Dennis C. Sasso

Calling evil ‘good’ and good ‘evil’

Co-authored by Dennis C. Sasso and  Sandy E. Sasso

The Land of Israel is at the heart of Jewish history, memory, and identity. It is central to the promise of the Covenant with Abraham, it is the destination of the freed slaves from Egypt, it is the place where David and Solomon built Jerusalem and the Temple. The land is at the core of Jewish liturgy and life-cycle celebration and the setting for the society of justice and peace envisioned by the prophets, psalmists, and sages of Israel.

The Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans conquered Israel and Judea, but the people remained faithful to the land, and returned exile after exile. During the Middle Ages, Crusaders and Muslims fought over the land. Jewish communities were decimated in Europe as “faithful” Christians journeyed to defeat the “infidels” in the Holy Land. The12th century Spanish Jewish poet, Judah Halevi, lamented, “My heart is in the East, but I am in the uttermost West.  How shall I render my vows and my bonds while Zion lieth in the fetter of Edom and I, in Arab chains.”

Zionism comes from the word, Zion, one of the biblical names of Jerusalem. Modern Zionism was the effort to turn piety and prayer into diplomacy and political action, even as other modern nationalisms were being born in Europe around the same time. The effort was cemented in 1897 at the First Zionist Congress in Basle, called by Theodore Herzl, a journalist who covered the famous antisemitic Dreyfus Case in France. Herzl was led to the realization that the solution for the “Jewish problem” (i.e., antisemitism) in Central and Eastern Europe was not the assimilation of Jews into general society, which, despite the Enlightenment, had proven to be an elusive goal, but the restoration of a modern state in the ancestral land of the Jewish people. Fifty years later, the State of Israel was born.

Lamentably, Zionism has become a term of opprobrium for many.  Every liberation movement is celebrated, while the national liberation movement of the Jewish people is irrationally condemned. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel observed: “There is no greater fallacy than to regard Israel as a ‘colonial’ phenomenon. [Israel] is the only state which bears the same name, speaks the same language, upholds the same faith, and inhabits the same land it did 3000 years ago.” To deny the Jewish people a state of its own in its historic land, while agreeing to the statehood of other peoples, is to apply a double standard grounded in prejudice against Jews and Judaism.  Historic anti-Judaism has evolved from religious bigotry to racial discrimination, and more recently has mutated to anti-Zionism, the denial of Israel’s place among the family of nations.

Following the Holocaust, the civilized world felt embarrassed by antisemitism.  The birth of Israel, through edict of the United Nations, helped to assuage their guilty conscience. But, as Israel prospered and defeated Arab aggression, as American Jews attained economic security, political and social acceptance, Jews and Israel lost their “victim” status.  Palestinians emerged as the new victims, while Israel’s image as a beleaguered nation, faded.

Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence reads: “In the land of Israel, the Jewish people was born. In this land, their spiritual, religious, and national character was shaped.”  The modern State of Israel is the fulfillment of a historic birthright and national aspiration.  But there were others also living in the land. Israel’s founding document appealed to “the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and to participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship…” It stated, “We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace ….”  Israel can be faulted for social and political inequities, yet the prophetic promise of liberty, justice, and peace is intended for all Israelis, Palestinians, Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike. It is chillingly instructive to compare Israel’s founding document with the Hamas charter which calls for the extermination of Israel.

Sympathy for Israel resulting from Hamas’s October 7 heinous terrorist attack, was short lived. Israel was soon criticized and accused of war crimes in prosecution of a legitimate defensive war against Hamas. Several propaganda tropes have emerged:

This slogan has become the rallying call at many pro-Palestinian demonstrations. The implications are not to end Israel’s presence in the West Bank or to advance a two-state solution, but to replace the only Jewish democratic state with an Islamist Palestinian state.  This chant is a threat to Israel’s existence.

This phrase conveys a rejection of Israel’s legitimacy as an independent country since its establishment in 1948 in accordance with the UN partition plan of the previous year. That same year, India and Pakistan were also partitioned.  The previous year, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was established, and in 1948, annexed the West Bank. No one calls for the disestablishment of any of these countries. Yet, the very existence of the State of Israel is questioned.

Labeling Israel as a “Settler Colonialist State,” depicts it as a foreign power that has stolen and occupied another’s ancestral land. But, far from being a colonialist state, Jews are indigenous to the land where they have had an unbroken presence and connection for over three thousand years.  “Palestine” was the designation given by the Romans to the region in the second century, a hundred years after the death of Jesus.  So, far from being a “Palestinian,” as he is often labeled in some Christian circles unfriendly to Jews and Israel, Jesus was a Judean (a Jew) who was crucified by the Romans because he was a Jew.

This heinous accusation is fabricated to demonize Israel and foster hatred of Jews (antisemitism). Genocide is an internationally recognized crime of intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, such as the Holocaust, and against the Armenian Christians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, and more recently in Azerbaijan, at the hands of the Muslim majority; or against the Darfuri people in Western Sudan; or in Rwanda, the Hutu militias against the Tutsi; or against the Muslim Rohingyas by the Buddhists in Myanmar.

Israel’s response to Hamas’s attack is a legal military action to remove the threat of terrorism against its population.  We mourn the tragic loss of innocent civilians in Gaza. Israel’s target is not the Palestinian people, who are endangered by Hamas’s purposeful placing of their military installations and infrastructure within or in the vicinity of civilian population.

The charge of apartheid is a loaded term borrowed from the South African experience, with which Israeli society shows no similarity. There are Muslim and Christian Arab citizens of Israel who attend universities, sit on the Supreme Court, participate in the Israeli political establishment, serve in diplomatic corps.  Arab Druze and Bedouin citizen of Israel serve in the IDF and have died in the protection of their homeland.

 Accusations of Apartheid, Genocide, and Ethnic Cleansing ignore that most Israelis are of the same ethnic and demographic stock as the Palestinians and Arabs that live among and around them. Most of today’s Israelis are Jews whose families were forced to leave the Arab world at the time of the establishment of Israel, in numbers that equal or exceed the Palestinians who were displaced in 1948. Israel took in her exiles, while the Arab world put theirs in holding camps as pawns in their ongoing war against Israel.

These unfounded accusations have triggered not only opposition to Israel’s defensive war against Hamas, but antagonism to its very existence. They are responsible for the measurable uptick in antisemitic sentiment and activity across campuses and cities throughout North America and Europe. Rather than responding with outrage to the Hamas attack of October 7, many have rejoiced and even found justification of Hamas’s nefarious actions. Organizations who otherwise would have recoiled at verbal and physical attacks against other ethnic or religious groups, have failed to denounce the renewed antisemitism.  Particularly disheartening was the equivocal testimony of three Ivy League Presidents on whether advocating for the genocide of Jews at their private universities was protected speech. The deafening silence of the progressive women’s movement in decrying, and even doubting, the sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas on women and children, is a perversion of feminist and human values.

A sad lesson learned during the past months, is that antisemitism is alive and well, not only among the conservative right, but among many in the so-called progressive left.  The political right perceives us as a threat because we are not deemed white enough. Conversely, the extreme left, deems Jews as white and complicit in the oppression of peoples of color.

Someone has observed that another lesson Jews have learned in the past months is that even as the world does not seem to care about us as much as we had hoped, we care about each other a lot more than we had realized.

There is an ancient teaching: “One who is kind to the cruel may end up being cruel to the kind.” Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist and peace activist, commented that “a nations determined to avoid violence at all costs, will inevitably endure all the costs of violence.”

And so, we look forward to the day after this war, to the return of all Hamas held hostages to their homes and families, to the day when Hamas will have been disabled from pursuing its sinister goals of suppressing Palestinians and terrorizing Jews.  We look forward to that day when here will be quiet and peace in the southern borders between Gaza and Israel, and in the northern borders with Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. We look forward to the reconstruction of Gaza and of devastated Israeli Kibbutzim and communities. We look forward to peace negotiations, a responsible administration of Gaza and the timely implementation of a much delayed two-state solution.  We look forward to a restoration of trust and confidence in an Israeli administration that will hold to account those responsible for sacrificing the security and democracy of the nation on the altar of their self-serving politics and their support to settler vigilantism.  We look forward to humanitarian relief for all injured and displaced, and to the development of the political, economic and security conditions that will give the hope of peace a realistic chance.

Shlomo Avineri, Israel’s prominent center-left public intellectual who died recently, would lament about the way in which both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would deny each other’s pain. He urged Israelis to understand the Palestinian perspective, but he also was critical of Palestinian leadership for denying the history and legitimacy of Israel’s founding.

Many peoples have developed theories of war.  While there is a theory of war in Jewish moral philosophy, the ancient prophets of Israel were the first to develop a theory of peace: “It shall come to pass in the end of days that nations shall not lift up sword against nation nor shall peoples practice war anymore” (Isaiah 2:2; Micah 4:1).  Let us join hands with all who would realistically pursue the hope of peace.

About the Author
Dennis Sasso is Senior Rabbi Emeritus at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, Indianapolis, Indiana. He is Affiliate Professor of Jewish Studies at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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