by Rabbi David Zaslow

In the past year and a half I have approved of the insertion of a series of full-color brochures for our synagogue newsletter which are produced and paid for by AIPAC. AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) is the leading lobby organization in Washington, D.C., and its mission is to foster support for Israel by American elected officials. It is a non-partisan lobby group, and it’s supporters include liberal and conservative elected officials (e.g. Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama, John McCain, and everyone in between). Identical inserts have gone into hundreds of synagogue newsletters throughout the nation.

Why is such a lobby group respected by both Left and Right? Because it provides highly accurate, objective facts without partisan spin. AIPAC has a mission to support any elected Israeli government: left or right, Likud, Kadima, Labor, etcetera. When our elected representatives ask for “just the facts” about Israel, AIPAC has a reputation of delivering accurate and unbiased data.

A few members of our wonderful synagogue have expressed concern about the perception that our synagogue is supporting a Washington lobby group. I want to make clear as a shul we officially support no lobby group. As the most recent insert stated, “the views of AIPAC do not represent any official position of the Havurah.” But AIPAC’s unconditional support for Israel does represent my personal viewpoint, and that’s is why I have been honored to authorize the inserts for our readers.

In a perfect world I wish we didn’t need lobby groups at all, but our elected officials have become dependent (for better or worse) on lobbyists to provide them with information. Like it or not, that’s our system. There is a feminist lobby and a tobacco lobby; a pro-life lobby and a prochoice lobby. There is a Wisconsin cheese lobby and there may even be a “bring the Dodger’s back to Brooklyn” lobby – which I would also support!

Israel, as we are all aware, is under many kinds of attack. Kassam rockets have been fired into Israel on a regular basis from Gaza since 2000 (more than 500 in the past year alone killing innocent Israeli civilians in cities like Sederot and Ashkelon). Large quantities of arms are continually smuggled into Gaza from Iran through the Egyptian border with Gaza. There is a new buildup of short range missiles in southern Lebanon. Plus, verbal rockets of slander get fired against the very existence of Israel every day in much of the Arab press. Israel, like any nation, is imperfect and deserves appropriate criticism for aspects of its policies. Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism, but criticism of Israel using standards that are not applied to any other nation on earth need to be carefully reviewed for prejudice…and that’s the job of AIPAC.

When the United Nations declared that “Zionism is racism” under Resolution 2279 in 1975 AIPAC stood up and explained that if Zionism is racism then any nation’s independence must also be considered racist. If France or Jordan has the right to exist then so does Israel. After sixteen years he U.N. finally revoked its absurd resolution – but the damage had already been done.

In recent years Jimmy Carter wrote a book with the inflammatory title “Palestine – Peace Not Apartheid.” Profs. Walt and Mearsheimer wrote a frightful book which distorts the reality of the Israel lobby. A teacher’s union in England tried to get away with boycotting of Israeli scholars when no other scholars are boycotted from terrorist-sponsoring nations like Syria or Iran. Mainstream American denominations (e.g., Presbyterian) divest themselves of stocks from companies that do business with Israel but not from companies who do business with regimes like those ruling China or Egypt. Other denominations (Episcopal and Methodist) are currently debating whether to adopt this kind of Israel-only divestment scheme.

AIPAC is not a partisan political organization. It is simply an effective lobbying group that stands up for Israel on behalf of all of us who want to see peace in the Middle East. It answers the Carters, Walts, and Mearsheimers of our country with cool, factual data. It’s okay to wish we didn’t need lobbying groups (I certainly wish that), but it’s not okay to say Israel should not be represented by lobbyists when there are foreign lobbies for most every other nation on the planet. If there is going to be a strong Egyptian and Saudi lobby surely there should be a strong Israeli lobby as well. If we are going to criticize and exaggerate the power of the Israeli lobby without a word about other powerful lobbies then we are coming very close to anti-Semitism. I am thankful to G-d that AIPAC exists to defend the spiritual homeland that we, as American Jews, so dearly cherish, and that most Americans cherish as a dear ally. In the spirit of education I hope you appreciate the value of the AIPAC newsletter inserts. To learn more about AIPAC.

Jan 1 2008

Moral Equivalency

by Rabbi David Zaslow

I recently responded to an internet posting where a well known, peace activist, rabbi, and colleague of mine made a case for morally equivalency between the actions of Hamas and those of the Israeli military in Lebanon last summer. Many of us hear fallacious comparisons (Zionism is racism, Israel practices of apartheid, etc.) in discussions about Israel these days, especially in progressive circles, and learning the facts is important if we are to engage in civil and productive debates and discussions.

The rabbi made a series of crucial flaws in his argument. In any civil and criminal judicial rulings there is never equivalent comparison between the actions of the perpetrator of a crime and the self-defense of the victim. This, of course, does not get the victim totally off the hook for any defensive action he/she takes, but it places the defensive actions under a completely different lens. Let’s say that the victim of a robbery clobbers the robber with a stick to protect his/herself. His/her level of culpability is not the same as the robber, and a district attorney could not prosecute as long as reasonable restraint within the definition of self-defense was shown.

In acts of war the response of the victim to aggression and/or invasion is judged on an even more lenient scale. Last year Hezbollah violated the basic rights of a sovereign nation through terrorizing and invasive acts of war. The Israeli response was, by all mainstream news sources, reasonable and moderate. Israeli soldiers stood in front of its population to protect them from aggressive acts while the Hezbollah aggressors hid behind its civilians as a shield. This was a no-win situation for Israel whose military held back, leafleted civilian areas before bombing, made mistakes (as tragically happens in war), and by most accounts was not able to prevail against Hezbollah because it was not willing to be even more aggressive.

No one wants an end to war in the Middle East more than Israel. I do not believe for a second that all things are equal in the Middle East. There is no cycle of violence there. Rather, there is a cause and an effect. Hezbollah, Hamas and company (those who refuse Israel’s existence and/or a two-state solution) are the root CAUSE of the ongoing bloodshed while Israel has to constantly adjust its strategy in SELF DEFENSIVE responses. Has Israel made errors along the way? Yes, of course. So did the Allies during World War II, but mostly the Allies were RIGHT and mostly the German and Japanese governments were wrong. There was no moral equivalency between the actions of the Allies and the actions of the Germans and Japanese even though by today’s standards of military engagement we decry acts like the bombing of civilian centers like Dresden. The same is true today between Israel and its neighbors. There is absolutely no moral equivalency between what Hamas and terrorists do offensively and what Israel does defensively. Let us not apply a double standard against Israel that we are unwilling to apply to any other nation in equal measure.

Do most Jews and most Israelis all want a peaceful, two-state solution? Yes! So, let us put the pressure on those CAUSING the violence and not invent a false equivalency between the perpetrators (Hamas, Hezbollah, etc.) and those trying to defend themselves (Israel). The facts are so clear to 80% of Americans (liberal and conservative) and to 96% of Israelis – there is a primary aggressor and a primary victim in this whole mess. Comparing the situation to European victimization of the Native Americans – Israelis are the Indians in the Middle East. Ironically, so are the Palestinians, but they are victims of their own leadership and of other Arab countries, not of Israel’s existence.

Any nation not willing to recognize Israel as a nation after sixty years is a part of the problem. Any Palestinian sheikh or political leader still holding onto an absurd notion of a literal right of return of Palestinians into Israel (not to the future Palestinian state) is a part of the problem. Many of us may not be aware of the new far left-wing call for a single, binational state (instead of a two-state solution) which is now adding to the problem since it would certainly mean the end to the Jewish state of Israel. Fuzzy thinking and inaccurate accusations of moral equivalency only adds to the problem. Indignation against Israel’s faults while ignoring the far more grievous faults of the Palestinian leadership only adds to the problem. Certainly some of Israel’s more foolish policies (home demolition, certain settlement policies, cultural prejudices, missing opportunities for interfaith dialogue, etc.) have added to the problem but is clearly not the root CAUSE of the problem.

Just as Israel generally (and quite imperfectly) affords equal rights for its Muslim, Druze, non-religious, and Christian citizens, so we would expect that a viable Palestinian state would assure security for it’s future Jewish and Christian citizens. If some of the settlements end up in a future Palestine will the Jewish settlers be permitted to live in their homes? Would Jews even be permitted to live in Palestine? At this point it seems unlikely. Muslim extremists are triumphalists as well as historical revisionists. Today Christian Palestinians are being subjected to a slow ethnic cleansing from their homes by Muslim Palestinian extremists (look at what has happened in Bethlehem in the last four decades). Sadly, that is hardly reported. Almost every Arab nation is now almost completely Yudenrein (Jew-free) as they used to say in Europe. There is no moral equivalent for that kind of bigoted, criminal behavior in Israel. Israel is an imperfect society where prejudice against Arabs (Arab Jews as well) is all too real. But the level of prejudice in Israel, as obnoxious as it is, is not equivalent to what is happening to minorities in the Palestinian territories.

A number of years ago I had the honor of staying in the home of Rabbi Dovid Zeller z”l for Shabbat. As many of you know he lived in the settlement of Efrat, and he was the quintessential model of what a real settler stands for in the territories – he loved the land of his ancestors (Judea and Sumaria) AND he worked so hard to bring all the people (Jews, Muslims, Druze, and Christian) who love the same land together toward a lasting and dignified peace for everyone. He was a Zionist AND a pluralist. I learned the following from one of his wonderful neighbors that Shabbat. Trading land for peace is trading a tangible (land) for an intangible (peace). Once land is traded then who is to say the intangible (peace) will be given in return. First we have to see evidence of peace (the intangible commodity) or at least a series of sincere peaceful gestures from the Palestinian leadership. In the case of Anwar Sadat z”l it was clear to every Israeli that his gestures of peace were deep-seated and sincere.

Israel is correct to be cautious when it comes to trading the one tangible commodity they are in control of (land) for something as intangible as peace. It’s been said many times before – if Hamas laid down its weapons there would likely be a chance for peace. If Israel laid down its arms there would likely be no Israel. In 1978 Abba Eban said that Arafat “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” The same can be said this past year about the Palestinian leadership concerning the unilateral Israeli pullout from Gaza. This was a perfect opportunity for Palestinians to come together and demonstrate their willingness for form a just and civil government willing to live at peace with its neighbor. Sadly, the factions within the Palestinian world (those willing to make peace with Israel and those unwilling to make peace with Israel) are now at war with each other.

Israel and America are the scapegoats for both the internal religious reformation and the culture clashes that are going on within the Islamic world. Israel is the victim of a terrible form of xenophobia, scapegoating, and anti-Semitism that exists within many Middle Eastern nations. The irony is that the Palestinian people are equally victimized by these other nations, but this is rarely the focus of many peace groups. Just compare the way Lebanon treats Palestinians in its nation (no voting rights, no land ownership, restricted work policy, etc.) to Palestinians who are Israeli citizens. Israel is a convenient scapegoat for the following myths: if there were no Israel there would be peace in the Middle East. If there no Israel the Palestinian people who have a safe and secure nation of their own. If extremists on both sides would only stop being violent there would be peace. The actions of the terrorists and the responses of the Israeli armed forces are morally equivalent and has led to a cycle of violence.

Missiles fired on S’derot do not help the Palestinian cause. The inability of Fatah to control the extremists is not helping the Palestinian cause. Palestinians electing Hamas to its government is a signal for war, not for peace. Blaming Israel for the bankrupt Palestinian economy does not help the Palestinian cause. Blaming Israel for erecting a security wall and fence when the CAUSE of the barrier is terrorism, does not help the cause of peace. Unlike the Berlin wall which was created to keep the citizens virtual prisoners in East Germany, the security barrier in Israel was created to keep terrorists out, and to protect Israeli citizens – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim alike.

Some powerful groups within the American peace community (e.g. ANSWER which has been in control of most of the larger anti-war protests in America) are clearly anti-Semitic and unwilling to condemn Palestinian terrorism, and this adds to the problem. Blaming Israel for checkpoints when the CAUSE of the checkpoints is terrorism does not help the cause of peace. America has terribly frustrating and inconvenient checkpoints at every airport, yet we would never accuse the American government of harassment. No, we realize that our airport checkpoints are a response to terrorism, and NOT the cause of terrorism. The same is true in Israel.

If Israel trades land for peace in the future, that is their right as a sovereign nation. But let us not think for a moment that Judea and Samaria were not the homeland of our people, or we fall prey to the replacement theology that is inherent to Wahhabist and extremist Shiite theology today (e.g., Isaac was not the son on the altar at the Akeidah, Moses and King David were Muslims,, there never was a Jewish temple in Jerusalem, Jesus was a Palestinian, etc.). I know all to well from my firsthand connection to Saudi funded Wahabists that this form of replacement theology is widespread in much of the Muslim world. Just as I do not accept replacement theology from the Christians I may respect and work with, I am not going to accept it from Muslims either. It is historical revisionism, and it is dangerous for us to let statements of Christian or Islamic replacement theology be spoken with no response. The “old” Testament is not replaced by the “new” Testament, Isaac was not replaced by Ishmael, and there really was Solomon’s “Jewish” Temple where the Dome of the Rock now stands. There is plenty of land in G-d’s kingdom for all of us to live together – Elder and Younger Testaments, Isaac and Ishmael, Israel and Palestine, the Dome of the Rock AND Solomon’s Temple.

In summary: it is incorrect to say that the self-defensive measures that Israel took last summer against an illegal terrorist militia (Hezbollah) rises to a level even comparable to the homicidal, xenophobic, and Islamofacism of Hamas…a group that named itself honestly for what it stands for – violence. Look at what the Muslim extremists are doing to themselves in Gaza, in Lebanon, and Iraq. Islamic extremism is the root CAUSE of the problems in the Middle east and in almost every single conflict around the globe. This is the sad fact that too many good folks in progressive circles are slow to comprehend. Let us face this fact quickly and try to come up with visionary, creative, messianic, and realistic solutions instead of blaming Israel for its measures of self-defense.

Once we deal with the ROOT CAUSE of violence in the Middle East (Islamic extremism) then the effect (Israel’s defensive military actions) go away. If we all stand as one against terrorism, Islamic extremism, and recognize that this is the primary cause of violence in the Middle East we will be building a foundation upon which real peace, real shalom/saalam can stand.

Critics of Israel often point to the unequal military might between the Israelis and the Palestinians. From a micro-viewpoint this certainly true. However, take a look at Israel from a macro-viewpoint and you can see what a small nation Israel is compared to twenty-one Arab nations (and a dozen more non-Arab Muslim nations not even on this map) geographically, militarily, and economically. The Middle East is roughly the size of the United States and Israel is roughly the size of Kentucky. The economic might of oil rich nations cannot be underestimated, and the military might and threat to Israel by nations like Syria and Iran certainly cannot be underestimated. It is incorrect to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict outside of its full geopolitical and historic context.

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Recently I posted the following response to two esteemed colleagues of mine…teacher’s whose Torah insights I study and often quote. Yet, regarding the dangers of Islamic extremism to Jews, Christians, and to mainstream, peace-loving Muslims, we have important disagreements.

One colleague wrote, “Are there some Muslims who claim the authority of God to kill and destroy? Yes. Are there some Jews who claim this? Yes. And Christians? Yes. What do we do about this?” A second colleague wrote in a separate posting, “Yes, there is obviously a grave and dangerously threatening element in the Islamic world, just as there are a number of other extremely dangerous “isms” and powers threatening us in the world today.”

1) DISPROPORTIONATE COMPARISONS: The above statements are prime examples of why I disagree with my colleagues on the question of Islamic extremism. I believe that the good rabbis are repeating a popular mistake of making implied comparisons that are disproportionate to the facts. I plead with my esteemed colleagues to consider that all things are not equal concerning all “isms” or when comparing the extreme wings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. For example, when we think of “Jewish terrorists” we have to dig back more than a decade to name criminally insane individuals like Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir, both of whom acted alone. They certainly emerged from extremist religious environments where hatred was tolerated and spread, but certainly not where murder, terrorism, or assassination was ever preached from the bimah. I know of a very small number of religious Jews in Israel and America whose bigotry appalls me. Yet, I know of no Jews who claim “God’s authority” to “kill and destroy.” Israeli self-defense, properly or even improperly executed is something completely different from carrying out the demands of Islamic extremists who openly and publicly call for the destruction of an entire nation (Israel) and the conversion of the world to their brand of Islam. Further, we cannot forget that the vast majority of victims of Islamic-extremism are moderate, normative Muslims from every branch of Islam.

I have heard the preaching of Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah where he calls for the death, murder, assassination of Israeli civilians. I have heard first hand the late spiritual leader of Hamas, Ahmed Yassin, justify suicide murder against Israeli children – while teaching his own children how to strap bombs on their bodies to carry out Hamas’ evil deeds. Whether we approve of Jewish settlements or not in the disputed territories there simply are no Jewish or Christian militias who preach and demand the kind of sociopathic, homicidal behavior we hear from Hamas and Hezbollah. Am I preaching prejudice against Islam here? G-d forbid! Am I preaching fear of Hamas and Hezbollah? I certainly am! They are to be both feared and militarily defended against.

When we compare two insane, psychopathic Jewish criminals (Goldstein and Amir) who acted more than ten years ago to the literally tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands? a few million?) of Muslim terrorists commanded to be violent by literally dozens of well funded and well armed militias (e.g., Hamas and Hezbollah) we can hardly make a proportional comparison to Jewish extremists with any degree of intellectual integrity. Fact: there is a massive amount of worldwide terrorism sponsored and/or condoned by Jihadists that has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians (mostly Muslim) in the last fifty years.

Fact: there are NO Jewish terrorists sponsored by well funded militias or nations. And if there are Jewish terrorists, G-d forbid, they are almost definitely criminally sociopathic individuals acting under no denominational, sect, or leader’s command. Fact: there are Muslim nations (e.g. Iran) who officially sponsor and fund terrorism and/or military jihad in the name of Islam. Fact: there is no Jewish nation or even synagogue that sponsors or funds violence of any kind against Muslim, Christian, or Bahai civilians in the name of Judaism. When we go to airports and get our bodies and possessions searched and scanned it is not because of the threat posed by Jewish or Christian extremists. It is, however, because of the ever-present threats of war and violence made by Islamic extremists.

2) TERMINOLOGY: When scholars and Christians speak of the far right wing of Christianity (e.g., David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan, etc.) they often use the term “Christian Identity Movement.” There is not an iota of disparagement to liberal, mainstream, or conservative Christianity intended by the use of this term. It is simply a term that describes how a series of cults are trying to hijack Christianity for their own evil intentions. That is the context in which terms like Islamic extremism, Islamism, Jihadism, or even Islamo-Fascism arise from. I’m less concerned with the politically correct terminology than I am with the impact of Muslim extremists preaching death and murder in their mosques against other Muslims, gays, Jews, and anyone they perceive to be agents of Satan.

I would however, be quite concerned if these terms led people to believe that all of Islam or Arab culture condoned extremist hatred. I don’t see that happening in our nation or in Isreal. To our shame, many Americans were prejudiced against German-Americans and Italian-Americans during World War II. To our greater shame we rounded up Japanese-Americans and put them in internment camps during World War II. Since 9/11 I have been satisfied to see a somewhat “eager to learn” attitude by most Americans concerning Islam and Muslim-Americans. I live in a fairly conservative, Anglo, fundamentalist Christian region of the country, and yet most people get the difference between Muslims and Muslim extremists, and they generally go out of their way to distinguish Islam from Islamic extremism in their public statements.

3) WORDS MATTER: Certainly words matter. But because the term “Islamo-Fascism” is not a term directed at normative Islam, or most of Islam – this doesn’t mean the phenomenon does not exist. I have personally not heard the term misused to apply to Islam in general, and neither have I heard the term “Christian Identity Movement” misused to apply to all of Christianity. If I used the term “German fascism” it certainly does not mean that most German people are fascists But it would foolish not to use such a term for fear of its misuse.

Over the past decade many of us have had to learn many “terms of art” to describe both the brilliance and the shadow side that exist within the Islamic world. In our world today it is incumbent on all of us to learn the unique differences within that world, and to be able to distinguish their normative denominations (e.g. Suni, Shia, Sufi) from the armed extremist militias (e.g. Hamas, Hezbollah) from the extremist philosophical schools (e.g. Wahabism, Salafism on the Suni extremist side, and the Shiite extremism that arose from the Ayatollah Khomeni’s revolution in Iran in 1979).

4) THE FILM “OBSESSION:’ I have studied and fact-checked many of the major points made in the film “Obsession.” I have not found factual errors. The film interviews a moderate Muslim, a former Palestinian terrorist, the daughter of a Palestinian martyr, and other pundits – none of whom seem to have an ax to grind with Islam. The film begins by clearly stating that the subject is Islamic extremism and NOT Islam.

Did the film “scare the hell out of me” as one of my colleagues suggested in his posting? Yes, and I am as thankful for the wake up call. If, in the late 30’s, a “shockumentary” like “Obsession” woke people up to the world that was ahead of them many lives might have been saved in the 40’s. The good rabbi wrote that the film “…has no intention of presenting a balanced portrait of Muslims and Islamic culture….” He is correct since that was not the aim of the film. The rabbi then goes on to write that the film “…is meant to terrify Jews and Americans to such a degree that they will be more likely to support the Cheney-Bush program, including bombing and invading Iran (and possibly other Muslim countries as well).”

Wow! Where did he come up with that conclusion? The version of “Obsession” that our synagogue presented had no such explicit of implied meaning. There is not even a hint of getting Jews to support the bombing or invasion of Iran in the film. The Muslims who attended the presentation of the film in our synagogue were just as stunned by the facts and video clips of Jihadist clerics shown in the film as were the Jews, Christians, and members of the peace community who came.

5) ALL EVILS ARE NOT EQUAL: My colleague writes that there are other “isms” and “powers” that threaten the world. Of course there are, but not to violent degree that Islamic extremism threatens us in this day and age. I am a philo-Christian and yet do not hold back criticism of Replacement Theology within the Church (the Church is the true Israel) where it exists. I am also a philo-Muslim and do not hold back criticism of the Replacement Theology (e.g., the Jews never had a Temple in Jerusalem, Joseph was really a Muslim, there was no binding of Isaac, etc.) within Islam either. And I certainly do not hold back criticism of any religion where violence is preached from the pulpit. Today the pulpits where most of the violence is being preached comes from a significant minority (some estimate at between 15-25%) of mosques worldwide where radical Islamic theology (Wahabist, Salafist, Ayatollist, etc.) is promoted or at least tolerated. The Crusades ended hundreds of years ago. The genocide against Native Americans ended more than a hundred years ago. Colonialism ended eighty years ago. Racism, sexism, corporate greed, and consumerism are all too present in our society, but none of this compares to the immediate danger posed to all humanity by Islamic extremism. The greatest danger to the world today is no longer European colonialism. Corporate greed fed by consumerism is clearly a “power” to be tamed, but Islamism is a “power” that has declared violent and aggressive war on us. It cannot be negotiated with or tamed, but must be defeated and transformed as happened with Nazi Germany and Shinto Japan sixty years ago. In these two cases, America proved that is was not acting out of corporate greed, or ethnocentric and racist motives – our greatest enemies (Japan and Germany) became our greatest allies within a decade after the War. The same will be true, G-d willing, with all the Arab and Muslim nations. But first, the forces and groups behind the hatred and scapegoating of Israel, the West, moderate Muslims, and women must be soundly defeated.

The technologies used by the Jihadists include child abuse and forms of terrorism that have changed the very definition of war. Am I using scare tactics here? I don’t think so. Many of us are simply as scared as our fathers and mothers were before World War II. In 1938 the well intended Chamberlain naively declared “peace in our time” because of his pact trading “land for peace” with Heir Hitler. Mein Kamf literally means “My Struggle” and is the German equivalent of the word “Jihad” which literally means “struggle.” For G-d’s sake, let us not be fooled into inaction again as we were before World War II.

Jihadist theology, from whichever Shiite or Sunni extremist sect it comes from, is especially cruel to peace-loving Muslims. The greatest number of victims of Islamo-Fascism (call it what you want) are Muslims. In Gaza, in Syria, in Saadam’s Iraq, in Lebanon, in Iran, in Indonesia, in Sudan, in Chechnyia, in the Philippines, in Somalia the aberrant versions of true Islam are at war with moderate Muslims and the rest of the non-Muslim world. Their ideology is rooted in the most vile form of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and homophobia that has arisen since the Nazi era. There is a moderate, decent, quiet majority within Islam that is courageously working toward a pluralistic reformation within their faith. They deserve our full support. Confused and misguided (even when well intended) outside analysis of the ever-present danger of Islamic extremism only slows down that reformation from fully taking shape from within the Islamic world so that military intervention from Western nations will not be seen as necessary.

My synagogue produces programs on an ongoing bases that aims at demonstrating the innate brotherhood and sisterhood of Sarah and Hagar’s children. I wish I could believe in the potential for pacts with Hamas and Hezbollah, but I do not. In Torah it is just as much a mitzvah to hate evil as it is to love our neighbors. We can, and must, do both at the same time.

Please, Hashem, may the Israeli hostages kidnapped by Hamas and Hezbollah last year be returned to their families today! May the words of your prophets that give us so much hope for the reunion of Isaac and Ishamael, Jacob and Easu be fulfilled speedily in our time!

Martin Luther King Day Invocation
Delivered by Rabbi David Zaslow at South Medford High School Sunday, January 14. 2007

“Mee Kamokha b’ayleem Adonai.” This was the song that Moses sang to the children of Israel after they had crossed the Sea. The people thought that they were free – they didn’t realize they would have to wander in the desert forty years before they could enter the Promised Land. And even before the wandering began they were tested at the Sea which in Hebrew is called “The Sea Which is the End.” By faith alone they crossed, and the waters parted – not by might and not by power, but by the Spirit of the Holy One.

We shall overcome. How? With the technology of non-violence that Rev. King taught us to use. With the knowledge that it is by the Spirit of G-d alone that peace and justice can be achieved. Rev. King taught us all how to never let despair rule over hope. We shall overcome. Why? Because we refuse to be ruled by that which divides us. We give ourselves wholeheartedly to that which unites us: Black and Latino. Asian and White, Jews and Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindu, Native peoples, peoples of all faiths, and people of uncertain faith.

We shall overcome. Overcome what? We shall overcome war, poverty, the ongoing racism that is endemic throughout the world. We shall overcome the reemergence of anti-Semitism that is once again scapegoating the Jews in the disguise of anti-Zionism. We shall overcome the unbalanced criticism and targeting the nation of Israel. We shall overcome sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and the destruction of our planet. We shall overcome religious extremism and secular extremism as well.

We shall overcome that within ourselves that creates enemies where there needs to be dialogue – between Suni and Shia, between liberals and conservatives, between people of good faith on both sides of difficult issues, between ourselves and ourselves.

G-d, Adonai, Allah, Great Spirit, Divine Knowing of the Universe, Melekh HaOlam bless us today as one, bless us as we honor the prophet of our generation who taught us the real meaning of shalom – wholeness and how we need each other…who understood the deep meaning of the Biblical story of Moses and Pharaoh, of Israel and Egypt – that by liberating Black Americans from their oppression White Americans would be liberated as well from their racism as well. Bless us today as we honor the Moses of our time who is still taking us to the Promised Land of hope, justice, liberty, and freedom. Let us cross the sea together now and sing together the words of Moses: “Mee Kamokha b’ayleem Adonai….Who is like you Lord among all that which is worshipped?”

by Rabbi David Zaslow, dedicated to Richard Seidman
December, 2006

I was born December 23, 1947 in the midst of an historic snowstorm that immobilized New York City, and at the exact midpoint between three great events: when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, when my teacher Reb Zalman received rabbinic ordination from the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe at 770 Eastern Parkway, and when Israel was reborn as a nation. I was raised in the final decade of the Brooklyn Dodgers before Walter O’Malley devestated a generation of fans by moving our beloved team to Los Angeles for the 1958 season. This single fact, as unimportant as it may seem in the history of the cosmos, has had a profound impact on my life.

As a kid the sense of betrayal I experienced, along with millions of other fans, remains one of mythic traumas of my childhood. When my parents separated in 1965 it really hurt, but somehow the loss of the Dodgers years before had prepared me for disappointments that would come later in my life.

Just ask anyone who lived in Brooklyn in those years what the sense of loss was like when the Dodger’s moved (we still say the mourner’s kaddish every spring). Over the years I’ve gotten over my childhood hurts and disappointments, but I still dream about the return of the Dodger’s to Brooklyn. My Christian friends speak about the second coming of the messiah. Me? I half kiddingly tell my Christian friends that I’m waiting for the return of Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn. In fact, whenever I teach about Jewish messianic expectations and prophetic fulfillment, I speak about the return of the Dodger’s and the rebuilding of Ebbets Field as proof that the Messiah will have arrived. Religious eschatology and our hopes for the Brooklyn Dodgers are really not so different.

I remember the endless comparisons that we New York kids used to make between teams like the Dodgers, the Giants, and the Cardinals. But the most contentious battles would erupt when we compared individual players on the Dodgers and our arch rival – the dreaded, indefatigable, incredible New York Yankees. Endless debates comparing batting averages, and arguments about the relative greatness of pitchers, first basemen, outfielders, and short-stops. It’s true, we Dodgers never had the likes of Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, but the Yankees never had Jackie Robinson. Jackie was the first of all firsts, the Moses who led the people out of the Egypt of racism, and every one in Brooklyn knew it – whether they knew it or not. Jewish, Italian, Irish, Puerto Rican, and Black kids – we all shared Jackie Robinson. He represented all of us – he was the little guy, the immigrant, the outsider, the bum of bums. He was Brooklyn, not Manhattan.

Truth be told, there is no way to compare Robinson to DiMaggio – my two childhood heroes just don’t compare. They both played the same game, but they were simply two one-of-a-kind players. Statistics can’t tell you who they really were. Certainly batting averages will never tell you the real story behind Jackie Robinson and what he did for all Americans, of every color. When a single drop of Messiah’s anointing oil landed upon only one baseball player, it landed on Jackie Robinson. Ruth was the Babe and DiMaggio was the Clipper, but no one was Jackie Robinson – no one ever will be.

An aside: Besides a few million of us in Brooklyn (and half the kids on Staten Island and in Queens) guess who were the saddest people on earth to see the Dodgers leave Brooklyn? Yankee fans! They won’t admit it, but it’s true. In the world of baseball, rivalry runs deep but respect runs deeper.

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Reprinted from Washington Jewish Week which printed this Op Ed on
February 2, 2006

The Palestinian people have just elected officials with the level of consciousness of Torquemada in the 16th. century who no more represented real Christianity than Hamas represents real Islam. Nevertheless when I met with Hamas in a small group meeting with Sheikh Yassin in 1998 I was profoundly impressed that while their theo-politics was based on xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and theocratic totalitarianism I found their leaders to be candid and honest. Sheikh Yassin was not duplicitous, compromising, or trying to be polite to his audience of 23 American Jews. He was candid and frank – no Israel; Islamic law must rule; no two states!

What impressed me even more was the group’s idealistic dedication toward social services and the care of the people. I sensed then, as I do now, that the PA’s corruption is just too much for the average Palestinian who have seen literally billions of dollars stolen by Arafat’s family alone. I sensed very little corruption in the Hamas organization who hosted our visit. After all, they are not just a political party, they are a religious group rooted deeply in ideals. I think that’s what Hamas leader Khaled Mash’al might have meant when he said on Al-Jazeera TV after the elections, “We are committed to…the resistance and adhere to its weapons… As for recognizing [Israel] and amending our Charter – Hamas is not the kind of movement that succumbs to pressure…we will not recognize it, no matter how much time passes….” The statement that “Hamas is not the kind of movement that succumbs to pressure” can be understood in terms of religious idealism rather than secular pragmatism that seeks compromise. With Hamas, as with any idealistic, religiously based group, the word compromise is not in the dictionary. The results of the Palestinian election seems to be a protest vote by the people against Fatah’s corruption, but I fear the people are playing with fire. I urge everyone to read the Hamas Charter to learn what Israel and Middle East is up against now. I urge everyone to listen to what they say in the next few weeks and take them at their word – they are not duplicitous politicians like we’ve grown accustomed to who say one thing and then change their minds.

After all my years of study, prayer, hope, disappointment I have come to a sad conclusion. It almost doesn’t matter what Israel does. She can stay in the territories, withdraw from most of the territories, come to an Oslo-like agreement again, keep the status quo. The religious factor is usually skipped over or ignored by many secular peace groups. Why? Because they just don’t get the power of fundamentalism. They get the abuse of it, but not it’s real power. Here’s my sense on Hamas – they are the real deal. They love Allah. They would die for Allah. They will continue to kill for Allah. They are idealists: visionaries, bigots, misogynists at the level of consciousness of the Crusaders in the twelfth century – they envision a whole world that will eventually become Muslim, or subject to Islamic rule. And at the same time they deliver the goods to the people. They are not duplicitous. And they will NEVER NEVER NEVER change their belief that Israel cannot exist. So, sadly, the next move is not on us. Sharon did a brilliant move by getting out of Gaza. He, in effect, said, “Ok, it’s up to you. Stew in your corruption. Elect fanatics. Become democratic. It’s in your hands.”

His next move would have been unilateral withdrawal from a big chunk of the West Bank and I would have supported him 100%. Maybe Kadima will do that now. But, bottom line is that Sharon was intellectually withdrawing from the notion that there is something that Israel can do. Israel can do very little. The Palestinian people must have an uprising from within and demand gay rights, women’s rights, a union movement, pluralism, the right to assemble, the right to protest, and egalitarianism. If they do it, there will be peace and two States. If they do not do it, they will stew in their own self-hatred and continue to scapegoat the Jews. Sharon was saying “Never again” in a new way. I agreed with him. The good news is that the media and many world leaders are describing Hamas in more accurate terms – a terrorist organization with no desire to compromise. What we all need to realize is that they are more than a terrorist organization too – like the Nazis before them they have goals, dreams, ideals, and a visionary view of fulfilling their charitable obligations through effective social service programs – and that’s what’s so alarming

Sha-alu shalom Yerushalayim – for Israel, for Ishmael, for the whole world. I have great hope for the ultimate reunion of Isaac and Ishmael but it just might have to wait a while.

L’shalom – Toward peace,
Rabbi David Zaslow

Jan 1 2006

Jacob’s Voice

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Blind Isaac on his deathbed touches his son Jacob and says, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” Esau is the stronger brother, the hunter. Jacob, his twin, is a man of books and dreams. The two of them are an archetype of the twin parts of ourselves. For three thousand years this one line from Torah has been a shibboleth for people of Israel whenever we were on the verge of big trouble. Friends, Israel is on the verge of big trouble. We need to chant it again. By speaking with the “voice of Jacob” we never let ourselves become bitter or bigoted people. We hold onto our dream of a world where there is no hunger, oppression, or war. By having the “hands of Esau” we recognize that their are forces gathering bent on destroying Israel, and we must be prepared.

As a child I heard these words each Passover: “In every generation there are those who try to destroy us….” I never thought I would see the day when that terrifying line had meaning during my lifetime! “That was for my parents generation!” How naive I was to believe that I’d be part of the first generation in history when some monstrous power did not want to annihilate the Jews. The time has come for us to balance the dreams of our prophets with the reality of what Israel faces as a result of the Palestinian election of Hamas, and the recent proclamations by the President in Iran. The murder of athletes in Munich was just a beginning. Dozens of airline hijackings in the eighties – just a beginning. Terrorist attacks by Hamas escalated one-hundred fold after Rabin tried to make peace, and that was just a beginning. September 11 – just a beginning. The Taliban in Afghanistan were just the beginning. Arab (mostly Muslim) genocide against Blacks (mostly tribal or Christian) in Darfur – just a beginning. In almost all the local wars around the world there are Muslim radicals involved – just a beginning. Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh’s assassination – just a beginning. Violent riots and dozens of people murdered in response to a cartoon in Denmark – just a beginning. Islam is at war with itself, and at war with the world. For the time being the terrorized, victimized, silent majority within Arab countries – the moderates, the women, the mystics, and my friends – are losing.

Wahhabi(1) ideology explicitly teaches that the world is divided into two parts. Dar el-Harb is the house of War – that part of the world controlled by non-Muslims (i.e. Europe, North America) which will someday be controlled by Muslims in its vision of world domination. Then there is Dar el-Islam, any land, especially Israel, that was once controlled by Muslims which must be “returned” to Muslims immediately. James Woolsey, former CIA Director under Clinton warns us,(2) “Wahhabi ideology is…totalitarian to a unique degree in its repression of women. In 2002…religious police in Saudi Arabia forced some young girls fleeing a burning school back inside to their deaths because they were not properly veiled. This is a fanaticism that knows no bounds….Christians, Jews, and other Muslims, followers of other religions, non believers – are under absolutely no obligation to accept the Wahhabis’ and their apologiests’ claims that they represent ‘true Islam.’”

American Sufi leader Sheik Muhammead Kabbani and a few other courageous Muslims have been warning us about Islamic extremism for a long time. Woolsey writes, “We must get over this reluctance to challenge the perpetrators of…theocratic totalitarianism….[whose] objective is to unify first the Arab world under theocratic rule…then those regions that were once Muslim (e.g. Spain), then the rest of the world. Such totalitarianism seems crazy to most of us; we thus tend to underestimate their potency….the Salafists’(3) theocratic totalitarian dream has some features in common with the secular totalitarian dreams of the twentieth century, e.g. Nazis’ Thousand year Reich, or the Communists’ World Communism. Salafists…exhibit fanatic hatred of Shiite Muslims, Sufi Muslims, Jews, Christians, and democracy….The underlying Salafist ideology being spread by the Wahhabis is fanatical and murderous, indeed explicitly genocidal.”

May Hashem bless us hold onto our dream as we awaken to what is really happening in our world. Just as the leaders of the Crusades and Inquisitions did not speak for true Christianity, so these new Crusaders do no speak for true Islam. When peace loving Muslims speak out on behalf of Israel or for brotherly relationship with Jews they are risking their lives, so let us be courageous as we stand by them. They are in what will probably be a long battle for the heart and soul of their faith. In the meantime, let us speak with the voice of Jacob and not be afraid of using the hand of Esau as we exercise our obligation to protect ourselves. Peace for Israel, Ishmael, and the world – That’s the dream! May the wall protecting Israel be even stronger – that’s the sad reality.

(1) See BBC article by Roger Hardy

(2) See Woolsey’s The Elephant in the Middle East Living Room

(3) See Frontline’s Bruce Livesey’s The Salafist Movement.

(4) See also Professor Michael Doran article

Rabbi David Zaslow

The day the Palestinian leadership declares an end to terrorism…the day the Palestinian people demand an end to their corrupt government…the day the Palestinian people declares themselves to be pluralistic, egalitarian, and democratic – on that day the Palestinian people will have their dreams fulfilled for a homeland and prosperous lives for its people. Does it seem naive that the solution should be so simple? Does it seem unfair that the responsibility for the misery of the Palestinian people is almost entirely in their own hands?

I have studied this conflict for decades. I have meditated, debated, spent Shabbat in Palestinian homes, prayed with Muslim friends, studied even more, and searched for a fair and objective understanding of the root of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Israel has made some foolish decisions along the way since its rebirth in 1948, and for decades I have condemned some of the unfair housing policies and cultural double standards that Israeli citizens (both Jewish and Muslim) of Arab descent have had to endure by the early Euro-centric Israeli leaders. I have publicly decried the counter-productive nature of most home demolitions, and other forms of collective punishment, in response to terrorist attacks.

But any objective analysis yields only one result – the misery of the Palestinian people has almost entirely been caused by 1) a corrupt Palestinian leadership which results in a lack of social service institutions; 2) a lack of democratic institutions (free speech, freedom to assemble, union movement, and free elections) in order for the people’s voices to be heard; and 3) the lack of religious tolerance, pluralism, and egalitarianism in otherwise medieval cultural structures (very few rights for religious minorities, women, and children).

There is no cycle of violence between Palestinians and Israelis. There is a cause and an effect. The Israeli’s have not brought violence upon themselves, and they have not incited terrorism. The few foolish policies of the Israeli government have no moral equivalency whatsoever to acts of terror perpetrated against civilians. The day the terrorism ends is the day the future of the Palestinian people begins. Let us be pragmatic in our political affiliations and opinions, but let us be visionary in our hopes for the future. The prophets spoke unambiguously of the destiny for both Palestinians and Israelis. Grounded by my faith I am certain of the eventual outcome – Israel will be secure. Palestinians will have a homeland. Freedom, democracy, and a women’s movement will sweep the Middle East soon. Actually, it is happening before our eyes right now. We just need to reach the tipping point for freedom, egalitarianism, and pluralism to take hold.

We live in a culture that is often so self-critical that we look for moral equivalencies where there are none. We ask, isn’t Hamas angry because they really have been harmed by Israel? Didn’t colonialism disempower the Arab world? Aren’t Western values corrupting Arab cultures? The answers are simple: no, no, and no. Hamas has no duplicity in their agenda. They represent Islamic fundamentalism that is at the level of consciousness where Christians were at the start of the Crusades. They will accept nothing less than a one-state solution – a Muslim state in place of Israel.

Western colonialism certainly cast a shadow upon the third world. But as colonialism ended between 1918 and 1950 newly freed nations like India opted for democracy and have prospered. Nations like Iraq, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Libya opted for tyranny and have suffered. Finally, the only Western values that are “corrupting” Arab culture are ones that we hold dear: freedom, choice, and equal rights. These are threatening to the old patriarchal, hierarchical models of clan culture in most Arab nations. The violence and propaganda war against Israel is pure scapegoating. Jews are blamed for what most Arab citizens want for themselves. Keep hope alive for real shalom!

Jul 31 2005

A Fullest Emptiness

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Late morning, May 11, 2005, lower Manhattan. Rachel and Debbie are inside Century 21, shopping for deep discount designer clothing. I’m across the street standing in front of the World Trade Center, or what once was the World Trade Center. I weep and davven there, praying and gripping the metal fence like a caged wolf on the outside wanting in. I want in – to walk the halls of this vast empty, urban canyon. I want in – to walk between what remains of the substructure and foundation descending three, four, five stories below ground level. I want to walk, if it is possible, within the essence of memory itself – to the very place where heaven meets hell on earth.

The cavern left by the removal of debris from the Twin Towers is the fullest emptiness I have ever experienced. Years ago at the Grand Canyon I was awed by the emptiness that defines the span between the majestic canyon walls. But the site of the Twin Towers is different. This is not majestic. It is not an empty emptiness like the Canyon, but, rather an emptiness filled with ghosts, memories of steel, concrete, and glass that once was, no longer is, and yet somehow remains. The air itself, the sky itself, seems to remember what was once there. The Towers remain – they remain and live in memory, catastrophic memory. They remain in the empty chairs in thousands of homes where children who call the name of a dead parent are answered only by memory, family stories, legends, home videos, CNN reports, and scrapbooks. And if I listen, listen between the voices of life on the streets around me now, I can hear, actually hear the emptiness itself.

A few nights earlier, I was in a Brooklyn bar listening to some great live jazz when I realized how much good living, holy living, really is like the needle of a record sitting in the groove. But what I hadn’t realized until I arrived at the site of the Twin Towers was that as a record in a record player turns, the needle is perfectly still. To be in the groove means to stand in total stillness while the record around you spins. The turntable turns, the record revolves, but the point of contact requires total stillness. To be in the groove requires a complete balance between stillness and movement, between diamond and vinyl. For the needle to do its work of reading the engraved cuts within the grooves, it must be still.

Just like us. To read what Hashem has engraved in nature, in our own lives, or in the emptiness of what once was the Twin Towers, we can’t be turning. We can’t be moving to get out of the way, or to get somewhere else. We have to remain in place. Totally in place. Perfectly in place. It is difficult to be still when I want to weep for those whose lives were lost. It is difficult to be still when I want to pray for a future free of terror. So I say my prayers, chant the Amidah, say kaddish, and then enter the silence. Silence in lower Manhattan is not an oxymoron. It is an honor.

I’m sure there are other great canyons, but there is something singular about the Grand Canyon. I’m sure there are many places of great emptiness where life has been destroyed, but there is something singular about the Twin Towers. Each of us contains within us something singular as well. Our fate is to find out what it is, and then face it with thanksgiving and hope, and then stand before ourselves and our God in silence.

May 31 2005

In the Groove

by Rabbi David Zaslow

From the earliest days of sound recordings people noticed something poetic about the way the needle stayed inside the groove as the record went round and round. In the 1930’s jazz musicians coined the term “being in the groove” to describe the sensation they experienced as they played – when the music seemed to have a life of its own, and everyone felt they were part of something bigger than themselves. In the 1960’s hippies applied the metaphor of “feeling groovy” to the state of feeling like the world was harmonious and whole.

A few years ago I visited my daughter, Rachel, in her Park Slope, Brooklyn apartment. On the first night she whisked me off to a local club called Barbes so we could get a seat for what she promised was going to be a great jazz jam. She told me that the guitarist was a young French virtuoso named Stephane Wrembel who played Django Reinhardt and gypsy-style music like no one else. “Yeah, yeah,” I thought, “like no one else? In Brooklyn? And what does my little girl know about great jazz anyway?” So I said, “OK, honey, whatever you want to do. It’s your Brooklyn now. I’m your guest!”

We arrived an hour early to secure a good seat and started drinking Brooklyn Lager. (They never had a micro-brewed beer when I lived there; the best you could do then was Schaeffer). May 8, 2005, at 9 PM: there I was on 9th Street on the corner of 6th Avenue, deep, deep in the old country where I grew up. The musicians arrived: Stephane, the young virtuoso; a female guitarist from Spain, maybe 20, whose last name was Cohen; another guitarist from London, a guy maybe In his mid-twenties; a bass player; and washboard master David Langlois. Washboard? Master? What was that homemade concoction of an instrument on his lap, anyway?

They started playing “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and within seconds (okay, two minutes) the groove was set. They followed with an unbelievable improvisation on “Bei Mier Bist Du Shayne.” Sometime during the first set I died and went straight to jazz heaven. And the music got better by the minute. (So did the beer). For three hours I experienced the jam of jams. I looked at Stephane and thought, “Who is this rebbe…this reincarnation of one of the great guitar tzadikkim? No one’s fingers move that fast without Divine intervention! And what about this percussionist who transforms finger tapping on metal and wood into exalted solos?” Gevaldt, they were good!

The next morning Rachel had to go to work at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. On the way she dropped me off at 770. 770 is not just a number – it’s an entire universe. 770 Eastern Parkway is the home of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement. This was the very place where Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman were ordained in 1947 – the same year I was born, Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, and Israel was declared a nation. It was a good year by all measures. The basement of 770 has been transformed into a huge synagogue where davvenen and study go on around the clock. Arriving at 11 AM I thought I’d be one of a few latecomers. But, no this is 770! Around the clock this shul is filled with men and women coming to make a deep connection to the Divine. By the time I arrived, the shul was populated by lean and pale-faced yeshiva students whose average age was maybe eighteen. Everyone was dressed in black and white – what a metaphor! Was I the only one in color there? I had just walked into the nineteenth-century world of Jewish men deep in Eastern Europe. It was Brooklyn outside but Lubavitch, Russia inside.

I put on a borrowed tallit and t’fillin and within seconds I was deep in ecstatic prayer – rocking and swaying back and forth; my eyes flying through the pages of the siddur – and then satori struck! Zap! The groove I was in the evening before was the same as the groove I was in during davvenen. My body rocked the same way during my davennen as it had rocked during the Stephane Wrembel jazz jam. Ecstatic jazz and ecstatic prayer were part of some secret, hidden oneness that only I was blessed to behold that morning. If I called out to everyone, “Hey, holy brothers, there’s a bar up the street that has this incredible jazz every Sunday night…” they would have tossed me out of the shul. And if I had gone to the bar and told the Django fans that there was this great synagogue down the street where the praying is as good as jazz, they, too, would have tossed me out.

Right now, I don’t care who tosses me out of their bars and shuls. I am just thankful to G-d to have seen that there is only one groove – one groove and many paths: the groove of great jazz on Sunday night at Barbes; the groove of great davvenen at 770 Eastern Parkway; and the groove of being with my daughter in Brooklyn on a beautiful week in May.

If you have RealPlayer you can listen to a 3 hour concert of the guitarist
Rabbi David wrote about at

Guitarist Stephane Wrembel’s website.

Coming soon– Reimagining Exodus: A Story of Freedom