My Promise to the Elderly Progressive Activist

Dear Friends,
During the early 1980’s, I served as the director of the Martin Steinberg Center of the American Jewish Congress – a center for Jewish artists in the performing, visual and literary arts. One of the Center’s members had called me and told me about Kaya Williams, a woman in her 90’s who had been active in the Women’s Division of the American Jewish Congress in the 1930’s. I learned that she is a widow, and lives all alone; moreover she has a special story to tell.
I realized that it would be a mitzvah to visit Kaya Williams, so I arranged to visit her at her West Side apartment in Manhattan. She was pleased that I was working for the American Jewish Congress, and she began to tell me about her activities for the women’s division during the 1930’s. The leaders of the women’s division were especially concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany and the ways in which the German government was spreading anti-Semitic propaganda to other countries, including the United States. Kaya was chosen to go on a speaking tour to Jewish communities all over North America in order to alert the Jewish population of the growing danger. Her prime target would be liberal American Jews who were concerned about social and political issues. The following is a summary of her comments to me:
When she first starting speaking, she had to overcome her initial shyness; however, she spoke from her heart, and was able to reach some people. She had documentation which proved that the German government had declared war against the Jewish people, and that they were actively spreading anti-Semitism to other countries. What she wasn’t prepared for was the indifference, cynicism, and opposition that she encountered among many Jews.
From my own study of the period and from my conversations with Kaya Williams, I became aware of the following reasons for the negative reactions that she encountered:
A. Some of the Jews she encountered were assimilating into the American “melting pot”; thus, they did not feel that the growing threat to the Jewish people was “their” concern.
B. There were those who pointed out that the Germans had suffered a loss of national pride after World War 1. They therefore felt this anti-Jewish rhetoric is just a way of letting off steam; thus, nothing will come of it.
C. There were those who stated that the Germans are a highly cultured and educated people with outstanding writers, artists, musicians, and scientists; moreover, Germany was viewed as a major center of secular western culture. They therefore felt that such a civilized country is not going to endanger Jews.
D. It was known that German Jews considered themselves to be patriotic Germans, and many of them denied that Jews are a people; thus, they referred to themselves as “Germans of the Jewish faith.” A high percentage of German Jews had assimilated into German society, and it was said that these Jews were more German than the Germans! And there were others who converted to Christianity in order to gain further acceptance among the Germans. In addition, the Jews contributed to all facets of the country’s national life. Given these reasons, it was felt that most Germans would resist the Nazi propaganda against the Jews.
Kaya told me that the negative reaction that she encountered was a very painful experience for her, and it caused her to become somewhat disillusioned about her community work. She began to offer criticism of the passive reaction of the leadership of the American Jewish Congress and other liberal Jewish organizations during the early 1940’s when reports of the murder of European Jews began to reach the United States; however, she suddenly became silent, and I saw that the topic was too painful for her to talk about. During one conversation, she looked at me with great intensity and told me that I must not be silent when the State of Israel will once again be endangered. She said that I must speak up, even if many don’t believe me. I couldn’t understand why she seemed so worried, since Israel was not in any immediate danger then; yet, she seemed to sense that some great danger was awaiting Israel. I promised her that I would indeed speak up and follow her example, but my words did not initially satisfy her. I had to reassure her again and again, before she accepted my promise.
Kaya lived in the era of the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews – men, women, and children – were murdered. As we know, most of the world was indifferent to the genocide and barbaric persecution. And we live in the era when there are governments and terrorist organizations that are calling for and striving for the destruction of the State of Israel, which has a population of about 6 million Jews. And most of the world is indifferent to this threat. 
My father was a progressive Jewish social activist who had a passionate concern for the security and welfare of his people; however, both he and I were aware there were some progressive Jewish activists who are concerned about every people, but their own. For example, there are some progressive Jewish activists who do not offer strong condemnations of those seeking to destroy Israel; instead, they strongly condemn Israel, and they blame Israel for the lack of peace in the Middle East, due to their disagreement with some of its policies. They ignore, however, the following reality: Iran, Hizbullah, and Hamas refuse to recognize the State of Israel, as they believe it has no right to exist; thus, they seek the destruction of the State of Israel, regardless of what policies it adopts. There are even some pro-Israel progressive Jews who ignore this reality, thus, they naively think that if only Israel will change certain policies, there will be peace in the Middle East.
As the media reported, missiles from Hizbullah in Lebanon and from Hamas in Gaza can now reach every city in Israel. We need to remember that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, and that the President of Iran has publicly called for the destruction of Israel. The next war against Israel can therefore include Iran, Hizbullah, and Hamas; moreover, it can also include the P.L.O., which has just renewed its alliance with Hamas, without demanding any change in Hamas’s position on Israel.
The current leader of the P.L.O. likes to convey a moderate image to the western media. The P.L.O., however, still engages in anti-Jewish incitement which includes anti-Jewish libels from the dark ages; it still refuses to recognize Jewish roots in Jerusalem; and it still refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. In addition, the leader of the P.L.O. insists that the Arab refugees and their descendants return to the State of Israel, instead of returning to the Palestinian state that the P.L.O. wishes to develop; thus, Israel would then become another Arab state! The P.L.O. therefore has a more “moderate” way of expressing the ancient goal of Israel’s enemies:
“Come, let us cut them off from nationhood, so Israel’s name will not be remembered any longer!” (Psalm 83:5)
One does not have to be a political expert to realize that our enemies are planning another war against us. Other Arab countries, such as Egypt, may also join the next war against us. As the media reported, the new Egyptian government wants to move its army into the Sinai Peninsula, right near our border. There are also reports that the majority of the Egyptian people want to abolish the peace treaty with Israel; moreover, their government has made it easier for Hamas to gain dangerous arms by opening the Rafah crossing.
A reminder of the evil goals of Hamas can be found in a statement regarding Hamas which was written by an Israeli leftist leader, Danny Zamir, the head of the secular and leftist Rabin Pre-Military Academy. Zamir wrote:
 “The State of Israel is under a prolonged attack by the Hamas movement – a fundamentalist Islamic terror movement, based on a racist and ultra-nationalist ideology that seeks the killing of Jews for being Jews and the actual elimination of the State of Israel as its declared aspiration, and formally part of its foundation platform.”
He added: “And bear in mind that Hamas is not a marginal extremist underground, but a movement freely chosen by the Palestinians to head their elected government.” (Jerusalem Post, 13th of Nisan, 5769, April 7th, 2009)
We need to also bear in mind that the people of Gaza elected Hamas to govern them “after” Israel withdrew from Gaza! And the noted journalist, Yossi Klein Halevi, who initially supported the Oslo peace process, wrote the following related observation: “Israel, after all, withdrew from Gaza in 2005, uprooting all its settlements from the area. Yet the rockets continued to fall across the international border — long before Israel imposed a siege against Gaza’s Hamas government.” (Globe and Mail, April 10, 2009)
The above information reminds us that the six million Jews in Israel are facing great dangers. As I mentioned, there are some progressive activists who are ignoring this danger, and there are other progressive Jewish activists who would agree with me. In fact, Jews from across the political and religious spectrum have criticized those progressive Jewish activists who lack compassion and empathy for their suffering brethren in Israel. For example, some of these activists have gone on fasts on behalf of the Arabs of Gaza, but they do not go on fasts on behalf of the Jews in Israel who suffer from the missiles that come from Gaza. From reading some of their statements and blogs, you wouldn’t even know about the suffering caused by Hamas.
A few years ago, Hamas increased their attacks on Israel, and missiles and rockets from Gaza fell on additional cities in Israel. The left-of-center Israeli government finally decided to defend its people, and its armed forces entered Gaza. Many Jews were therefore shocked when “J Street” – an organization which defines itself as pro-Israel and pro-peace – could find no moral difference between the violent attacks of Hamas, an organization with genocidal goals, and the attempt of Israel to defend itself.
There were other American Jews who view themselves as “progressive” who felt that J Street’s response lacked compassion and empathy for their suffering brethren in Israel. For example, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, who was then president of the Union for Reform Judaism, called J Street’s position on the Gaza conflict “morally deficient” (Washington Post, April 17. 2009).
Our tradition encourages each of us to have empathetic compassion for the suffering of the Community of Israel, and the Talmud states:
“Whoever participates in the suffering of the community will gain merit and see the comfort of the community.” (Taanis 11a)
As I discussed in this letter, there are Jewish activists that need to do a “tikun” – fixing – of their cold attitude towards the suffering of their brethren. They can begin this “tikun” by engaging in a process of spiritual renewal which would enable them to have empathetic compassion for the endangered six million Jews of Israel; moreover, this would be a good way to honor the memory of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
Through this spiritual renewal, these activists can merit to experience the full comfort and redemption of the Community of Israel which is described in the following prophecy regarding the redemption that Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One, will bring us at the dawn of the messianic age:
“Hear the word of Hashem, O nations, relate it in distant islands, and say, ‘The One Who scattered Israel will gather him in and guard him as a shepherd does his flock.’ For Hashem will have redeemed Jacob and delivered him from a hand mightier than he. And they will come and sing joyously on the height of Zion; they will stream to Hashem’s bounty – upon grain, upon wine, upon oil, and upon young sheep and cattle; then their soul shall be like a well-watered garden, and they shall not continue to agonize anymore. Then the maiden shall rejoice in the round-dance, young men and old men together; I shall transform their mourning into joy, and I shall comfort them and gladden them after their grief.” (Jeremiah 31:11, 12)
May we be blessed with true Shalom.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)
Related Comments:
1. A previous letter in this series discussed Torah perspectives on the following question: Should we give up parts of the Land of Israel if this would lead to a “genuine” peace? A copy is available upon request.
2.  As we learned in this series, the Redeeming One Who gave us the Land told us again and again that our true security in the Land depends on our fulfillment of the Torah – the Divine Teaching. The following two passages can serve as examples:
“If you will follow My statutes and guard My mitzvos…I will provide shalom in the Land, and you will lie down with none to frighten you” (Leviticus: 26:3, 6).
“If only My people would heed Me, if Israel would walk in My ways. I would immediately subdue their enemies, and turn My hand against their tormentors” (Psalm 81:14, 15).
 Yes, we need to be “streetwise” during this dangerous period, but we also need to be “soul-wise and strengthen ourselves through the Torah, “a tree of life” (Proverbs 3:18).


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