowest level in all the years of taking the pulse of American attitudes toward Jews.”  (http://forward.com/articles/133047/robert-putnam-assays-religious-tolerance-from-a-un/)

Reacting to the good news, Abraham Foxman, the National Director of the ADL, said that “…the significant diminution of widespread prejudice against Jews is tempered by the manifestation of violence, conspiracy theories and insensitivities toward them.”  (http://archive.adl.org/presrele/asus_12/5633_12.html#.VBn32Uu7uoo)

Can’t we just be happy that they like us?

As Abba Eban once said, “Show us a silver lining and we will search for the cloud.”

I am sure that you have probably received dozens of emails listing all of Israel’s extraordinary accomplishments.  Let me mention just a few to make the point.  Israel produces more scientific papers per capita than any country on earth – by a lot.  It has the highest concentration of high tech companies in the world outside of Silicon Valley.  Israel is number two in the world for venture capital funds, behind the U.S.  It is the only country in the world that entered the 21st century with a net gain in trees.  It has developed dozens and dozens of life saving medical devices, not to mention all of the other high tech innovation.  Israel is a leader in solar power and water desalinization technology.  Israel has more museums per capita and is second in books published per capita.  Israel is the one country in the Middle East in which Christianity is growing.  It is the only country in which women can travel freely without the permission of a male guardian.  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-steven-carr-reuben-phd/imagine-a-world-without-i_1_b_5706935.html)

And so on…

But isn’t Israel a dangerous place?  That is a question that people ask me all the time.

In 2013, the rate of violent deaths per capita in Jerusalem was slightly less than that of Portland, one of America’s safest cities.

In the more than 100 year history of violence between Israel and its Arab neighbors, there have been 70,000 fewer deaths than in the Syrian civil war of the past three years.  In 2013, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict claimed 42 lives, about the monthly murder rate in Chicago.  (http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/183033/israel-insider-guide)

Even in this summer’s fighting, the enormous lengths that Israel undertook to minimize civilian deaths on both sides of the border were extraordinary.  Can you imagine how that war would have gone if any other country had been in Israel’s position?

Some will call it naive, but Israel is doing pretty good.

But in the words of the Israeli author S. Y. Agnon upon receiving the Nobel Prize: “Who remembers the blessings?  I have received so many.  I remember those who did not bless me.”

As we celebrate the beginning of the year 5775, let us start to look for the blessings.  Let us recognize and be thankful that we live in one of the most diverse, tolerant, and affluent communities in human history.

Let us look with open eyes at this world that God has created.  Where have things gone well?  When have we reached our fullest human potential?  How have we made life better for each other?  What problems that used to cause suffering are now solved because we pulled together?  It should be a long list.

Then, when we look at the persistent challenges facing us today, let fear not cause us to hide, nor to overreact.

One hundred years from now, what global challenges of today will our descendants look back on and wonder why it took us so long to fix: rising carbon emissions, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, income inequality, lack of treatment for those with mental illness, oppression of women in the developing world, lack of universal access to safe drinking water?

Which challenges facing the Jewish people must we address?  There are communities in which our fellow Jews are struggling, where synagogues, because of real threats, station armed guards 365 days a year, not just on the High Holidays.  At anti-Israel demonstrations in Europe,  people shout “Death to the Jews.”  At some college campuses, 18 year old Jewish students must walk by people screaming at them as “baby killers” on their way to class.  Israeli children live under the threat of rocket attacks.

What are we doing to support them?  Not enough.

Fear gets in the way.  A sizable portion of the Jewish community responds by burying its head in the sand.  Why be tied to the fate of a people that constantly faces existential threats?  Another portion of the community responds with bellicosity, stifling debate and branding anyone who disagrees a “self-hating Jew.”

Where is the community solidarity that we demonstrated in the movement to free the Jews of the Former Soviet Union; the willingness of Jewish communities across America, including this one, to welcome refugees into their homes?  We need to bring the best of what Judaism offers to the challenges facing our people, and the challenges facing our world.

As Jews, we have learned much about building caring communities based on the values of Torah, passing Jewish tradition down to our children, and keeping our identity while engaging positively with a surrounding non-Jewish culture.  We have learned to succeed in science, medicine, art, politics, finance, philanthropy, and the pursuit of social justice.  As Jews, we have a lot of accomplishments.

So instead of always asking, “what is wrong with the world,” this year, let us ask “what is right with the world?”

L’Shanah Tovah.