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Lech-Lecha: The First War, The Last War and The Ones In-Between

I have never written a devar Torah so long, so political, so angry, so despairing. Indeed, it is part devar Torah, part political writing, part cri de coeur. But these are not normal times.[1]

Never in my lifetime has the Jewish present seemed so bleak and threatening. We are still mourning 1,400 dead; fearing for the future of 220 hostages; trying to treat thousands of victims of physical and emotional wounds; as well as trying to re-house 130,000 people displaced by fighting in the south and the north of Israel. Thousands of rockets have fallen and continue to fall on Israel. Meanwhile, a massive wave of Jew hatred (let’s not dignify it with the term “antisemitism”) has broken across the world.

In a Times of Israel editorial, David Horovitz described the war as seeming increasingly existential. I would go further and say it seems that we are fighting an existential war on two fronts: against Israel through terrorism, hostage-taking and missiles and against the diaspora through random violence and intimidation. In both cases, the goal is the same: to make everyday Jewish life impossible, to kill as many Jews as possible or, failing that, to chase them out of the public sphere and leave them cowering in their homes. In short, to end the existence, in any meaningful sense, of the Jewish people, the Jewish state and the Jewish religion.

According to Horovitz in the same editorial, “Hamas remains all too evidently functional as a military and terrorist army, is still waging practical and pyschological [sic] war, and its most senior figures are not known to have been neutralized… On the nineteenth day after swarms of Hamas terrorists burst across our unconscionably under-protected border and rampaged deep into Israel, exulting as they brutally murdered our people, empathy and support for an Israel in its darkest hour are dissipating. And Hamas, unthinkably, retains potency and even the upper hand.”[2]

In the diaspora, things are better, but who knows for how long? I have taken to wearing a hat over my kippah (skullcap) on the London Underground for fear of antisemitism. This makes me angry. In London, you can see people wearing all kinds of religious and ethnic garb without fear – except for Jews. But for now, my anxiety outweighs my anger.

Even before Hamas attacked Israel, hate crimes against Jews were higher than against all religious minorities in the UK except Muslims, but given how many more Muslims there are in the UK than Jews (nearly 4,000,000 Muslims against about 370,000 Jews), the chance of an individual Jew being attacked was many times greater than for an individual Muslim.[3]

In the first fourteen days after Hamas’ attacks, the Community Security Trust, which monitors antisemitism in the UK, recorded 533 antisemitic incidents in UK, the highest ever in a fourteen day period, and a 651% increase on the same period 2022.[4]

This goes far beyond sympathy for ordinary Palestinians. 100,000 people attended a “pro-Palestinian” rally in London. From their faces, it was a lot more about anger and hatred towards Israel than support for Palestinians. There were calls for “jihad” (religious war) along with the usual calls for Palestine “from the river to the sea” i.e. the destruction of Israel. There were thirty-four arrests.

One could tell a similar story in other diaspora countries. At Pomona College in the USA, students built a shrine to Hamas fighters killed murdering and raping. People from Harvard student societies to the UN Secretary-General Antonnio Guterres have said that Hamas’ attacks “did not occur in a vacuum” – meaning, it’s all Israel’s fault, not that it’s the fault of decades of Arab rejectionism, violence and antisemitic propaganda at every level of society (political leadership, religious leadership, media, schools and universities) across the whole region.[5]

Even China, which has almost no Jews, has seen massive antisemitism and support for Hamas on state-sponsored media and state-censored internet. China only has about 1,000 people who claim Jewish descent, of whom only 100 practise Judaism, in secret, to avoid religious persecution. This is out of a total of 1.4 billion Chinese! Nevertheless, the Chinese government has unleashed a wave of antisemitism and support for antisemitic violence.[6]

As Jews, we feel betrayed by the world, doubly so those of us who once hoped for a negotiated peace and a “normalisation” of relations between Israel and the Palestinians, between Israel and the wider Arab world and between Jews and non-Jews generally.

As the late peace activist and author Amos Oz said years ago, in the 1930s, Europeans said, “Jews, go to Palestine!” Now they say, “Jews, get out of Palestine.” Oz concluded, “They don’t want us to be here, they don’t want us to be there, they don’t want us to be.”

All of which brings me to this week’s sedra of Lech-Lecha.

Avraham (Abraham), at this stage known as Avram, heeded the call of God to travel to a distant land, a land that will come to be known by the name of Avram’s as-yet unborn grandson, Yisrael (Israel).  God says that there he will become a blessing to the nations of the world.[7] Granted, that translation is only one of the possible readings, but it fits with later biblical descriptions of the Jewish people as God’s “first born”[8] and his “first of His crop”[9] – clearly not a rejection of other nations, but just a statement that the Israelites were the first people to find God, to be joined by the rest of the world in time.

Yet, soon after arriving in the land, Avraham is engaged in a battle with four kings, four powerful rulers of the Middle East, who the Talmud related to the future, apocalyptic war of Gog and Magog.[10] Just as Gog will be intent on wiping out the Jewish people, so the rabbis saw these kings as intent on wiping out the Jewish people at source, by killing the first Jew.

Perhaps the rabbis meant this literally, that the kings saw nascent Judaism, embodied in Avraham, as an absolute threat to their pagan way of life. Or perhaps the rabbis saw this as an unconscious motive. Consciously, the kings fought with Avraham because he came to free Lot and the captured people of Sodom. Only below the surface was God working through historical processes, working to pit Judaism against the world powers of the day, ultimately so that the truth of Judaism and its values, above all the value of the human being in the image of God, can be proclaimed.

Similarly, perhaps the antisemites of today’s world are motivated by a conscious hatred of Judaism and the Jewish understanding of the dignity of the human being, created in the image of God. Or perhaps they hate Jews for some other, petty reason. Perhaps they just grew up in an antisemitic society and were indoctrinated at a young age. It doesn’t really matter.

The biggest clue is the assumption, shared by antisemites of the left and right, of all nationalities, of all religions and none, that Jews are uniquely murderous. That we kill civilians, especially children, in cold blood. This is why so many fell for the Hamas hospital bombing lie. Yet, as Rabbi Lord Sacks argued, the antisemite projects his biggest moral failing onto the Jew. The Inquisition said the Jews were proselytising to Christians. Judaism is a non-missionary religion – but the Catholic Church was forcibly converting Jews. The Czarist agents who wrote The Protocols of the Elders of Zion said that the Jews sought to build a global empire. They did not – but Russia did. The Nazis said the Jews were determined to destroy the German race. They were not – but the Nazis tried to wipe out the Jews. So if the world accuses us of being callous child-murderers, that’s a clue that that’s the blemish they see in themselves. By killing us, the first proponents of the concept of the sanctity of human life, they hope to avoid the dissonance of supporting murder while knowing it to be wrong.

Regardless of whether it’s conscious or not, the atrocities committed by antisemites, from ancient times up to the Nazis and Hamas, seem determined to profane the human being as the image of God, to dehumanise and desecrate both the living and the dead.[11] Even the use of human shields by Hamas can be seen as an attempt to create a moral dilemma: to endanger our own children or those of our enemies. Either way, the sanctity of human life, which we hold to be fundamental, is threatened. Our most ancient, deep-seated values, make us afraid to be killed and distressed lest we have to kill others in self-defence.[12]

We are never going to persuade world of our cause. If 1,400 murders, numerous rapes, even beheaded babies didn’t convince people that Hamas are intent on genocide, not “liberation,” nothing will. And I don’t believe we can win by force alone against a terrorist army that is nebulous, embedded among civilians, constantly reforming wherever there is both hatred for Jews and Iranian and Qatari money.

And yet, there is light. After months, if not years, of political and religious factionalism, Jews seem more united than ever. The phrase “lions led by donkeys” is traditionally ascribed to the British army in World War I, but it seems to refer to Israel today. While the government seems more or less to have abdicated responsibility both for the military situation and for the welfare of the wounded, traumatised and displaced, individual Jews and Jewish NGOs in Israel and the diaspora have stepped into the gap, as far as possible. Diaspora Jews who seemed distanced from Israel and the Jewish community suddenly feel connected. Posting memes that say “Now I know which of my non-Jewish friends would have hidden me from the Nazis and which would have handed me over,” there is a realisation that we only have each other and HaShem.

In the last few weeks, I’ve felt the closeness of God in a way I never really had before, certainly not for such a long period of time. I can’t really put it into worlds, yet He seems near, concerned. I don’t know why He wants things to happen this way, with so much innocent death, so much pain and suffering, yet I feel that, whatever happens, He is in control, that He cares for us in a way that few people outside the Jewish community seem to right now.

In Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s terms, we have rediscovered the Covenant of Fate, the link of common history and persecution that links all Jews. Now it is up to us to rediscover the Covenant of Destiny, the link of shared Jewish values and desire to build a society built on them.[13]

As Jews, we believe that ultimately, evil can not create anything lasting, as it has no substance. In the Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) prayers we state that in the messianic age, “evil will evaporate like smoke.” Only through love, kindness, justice and peace can we create something lasting. Every mitzvah (commandment), every act of chesed (kindness) we do creates a little more light and redemption in the world. May we merit to see the full flowering of redemption and global peace soon.

[1] I’m not quoting my sources as diligently as I normally would for reasons of time. Worrying about the war and antisemitism, looking at news online and so is just taking up so much time and headspace.

[2] https://www.timesofisrael.com/hamas-unthinkably-remains-potent-still-hurting-israel-practically-psychologically/

[3] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/hate-crime-england-and-wales-2022-to-2023/hate-crime-england-and-wales-2022-to-2023

[4] https://cst.org.uk/news/blog/2023/10/20/antisemitic-incidents-20-october-update

[5] https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-livid-after-un-chief-says-hamas-attacks-did-not-occur-in-vacuum/

[6] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2023/10/21/anti-semitism-in-china-israel-hamas-conflict/

[7] Bereshit 12.3 (Genesis 12.3)

[8] Shemot 4.22 (Exodus 4.22)

[9] Yirmiyahu 2.3 (Jeremiah 2.3)

[10] Sanhedrin 95b

[11] See David Patterson, Open Wounds: The Crisis of Jewish Thought in the Aftermath of the Holocaust

[12] See Rashi on Bereshit 32.8

[13] Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek

About the Author
Daniel Saunders is an office administrator, proofreader and copy editor living in London with his wife. He has a BA in Modern History from the University of Oxford and an MA in Library and Information Management. He blogs about Judaism, Israel and antisemitism at Living Jewishly https://judaismuncovered.substack.com/
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