Our not-so civil war

Once thought of as the new Great Right Hope, Binyamin Netanyahu has degenerated from merely disappointing to downright dangerous.

Haredi woman in a 'burka' 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredi woman in a 'burka' 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
I shared a birthday this year with one of the more significant dates in United States history. July 1 marked the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle and, it is generally agreed, the turning point in the American Civil War.
From July 1-3, 1863, the Union and Confederate armies, led by Gen. George Meade and Gen. Robert E. Lee, respectively, clashed and collided in and around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. While the army of the South initially held the upper hand, the North’s superiority in numbers eventually turned the tide and delivered a crushing blow to Lee’s forces. When the smoke had cleared, a staggering 46,286 soldiers of the Blue and Gray had been killed or wounded in three horrendous days of fighting, the most of any battle ever fought in an American war.
All told, by the time the opposing armies reached “A Stillness at Appomattox” and the surrender of Lee’s troops on April 9, 1865, 625,000 US soldiers would die in the War Between the States – the largest number of US military deaths suffered in any war before or since, more even than those killed in World War II.
My father of blessed memory, a decorated veteran of World War II, was a great Civil War buff with an extensive library of books on the subject. He took our family on a trip to Gettysburg when I was 10 years old. As we wound our way among the memorials at Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, Pickett’s Charge and the too-aptly named Cemetery Hill, Dad shed many a tear. His message to us, as we somberly made our way home, was that “when brothers fight, there are no winners; everyone loses.”
I bring this up because, sad as it is to say, with no exaggeration, we are now caught up in our own Milhemet Ahim, Battle of Brothers.
There is no point in denying it or sweeping it under the rug or making light of it; the order of the day has become Jew against Jew.
I see and hear signs of it everywhere. In the burning of Osem, Elite and other Israeli products on the streets of Brooklyn by men in hassidic costume, as curious crowds gather round, no one venturing forward to put the fire out. In the vicious words of so-called rabbis, who call heroic, God-fearing Jews “Amalek” and other ugly names, who proclaim that whoever cast their ballot for the national-religious party will be sent straight to Gehinom (hell). In the abject refusal of the majority of synagogues in the world to say the Prayer for the Well-Being of Israeli Soldiers, let alone the Prayer for the State of Israel. In the nauseating, ever-growing feeling – at times visceral, at times subconscious – that I, and so many others on both sides of the divide share, that we no longer have very much in common with each other.
Years ago, when the “Zionism is racism” slander was being propagated by the world against us, I wondered what we had done to deserve that outrage. I have always believed that we, and not our enemies, are the ones who dictate our fate, that everything which happens to the Jewish people happens because of something we did, or did not do. I could never comprehend why we deserved to be the target of so much hatred. But when I saw, not long ago, a Jew holding a sign that read “Zionism is heresy” at a mass rally against serving in the IDF, I finally understood.
And so, last week’s headlines about a Natorei Karta lunatic (excuse the redundancy) who spied for Iran and told them he “wanted to kill a Zionist” surprise but no longer shock me.
On a recent trip to Toronto – whose vibrant Jewish community is also experiencing the pain of polarization – I met a marvelous Holocaust survivor. Approaching 90, he remains quite active, lecturing frequently about his experiences in the Shoah, and has accompanied several March of the Living groups to the camps. He told me the following story: “When I was a small boy in Poland, a train once passed through our town on its way to Turkey. On the train were a number of young Jews who had decided to move to Palestine, to join the fledgling Yishuv. My parents took me to the railyard to cheer and wave at these young pioneers. As the train pulled into the station, and the young people stepped out to get some fresh air, they were pelted with stones by other Jews who violently disapproved of their aliya. The young people quickly ran back into the train, and continued on their journey to what would ultimately be freedom from Hitler’s executioners.
“I forgot all about that incident,” he went on, “until I came back to Israel from Poland with a group of youngsters after last year’s March. As I walked together with them through the streets of Jerusalem and Mea She’arim, we were suddenly met by a barrage of garbage being thrown at us from the apartment windows above. And then it all came back to me, I remembered the incident with the train, and I cried. I cried because I realized we never learned the lessons of the Shoah.”
Life is about opportunities, and choices.
We had a great opportunity recently to elect new rabbinic leaders, men who could heal the rift and breathe new life into our spiritual society. But the campaign, which took place around Tisha Be’av, was the worst example of sinat hinam (baseless hatred) imaginable, and the outcome was the worst we could have hoped for. Absurd only scratches the surface of electing non-Zionists to head a Zionist infrastructure.
The top three religious institutions of the state have always been the Zionist educational system, the army and the kashrut network. Do either of these rabbis subscribe to any of them? Do they eat from rabbinate kashrut? Do they send their children to Zionist yeshivot, to hesder? Do their sons all serve in the IDF? By electing the rabbis’ sons (no, unfortunately not the American singing group of the ’70s), we lost the chance to end business as usual, to strengthen the state, to reach out to the unaffiliated and disaffected, and we made the Chief Rabbinate irrelevant.
And while we are speaking about unity, and about leadership, we cannot gloss over the colossal capitulation of our prime minister.
Once thought of as the new Great Right Hope, Binyamin Netanyahu has degenerated from merely disappointing to downright dangerous. Erasing all of his self-proclaimed red lines, abdicating the mandate given to him by the people, Bibi has joined the list of all the other former rightists (Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, et al.) willing to sell – or sell out – the farm in order to please US Secretary of State John Kerry and Company.
The kneeling before Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his outrageous demands, the freeing of terrorist murderers despite the overwhelming opposition of the electorate, is a stab in the back to the true patriots of our country, the bereaved families who sacrificed our sons and daughters to reject and repel the terror war that has been thrown at us for a century. They say that we paid the ultimate price, but they are wrong; this, the freeing of our children’s killers to jubilant reception by the enemy, is the ultimate price. Bibi and his cohorts have destroyed justice in Israel, and they have returned us to the law of the jungle, whereby, in the absence of a civilized court, we are forced to either gnash our teeth in frustration or seek vengeance and justice on our own, outside what should have been a fair and functioning legal system. How hypocritical that an America which has never in its history freed a convicted killer due to threats or blackmail would pressure Netanyahu to do so, and how pathetic that an Israeli prime minister would go along with them.
I am only glad that we executed Adolf Eichmann before this lot took office; they would have no doubt set him free, too, with a bottle of Israel’s best champagne.
Government aside, this is a country filled with holy and heroic citizens. We have the potential to be the greatest country on the face of the earth. To fulfill not only our own sacred destiny, but also serve as a role model for every other nation and nationality. As Abraham Lincoln said so eloquently in his Gettysburg address, and I paraphrase: “It is for us to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us, our devotion increased by those honored dead who gave to the cause their last, full measure of devotion, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
But to do that, we must end the war between the brothers, and we must identify and promote people of great wisdom and courage to lead us. That process begins by looking no further than ourselves, by shaking off our apathy and taking on new activism.
For when all is said and done, the truth is, we get the leaders that we deserve.
■ The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; [email protected], www.rabbistewartweiss.com