By Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt
Most of us are familiar with the beautiful custom of dipping apples in honey at this time of year. As we dip the apple in honey, we say a brachah, a blessing, and wish for each other a shanah tovah u’metukah k’dvash, that the coming year will be as sweet as honey.
A lesser-known custom, which has become increasingly popular and more widespread in recent years, is of Iraqi origin, and one that my wife, whose family is from Baghdad, introduced to me. Iraq was once home to a prosperous, proud and prominent Jewish community dating back 2,600 years, and was a center of great learning where the Talmud was created. Every Rosh Hashanah, we observe in our home the practice of the Jews of Iraq and say blessings over various fruits and vegetables, each one being a pun on the Hebrew word for that particular piece of food.
So, for example, we hold up a date, which in Hebrew is tamar, and say, “she’yitamu soneinu,” which means “may our enemies perish.” We eat a leek, which in Hebrew is karat, and say, “she’yeechartu kol mevekshei ra’atenu,” which means “may those who seek evil against us be karet—cut off.” For beets, which in Hebrew is selek, we say, “she’yistalku oyveenu”— may our enemies be driven away.
There are more, but I think you get the picture.
I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. There are some positive blessings, such as when we eat seeds of the pomegranate and express the hope that our lives will be as full of mitzvot as the pomegranate is filled with seeds. Overall though, the pattern and theme of a number of the blessings are pleas for God to annul the plans of those who seek to destroy us, the Jewish people.
I do not know the history or origin of the custom, nor how long it has been around. The truth is, though, expressing the hope that enemies who plot to harm Jews will fail in their efforts could probably be said by almost any Jewish community, almost anywhere in the world, at pretty much any time in our history.
Regardless of when the custom began, I am certain and confident of one thing: I doubt that there was much debate, dissension or disagreement among them over how to define and determine who their enemies were.
Yet unfortunately today, it seems we Jews are so divided that we cannot even agree on what constitutes antisemitism. The left only recognizes antisemitism when it emanates from the right, and the right only sees it when it comes from the left.
The lack of unity on this most basic issue is why Natan Sharansky, during his most recent visit to the United States earlier this summer, asked me to convene a small group of diverse Jewish leaders to see if we could reach any agreement about the eternal external existential threats to the Jewish people.
In response to the rise in antisemitism around the globe, in 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) recognized that “in order to begin to address the problem of anti-Semitism, there must be clarity about what anti-Semitism is.” They set out to build an international consensus, and to come up with a working definition on which diverse parties could agree.
They undertook the project to give policymakers around the world the tools to identify the problem. After an arduous process entailing much vetting and discussion, what they came up with has met widespread acceptance, having been adopted by more than 30 nations, including the United States, the European Union, a number of NGOs, academic institutions and local governments and municipalities around the world.
However, since it cites as an example of antisemitism “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis,” and another stating that, “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” not everyone is willing to embrace and accept the carefully crafted document.
The opposition has come not just from those whom we would expect to oppose it, such as the Arab League, the 57 members of the Organization of Islamic states or Nazi sympathizers.
Objecting to its becoming official policy of the United States and opposing its being codified into U.S. law is a coalition of groups known as the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which consists of Americans for Peace Now, J Street, the New Israel Fund, T’ruah: Rabbis for Human Rights and a few other groups claiming to represent Jewish values.
Although the IHRA definition explicitly states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic,” the alliance of Progressive Jewish groups issued a statement that they were concerned that adoption of the doctrine would undermine freedom of expression, because it may encourage criticism of Israel to be suppressed.
Yes, you heard correctly — Jewish groups, which claim to support Israel, feel compelled to protect the rights of Israel’s critics! But, if there is any one thing we don’t have to worry about, it is that there isn’t enough criticism of Israel and that debate over Israel’s policies might be stifled. Indeed, rejecting the IHRA definition is comparable to a person drowning in the ocean refusing to accept a life preserver because he/she doesn’t like the small print on the inside lining of the floatation device.
Something is happening in the Jewish world today, and it is deeply troubling.
In 1975, the late Israeli diplomat Abba Eban wrote in a column in The New York Times that hatred of Israel and the Jewish people are one and the same. Almost 50 years ago, he pointed out that the singling out of the Jewish state for the kind of criticism not leveled at other nations is a convenient way for those with contempt for Jews to dodge the charge of anti-Semitism. While they may claim to object to a particular policy or leader, in reality, what they object to is Israel’s right to exist.
He wrote: “There is no difference whatever between anti-Semitism and the denial of Israel’s statehood. Classical anti-Semitism denies the equal right of Jews as citizens within society. Anti-Zionism denies the equal rights of the Jewish people its lawful sovereignty within the community of nations. The common principle in the two cases is discrimination (against Jews).”
Or to put it a different way, making obsessive, excessive criticism that focuses almost exclusively on Israel and claiming one isn’t antisemitic, just anti-Zionist, is like trying to explain the difference between lox and nova.
For 11 days in May, Israel was bombarded by more than 4,000 rockets launched by Hamas into civilian areas. Although Israel responded to the indiscriminate launching of a barrage of rockets with precision to destroy specific Hamas targets, while striving to avoid civilian casualties, Israel was the one accused of a disproportionate response.
If anything was disproportionate, however, it was the intense vitriolic hyperbolic criticism leveled against Israel in social media.
When our fellow Jews are under attack, we should be character witnesses on their behalf. As Gil Troy wrote, these charges are “inaccurate and insulting, counterproductive and self-destructive. It hardens hearts and polarizes positions. And in demonizing the Jewish state, it encourages hooligans who target the Jews living in that state and the Jews living everywhere else, too.”
The 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas unleashed a torrent of cries of “Death to the Jews,” and attacks on Jews, Jewish institutions and even just places of business owned by or associated with Jews around the world. Synagogues throughout the world were targets of anti-Semitic acts of desecration because those who hate Israel do not make a distinction between Jews and the Jewish state.
By way of comparison, and to illustrate this point: When Russia attacked and invaded Ukraine, there were no calls for violence at Russian Orthodox churches; no need for increased security at their houses of worship.
If ever there was a time for clarity and Jewish unity, a time to stand with fellow Jews in the face of such an outpouring of blatant antisemitism and danger, it is now. Yet sadly, some have chosen not to stand with their people.
Lest anyone question or think I am not aware of it, I recognize that Israel is not perfect; nor is it above criticism. But I do not love Israel because it is perfect. Nor does Israel need to be perfect for me to love it.
A story about a king who commissioned a painter to paint a portrait of him puts it in perspective. Upon meeting him for the first time, the artist said, “Your Majesty, I see that you have scars from childhood acne, and I want to be sure you will not be upset if I capture the blemishes since my style is to paint what I see.” The king replied, “You are welcome to include the blemishes. I only ask that you not neglect to paint my face.”
I do not love Israel because it has no blemishes.
More than our historical ties to the land, the Israel I know and love is the country that has risen out of the ashes of the Holocaust and is the one place in the world where someone from Poland and Yemen can live together and have a common heritage, language and destiny.
It is the nation that rushes to send humanitarian aid halfway around the world when natural disaster strikes. It is the people who, while fighting for survival, defiantly resists the temptation to succumb to the repression of freedom and democracy, as is the case in the countries surrounding it.
It is the country that rescues those rejected by every other nation and, despite economic problems of its own, doesn’t hesitate for a moment to absorb millions of poor Jews from the Soviet Union or to airlift tens of thousands of black Jews out of Africa to come home to Israel.
It is the startup nation that shares its medical and technological discoveries with the world — the place where the heads of Pfizer and Moderna, who came up with the vaccine to combat COVID-19, studied.
This is the story we need to tell and be proud of.
There is a midrash about an old man who spends his days prowling the streets of Sodom and Gomorrah crying out against the abuses and depravity that was so pervasive and that he saw all around him. One day, a person came up to him and asked, “Old man, don’t you realize that there is no way you can change these people?” He answered, “Long ago, I gave up any hope of changing them. Now I speak out against the injustice and immorality, so that they don’t change me.”
Let us speak out, so that those who denounce Israel so loudly, non-Jew or Jew, do not change us or diminish our unity or love for our people.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac. This article is excerpted from the Yom Kippur sermon that he delivered to his congregation on Sept. 16.