Early in the 1980’s, when the AIDS epidemic was in its early stages and few people really understood what AIDS was or how it was transmitted, a particularly awful episode of fear-driven hatred was visited upon a family in Arcadia, Florida. Their house was intentionally burned down by arsonists, and it was made clear that, because one member of the household had AIDS, the family was no longer welcome in Arcadia. The family, for reasons both physical and spiritual, had no choice but to leave.
At the time, the late (and much missed) editor of the New York Times, A. M. Rosenthal, wrote an op-ed titled “Our House in Arcadia.” What he said, in essence, was that all of us needed to feel as if it were our house that had been burned down,and our family that was being subjected to such cruel and senseless behavior. Without that sense of empathy, he argued, America was on the brink of moral collapse.
On this day after four rabbis and a policeman were slaughtered by Palestinian terrorists during a morning prayer service in Har Nof, a western suburb of Jerusalem, I believe it is incumbent upon all Jews, wherever in the world they might be, to view the Har Nof synagogue as their own. Hence, the title of this article. “Our Synagogue in Har Nof” means that there but for the grace of God go all of us. It matters not at all whether we find ourselves in Jerusalem or New York, or Paris or Brussels, or Toronto or Madrid or anywhere else. To paraphrase the famous statement in the Passover Haggadah, in this generation, we are required to see ourselves as if we personally were in that synagogue when the murderers entered, and committed their heinous crime.
And if I might, I would expand the thrust of that imperative to include those not of the Jewish faith. No matter what church one might pray in, or, even more to the point, what mosque, every person of conscience must understand and accept that the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians, engaged in nothing but prayer, must not be allowed to be rationalized, or reduced by some lame effort at moral equivalence. Those religious leaders who lay claim to a moral order in the world must see this moment as an inflection point in the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is no longer a political conflict; it is a religious one. Add because of that, what transpired in Har Nof cannot be understood as an egregious act of anti-Zionism. It is a horrific act of anti-Semitism: no more, and no less. Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism are the same.
As one who uncomfortably straddles the middle of the political spectrum, feeling sometimes to the right of center and sometimes to the left, I have felt frustrated in these past weeks both by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has, for political reasons (his coalition becomes ever more fragile by the day), allowed right-wing extremists to provoke Abbas and the Palestinians, and Abbas has unnecessarily incited violence in the Palestinian street by accusing Israel as of “violating the sanctity” of the Temple Mount (as if it weren’t sacred to Jews as well).
But what happened in Har Nof, and immediately thereafter, has clarified why we are not them, and they are not us.
If you saw the horrific, graphic images of that synagogue in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, I challenge you to answer– what kind of people hand out candies to children on the street in celebration of wanton murder, as was done in Gaza? I suppose the answer might be, the same kinds of people who handed out candies on the rooftops of East Jerusalem on September 11, 2001. And what kind of people draw cartoons that glorify the hacking of other people to death, and encourage others to do the same, and use those materials in schools and summer camps? If, God forbid, a Jew were to do in a mosque what these two terrorists did in a synagogue yesterday, Muslims around the world would be rioting, no Jew would be safe anywhere in the world, and you wouldn’t be able to count to ten before the United Nations Security Council would convene in special session to condemn Israel in the strongest possible terms.
I guess we’re supposed to feel good about the fact that even the editorial page of the New York Times saw fit to condemn this act of terrorism. As we all know, the Times sets the bar very, very high for what it considers worthy of condemnation in the Arab/Palestinian world. But then again, the juxtaposition of blood all over the floor of the synagogue with the tefillin of one of the victims still on his arm was too much for even them to ignore. The optics were too compelling.
If Israelis cannot wait at a bus stop in Jerusalem without fear of being run over by a terrorist, or pray in a synagogue without fear of being massacred, or stand outside of Alon Shvut without fear of being stabbed to death, then Israel is back where it was at the start of Operation Protective Edge. The job of Israel’s government is, above all, to secure the safety of its citizens. At the moment, they are not safe. Forget about the peace process right now; there’s no one to talk to anyway. Abbas is the so-called moderate, and if the moderate in inciting violence and the extremists are giving out candy, there are some hard conclusions to be drawn.
These are painful days for Israel and her citizens, and one cannot help but fear that more painful days lie ahead. When the situation becomes intolerable, Israel acts. I don’t quite know how much more intolerable it can become before Israel lashes out. And who would blame her?
That synagogue in Har Nof belongs to all of us. Kol Yisrael areivin zeh lazeh; we Jews are all responsible for each other, and connected to each other. It has never been more true than this week.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.