A Covenant of Peace – We Must Not Give in to Rage – Pinchas 5774

These have been difficult days for our brothers and sisters in Israel, who as we speak, are experiencing war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.  I have found myself this week checking the various news sources every few hours for updates on the situation.  I have also felt what I think many Jews in the Diaspora feel at times like this, a desire to be in Israel, to be with our people as they experience this terror.

Thank God that Israel has developed such effective ways of protecting its people from the indiscrimate launching of rockets at population centers, now reaching as far as Haifa.  The Iron Dome defense system has managed to successfully intercept ninety percent of the rockets it targets.  Israel’s siren warning system gives advance notice to Israelis so that they have time to reach a nearby bomb shelter.  The result has been an extremely low casualty rate thus far.  For this we must be grateful and pray that it continue.

Nevertheless, the terror and psychological trauma of living under constant threat is awful, especially for children.

The Israeli public is almost universally behind the military’s efforts to defend the population against hundreds of rockets that are being launched with the explicit goal of killing and terrorizing civilians.

The IDF has targeted Hamas’ military and command centers, taking great efforts to limit civilian casualties, including calling cell phones in advance to warn residents to evacuate.  Hamas, which deliberately locates its weapons in civilian areas, has issued calls for civilians to congregate at those sites so that they can be human shields.  That the Israeli military has destroyed more than 1,000 underground rocket launchers, smuggling tunnels, command centers, and other strategic locations with only 100 deaths is extraordinary, and suggests a concerted effort to limit harm to the Palestinian population.

Nevertheless, every life is precious.  Every human is created in the image of God, and we must never delight in the death and suffering of the innocent.  While I am glad for the low casualty rate in Israel, I find myself feeling terrible when think about what it must be like for someone trapped in Gaza.

Sadly, it feels like we have been here before.  In 2008, Israel invaded Gaza in reponse to rocket fire in Operation Cast Lead.  In 2010, Israel launched air strikes in reponse to Hamas rockets in Operation Pillar of Defense.  This track record suggests that violence might not bring about the goal that I think all reasonable people share: in the short term, the halting of rocket fire; amd in the long term, peace.

Indeed, violence so often begets more violence.  This current crisis has come about due to violent acts spiralling out of control.  First was the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teens: Naftali Frankel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar, by three suspected terrorists from Hebron.  Then came the revenge murder of an Arab teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, by three Jewish terrorists.  Since then, the violence has only escalated.

This morning’s Torah portion, Pinchas, shows us that there are threats that must be met with violence, but warns of the slippery slope towards which unchecked passion and vengeance can lead.

The Parashah continues a tale that began at the end of last week’s portion.

The Israelites, specifically the men, consort with Midianite (or in one reference, Moabite) women, who have been luring them to sacrifice to their foreign gods.  Predictably, this provokes God’s anger, and a plague results that indiscriminately strikes the innocent along with the guilty.

What is going on here is nothing less than an existential threat to the entire nation.  The idolatry of the Israelites threatens the moral integrity of the people, while the plague threatens their physical existence.

Something must be done to counter this threat.

Pinchas, the son of Eleazar the High Priest and Moses’ great nephew, takes immediate action.  He grabs a spear, and publicly impales an Israelite named Zimri and a Midianite named Cozbi.  This bold act stops the sinning in its tracks, calms God’s wrath, and ends the plague – but not before 24,000 Israelites have already been killed.

This morning’s Torah portion, named after Pinchas, continues the story with God’s enthusiastic approval and endorsement of the hero.  “Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the Priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me…”  (Numbers 25:11)

God continues with a blessing for Pinchas and his future descendants.  “Behold I give to him b’riti shalom, ‘my covenant of peace.'” (Ibid. 25:13)

This glorification of Pinchas’ zealous actions does not sit well with our Sages.  A midrash in the Palestinian Talmud (Sanhedrin 9:7) describes how the elders of Israel disapprove of Pinchas taking matters into his own hands without first going through a judicial process.  They fear that permitting zealous actions is a recipe for disaster.  Without a trial, how can we distinguish between an impassioned believer carrying out God’s will and a fired-up individual acting out on his own whims and desires.  The purpose of a judicial system is to remove the passion and zeal which so often ends in violence and injustice.

The elders of Israel are so terrified of what Pinchas represents that they want to excommunicate him, but a heavenly spirit comes to overrule them, affirming that Pinchas’ zeal has been only for the sake of God.

Pinchas’ reward is a brit shalom, an everlasting covenant of peace.  On its surface, it is a promise that Pinchas need not fear revenge from the families of those he has just killed.  On a deeper level, God’s granting a covenant of peace is a warning.  Yes, passion for God is a good thing.  Stepping in boldly to avert a crisis or to combat evil is sometimes necessary.  But we have seen too many cases throughout history, up to and including the present time, of impassioned people acting out of their own selfish interests, claiming that it is God whom they serve.

This is the rhetoric of Hamas, and it is also the rhetoric of the three Jewish murderers of the innocent Arab teenager.

Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the nineteenth century principal of the Volozhin Yeshiva, explains that God’s promise to Pinchas of a brit shalom, a covenant of peace, is a blessing “that he should not be quick-tempered or angry.  Since, it was only natural that such a deed as Pinhas’ should leave in his heart an intense emotional unrest afterward, the Divine blessing was designed to cope with this situation and promised peace and tranquility of soul.”  (Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Berlin, Ha’amek Davar, in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, p. 331)

The brit shalom is a protection against the burning passion buried in each of our hearts that pushes us to violence and revenge, that causes us to gloat over the fall of our enemies, and that leads us to dehumanize the other.

At a time such as we now face, we need the blessing of a brit shalom more than ever.  As the Israel Defense Forces uses violence to legitimately combat Hamas and protect the citizens of Israel, the risk of us succumbing to our inner zeal rises.

I am heartened by the outpouring of anger and deeply-felt embarrassment by Jews across the religious and political spectrum at the evil murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.  In the last week, thousands of Israelis have paid condolence visits to the Abu Khdeir family.  It reassures me that we have not lost our moral compass.

Let us pray for a brit shalom, a covenenat of peace in our own hearts and the hearts of the Jewish people to always exercise restraint, to always treasure the sanctity of human life, whether a Jewish child hiding in a bomb shelter in Beer Sheva, or a Muslim child living in Gaza.  May we always have the sense to stop those among our own people who would act out on their rage and desire for vengeance.

Let us also pray for the other kind of brit shalom, a covenant of peace with human beings who today are our enemies, but who may one day, God willing may it be soon, become our friends.

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Why BDS is completely misguided

In the past year, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, otherwise known as BDS, has really heated up.

The BDS movement tries to apply economic and political pressure on Israel to acheive its three goals, which are, in its words:

1.  the end of Israeli occupation and colonization of Arab land

2.  full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel

3.  respect for the right of return for Palestinian refugees

They use three main tactics.  The first tactic is a boycott of Israeli products and companies which they claim profit from violating Palestinian rights.  There is also a cultural boycott: convincing artists and musicians to refuse to perform in Israel.  And finally. there are academic boycotts, whereby Israeli professors and academic institutions are not permitted to participate in partnerships, conferences, and academic collaborations.

The second tactic is divestment, which means convincing those who control pension funds or universities with large endowments to not hold in their portfolios any stocks of corporations which they claim are complicit in violating Palestinian rights.

The third tactic is sanctions, which means keeping Israel out of various diplomatic and economic forums.

More generally, the BDS movement tries to negatively influence public opinion about Israel.

There have been a number of prominent people who have joined in on the boycott.  Stephen Hawking boycotted the Israeli Presidential Conference last year.  Also last year, the Association for Asian American Studies announced a boycott of Israeli universities and academic institutions.  Roger Waters, former front man for Pink Floyd, has been quite vocal in his participation in the BDS movement.

You may have heard the flap around the SodaStream commercial during the Superbowl this year.   SodaStream is an Israeli company based in Ashkelon that has a factory in the West Bank.  So, it has been included in the boycott.  The actor Scarlett Johanson, in addition to being the star of the commercial, had also been an official ambassador for Oxfam for eight years.  Oxfam supports BDS.

When all of this went public, Scarlett Johanson resigned her position with Oxfam (which is a big score for the Jewish people).

The ironic thing is that the SodaStream factory is a model for economic cooperation.  It employs Israeli Jews and Arabs along with Palestinians.  The Palestinians are paid way above market rates and recieve great benefits.  They are given a lot of workplace employee protections.  The CEO of SodaStream built the factory explicitly to promote economic cooperation and further the cause of peace.

But the BDS folks went crazy over Scarlett Johanson sticking to her principles and resigning from Oxfam.

There have also been numerous attempts on universtity campuses to pass student resolutions calling for endowments to divest from Israeli corporations.  I will speak more about that later.

What is wrong with BDS?  On its surface, the idea of nonviolent protest for a political cause seems reasonable.  It’s better than suicide bombings.  But the BDS movement is deeply flawed for a number of reasons.

First of all, while the BDS movement is not explicitly anti-semitic, many of those who are involved in it are, and the rhetoric often turns nasty and personal.

The BDS movement does not actually target Israeli policies.  Rather, it aims to undermine the very legitimacy of Israel.

The idea that Israel, more than any other nation in the world, is deserving of a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign is fundamentally ridiculous.  Israel is far from perfect.  There are many injustices in Israeli society, including in its treatment of Arab citizens in Israel and Palestinians in the territories.  The government has made a number of mistakes which have harmed the peace process.

That said, I don’t need to remind you that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.  It is one of the most progressive countries in the world with regard to gay rights and women’s rights.  It is the only country in the Middle East with a free press.  Arab Israelis vote, serve in government, and bring cases to the Israeli Supreme Court where they are heard by Jewish and Arab justices sitting next to each other.

The BDS movement singles out Israel for denying citizenship to Palestinians.  Let us remember that Palestinians are not Israelis.  They, in fact, vote in Palestinian elections.  Compare their enfranchisement to the rights of the vast numbers of Palestinians living in refugee camps in other Arab countries like Lebanon, Syria, and Kuwait, where they have been denied citizenship for generations and live in horrible conditions.  Why?  Because those regimes are terrified that large numbers of Palestinians might further destabilize their hold on power.  Also, because it has enabled them to keep the pressure on Israel ratched up for the past sixty years.

Where is the protest on behalf of the one hundred fifty thousand people killed and millions of displaced Syrians?  Where are the campus protests calling for an end to discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia?  Why is there no movement to eliminate honor killings, which are accepted outright in some societies, or treated in other legal systems (such as the Palestinian Authority) as a mitigating factor that carries a lighter sentence.

Not to excuse improper actions by the Israeli government, but there is at best a gross naivety when one compares the moral challenges in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with some of the terrible atrocities that are committed in repressive societies around the world.

This is nothing new for Israel.  Israel has been held to an unequal standard for its entire existence.  Of the 1822 resolutions passed by the U.N between 1948 and 2009, 235 involved Israel, which equates to 13% of all resolutions.  Since the formation of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2006, Israel has been condemned forty five times, which comprises 45.9% of all country-specific resolutions passed by the council.

Dealing with international condemnation is nothing new for Israel.  In fact, despite such antagonism throughout its existence, Israel has built a thriving society.  It long ago learned to ignore most of what comes out of the UN and the international community.  The following story illustrates the point.  To understand it, you will need to know that the Hebrew acronym for the U.N. is או”ם, “um.

It is 1955, and the Israeli cabinet is debating what to do about increasing cross-border fedeyeen terror attacks from Egypt.  They are considering whether to invade and capture the Gaza Strip to prevent the attacks, and are debating the international repercussions.  Prime Minister Moshe Sharett points out that if it had not been for the 1947 U.N. resolution, Israeli would not have been founded.  In response, David Ben Gurion, who was the Defense Minister at the time, snaps “Um shmum!”  And that has been a pretty good description of how Israel has felt about the United Nations ever since.

So what else it wrong with BDS?

Simply put – it will not work.

Israel has become so successful in the global economy.  Its businesses are integrated with corporations and countries around the world.  Just think about all of the connections between Silicon Valley and Israel.  National borders are becoming increasingly irrelevant when it comes to the expansion of global businesses.  I am highly doubtful that a BDS campaign could negatively impact the thriving Israeli business and academic climates in any meaningful way.  It’s just not going to work in a globalized world.

But there is another, far more important reason why the BDS movement is completely misguided.  Historically, whenever Israel has felt pressure from the outside, it has dug in with even greater stubborness.  The idea that imposing sanctions and boycotts will bring Israel to its knees and force it to give in is totally naive.  If anything, BDS will acheive the opposite result.

Those who want to promote the cause of the Palestinians, improve the chances for coexistence, and possibly even bring about a peaceful solution, ought to do the exact opposite of BDS.

Instead of pulling money out of corporations doing business in Israel, pour money in.  Invest in economic development in the West Bank.  Invest especially in joint business and research ventures between Israelis and Palestinians.  Build more SodaStream factories.  People are willing to make concessions when they feel secure and when they have hope that their lives will improve.  People will take risks for peace when they can see the realistic possibility that their children will enjoy a higher standard of living than they themselves have experienced.

That is only going to happen when there is not only dialogue on a grassroots level between Israelis and Palestinians, but when there are real economic incentives for building something together.

Unfortunately, the BDS movement is not actually interested in pursuing peace.  In calling for the right of return for all Palestinians to Israel and the granting of citizenship to all Palestinians, combined with intensive delegitimization, it seems clear that what the BDS movement is really after the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state.

The most hurtful aspects of the BDS campaign, sadly, occur at universities.  On numerous campuses, local BDS groups bring forth resolutions calling for the university to divest from corporations that do business in Israel.  The tactics are often filled with intimidation.

There are practical reasons why divestment is a bad idea.  Harvard President Drew Faust said last year, “Significantly constraining investment options risks significantly constraining investment returns.”  In other words, artificially imposing limits on investment opportunities will result in less money available for university programs.  That is bad for students.

The other reason is ethical and political.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a one-sided issue.  The plight of the Palestinians is wrapped up in complicated international histories and relationships.  There are many parties that bear responsibility, including Arab governments, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and yes, Israel.  To single out one side is ignorant and irresponsible.

Plus, these kinds of movements on university campuses are often experienced by Jewish students, staff, and faculty as unfair and discriminatory.  BDS campaigns often intimidate students, stifle constructive debate, and repress free speech.

Jewish students at NYU and other universities recently had mock eviction notices placed under their doors.  Students are sometimes harrassed walking across campuses.  The tone of the rhetoric is often hateful, equating Israel with Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa, and targeting pro-Israel students in ways that often cross the line of anti-Semitism.  Some BDS protests have turned violent.

It is happening all over the country.  Five UC campuses, including UC Santa Cruz last week, have passed BDS resolutions.

Also last week, the student Senate at the University of Washington resoundingly rejected a BDS resolution by a vote of 59 to 8, with 11 abstentions.  That is the biggest defeat of a BDS resolution so far, and that is pretty remarkable at a school like UW, which has a history of anti-Israel activity.

The reasons it failed at UW are important.  Hillel students spent a full two years preparing for a resolution that they knew would be coming.  They did so in a grassroots way that united individuals who did not agree with each other.  It brought together students on the right and the left who were affiliated with AIPAC, Stand With Us, and J Street.

As a result of their efforts, the broader student body felt that the dialogue that had taken place had been respectful and substantive.

The UW outcome is a tremendous victory that has left students feeling energized and empowered, but it comes at a cost.  For two years, Jewish students and leaders on campus devoted an enormous amount of their energies to defending Israel.  What was neglected?  After all, there is more to being Jewish than defending Israel.  Think of all of the positive Jewish programming that did not take place because of the resources devoted to defeating a BDS campaign.  University is supposed to be a time for gaining independence, being exposed to new ideas, and engaging in constructive dialogue with people of different backgrounds and opinions – not defending yourself from attack and discrimination.

In an article published after the victory, Rabbi Oren Hayon, the Executive Director at UW Hillel, describes the numerous students who came to him under tremendous stress.  He writes critically of the treatment of students by people on both sides of the issue as “‘troops’ to be mustered, ‘vessels’ to be filled, ‘fields’ to be planted, and ‘assets’ to be positioned.  Rarely, if ever,” he writes, “were they celebrated as thinkers, partners, or colleagues.”  That is a shame.

What can we do?

It seems that we may need to get more involved.  Not because BDS poses a great threat to Israel’s security, but because it places harmful pressure on Jews living in the Diaspora, especially college students.  And we cannot simply rely on campus Hillels to bear the burden.

One simple thing that is easy for all of us: Buy Israeli products.

Also, do not get into emotionally-laden shouting matches with BDS supporters.  You are not going to change their minds.  Speak about Israel with people you know: friends at work and at school.  Don’t be shy about it.  But always speak with respect, ask lots of questions, and always listen.