Editor’s Note: This is the full text of a sermon delivered at Park Avenue Synagogue on Rosh HaShanah, reprinted by permission.
Twenty years ago this fall, my cousins Jonathan, Benji, Michael, and Rafi took a trip that would change their lives forever. As many of you know, my Manchester-born mother and Glasgow-born father arrived in America shortly before I was born. My mother’s sister never left England. She married a boy from Leeds, and they went on to have seven children: six boys and a girl. Leeds lacked a Jewish day school, so being the heimische family that they are, they decided that their children, my first cousins, would make the two-hour commute each way, every day, to Manchester’s King David High School.
That frosty fall morning was no different than any other day. The four boys, aged 16, 14, 13, and 11, put on their school uniforms, got on the train from Leeds, and switched over at Manchester’s Piccadilly station in order to take the Overland Metro Link that would let them off just a short distance from their school.
When they got off the train that day to walk those final blocks, they knew that the seven men sitting on the railing were no ordinary hooligans. Not boys, not teenagers, but grown men began to follow them. My cousins picked up their pace hoping to create some distance from their pursuers. Wearing their King David school blazers, my cousins’ Jewish identity was apparent to the eye and the anti-Semitic slurs began. The gang of thugs began to verbally taunt the oldest – Jonathan – while Benji, the second oldest, tried to defuse the situation, hoping to pacify them with gentle and no doubt self-deprecating humor. But the sharp words turned to thrown rocks, and before Jonathan knew what was happening, not only had he been kicked in the back, but he was head-butted full force, breaking his nose and rendering him unconscious. The thugs, however, did not let Jonathan fall to the ground. They had other plans; their viciousness had only just begun. One held his limp body up so the others could hit and kick him even more senseless than he already was.
Michael and Rafi, the little ones, ran frantically to the front doors of nearby homes pleading for help. The residents opened their doors and poked their heads out to see what was going on, only to shut the doors on the faces of my 13- and 11-year-old cousins. Benji stood frozen at the sight of his older brother being beaten. Surely, he believed, there would be a point when enough was enough, when the point had been made, the abuse would stop and the bullies would move on to their next victim. Jonathan’s body fell limp to the ground, unable even to curl into a fetal position as more rocks, bottles and kicks were inflicted on him. It was at the moment that the ringleader of the gang shouted “Kill the Jew,” that Benji’s naiveté died. There would be no respite, no forthcoming humanity, no help on its way. He threw himself over his brother to absorb the blows – only to become badly beaten himself.
The details of what happened next are understandably fuzzy. My cousin recalls the boots of the gang members being replaced by those of security guards from the train station who finally arrived on the scene. Benji carried Jonathan the remaining blocks to the gate of the school, where the receptionist called for an ambulance. When my aunt, his mother, first saw Jonathan after he was taken home, she was in total shock at his mangled condition, his facial features beaten beyond recognition.
As for the gang members, some were eventually apprehended. The price they paid for their crime was an inconsequential fine of fifty pounds – to be paid in installments over two years. As for my cousins, their lives were changed forever. Since that day, Jonathan has suffered from debilitating headaches and general poor health. The year following the attack, he was afflicted with cirrhosis of the liver – necessitating, over the years, three liver transplants. Now a practicing attorney in Leeds, he has courageously built a life in spite of the ongoing health challenges he has faced every day since the beating. My cousin Rafi, from that day onwards, was ever fearful of walking alone outside his house in the UK. My cousin Michael, now a promotional film maker in Brooklyn, developed alopecia soon after the attack, a condition of hair loss that has fortunately never interfered with his ability to be in the company of a good-looking woman. Benji, on the other hand, spent much of high school going to the gym, learning how to box and defend himself. Never again, he vowed, would he let himself be pushed around by anyone.
The responses varied from child to child, each one affected deeply yet differently – not only the siblings present that day but also the others who grew up in a household dominated by the shadow of the attack. When they went to college, my cousins were all exposed to virulent anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism on British campuses, a university culture that vilified and delegitimized Israel in ways unimaginable until recently in the States. For my cousins, for their family, that day was a pivot of self-understanding, learning who they were, and what it meant to be a Jew in Europe and in the world.
I share their story with you, however, not because I want you to know what happened in England 20 years ago, but because today, on Rosh Hashanah, on this day that we gather to check on the condition of the Jewish people and of our Jewish souls, I want to speak to you about what happened this summer in Israel and Europe and what is happening right now. While Jonathan’s ongoing health challenges kept him in England, and Michael’s career led him to America, Benji, Rafi, and the two youngest – Lauren and Alexander – soon enough made aliyah to Israel. Benji served in the front lines of the second Lebanon war, and was called up again in 2012 for Operation Pillar of Defense (Amud Anan), where he was joined in the infantry by his brother Rafi. Alexander joined the armored corps serving as a tank driver and finished his term of service just this year. All three were called up this summer to serve in Operation Protective Edge. All three, thank God, are alive and well today, and all three enjoy the love and support of their parents, siblings and extended family.
All of us, I am sure, followed the news from Israel this past summer, and those of us with Israeli family of fighting age checked in with them for updates as best we could. But between the sirens and the cease-fires, my thoughts inevitably turned to that day twenty years ago in provincial England. I wondered what it must have felt like for the brothers who shared that ill-fated journey from Piccadilly to now share a trip to the front lines to defend the State of Israel. I wondered if Rafi, uniform on and rifle in hand, called on to defend his nation, was remembering the day when he – a yiddische boy in his school blazer – banged in vain on a neighborhood door crying for help. Never again would he allow his safety and the safety of his brothers to be dependent on the kindness of strangers. And I wondered if Benji, now in his third tour of duty, was recalling that day when he froze in horror, believing that somehow his enemy would play by the same moral standards as he did. Never again would a naïve belief in the goodness of humanity lead him to hesitate in fulfilling his obligation to defend himself as his attackers prepared their assault. It would be his decision – his and his country’s alone – to choose the moment and manner by which his destiny would be shaped and his safety secured. I wondered if, twenty years later, my cousins could see the accordion-like nature of their personal history playing out in the events of their lives. They remain the same cousins. When we see each other, as always, we share memories of our granny, and we joke about the common quirks of those two sisters who are our mothers. But there is no escaping that the underlying principles of their existence have fundamentally shifted – a transformation brought into full relief by the events of this summer. Only here, only now, only in Israel were they able to be safe – to be safe because they were Jewish, not in spite of being Jewish.
Lihiyot am hofshi b’artzeinu, “To be a free people in our land.” These are the words of Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah. This is what the promise of the State of Israel boils down to: the Jewish right to self-determination. “To be,” as Professor Ken Stein puts it, “the subject of our own sentence and not the object of someone else’s.” In 1762, Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote: “I shall never believe I have heard the arguments of the Jews until they have a free state. Only then will we know what they have to say.” (Cited in Daniel Gordis, Promise of Israel, p. 116) The argument for Zionism is not that complicated: for a Jew to be free to express his or her identity without apology; to stand proud in the faith of one’s forefathers and understand that claim not to be at odds with being a citizen of the world. To have a home of one’s own, a place that the Jewish spirit is given national expression and extended its rightful place to shine in the community of nations. The promise of Israel is actually rather straightforward. What this summer demonstrated is our obligation to renew our commitment to her vigorous defense – because it is a promise that is under attack and needed today as much as ever. This summer has proven to us, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that no matter what the assurances of the Enlightenment and Emancipation may have been, time and again, again and again, Europe and the rest of the world remain inhospitable to the right of Jews to be the drivers of their own destiny.
Are we really so surprised at the vitriol and anti-Semitism unleashed this summer throughout Europe? Quite the contrary, I would argue, there is an uneasy feeling of déjà vu. Parisian Jews barricaded in their synagogues while cries of “Death to the Jews” are chanted. Jewish-owned businesses attacked with Molotov cocktails. In Germany, in Italy, in England, all over Europe, and for that matter, in South Africa, South America, Australia and elsewhere, there were calls for violence against the Jews. A toxic mixture of neo-Nazism, radicalized Muslim Jew-hatred and a liberal leftist strain of intellectual anti-Semitism that has rendered Europe a place hostile not just to Jews but to a whole series of Enlightenment values upon which modern Europe was supposedly established. When the French intellectual Alain Finkielkraut was asked by Natan Sharansky whether there was a future for the Jews in Europe, Finkielkraut responded by wondering whether there was a future for “Europe” in Europe, meaning, was Europe itself a place that could still house the nation-state values of identity, equality and tolerance upon which she is based? When I visit my family in England, no longer do I walk the streets with a yarmulke on my head as I do in America. I can still feel the sting of fruit pelted at my face a handful of years ago as I stood at a London bus stop. I don’t need a second warning. From street thugs to elected officials, from the resurrection of old prejudices cloaked in the politeness of pseudo-political garb to a resurgence of vile blood libel charges, and everything in between, the writing is on the wall. Not another Holocaust – God forbid! – that is not what I am suggesting. Rather a sad and scary existence in which Jews are implicitly or explicitly forced to choose between loyalty to Europe or loyalty to Israel, or even worse, loyalty to being a Jew.
And while I risk stating the obvious, it is this very right to exist, this right to self-determination that the immediate enemies of Israel would seek to deny. Read the charter of Hamas, listen to the words coming out of much of the Arab world. Would it only be the case that our challenge was that of a few ill-intended and poorly educated Holocaust deniers. No longer are voices in the Muslim world denying the Holocaust, there are those calling for another one! There is no subtlety in the charter of Hamas: it states that every Muslim is called upon to kill every Jew everywhere in the world. This is not about moral equivalences, about who started the fight, about where a border should or shouldn’t be, or about the terms of a hard-won compromise. As the peacenik Amos Oz recently reflected, when it comes to your very existence, even he, a man of compromise, has little place to go. In his words: “One cannot approach Hamas and say: ‘Maybe we meet halfway and Israel only exists on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.’” There is no moral equivalence between the Iron Dome designed to protect Israeli citizenry and Hamas-built tunnels created for the sole purpose of kidnapping and murdering Israel citizens. There is no justification for the indiscriminate firing of rockets on Israeli civilian populations or the Hamas tactic of deploying human shields, a strategy, which, in the words of former President Bill Clinton, is “designed to force Israel to kill … civilians so that the rest of the world will condemn them.”
The conflict between Israel and her enemies is not a simple one. Israel has an incredible amount of reflection, soul-searching and painful course correction to do to demonstrate she is indeed committed to a two-state solution. But when I think of my cousins this summer, I am filled not with thoughts of politics but with the emotion of pride. Pride that comes in the knowledge that I live in a time that a Jew in uniform can defend a Jewish state. Pride in the knowledge that Israel is showing the world that there is a Jewish way to wage war. Can you imagine any other country in the world, our own included, that, when acquiring a target in a civilian population, first drops leaflets warning of an impending attack, then calls every cell phone in the radius of the incoming threat, then sends a warning “roof-knocking” rocket, all in order to give civilians a chance to escape the targeted buildings? Can you imagine any other nation providing food, water, electricity and medical care to the civilian populations of its enemies? Can you imagine Israel’s enemies offering a cease-fire in deference to a religious holiday – as Israel did for her enemies? Israel has responded to those who would seek her destruction with an ethic infused by the Jewish values of self-restraint and the prizing of human life. On our solidarity mission to Israel this summer, I was astounded to hear of the great lengths to which the IDF goes to reduce the loss of life on the field of battle, often at the expense of the mission at hand and, on occasion, at the expense of the lives of its own soldiers. There is no such thing as a good war, but what I came to understand this summer was that at stake was not just Israel’s ability to defend herself against an enemy, but Israel’s ability to defend the ethos of what it means to be a sovereign Jewish nation. That a robust democracy can be maintained even when surrounded by enemies, and that even in the fog of war one must be vigilant not to lose sight of the Jewish values embedded at the core of the Zionist project itself – the values that are being defended in the first place.
Yes, sometimes Israel gets it right, and sometimes Israel gets it wrong. But here, too, we need to appreciate the broader brushstroke of history. Are we really meant to believe that a UN or European court of inquiry is positioned to sit impartially in judgment over the Jewish state? If the High Holidays teach us anything, it is that one’s moral compass is evident not in the making of a mistake, but in the ability to be sufficiently self-aware and self-critical to acknowledge when a mistake has happened, own up to it, and correct it. Compare the swift and immediate arrest of the Jewish murderers of an Arab child with the self-congratulatory admission of guilt by Hamas for the murder of the three Israeli youth. Can you imagine Israel’s enemies opening up a judicial process of inquiry regarding their military actions this summer as Israel is presently doing? Can you imagine Israel’s enemies openly wrestling with the dissent of conscientious objectors as Israel has this past week? The promise of a sovereign state of Israel is that Israel must answer to its harshest critic of all: its citizenry. Our pride in Israel does not rise and fall based on any single error in Israel’s judgment or any single ill-conceived policy. Not unlike our relationships with our own loved ones, we are both pained and gratified to see Israel struggle with the competing values and interests embedded in her soul. We here in the diaspora can gently and lovingly nudge Israel in one direction or another, but we know at the end of the day, Israel’s decisions must be owned by Israel and Israel alone. That is the blessing, and the burden, that comes with being a sovereign state: to make your own mistakes, to own up to them, and to change course when necessary.
As I think of my cousins heading to the front, more often than not, I pause in the knowledge that our mothers are sisters, an awareness that makes me realize that if not for the vagaries of family history, I could be them and they could be me. Aware of the comforts of my life, I am forced to ask what I am doing to protect the dream and reality of the Jewish state. As in the Hippocratic Oath, our first obligation is to do no harm. When I met this past summer with the leadership of the Presbyterian Church regarding their divestment decision, it was with deep consternation that I heard of the hundreds of Jewish activists present at the Church convention wearing black T-shirts bearing the slogan “Another Jew Supporting Divestment.” You can imagine the tipping effect this had on the measure – it passed by just seven votes – influencing Presbyterian delegates who may never even have met a Jew before, never mind understand the full complexities of the Middle East. The prophet Isaiah warned: M’harsayikh u-maharivayikh mi-meikh yeitzei'u, “Your destroyers and ravagers shall come from within you.” (49:17) Israel does not lack for enemies, and Jews should not add to them. I am proud of serving as rabbi to a community committed to housing a wide range of views when it comes to securing a safe, Jewish and democratic Israel. But as in the quiet conversations we are having with our loved ones in the week ahead, there is a way to criticize in a way that is constructive – that is filled with love – and a way that is not. American Jewry has a responsibility to leverage its political, social, and actual capital to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our cousins in Israel. It should not be lost on any of us that the one piece of legislation our do-nothing Congress was able to pass before its summer recess was the allocation of $225 million in emergency aid for Iron Dome. To live in this day and age, with the unprecedented freedoms that American Jews enjoy, and not be engaged on behalf of Israel – on campus, on Capitol Hill, in youth education, or wherever your passions, politics, and pocket move you – is an abdication of Jewish identity no less egregious than any other sin of commission or omission we will list the days to come. It was the late theologian Emil Fackenheim who, in the wake of the Shoah, called on world Jewry to fulfill a 614th commandment in addition to the 613 in the Torah: a commandment to survive as Jews so as not to give Hitler a posthumous victory. Survival is not enough. Today I give this congregation a 615th commandment: the Jewish moral imperative to stand by Israel each and every day of our lives.
Park Avenue Synagogue will always be at the forefront of support for Israel. As full-throated, unrepentant lovers of the Jewish State, we know the blessings and responsibilities that come with being born into z’man ha-zeh, this unprecedented time and circumstance. We will do what we are called upon to do: to travel, to learn, to advocate, and to support Israel. We will support those communities at risk around the world with our presence, with our pocket, and with our politics. We will lead the charge, and I call on you to join me in shaping that vision moving forward.
But when all is said and done, the truth of the matter is that there is something more Israel wants of you, something I know my cousins want of you, something I want of you. Because what they have told me, what any soldier will tell you, is that proud and committed as they are to defend the citizens of the State of Israel, they wish to God it could be otherwise. All my cousins wanted as children, all they want now as adults is to live freely and joyfully as Jews – bli pahad, without fear, bli miklatim, without shelters. They want to find a nice Jewish mate, create a heimische Jewish home, get a good degree, a good job and give back a bit to their Jewish community. In other words, what they want is no different than what we want – for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren – to live freely and peacefully and productively and joyfully as Jews! The greatest contribution we can make to strengthen the bond between American Jewry and Israel is to make sure that as individuals and as a community, American Jewry – our side of the equation –is strong. You can’t ask someone to be more of a Zionist than they are a Jew. Without a strong American Judaism, there is no American Zionism. Without a strong American Judaism, there is no Israel advocacy. Without a strong American Judaism, there is no bond to be nurtured. What can you do to support Israel in the year to come? More than you know. But I would ask that your first step in this season of reflection be the most personal – and for many, the most elusive – to live freely and peacefully and productively and joyfully as Jews.
As we do every year at this time, as I am sure you do in your family, my cousins and I reach out to each other to wish each other a Shanah Tovah. The other day I spoke to Benji, just back from his service. He is a heavy machine gunner, and he described to me how in the course of duty, he and his fellow soldiers position themselves against the enemy: each soldier looking up and down the line, holding their formation as they prepare to march forward, often under fire – at risk of death. When the call comes to hold the line, yishur kav, one’s natural human instinct is to do anything but that. It would be far more sensible to keep one’s head down, let the danger pass, and hope that help will come from another quarter. But neither he nor any one his brothers dared do that. They held their line, they took their stand, and then they moved forward as one, defending their lives and lives of the citizens of Israel.
Friends, I know how hard this summer has been. The headlines, the pictures, the fact-finding committees, and the onslaught of world opinion; the defamation, the delegitimization – in the media, on campus, in the political sphere. Zionism isn’t easy. It takes courage, it takes sophistication, and it takes stamina. You gotta want it bad. The easiest thing would be to keep our heads down and hope that someone else will pick up the fight so we can just move on with our lives without anyone noticing. We here know otherwise; we here will do otherwise; we here will hold the line. We will find our voices; we will educate our children and grandchildren; we will advocate, we will engage, we will support, and we will most of all, as proud Jews, love the State of Israel. The Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps, nor shall we. Lihiyot am hofshi b’artzeinu, to be a free nation in our land – cousin-to-cousin, shoulder-to-shoulder, holding the line, fighting for a truly just cause: the preservation of the people and the State of Israel.
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove is senior rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.