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Kishinev and Hamas

In 1903, the Jewish community of Kishinev was decimated at the hands of Russians and Ukrainians. Dozens were murdered and raped and over 1500 homes were destroyed. There had been earlier pogroms, yet this one captured international attention. Partly, wire services and new information technology meant this was a very early tragedy to receive international coverage. And also, it seemed as though modernity with all its advances should have precluded such a barbaric outcome. Antisemitism in Europe was supposed to be more polite and less bloody.

This pogrom changed the direction of Jewish history. It inspired Theodore Herzl’s Zionism to take on a new urgency. It inspired many Jews in Russia to start actively working towards a Jewish state. It also awakened sympathy worldwide for the plight of the Jews with a direct line to the Balfour Declaration in 1926. That declaration for the first time in the modern era declared the Jewish interest in a state legitimate.

Yet for all the sympathy and even political action inspired by this pogrom, the Jews of Kishinev were largely powerless in the aftermath of the violence. They lacked any political means to strike back or weaken their adversaries. People worldwide were sympathetic to the slaughtered Jews, in part because they were martyrs, sanctified in their loss and powerlessness. Dara Horn points out that “people love dead Jews,” meaning it is easy to venerate powerless martyrs whose death cries out for ethical living. Far harder to make room for Jewish power.

Saturday another horrific attack occurred on the Jewish people. Hamas overwhelmed the Israeli military and sent over 1500 terrorists to murder, rape, destroy, and kidnap. Hundreds have been murdered including dozens of babies; as many as 200 are held hostage in unspeakable conditions in the Gaza Strip. For about 36 hours it felt as though Jews had descended back into the powerlessness of the European shtetl. Terrorists entered Israeli towns, kibbutzim, and even military bases and rounded people up on the street. They captured families and children. They raped and killed with almost no one there to stop them. We are heartbroken and in mourning.

Like Kishinev, this has created an international outpouring of support. France, Germany, England, and the United States have all made strong unequivocal statements of horror and outrage. The news cycle is filled with atrocities. Yet unlike Kishinev, today Israel has the means to respond.  The IDF will begin a large-scale and long-term effort to degrade or destroy Hamas’ ability to function in the future. Today Jews will not be powerless martyrs but instead will act with massive power.

To support Israel today means to support Israel’s right to defend itself. That defense includes their sovereign right to act against the terrorists and destroy their offensive capacity. Such action will come at a terrible price. Hamas embeds itself in the civilian population. Some of those civilians actively support Hamas through housing and other support. Such individuals are also combatants. Tragically, others are being engaged against their will. Many Gazans’ are threatened at gunpoint to house or support Hamas members. Such people are innocent. Yet the IDF will have little to no ability to distinguish between these two populations.

The political environment will shift. Today, there is widespread support for dead Jews. Tomorrow, there will be substantially less support for live Jews engaged in powerful military action. Further, as much as we want the IDF to act as precisely as possible, this is going to be messy, murky, and ugly. Our support will become even more needed as that incursion gathers strength.

This is going to be a really hard time for the Jewish people. Today we are in deep mourning, in need of support and love from our family and friends. People have lost loved ones; people have families running to shelters every time an alarm goes off. We are traumatized and damaged. Reach out to your family and friends in Israel. They need to hear from us. Make extra time to hug your loved ones. Reach out to any of us for comfort and strength. Come to services.

At the same time, we need to gather our strength. There are going to be hard days in front of us. We will need each other and Israel will need us. We need to create room for people reacting with hurt and pain to violence, we need to strengthen our own hearts to have compassion even for Gazans. And we need to figure out how to be Jews who live in an era where we fight back with power with all the murkiness that such power entails.

May God bring us and all the Jewish people comfort at this time of loss, guide us ethically to react as precisely as possible, and give us the strength and love to manage the hard days ahead.

Rabbi David Booth

Sat, December 9 2023 26 Kislev 5784