Remember the Victims of Terror at the Seder 5771

REMEMBER THE VICTIMS OF TERROR AT THE SEDER:

LEAVE ONE EMPTY CHAIR AT THE TABLE
Note: Unfortunately, this is the tenth year in a row that I feel compelled to circulate this call (the text is updated…)

By GIL TROY

Once again, during this year’s seders, we will celebrate our joyous holiday of liberation with heavy hearts. Even as we revel in our freedom as Jews in the modern world, even as we marvel at Israel’s strength and tenacity in the wake of a terrorist onslaught, too many of our brothers and sisters in Israel are in pain. This year, in particular, as we think of Hamas’s hostage, Gilad Shalit, and his family, truly in a Mitzraim, in dire straits, and as we think of an entire region, the South of Israel, held hostage, we must rise to the challenge to reclaim our symbols, to remember our losses, to reaffirm our commitment to Israel, to the Jewish people, and to a true peace.

Since the bloody, unnecessary war begun back in 2000 when the Palestinians turned away from negotiations toward violence, too many have died, too many have been injured, on both sides. Israel has won that war by learning to be proactive in its fight. Even though the violence has lessened, too many seders now have empty chairs — missing husbands, fathers, brothers, sons; missing wives, mothers, sisters, daughters.

The power of the seder — which remains one of the most popular of Jewish ceremonies — comes from its ritualization of memory. It is a most primal, most sensual, most literal, of services. The seder plate — with its representations of the mortar used in building, the charoset, and of the tears shed by the slaves, the salt water — helps us visualize the trauma of slavery.

The physical acts of reclining, of eating special foods, of standing to greet Elijah the prophet, help us feel the joy of Yetziat Mitzrayim, of leaving Egypt. And, in an affirmation of the importance of peoplehood, we mark this special moment not as individuals but as a community.

In that spirit, we cannot proceed with business as usual during these difficult times. We must improvise a new ritual that marks our present pain, that illustrates the vital interconnectedness of the Jewish people in Israel and beyond. Let each of us, as we gather at our seders, intrude on our own celebrations by leaving one setting untouched, by having one empty chair at our table.

Let us take a moment to reflect on our losses from this deadly decade, for even as stability has returned, terror attempts continue, freshly dug graves pockmark the Holy Land, and the mourning for those lost persists.  And as we reflect, let us not just remember the dead as hundreds of nameless and faceless people, but let us personalize them. Let us take the time to find out the name of one victim of the current conflict, one Jew who cannot celebrate this year’s holiday, one family in mourning.

Let us call out the name of Gilad Shalit, a 24-year-old with a shy smile, kidnapped by Hamas on the Gaza border in July, 2006 – despite the fact that Israel had disengaged from Gaza, uprooting Jewish settlements in the hope for peace. “This year we won’t celebrate Pesach,” Gilad’s father Noam said during the family’s first year in hell.  “Pesach is about freedom, and we don’t have that in our hearts. We want Gilad to return from imprisonment to freedom. It’s been nine months, and we’re not giving up.” After more than 1750 days – more than 250 shabbatot – the Shalit family, and good people around the world still refuse to give up.

Let us call out the name of Daniel Aryeh Wildfich —  a 16-year-old hovering between life and death because Hamas terrorists fired an anti-tank missile at the schoolbus he was riding in, in the South.

Let us call out the name of Mary Jean Gardner, aged 59, killed in Jerusalem bus bombing – a non-Jewish British woman living in Jerusalem for a year to study Bible, whose murder in the recent Jerusalem bus bombing reminds us that this kind of terror targets Jews and non-Jews, Israelis and Arabs, who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Let us call out the names of the Fogel family – Udi, age 36; Ruth, age 35; Yoav, age 11; Elad, age 4; Baby Hadas, age 3 months – butchered to death on a Friday night, in a mass murder that should have elicited worldwide revulsion but triggered celebrations in Gaza.

Let us call out the names of  Hani al-Mahdi, 27, of Aroar, a Beduin settlement in the Negev, Irit Sheetrit, 39, of Ashdod – a mother of four — Warrant Officer Lutfi Nasraladin, 38, of the Druze town of Daliat el-Carmel, all killed by Hamas rockets smuggled into Gaza, then launched into Israel’s pre-1967 borders in separate incidents on December 29, 2008. The different communities, religions, and yes, skin colors, of the victims, remind us that Israelis are a diverse, multicultural, multiracial lot, further disproving the ugly lies that Zionism is in any way racist.

Acknowledging the bravery of the IDF soldiers who fought reluctantly but heroically to defend their country in Gaza, let us call out the names of Major Eliraz Peretz, 31, of Eli, and Staff Sergeant Ilan Sviatkovsky, 21, of Rishon Letzion, killed by Hamas terrorists on the Gazan border on March 26, 2010, four and a half years after Israel voluntarily disengaged from Gaza, inviting and challenging Palestinians to build their own civil society rather than trying to destroy Israel.

Remembering previous victims, let us call out the name of Yaniv Bar-On, the 20-year-old son of a South African father and a Canadian mother, ambushed while trying to save Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev from Hezbollah’s clutches in 2006, of Roi Klein, 31, a father of two, who jumped on a grenade crying “Shma Yisrael,” Hear O’ Israel, sacrificing his life to save his troops from certain death during the Second Lebanon War, and of Benny Avraham, age 20, one of three young Israelis murdered by Hezbollah in a failed kidnapping in October 2000, whose bodies were kept frozen as the sadistic terrorists toyed with the emotions of the three grieving families – and people of conscience throughout the world.

Let us call out the name of Koby Mandell, age 13, a young American immigrant brutally killed in May, 2001, whose father, Rabbi Seth Mandell, talks about the empty seat at his Shabbat table and shares the pain of watching other boys grow up, watching their voices deepen, their shoulders broaden, their gaits quicken, even as his son lies dead.

Let us call out the names of Ernest and Eva Weiss, aged 80 and 75, residents of Petach Tikvah who survived Nazi concentration camps only to be slaughtered while sitting down for the Pesach Seder at the Park Hotel exactly nine years ago, Pesach, 2002.

And as we condemn modern-day Pharoahs in Iran and elsewhere, as we recoil from the worldwide scourge of anti-Semitism this terrorism also unleashed, let us call out the names of Ilan Halimi, the 23-year-old French Jew cellphone salesman kidnapped, tortured and murdered in a Parisian suburb by anti-Semitic thugs, and of Daniel Pearl, the 38-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped, then murdered, in Pakistan almost exactly four years earlier.

As we call out these names, let us vow to do what we can to bring Gilad Shalit home. As we call out these names, let us commit to some action, to embrace the families of the victims – more than a thousand who have died and the nearly ten thousand who were injured. As we call out these names, as we also celebrate the redemption we will mark as we celebrate Israel’s 63rd anniversary, let us commit to building a  friendship with Israel and Israelis which is not just about politics, and not solely about mourning and memory.

And as we call out these names, unlike too many of our enemies, let us not call for vengeance; let us not call for more bloodshed. Instead, as we mourn, let us hope; as we remember the many lives lost during this crazy and pointless war, let us pray ever more intensely for a just and lasting peace.

Information about many of the Israelis killed in the current violence can be found at the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s website.

Ideas about how to help families of victims can be found from the Jewish Agency’s Fund for the Victims of Terror.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. He splits his time between Montreal and Jerusalem.

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Purim 2011: Making History Better in a Topsy-Turvy World

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, March 22, 2011

Purim 2011 was a time of Nahafochu, of complete turnarounds, as the world seemed particularly topsy-turvy. In the Arab world, the popular revolts continued to surprise dictators and democrats, as even Syrians started protesting.  In Israel, the parental smiles amid the Purim celebrations masked continuing heartbreak about the Itamar massacre, with the two butchered Fogel parents along with their three martyred children becoming national icons.  And in Japan, a country famed for its earthquake preparation and general efficiency, the unexpected earthquake-Tsumani wallop exposed human sloppiness and nature’s awesome powers.

 

Nahafochu has two meanings, as these events confirm.   As a descriptive term, it teaches that humans occasionally confront dizzying revolutions, sometimes good, sometimes bad, like the happy, sudden switch Jews experienced, flipping from being Haman’s target to the King’s favorites. But as a prescriptive term, Nahafochu teaches not to be passive when history happens to us. We should transform reversals into potential gains as Esther, Mordechai and the Jews’ communal fasting did. 

The Arab upheaval has triggered many transformations. Just weeks ago, Israel advocates’ lamenting about the lack of rights in the Arab world usually were ignored. Back in those days of –another Purim concept  — Ad Lo Yada –inability to distinguish good from bad, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya helped lead the UN Human Rights community. Hosni Mubarak was a cherished American ally, the keystone to Middle East peace and stability. Many academics, not just the London School of Economics toadies, begged gifts from Libya and other dictatorships.

 

Suddenly, mainstream world opinion started caring about Arab civil liberties. But rather than acknowledging that pro-Israel advocates were right or wondering how so many Western dupes were so numb to Arab rights and dignity for so long, the Ad Lo Yada relativistic crowd bashed Israel as anti-democratic. Yet Israelis’ guilty fears that these popular uprisings might not yield peaceful democracies are justified.  The conventional wisdom ignores how Hamas and Hezbollah are the Arab street’s monstrous spawn,  the Moslem Brotherhood’s popularity in Egypt, and the way some populist Arabs call their perceived enemies “Jew, Jew” or
otherwise link opponents to Israel.

 

At the same time, by focusing on military intervention the West is misguided.  Wherever possible, citizens of a particular country should decide whether and how to remove their dictators.  The world should react when a Muammar Gaddafi starts slaughtering his own people –but only as a last resort, although preferably without dithering for too long.  The best way democratic outsiders can help is by cultivating true democracy inside the Arab world. Cold War programs that nurtured democratic infrastructure in Eastern Europe should be resurrected, expanded, exported, translated into Arabic and applied intelligently. Visionaries like Natan Sharansky, who recently testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, understand this as the West’s greatest gift to give.  After decades of enabling Arab autocracy, democrats should enable true Arab democracy, respecting rule of law, mutual rights, basic civil rights, civil society, and a functioning free market, not just votes. That would be a constructive Nahafochu.

 

Many Ad Lo Yada morally-comatose Westerners continue to misread the Israeli-Palestinian conflict too. The Itamar massacre again highlights the cancer of violence corroding the Palestinian national soul – and constituting the greatest obstacle to peace. The civilized world should repudiate the Itamar murder or murderers who stabbed to death the five Fogel family members, including three-month-old Baby Hadas. The world should recoil at the incitement which produced these baby-killers – while also condemning those Palestinians who welcomed home the murderers that night. The pictures of the blood-soaked mattresses suggest that anyone involved in those murders returned drenched in blood and sweat, reeking of death. Welcoming an obvious murderer is a criminal act of collaboration; celebrating homicide with candies is unconscionable.

 

But now too many are accusing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of raising the incitement issue to avoid peace talks. In fact, Nahafochu, the opposite is true. If Palestinian political culture cleansed itself of its death cult, if the world restrained expressions of Arab anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and delegitimization of Israel, border questions and other issues could be dispatched quickly. In Israel, those who believe in settling the entire land of Israel at any price are a small, loud, minority. These ideologues find reinforcement in the pragmatic majority which justifiably fears the Palestinian violence, Palestinian demonization, Palestinian incitement that the Oslo peace process unwittingly fed rather than cured by trusting Yasir Arafat. Western leaders combating incitement, Palestinian visionaries taking responsibility to wean their people of violence  – for the sake of their own souls — would transform the Middle East, making peace a procedural question rather than an existential  challenge for most Israelis.

 

Amid this tragedy, all this complexity, it is easy to read the Japanese catastrophe as an invitation for passivity, a prompt to despair. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by Tsunamis, earthquakes, and radioactive releases, this terrifying intersection where acts of God meet the mistakes of man.  But we cannot ignore the acts of godliness among so many people, in the Tsunami of love enveloping the Japanese, and the impressive international efforts to avert the feared nuclear meltdown.

 

A story circulating in Israel this week told of Rami Levy, the little guy from the Mahane Yehudah market who established a supermarket empire, showing up daily at the Fogel shiva, filling the refrigerator in the mourners’ home. At one point, he supposedly told a relative, get used to me, I will do this every week until the youngest surviving Fogel child – a 2-year-old – turns 18.

 

This Purim in particular teaches us that Nahafachu is prescriptive.  We cannot avert every catastrophe.  We can turn any catastrophe – Rami Levy style – into an opportunity to overcome challenges, assert our common humanity, help others, and change history for the better.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” and, most recently, “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”giltroy@gmail.com

Center Field: A detox program for haters

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-16-11

(Center Field Column: Dear President Obama: How could somebody slaughter Baby Hadas?)

Dear President Obama,

The murders of Uri and Ruth Fogel, along with Yoav, 11, Elad 4, and Baby Hadas, raise an elemental question. “How could somebody do something like that?” my children asked.  Mr. President, as a father of young daughters, and a peace-seeking statesman, you also must answer that question.

To reply properly we should ask who the victims were – or more accurately who they appeared to be. The Hamas thugs in Gaza who celebrated this slaughter see them as “Jews” and “Zionists.” According to the Hamas Charter, the Fogels deserved to die by being born Jewish, by being Israeli.  Such Hitlerite anti-Semitism pollutes mosques and the Arab media, prompting calls by Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Muslim Brotherhood, and others to “wipe out” Israel. America’s boycott of Hamas reflects your understanding that interacting with these people is futile unless they repudiate this genocidal ideology – which often targets Westerners too.

In the West, too many people view the Fogels as “settlers,” meaning evil Jews and Zionists.  As such, CNN reported their murder as a “terror attack” – in quotation marks — while other media outlets called the murders “militants,” “extremists,” even “intruders” but  not terrorists. If the t-word is reserved for targeting innocents, somehow these victims were guilty. When a deranged man slaughtered 6 people and shot another 13 including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona, many media outlets immediately politicized the event, blaming the Tea Party. You wisely refrained from that rush to judgment. When Palestinians murder, many of those same institutions rush away from judgment, decontextualizing the event, insulating Palestinian political culture from the crime.

Defining the Fogels only as “settlers” dehumanizes them. It comes from blaming this multi-dimensional, century-long, two-sided conflict on settlements.  Someone can advocate withdrawing from territory, including the Fogels’ village of Itamar, without believing this fable. In fact, more peace-loving Israelis should emphasize Jews’ legal rights to the disputed territories, thereby demonstrating their willingness to sacrifice land for peace. In focusing so much anger on Israel’s settlements, you have helped distort the conflict, absolving Palestinians of too much responsibility

The Fogel massacre occurred during that intellectual abomination “Israel Apartheid Week.” On campuses, which should be centers of complex, critical thought, pursuing truth, hotheads accused Israel of “genocide” – although the Palestinian population has nearly quadrupled since 1967 – and of “apartheid” and “racism” when this is a national conflict.  Exaggeration, distortion, obsession, and perversion of core values signify political fanaticism and bigotry.  When such simplistic sloganeering and dehumanizing rhetoric becomes epidemic on our comfortable campuses, it is not surprising that it metastasizes into murder in the Middle East.

These Israel-bashers affix “apartheid” and “racist” as all-purpose adjectives to any Israeli action, disconnected from true meanings. The South Africa analogy treats Israel as so reprehensible it should collapse. The Soviet Union and Arab rejectionists invented this racism and apartheid libel in the 1970s, when trying to expel Israel from the UN.

As a skilled wordsmith you know that words can heal or kill, words can elevate or desecrate. If you seek Middle East peace, shouldn’t you try harder to demand that Palestinians use words that promote peace rather than fostering baby-killing?

Having read the White House condemnation of this “heinous crime,” recalling your empathy – as a parent – when you visited Sderot, stirred by your defining Zionism as an “incredible opportunity that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves,” and a believer in your “Yes We Can” humanism, I am sure you mourn the Fogel family as fellow humans. But mourning is not enough. If you believe that hatred is not instinctive but instilled — which is what I guess you would tell your daughters – you also must believe in stopping the hate-mongering. That the US, by subsidizing the PA, even indirectly bankrolls this incitement should disgust you – and prompt dramatic actions.

Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israelis should not have to raise this issue — the Roadmap requires “All official Palestinian institutions [to] end incitement against Israel.” The international community should combat Palestinian incitement independently, vigorously. The US, EU, and UN should start funding the two independent organizations, MEMRI and Palestinian Media Watch which track Palestinian incitement, and impose sanctions when the PA glorifies murderers, the PA Culture Ministry finances events spreading the Israel-Apartheid libel, and when Palestinian media, mosques or schools preach hatred.

You have tremendous power. Your pressure has curtailed construction in the settlements, making the settlements such an issue that Israel responded to the terror attack with new settlement housing starts, to punish the Palestinians. You must put similar pressure on the Palestinians to reform their political culture as a precondition to further progress.

By using the presidential bully pulpit to fight Palestinians’ bullying culture, you can foster an atmosphere conducive to peace.  Israelis cannot compromise when families are being slaughtered or their very rights to exist are attacked. After decades of worshiping Yasir Arafat and other terrorists in their guerilla culture, Palestinians need help detoxifying their political culture. The pressure you exert can help builders like Salam Fayyad defeat the destroyers.

You can also score political points domestically by showing you understand that terror emerges from a perverted political culture and you know how to combat that.

The answer you give your daughters, the answer I gave my kids, and the answer you teach the world should be the same. Before a human being slits a baby’s throat, the hatred must be taught, a soul has to be poisoned. We must teach the opposite lesson, humanizing one another, so that everyone sees every child as a potential friend not a future enemy to murder. Those who fail to teach that lesson should feel your wrath.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” and, most recently, “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com