Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Learning From Our Pain

Kabbalat Shabbat at Temple Beth ShalomOn Friday, October 13th, Kabbalat Shabbat services were held at Temple Beth Shalom, led by Rabbi Neil Amswych and Cantor Lianna Mendelson. 

You may wish to scroll down and read Santa Fe Vigil for Israel first.

Temple Beth Shalom

Here is Rabbi Amswych's sermon.

Rav Neil Amswych

Learning From Our Pain

When over a thousand Jews were deliberately slaughtered on one day last week, other than the profound sense of loss and the resurgence of the historical trauma, suddenly an overwhelming number of Jews felt very alone. 

Yes, some governments posted the Israeli flag on famous landmarks in support, but on social media there was almost silence, except by Jews. Hardly any messages of comfort, hardly any messages of consolation. 

When the Charlie Hebdo massacre happened, everyone wrote “Je suis Charlie” on their Facebook profiles. When Russia invaded Ukraine, everyone changed their Facebook profile picture to the Ukrainian flag. 

But when 1200 Jews are slaughtered in a single day, there was social media silence… except by one group – those who were celebrating. 

As pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Sydney chanted “Gas the Jews,” others in America publicly praised the murderous terrorists for beheaded babies as part of their struggle for liberation. Suddenly, vast swathes of the Jewish community felt profoundly attacked. So, we hoped for friends, colleagues, to turn around and offer silence, but little came. 

Higher Educational establishments were silent in their condemnation of the murderous rampage while professors and student groups celebrated what they stated were acts of decolonization, because they have for so long equated the State of Israel as a colonialist project and have only been able to do so by starting the history of Israel a hundred years ago, instead of the two thousand years, during which time there have always been Jews in the land, to a greater or lesser extent. 

Rallies called for an end to 75 years of occupation, despite the fact that Gaza and the West Bank were occupied in 1967, which means that America’s currently best educated were saying that the entire State of Israel is an occupation and the only way to end it is to end the state of Israel, which is exactly what Hamas wants to do.  

From far left to far right across the political spectrum, countless politicians blamed the Jews for the attack on their own people.

In the face of these attacks, could we at least rely on our friends and colleagues to support us? Their silence was deafening. A smattering of interfaith colleagues got in touch and offered support. They had learned from the Congregation Beth Israel hostage crisis in 2022 that when one Jew is attacked, all Jews are attacked. They had learned of the fear that every Jew feels when one Jew is attacked. 

But most did not. 

Now, vast swathes of the Jewish community felt not just attacked but profoundly alone. Some personal friends who have learned the lessons of recent attacks reached out immediately. 

But the Interfaith Leadership Alliance of Santa Fe, of which I was President for 6 years, failed to condemn the attacks or offer support. The local Catholic Church failed to reach out or to condemn the attacks.  Not one politician in the first few days reached out. 

It was a profoundly lonely time, and apparently I wasn’t the only person experiencing this silence – it was experienced by countless Jews all around the world. 

It was only when Jewbook – as Jewish social media is often called – started to publicly point out both that silence implies consent and also that the Jewish community was scared and in need of support – only then did people start getting in touch. It’s been a week, and now the calls are slowly coming in. 

Why did this happen? Is the Jewish community always bound to be alone? Is there an existential loneliness to the Jew, trying to get one foot into society but constantly being reminded how far the other foot is also outside society? 

For a few days, it definitely felt like it, and I know that for many Jews that is still the case. 

Israel Flag

Talking to my friends, though, I have come to believe that there are four reasons why there was such a lack of response to Jewish mass murder. 

Firstly and most importantly, the idea that when one Jew is attacked all Jews are attacked is actually alien to those outside the Jewish community. 

Had they known Israelis, they might have reached out to them and their families…. Although I know some Israeli families who went uncontacted for a long time. Not all but many - perhaps most - non-Jews literally don’t understand the idea that all Jews are family. Added to that, they don’t understand generational trauma. 

They don’t understand what it is to need security at their place of worship. They don’t ever consider whether they might be attacked simply for who they are, and that no place is truly safe. They don’t know what it is to be the victim of hatred for thousands of years. They don’t understand fear. They literally don’t get it. 

The second reason that I believe that there was so little response for so long was because there is so much suffering in the world that everyone is overwhelmed. 

On the same day as the terror attack by Hamas, the first of a number of earthquakes hit western Afghanistan. When we’re awash with horror every day that doesn’t affect us personally, we become so desensitized to it. Twice as many people died in those earthquakes as Jews who died in the terror attack, so which should they care about more if they have no personal attachment to either? 

The problem with global information is that we’re not mentally capable of processing it. Which is more tragic to the non-Jewish observer – that 1200 Israelis died or that 2400 Afghans died? In the end, there’s only so much pain that people can carry, and only so many crises that they can respond to.

The third reason for people not being in touch, I think, is the utterly abhorrent narrative about Israel being a colonial project. 

I went to a presentation years ago in England where a woman said that there were no Jews in Israel before 1948. I know that there are people locally who teach that Israel is the white man’s attempt to colonize land belonging to brown people. 

The only way to say such a thing is to be totally ignorant of Judaism, to be totally ignorant of two thousand years of daily prayers yearning to return to the land. Any history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that starts with Zionism, or with 1948, is always going to be skewed against the Jews. 

So, when people who know nothing of this hear of Israelis dying, they imagine Native Americans rising up against cowboys, or Indians or Zulus against the British Army. Murder against innocent civilians becomes an act of defiance against tyranny. 

As a result, so many of those who struggle against oppression end up aligning themselves with terrorists – minority groups say that the plight of the Palestinians is like their own plight – so they perversely end up supporting people who would gladly murder them for their beliefs, for their faith or for their sexual orientation. 

Consciously or unconsciously, they couldn’t see victims of terror in a blatant terrorist attack. The ignorance is profound when you consider how many Palestinians have died in the response to the terror attack – how anyone could celebrate it as anything positive for Palestinians is bewildering. 

The fourth reason that I think many non-Jews stayed out of touch with Jews in the liberal community is because liberal people struggle to admit that evil truly exists. 

Evil is always explained away as a lack of education, as a result of poverty, or as something that can be fixed. The moral underpinning of all liberal thought is that everything can be improved. Most people have no experience of evil, they have witnessed it from afar on the news but they have never faced it. 

Because they have no personal experience of it, when it appears in the news, they can explain it away. 

It can’t be that bad, Jews can’t be facing unmitigated evil, they must have provoked it in some way, or it must just be because of the abject poverty in the Gaza Strip. I don’t need to console them because they must have somehow caused it. 

It’s the deicide accusation in another form – anything bad that happens to the Jews can’t be because of our intolerance but must be because they killed our God. This must be nuanced – nobody can be that evil – and who wants to wade into a nuanced situation? 

Where does this leave us, the Jewish community? 

It leaves us feeling lonely, for sure, but I think it also leaves us with a mission. After thousands of years of being excluded from society, after thousands of years of mainstream society turning a blind eye to our pain, we have to show the rest of the world what it means to be Jewish. 

We have to teach those who have been indifference what their indifference has done to us and, as a result, done to them. We have to help them to see that not all pain is the same. 

This morning, I received a call from the office of a certain politician – I won’t say who. Their staff person offered their support and asked how we were doing. I explained that we were mourning. She replied, “I know exactly how you feel.” “No. You don’t.” I had to tell her. 

Many of them just don’t get it, so we have to teach them. We have to teach them to care for every oppressed people. We have to teach them what pain is, what fear is, so that they can help reduce it. 

Maybe that is our Messianic task – not to change the world ourselves but to be or lagoyim – a light to the nations showing them how they also need to profoundly change. We cannot assume that the world cares about us, we have to show the world how to care about us and why. I think that process has started. 

But we have a long way to go. 

May our pain from this week and our experience of profound loneliness in the days that followed our trauma be what helps to change the world. May the suffering of our people find meaning at least in the transformation of human society. May we all play our part in being or lagoyim

And let us say, Amen.


A note (Wednesday, October 18) from Rabbi Amswych's Facebook page:

I just had a twenty-minute conversation with Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez. 

She called to condemn the horror of so many Jews being slaughtered, and to offer support to our community. 

She listened as I explained how lonely so many Jews feel right now - not on the international stage but personally. She really heard it.

She is the only politician in New Mexico to have called to offer support to the Jewish community. I am impressed.

Am Yisrael Chai

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