Stolen Jewish property in Egypt – Resentment remains 60 years later

As my friend Maurice and I strolled towards the Jaffa Gate to enter the Old City of Jerusalem several years ago, he told me the story of his family. He was  a young teen in Egypt when the 1956 Suez War broke out between Egypt against the United States, France and Israel. After fighting ceased the remaining Jews who had not left for Israel after the 1948 War of Independence were forced out.

In 1948, 800,000 Jews fled their homes in Arab countries when their governments persecuted them as retaliation for Israel’s victory. Their property and wealth were either stolen or nationalized. They arrived in Israel penniless and to this day have not retrieved their lost property nor been compensated.

The same fate happened to Maurice and his family in 1956. Because they spoke French and Arabic they fled to Montreal leaving everything behind.

Last week an article appeared in 972+ Magazine called “No more lip service: How to retrieve lost Jewish property in Arab countries” (by Uri Zaki) (http://972mag.com/no-more-lip-service-how-to-retrieve-lost-jewish-property-in-arab-countries/121310/). Knowing Maurice’s story, I sent him the article’s link and asked for his reaction. He granted me permission to reproduce his letter:

Hi John: Thanks for thinking of me. It is so nice to have a friend that knows and understands my history. You probably also know that this topic touches a sensitive nerve so please take what follows with those feelings in mind.

It is a very important topic for the Jewish people as a whole and one to me and my family….

Egypt was home to a vibrant and rich Jewish community for centuries. Jewish and general scholarship … was tremendous and to this day sits as one of the Jewish people’s most important assets … Egypt was more than a comfortable home for us….

In the years leading up to the mid-1950’s, we endured increasing racism and harassment. Eventually, the substantial assets that we had earned over the years were seized and stolen from us. We were mercilessly (and pennilessly) expelled from our home, country, and community. We left behind not just our property but our way of life…

Although I was just in my teens, I remember well the struggle that my family and parents faced without country and any financial strength.

…We left, rebuilt and regained the position of strength (financially, Judaicly, culturally, and intellectually) that we always occupied. We didn’t do it with the help of the UN or foreign governments….we did it on our own.

The truth is that after the Egyptian King was deposed, the country went through a period of violent nationalism and home-grown radicalism. Years before we were expelled, I remember that my father was nearly stoned to death in the street for the simple crime of being a Jew.

Our plight … had to do with anti-Semitism and the use of xenophobia by the Egyptian leaders to stir the public.

Jews [in 1956] were …not persecuted because we represented any credible threat….[it was] Xenophobia and racism plain and simple….

I believe that we Jews have always been the canary in the mine!

It is a stark contrast to the Palestinian approach. … my story isn’t any better than the Palestinian….arguably much worse. Yet no Jew has sat in a refugee camp for nearly 70 years. Israel quickly absorbed its people (sometimes with bumps, but ultimately successfully) and the displaced and abused Jewish communities of the Middle East quickly reestablished themselves and are thriving.

With much love
Maurice

Maurice rightly notes the distinctions between the plight of Jewish and Palestinian refugees (note: 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced to leave their homes in 1948, a number equivalent with Jewish refugees leaving Arab lands that same year). Both stories are deeply troubling, to say the least, and both peoples deserve and require restitution. The 972+ article offers insight into the Jewish struggle. The Palestinian struggle is of a different order altogether.

Two points:

[1] All neighboring Arab nations (except Jordan) refused to absorb Palestinians into their populations;

[2] The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) was created in 1949 to assist Palestinian refugees. It is the only organization in the world devoted to only one refugee community and has sustained Palestinians as refugees for more than six decades thus enabling so many of them to continue living in poverty and statelessness.

Sadly, despite the Palestinian people’s legitimate rights to a state of their own beside Israel in what must eventually (sooner rather than later) become a two states for two peoples resolution of the conflict, the Palestinians have been used cynically as pawns by both the UN and  Arab nations for their own political purposes, and by their own leaders who have time and again refused to accept a two-state solution and the rights of the Jewish people to a nation state of our own.

In conclusion, Zaki wrote:

Recent trends in international law place the emphasis on “satisfaction,” which derives from publicly addressing the past, issuing apologies and taking responsibility for creating injustices. These, alongside reparations and restitution of lost property, are essential in conflict resolution. … Only thus could mutual recognition of the injustice inflicted upon millions of people and their descendants, on both sides of the divide, emerge. In addition, it could create a buzz in the relevant countries as well as internationally, paving the way for actual reparation and restitution as well as satisfaction.

Maurice’s story is one among millions. In his case, his family has done well though they were exiled from their home. Not so for so many others.

“Avigdor Lieberman Is Sorry-Not-Sorry for Comparing Iran Deal to Hitler Deal” – JJ Goldberg in the Forward

This article by the Forward’s JJ Goldberg reviews a number of important issues and conflicts going on inside Israel and vis a vis the United States that I recommend you read.

JJ begins his piece this way:

“The long-simmering tension between Israel’s generals and their politician bosses flared up in early August into a near-crisis in U.S.-Israel relations. It’s an almost comically complicated caper, so pay close attention. You can’t make this stuff up.”

Here are the issues JJ addresses that could reasonably become a sordid TV mini-series here in the US or in Israel (Screenwriters! Take note!):

• The Israeli generals vs their political bosses
• Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s intemperate leadership of the Israeli Defense Ministry
• The Israeli army vs Israel’s right-wing extremists
• The corrupting influence of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate
• The on-again-off-again American-Israeli Aid negotiations
• The bad marriage between President Obama and Israel’s right wing government and more on the Iran deal

http://forward.com/opinion/347134/avigdor-lieberman-is-sorry-not-sorry-for-comparing-iran-deal-to-hitler-deal/?attribution=home-conversation-headline-1

Action Alert – Ask Secretary John Kerry to act on behalf of the West Bank village of Susiya

The Palestinian residents of Susiya, a small village in Area C in the West Bank controlled by the Israeli military administration, are facing a decision about the demolition of their village in the next few days. The only thing standing between these villagers having homes and becoming homeless is a decision by newly installed Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

This village has suffered displacement and demolition before even as Jewish settlers nearby are left alone. Their settlement, on the other hand, has benefited as a result of  contributions by the Israeli government in the building of its infrastructure.

There are about 100 Palestinians living in Susiya today. The Jewish settlement nearby has a rapidly expanding population of 1000.

A right-wing pro-settler group, Regavim, has been petitioning the High Court to demolish the village for years. The Israeli government has offered to resettle the villagers in a different area. But they want to stay on the land that has been their home for decades.” -J Street Blog, August 4 (see link below)

J Street U is asking American Jews who believe that this demolition is unjust, that such actions taken by the Israeli military administration make a two-states for two peoples resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more difficult, and worry about Israel’s moral authority and international standing, to put pressure on Secretary of State John Kerry to intercede and apply pressure on the Israeli government to stop the demolition of these villagers’ homes.

Details on the history of Susiya and what we can do can be found here – http://jstreet.org/blog/post/whats-happening-in-the-palestinian-village-of-susya–and-what-we-can-do_1

Why progressive Jews mustn’t give up on Zionism

It matters that we progressive Zionists respond whenever American Jews give up on Zionism and the state of Israel. Not only can we not abandon Israel ever, especially in difficult times such as these, but we cannot cede exclusive influence in the United States on matters of vital importance and interest to American Jews and Israel itself to supporters of the most right-wing government in the history of the state of Israel. Rather, we believe it is our duty to articulate as clearly as we can to as many Jews as we can what are our liberal Jewish and Zionist values and why we continue to love and support Israel as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people.

Earlier this week, Professors Hasia Diner and Marjorie Feld published what can only be characterized (from the perspective of American Zionism) as an alarming op-ed in Israel’s daily Haaretz entitled “We’re American Jewish Historians. This is why we’ve left Zionism behind” (http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.734602?v=0EEB085E26B05596787A40B19C818497).

The Haaretz op-ed states, among other things: “the exponential growth of far right political parties and the increasing Haredization of Israel, makes it a place that I abhor visiting, and to which I will contribute no money, whose products I will not buy, nor will I expend my limited but still to me, meaningful, political clout to support it.”

Rabbi Joshua Weinberg, President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) and I, the national ARZA Chair, joined together with Gideon Aronoff and Ken Bob, CEO and National President of Ameinu, the American progressive Zionist movement that is aligned with Israel’s Zionist Union political party, in a shared response to the above op-ed that was posted today on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) site (August 3).

Our piece – “Why progressive Jews mustn’t give up on Zionism” – can be read here – http://www.jta.org/2016/08/03/news-opinion/opinion/why-progressive-jews-mustnt-give-up-on-zionism

Please forward this blog to those whom you believe might benefit from reading our  progressive Zionist statement and especially to millennial American Jews (ages 16-35) that surveys suggest are drifting from their engagement with and support of Israel.

The suicide of a former ultra-Orthodox mother of seven stuns Israel

“In this city I gave birth to my daughters – in this city I die because of my daughters….I understand that I am sick and needy, and I don’t want to continue to be a burden on you….Don’t make much effort for the ceremony, something modest with a lot of flowers, and remember that this is what I chose as best for me, and also if you say that I am selfish, I accept and understand your lack of understanding.”

So wrote Esti Weinstein, 50, in a suicide note found alongside her body in her car that was discovered four days after her death at a beach in the city of Ashdod, Israel.

I learned of Esti’s story not from the media, though her suicide was headline news in Israel at the end of June, but from one of my synagogue’s regular cantorial soloists a day after her body had been discovered.

Meni Philip was Esti’s friend. Like Esti, Meni had left the ultra-Orthodox Haredi world in Israel in which he was raised. Both Esti and Meni were disowned by their parents and community and were cut as if by a surgeon’s knife by their Haredi community away from everything and everyone they knew and loved.

Meni (47) is the second child of eleven siblings and the father of five children. His marriage had been arranged, but he never loved his wife. At 32 Meni asked his rabbi for a get (a religious divorce). He continued to live in the ultra-Orthodox Haredi community doing all that was expected of him religiously, though he had come to no longer believe in the God that had been taught to him by his rabbis. Four years after his divorce, though continuing regularly to see his parents and children, he could no longer keep up religious appearances, took off his kippah and began wearing western clothing. He didn’t anticipate, however, that he would become persona non grata. His family, rabbis and friends suddenly would have nothing to do with him. He was denied visiting his children. Yet, he persevered, built a new life, learned survivor skills, acquired work, and became a filmmaker.

Four of Meni’s siblings followed him out of the Haredi community. Today, he has reconciled with his parents and children.

Such was not the positive outcome for Esti Weinstein, the mother of seven daughters all of whom save one, Tami,  completely cut ties with her.

Esti comes from a prominent Gur Hasidic family, a stringent Haredi sect considered extreme even by others in ultra-Orthodox world. Husbands never address their wives by name. Sexual contact between them is considered a sacrilege and is engaged only for the purpose of procreation. Sex occurs rarely, quickly, while fully clothed, and devoid of emotion, intimacy, and joy. (http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/gur-hasidim-and-sexual-separation-1.410811)

After leaving her community, Esti suffered. She wrote an autobiography (that Meni sent to me) in which she told her inside story in a 183-page book she called “Doing His Will.” Esti dedicated the volume to her daughter Tami who followed her out of the Gur sect and who remained close to her. She wrote as well of her marriage, the loss of her other six daughters and about a previous suicide attempt.

In a story reported by The Times of Israel one can view photos of Esti (see below). She was a natural beauty, but beneath the lovely smiling images was a profound sadness. She ended her book with these words:

“…my life of motherhood, the painful, that is smashed to pieces, sick and wounded….I thought it was a temporary matter, but the years are passing and time isn’t healing, and the pain doesn’t stop.” http://www.timesofisrael.com/before-suicide-woman-penned-book-about-her-ordeals-in-ultra-orthodox-world/ – see also http://forward.com/news/343780/ex-hasidic-womans-suicide-book-rattles-ultra-orthodox-world/

Meni told me that there are hundreds and perhaps thousands of former mostly young Haredim in their 20s living in Israel who have left their communities over the years. It is unclear what is causing the increasing number of suicides in this unique population, though it is clear that many had been disowned by their families. Some may have suffered depression before they left, and many experienced as children sexual abuse and later as adults spousal abuse.

Meni made a film called “Sinner” which won the “Best European Short Film” in the Venice Film Festival, Italy 2009. (the 27-minute film can be viewed here in its entirety – http://www.meniphilip.com/english/Sinner.html)

There is one underfunded organization in Israel called Hillel (not the same as the college organization) that offers help and support for ex-Haredim. Meni received such support as did Esti who had volunteered there and where Esti and Meni met and became friends. Additionally, there are two more small but important organizations that were established by Meni’s good friends after the deaths of two young “Yozim” (those who leave) a few years ago. One is called “Uvacharta-And Choose” (see https://www.facebook.com/uvacharta/?fref=ts) and the other called “Out for Change – Yozim l’shinuy” (https://www.facebook.com/yozimleshinuy/. The first focuses on social support, and the second focuses on educational assistance. Neither receives financial support from the government.

The Reform movement’s Israeli Religious Action Center (IRAC) assists individuals who leave Haredi communities through its social justice program Keren B’chavod. Israeli Reform Rabbis tell me that the Reform movement’s 45 synagogue communities around the country are open to any ex-Haredi Jew who seeks support and comfort.

May Esti’s memory be a blessing.

What makes for a great leader

There can be no doubt that President Obama’s address last evening at the DNC transcended partisanship and articulated brilliantly the exceptionalism of the American experience. Republicans, Democrats and Independents were all moved by the President’s rhetorical skills and vision. Indeed, we may not see such an extraordinary Presidential address for another generation, which has lead me to reflect on what makes for a great leader.

Great leadership certainly requires a hefty measure of intelligence, clarity of vision and strong character, and it helps if the individual has great rhetorical skills. But, as Bill Clinton said the night before, giving speeches is the fun part. Great leadership requires something else – hard work day in and day out over time.

I offer here reflections from Jewish tradition and beyond on the theme of leadership:

“Rabban Gamaliel, in appointing two rabbis to posts of authority, said to them: You apparently suppose that I am about to bestow rulership upon you. What I am bestowing upon you is servitude, as it’s said, ‘And they spoke unto him, saying: If you will be servant until this people…’ (I Kings 12:7). The verse teaches you that the one who is appointed over a community becomes the servant of the community.” -Talmud Bavli, Horayot 10a-b; Yalkut Shimoni 1 Kings 197

“The ideal public leader is one who holds seven attributes: wisdom, humility, reverence, loathing of money, love of truth, love of humanity, and a good name.” –Rambam, Hilchot Sanhedrin 2.7

“The best test [of a servant-leader] and difficult to administer is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” -R.K. Greenleaf – “Servant Leadership”

“Rabbi Eleazar said: Any leader who guides a community gently will merit guiding it in the world to come.” –Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 92a

“It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory and when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.” -Nelson Mandela

“The boss drives his/her [employees]; the leader coaches them.
The boss depends upon authority, the leader on goodwill.
The boss inspires fear; the leader inspires enthusiasm.
The boss says ‘I’; the leader, ‘we.’
The boss fixes the blame for the breakdown; the leader fixes the breakdown.
The boss knows how it is done; the leader shows how.
The boss says ‘Go’; the leader says ‘Let’s go!’ -Harry Gordon Selfridge, Sr.

“Whether you are an insurance executive or a school principal, you simply cannot be effective without behaving in a morally purposeful way.” – Michael Fullan, Canadian educational researcher and former dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE)

“The character and qualifications of the leader are reflected in the people s/he selects, develops and gathers around her/him. Show me the men/women and I will know their leader.” -Arthur W. Newcomb, writer and businessman

“Anyone can steer the ship when the sea is calm.” -Publilius Syrus, Roman author, 1st century B.C.E.

“The true lawgiver ought to have a heart full of sensibility. He ought to love and respect his kind, and to fear himself.” –Edmund Burke, Irish statesman, 18th century

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” –President John Quincy Adams

“If you say something outside the consensus, you create enemies. The less you say, the less trouble. That is a basic political truism. But it is not the stuff great leaders are made of.” –Uri Avinery, Israeli political leader, journalist and activist

“You must be headlights and not tail-lights.” –Representative John Lewis, US Congress, Georgia

“Leadership is a passionate activity. It begins with a warm gratitude toward that which you have inherited and a fervent wish to steward it well. It is propelled by an ardent moral imagination, a vision of a good society that can’t be realized in one lifetime. It is informed by seasoned affections, a love of the way certain people concretely are and a desire to give all a chance to live at their highest level. This kind of leader is warm-blooded and leads with full humanity.” –David Brooks, NY Times columnist

“The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.” –Emanuel James “Jim” Rohen, American entrepreneur, author and speaker

“…American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves. Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs, and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all.” –President Barack Obama

Narcissism defined – Evaluating Donald Trump

Many psychiatrists and psychologists have reflected about the personality of Donald Trump and whether or not he is a borderline personality and narcissist.

Below is an excellent article from last week’s NY Times that discusses the Narcissistic personality disorder.

The Narcissist Next Door  – By JANE E. BRODY – NYTimes – July 18, 2016
Know anyone who is highly competitive, and portrays himself as a winner and all others as losers?
http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/07/18/the-narcissist-next-door/?em_pos=small&emc=edit_hh_20160722&nl=well&nl_art=0&nlid=61675258&ref=headline&te=1

I have learned to stay clear of narcissistic people as they are very difficult to deal with, impenetrable to constructive criticism, lack self-insight, criticize everyone around them, take no responsibility for themselves, and insist that everyone accommodate to them at all times.

“No End of Conflict – Rethinking Israel-Palestine” by Yossi Alpher – A review

“No End of Conflict – Rethinking Israel-Palestine” by Yossi Alpher (2016) is an important read for anyone seeking clarity about the past and future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Alpher was an officer for 12 years in the Mossad, a former Director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a special advisor to Prime Minister Ehud Barak during the 2000 Camp David talks. From 2001-2012 he coedited an Internet dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians called “Bitterlemons.” Though he still believes that the only solution to the conflict is a negotiated two states for two peoples agreement that settles all issues, he has come to the conclusion that getting to this end goal cannot happen all at once and will require new thinking on both sides and a new paradigm that diverges markedly from the Oslo process that set the course for all negotiations since including the 2000 Camp David effort, the 2007 Olmert-Abbas secret negotiations and the 2013-14 Kerry Initiative.

Alpher critiques those efforts and all options that are now being considered among which are one democratic but no longer Jewish state, one Jewish but no longer a democratic state, two governments in a larger one state confederation, and two states for two peoples.

One would think that after more than 20 years since PM Rabin and PLO Chairman Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn that by now all issues would have been resolved. Alpher explains why this has not happened and quotes the clear-sighted David Ben Gurion from a speech he gave in 1919 to explain the fundamental source of the conflict:

“Everybody sees a difficulty in the question of relations between Arabs and Jews. But not everybody sees that there is no solution to this question … I do not know what Arab will agree that Palestine should belong to the Jews …We, as a nation, want this country to be ours; the Arabs, as a nation, want this country to be theirs.”

For the core conflict to be addressed successfully will require that the two conflicting narratives change in the spirit of compromise and peaceful co-existence.

The Palestinian narrative understands Israel as a foreign entity created “in sin” by colonial forces. Palestine is Islamic Waqf land and is sovereign only to Muslims. Jews are not a people nor do they have national or historic roots in the Holy Land.

The Zionist narrative dates Jewish origins in the land to the time of Abraham (3600 years ago – confirmed by archeological and literary evidence) and that Jews have an ancient and legitimate claim to the land of Israel as its historic national home. Jews understand Judaism as far more than a religion, that it is a civilization with an ancestral land, history, language, legal and literary tradition, ethics, faith, and culture.

As time has passed the two narratives have become more deeply entrenched leading the two peoples to regard the conflict as a zero-sum game. One has to lose for the other to win, and there is an ever-closing window that can accommodate a win-win compromise.

As Jewish settlements spread throughout the West Bank making a future contiguous Palestinian state more difficult to achieve, right-wing nationalist and messianic Israelis have taken over the Israeli government. In this Alpher worries that Israel is firmly on track to become a one-state bi-national reality. He warns that should this occur, the Jewish democratic state of Israel will come to an end.

Alpher carefully reviews seven suggested “solutions” and recalls Albert Einstein’s observation that insanity is defined as repeating actions over and over and expecting a different result. To change the result Alpher calls upon Israel and the Palestinians to initiate a new paradigm for negotiations that leaves for a later time the evolution of each people’s narratives to accommodate the other.

He identifies two very different sets of issues, one that emerged after 1948 and the other after 1967. All negotiations to date have failed, he says, because both sets of issues have been considered together and the parties have agreed that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed upon,” effectively dooming a resolution of the conflict. He argues that instead of completing the negotiations now, Israel and the Palestinians ought to work towards a partial two-state solution the conclusion of which will likely have to be negotiated by future generations of Israelis and Palestinians after a period in which peaceful co-existence will be achieved.

Post-1948 issues for the Palestinians include addressing their humiliating loss of their land and their flight and expulsion from the land with regard to the right of refugees to return to the homes they left.

Post-1948 issues for Israel include achieving recognition by the Palestinians of the legitimate right of the Jewish people to a national home of their own and to their security from terror and war.

Post-1967 issues for Palestinians include establishing a Palestinian state that includes sovereignty, borders, a capital city in Jerusalem, security and the final disposition of Jewish settlements and Jews in the state of Palestine.

Post-1967 issues for Israel include establishing final international borders between the two states that are roughly drawn along the Green Line with land swaps so as to include large settlement blocs in the state of Israel, thus assuring Israel’s democracy and Jewish majority.

In all past negotiations there has been much progress on post-1967 issues, but no progress on post-1948 issues. The Palestinians have refused to compromise on the right of every refugee to return to his/her home because compromising means having to accept the fundamental premise of the Zionist narrative that Jews have a legitimate claim to Israel as its national home. The Israelis insist that the Palestinians recognize the state of Israel as a “Jewish state” and that Israel will not allow an unlimited number of refugees to return to Israel. Alpher says those issues must be left to a later time.

He makes the case that negotiations henceforth ought to separate post-1967 issues from post-1948 issues and deal only with the former. Should negotiations be successful on those post-1967 issues, the Palestinians would achieve their state, sovereignty, national dignity, and security, and Israel would achieve internationally recognized borders, maintain its Jewish and democratic character, and dramatically reduce the risks of violence and war. Israel would also likely be received more openly by moderate Arab and Muslim states in the region, and its western allies’ relationships would be strengthened, the BDS movement’s appeal would diminish and the world Jewish community now fractured would rally as one to her support.

PA President Abbas has already agreed to demilitarize the future Palestinian state and to allow Israeli and international combined forces to be stationed along the Jordan River for a period of time, to be determined. PMs Barak and Olmert both already agreed that Jerusalem could become the capital city of both states.

Alpher insists that no more than this can be achieved at this time and that we continue with the status quo at our peril.

Is he correct? Or is it still possible for Israel and the Palestinians to compromise on their respective narratives to achieve an end-of-conflict two-state solution?

Alpher says “No!”

This book will challenge readers to think differently about this seemingly intractable conflict and what might be necessary to address the many concrete pragmatic issues (post-1967) between Israel and the Palestinians before it is too late and a one-state bi-national entity destroys Jewish and Zionist dreams.

J’accuse! My shock in watching the RNC

I have been stunned by the intensity of vitriol coming from the mouths of many speakers and delegates at the Republican National Convention this week, far more than I expected.

“Guilty!” “Guilty!” “Guilty!” “Murderer!” “Lucifer!” “Lock her up!” Put her “in stripes!” She’s “a piece of garbage!” She deserves “the firing line and [to be] shot for treason.”

No one from the podium challenged any of this disgusting rhetoric. To the contrary, though not all speakers are guilty of uttering the slander, none protested and so, citing Heschel, all are responsible.

I say “J’accuse!”

Thank goodness Shabbat is coming and we Jews have a chance to withdraw from the hatred and rchilut to reflect on matters of soul, ethics, civility, and common decency.

This week’s Torah portion “Balak” inspired the rabbis of old to consider the impact that different leadership proclivities and visions have had in the personages of the prophets Abraham and Balaam.

Balaam was a non-Jewish prophet who blessed the Israelites instead of cursing them after Balak, the King of Moab, paid Balaam to do this on his behalf:

“Mah tovu o-ha-lecha Yaakov mish’ke-no-techa Yisrael –
How good are
 your tents of Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.” (Numbers 24:5)

The Pirkei Avot 5:22 notes:

“Whoever has the following three traits is among the disciples of our ancestor, Abraham, and whoever has three different traits is among the disciples of the wicked Balaam. Those with a good eye (ayin tovah), a generous soul (ruach n’mu-chah) and a humble spirit (nefesh sh’lalah) are disciples of our ancestor Abraham. Those with  an evil eye (ayin ra-ah), an arrogant spirit (ruach g’vo-hah) and a greedy soul (nefesh r’chavah) are disciples of the wicked Balaam.”

On the surface, it seems that Balaam hasn’t done anything really wrong. Yet, Balaam was blinded by greed and impatient to reap his reward in cursing the Israelites.

The Midrash compares Abraham and Balaam. Though both are prophets, they differ in the way they perceive God. Abraham finds God even when hidden. Balaam can’t see God or God’s angel even when they’re standing in front of him. Abraham turns his perception into a blessing. Balaam turns his perception into a curse. Balaam’s prophetic potential is as great as Abraham’s even though Balaam sought to sell his soul to the highest bidder. Abraham never considered cursing anyone.

At Sodom and Gemorrah on behalf of the people Abraham bargained, cajoled and persuaded God to spare the community if he could find but one righteous person in it saying, “Shall not the Judge of the whole world not act justly?” (Genesis 18:25) For this, the Mishnah describes Abraham as being possessed of a “good eye” (ayin tovah).  Although the Sodomites were filled with evil doing, Abraham looked for a way to ameliorate their fate and save them.

Balaam’s “bad eye” (ayin ra-ah) drew him to his own material enrichment. This prophet was corruptible and tempted by power, wealth and station. Rashi wrote that though Balaam seemed to reject silver and gold, he actually craved it.

Thus, the rabbis contrasted Balaam’s arrogant and grasping nature (ruach g’vohah) with Abraham’s generosity (ruach n’mucha). That generosity took the form of hospitality. Abraham’s tent opened to the world. He welcomed every stranger and embraced all people.

The ideal of prophetic leadership is exemplified by Abraham whose example reminds us of the leaders we need and the kind of people we ourselves ought to strive to be, especially in times such as these when blinding hatred has filled the hearts of so many millions of Americans.

We all ought to strive to be more like Abraham who resisted demonizing and dehumanizing others, whose good eye can glimpse the blessing that peace can bring, whose generous spirit can open the heart to nurture community, whose humility can enable the recognition that every human being is created “b’tzelem Elohim – in the divine image” (Genesis 3:4).

Shabbat shalom.

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