Parashat Zachor and fighting antisemitism

There’s another reason we read Parashat Zachor.

Nazi Swastika (photo credit: REUTERS)
Nazi Swastika
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On the surface, its importance seems bizarre, as it deals with collective punishment. Amalek, the Torah tells us, must be completely wiped out – men, women and children.
The Amalek mandate is one of the most difficult to understand. How can we extol the murder of innocents? My contention is that the message of Parashat Zachor is not to remind us of an obligation of collective punishment but rather the opposite. How so?
Concerning Amalek, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik declared that the Nazis were not Amalek. For him, there is a distinction between biological Amalek and figurative Amalek. The mandate to annihilate only applies to biological Amalek. As he writes in Kol Dodi Dofek, the obligation to kill every individual Amalekite only applies to biological Amalek. Today, they no longer exist. No commandment of genocide is in place or can ever be.
But then there is figurative Amalek, who must be fought as one fights any war – never targeting the innocent. That was Germany in World War II. We had a sacred responsibility to destroy the German army, but not purposely attack non-combatants such as children and civilians.
From my perspective, we read Parashat Zachor to remind ourselves that the command to destroy all of Amalek was a total anomaly. We are unalterably opposed to collective punishment or genocidal wars. To wit, the Israeli army’s policy of tohar haneshek – the purity of arms.
I’ll never forget our grandson – who fought in the 2014 Gaza war – telling us his unit entered an Arab home and saw a young Arab child strapped in explosives. I never asked what ensued, but the pain on his face as he shared that moment will always remain. This is tohar haneshek.
There’s another reason we read Parashat Zachor. In its broadest sense, it is a sacred reminder to fight antisemitism, whatever its form. That’s why the Torah says zachor – remember, and then, lo tishkach – do not forget.
Why the repetition? For me, the Torah is emphasizing that antisemitism is a plague that never goes away. In the wake of the Holocaust, antisemitism went underground, as world sympathy was with the Jewish people. But we’re 75 years later. Shoah memory is quickly receding.
Today, antisemitism is resurfacing with a vengeance. It is to the constant reality of antisemitism that the Torah declares: Whatever the shape of antisemitism – zachor; whatever its trope – lo tishkach. While often in life it is important to remember what to forget, relative to antisemitism, remember (zachor) never to forget (lo tishkach). Be vigilant, stand up, push back, fight back, with strength, with courage.
If someone would have told me more than 50 years ago, when we were standing with Never Again signs to save Soviet Jewry, that in 2019 antisemitism would make its way into the people’s house, the US House of Representatives, I would have said – impossible. And yet, it has.
And even more tragic than that moment was the response on the floor – nothing more than a whimper. The guilty congresswoman still serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and the pushback resolution not only failed to mention her name, but was watered down, failing to focus and spotlight the horror of antisemitism.
In recent weeks, I’ve had conversations with our congressman who chairs the International Affairs Committee, and another representative from Florida. Both deserve applause for calling out the antisemitism of their colleague, and for doing all they could to focus the resolution to antisemitism.
For many decades, I have been very close to our congressman. He is one of the strongest supporters of the US-Israel relationship. The congressman from Florida also has a great reputation as a strong supporter of Israel.
BUT I HAD no choice but to tell them that I firmly believed they had fallen short, as they refused to call for the congresswoman’s dismissal from the Foreign Affairs Committee. They argued that it was not pragmatic. Our request, they said, will be turned down. We will appear weak, giving incentive for anti-Israel members of congress to push for anti-Israel legislation.
I retorted that this is a tragic, tragic moment in American history, a moment that requires a Martin Luther King-Natan Sharansky response. When King demanded equality, he knew he would be rebuffed over and over and over again. When Sharansky demanded freedom, he knew the journey would be treacherous. But both understood that there are times when one must stand up for principle, calling out evil, because it is the right thing to do.
Indeed, my experience has been that the best results come from sticking to principle.
And so, I respectfully reminded the congressmen of the Purim story when Esther offered practical reasons why she could not intervene with Achashverosh. Mordechai then tells her, “Stand up for principle. This is your moment. Could it be that just for such a time as this you have attained royalty?”
How I remember the battle in the early days of the Soviet Jewry movement, when the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry started protesting in 1964. Many in the establishment disagreed – it’s not pragmatic, you’re making matters worse, in the wake of your protests the Soviets will become more repressive. But Glenn Richter and Yaakov Birnbaum prevailed. They stood up for principle, and history records that they were right.
One more point must be added. As crucial as it is to fight antisemitism, it is critical that antisemitism not define our Judaism. As Edgar Bronfman once told me, he decided to go to Rabbi Soloveitchik for advice after becoming president of the World Jewish Congress. “Remember,” the rabbi told Edgar, “you were not born a Jew just to fight antisemitism.”
Indeed, if I only define Judaism by what I’m fighting against, that is negative, reactive Judaism – and negative, reactive “anything” will not endure.
The call to vigorously protest antisemitism must be a gateway to a Judaism that is positive. Only proactive Judaism will endure.
The challenge of the zachor of Amalek is to also remember other “zachors” contained at the end of the daily shaharit service. The zachor of Shabbat, reminding us of creation; the zachor of revelation at Sinai; the zachor of redemption from Egypt. Whenever creation, revelation and redemption appear together, it speaks to the very mission of Judaism: a mission acknowledging our responsibility to see revelation as a means to achieve redemption.
If my Judaism is only based on what I’m fighting against, that’s “againstnik” Judaism. That Judaism will not last. If, however, I am a Jew because I embrace the mission of Judaism to follow the way of God, doing what is just and righteous and do my best to keep the Shabbat and support Israel, that is positive Judaism. That Judaism will continue on and on.
But for me, this past Parashat Zachor focused on the tepid response to antisemitism – from Charlottesville to the halls of Congress. I feel less safe in America these days. I am no longer certain of the future for Jews here. Israel as a physical insurance policy for Jews worldwide is more important than ever.
And so, we stream to shul to hear the expansive message of Parashat Zachor. It reminds us to be vigilant, tenacious, to lobby, to protest, to march, to peacefully sit in, to bring a million people to Washington, crying out – “Zachor, lo tishkach.”
The writer is founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale-The Bayit, and a longtime activist for Israel and human rights.