The terrorists of Hamas took a couple of hours off from trying to kill Jews on Sunday in order to watch the World Cup final. There was a marked lull in rocket-fire from the Gaza Strip as Germany and Argentina went at it. Murderers who love sport! How quaint.
It reminded me of the famous roundup of the Jews in Rome on October 16, 1943. As the SS drove around the city picking up about 1,000 Jews – all of whom except 16 were gassed at Auschwitz just days later – they stopped their trucks to take pictures in front of St. Peters Square, right under the nose of Pope Pius XII. Apparently even the cold-blooded German killers of the SS appreciated architecture, celebrity and art, even as they undertook the grizzly business of murdering Jews.
But the story of Hamas’ World Cup addiction is dangerous, contributing as it does to a growing and biased media sense that Hamas is an inept terror organization whose pathetic rockets are no match for the sophistication of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system and that therefore Israel is overreacting. Many Israelis are taking photos of the daily battle between Iron Dome and the rockets and posting them, forgetting just how dangerous the rockets are, showering murderous debris even after being intercepted by Iron Dome.
Why is Israel failing to effectively communicate to the world that Hamas is a bloodthirsty terror organization which has already murdered hundreds of Israelis? Why are we Jews not fighting as hard against Hamas with pictures and words as we are with planes and gunships? Last week’s Torah reading captures God’s affirmation to Moses that he will be denied entry into the Promised Land because he struck the rock from which he was to draw forth water, rather than speaking to it. Puzzlement over the seeming harshness of God’s edict can be explained as follows: Moses, a stutterer who appointed Aaron as his spokesman, never fully appreciated the power of words, which God sought to impress upon him through his commandment that the time to smite had passed and the time to speak had come.
This is perhaps the ultimate irony of being Jewish: We are the people of the book but we struggle to communicate effectively with words.
Gary Oldman recently defended Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic rant, in which Gibson spoke of “F--ing Jews” who are “responsible for all the wars in the world.” Gibson never fully apologized for those vile words. More seriously, he made a movie filled with grotesque anti-Semitic caricatures of the Jews clamoring for the murder of Jesus.
He also defended his father’s Holocaust denial.
According to Oldman, Gibson should be forgiven because “everyone speaks like that.” We’re all closet racists, according to Oldman, who said, “We’ve all said those things. We’re all f----ng hypocrites. That’s what I think about it. The policeman who arrested him has never used the word ‘nigger’ or ‘that f---ing Jew’?” Not content to defend Gibson, Oldman decided to indulge in some ugly caricatures himself.
“Mel Gibson is in a town that’s run by Jews and he said the wrong thing because he’s actually bitten the hand that I guess has fed him.”
Oldman has since apologized. His apology should be accepted, as should anyone’s who takes responsibility for their actions. But there’s an important lesson in his interview and it derives from the power of words and a rejection of Oldman’s original claim that words and stereotypes are harmless.
In my recent lecture tour to the Jewish community in Germany I was out to answer a nagging question: How did a nobody, lice-ridden vagabond like Hitler plunge the world into total war and annihilate a third of my people? Hitler was an ignoramus with barely an education. On most days he woke up after noon and did scant work. This continued even after he became chancellor of Germany.
He had no real plan for the Fatherland other than to apportion blame for all its problems on subhumans like the Jews. He pretended to be a humble man of the people while his inner circle knew him to be a power-obsessed megalomaniac. Everything about him – including his lie of living frugally and eschewing luxury – was a complete fabrication.
So how did he do it? Through oratory alone.
The power of words is destroy is immense. Hitler’s most important biographer – Ian Kershaw – explains that Hitler’s speeches catered to an angry and hateful Bavarian public who could not come to terms with Germany’s defeat in World War I and who needed someone to stoke the embers of their rage. Hitler the oratorical agitator slowly turned Germany – where anti-Semitism already had a thousand-year history – into a nation of murderers who scapegoated the Jews.
Martin Luther King did precisely the opposite, using words to bless and speeches to heal. He was an American giant who purged this great nation of the shameful prejudice that would deny a black child the right to drink water from a fountain after playing in the summer heat.
He, too, transformed a nation through the power of oratory.
Had King not had this gift for words America might have lived with the scourge of segregation for several decades more.
The Jewish community and the State of Israel flourishes at so many endeavors – from scholarship to education to philanthropy to entrepreneurship to communal development.
What it has never mastered, however, is the power of public relations and the influence of words. Israel today is suffering not because it lacks a strong military but because it lacks talented wordsmiths, great orators and contemporary writers who can make the case as to the justice of its cause.
And what we’re learning – rapidly – is that if we don’t quickly find the appropriate words with which to define ourselves, those who hate us will do it for us.
The author is founder of This World: The Values Network, the foremost organization influencing politics, media and culture with Jewish values. He has just published Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.