Tisha Be’av and the war in Ukraine - is there a connection? - opinion

When we see entire ethnic groups and minorities being discriminated against, we must take action. This is one of the important lessons of Tisha Be’av.

 A VOLUNTEER helps a man as people arrive on a train from war-affected areas of eastern Ukraine, earlier this week.  (photo credit: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)
A VOLUNTEER helps a man as people arrive on a train from war-affected areas of eastern Ukraine, earlier this week.
(photo credit: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

As we approach Tisha Be’av, my question is: what is the connection between Tisha Be’av and the war in Ukraine? On Tisha Be’av, there is a custom to study a famous section of the Talmud – Gittin 55b-58a – which contains legends and stories about the destruction of the Second Temple.

Kamtza and Bar Kamtza

The first story in that section tells the story of a certain wealthy Jew who lived in Jerusalem, who had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza. He sent his servant to invite Kamtza to a feast, but by mistake, the servant brings Bar Kamtza. 

When Bar Kamtza shows up and sits down at the meal, the host goes over to him and says, “What are you doing here?! Get out!” Bar Kamtza replies: “Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay for whatever I eat and drink.” The host replies, “No, get out!” to which Bar Kamtza says: “I’m willing to pay for half of this entire feast.” The host repeats, “No, get out!” and Bar Kamtza raises his offer: “I’m willing to pay for the entire feast.” The host says “No! get out!” 

Bar Kamtza concludes: “Since the rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform them to the government.” 

In other words, because the host publicly insulted Bar Kamtza while the rabbis sat there and did nothing, Bar Kamtza went to the Roman emperor and slandered the Jews and the end result was the siege on Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple.

The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez (credit: Wikimedia Commons)The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Burke, Mill and Niemöller

The lesson of this tragic story can be summarized in a quote attributed to Edmund Burke in the 18th century: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” 

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Edmund Burke (but not exactly)

Apparently, Burke did not say those exact words. The essence of that quote can be traced back to John Stuart Mill in a speech delivered in 1867: “Let not anyone pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” 

“Let not anyone pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”

John Stuart Mill

This idea was reiterated after the Holocaust by the anti-Nazi Lutheran minister Martin Niemöller. It’s not exactly what he said, but it’s the gist of a speech he delivered in January 1946:

“First they came for the Communists, 

and I did not speak out

because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, 

and I did not speak out 

because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, 

and I did not speak out

because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, 

and there was no one left 

to speak out for me.” 

Ukraine's Zelensky or Ethiopia's Selassie?

The final source I shall quote is from a speech that may sound familiar but, in a moment, we will discover that it’s not. It was delivered by the leader of an embattled country to an international body of nations. This is what that leader said:

“I assert that the problem submitted to the Assembly today is a much wider one. It is not merely a question of the settlement of... aggression... 

“It is collective security. It is the very existence of [this body]… 

“In a word, it is international morality that is at stake. Have the signatures appended to a treaty value only insofar as the signatory powers have a personal, direct and immediate interest involved?

“Apart from the Kingdom of the Lord, there is not on this earth any nation that is superior to any other. Should it happen that a strong government finds it may with impunity destroy a weak people, then the hour strikes for that weak people to appeal to [this body] to give its judgment in all freedom. God and history will remember your judgment.” 

And finally, he said, “This is not a case of the impossibility of stopping an aggressor, but of the refusal to stop an aggressor.” 

You might think that this is a quote from President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine talking to the United Nations about the Russian invasion of his country – but you would be wrong. It’s a quote from emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia talking to the League of Nations in Geneva in June 1936 after Italy invaded his country without provocation, and with the help of poison gas, managed to capture his country. He came to the League of Nations and he asked for their help – and they did absolutely nothing.

Thus, we see that there is a direct line from the story of Bar Kamtza in Gittin about the destruction of the Second Temple, which teaches us what happens when good men do nothing. This is what happened in Ethiopia in 1936. This is what happened during the Shoah from 1933 to 1945. And this is what could happen in Ukraine if the world does not continue to aid Ukraine. 

When we see individuals being mistreated, we must speak up. When we see entire ethnic groups and minorities being discriminated against, we must take action. When we see peaceful countries being attacked for no reason, we must protest and force our governments to help the victims. 

This is one of the important lessons of Tisha Be’av.

The writer, a rabbi, is president of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. in Jerusalem.