Recently, the United States has been under attack for its sharp monetary cutbacks to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the lead international organization responsible for aiding Palestinian Arab refugees. In response, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley took the international community to task for failing to adequately provide their fair share in financial support to UNRWA. The truth is that the mission of UNRWA is fundamentally flawed. UNRWA does not work to settle refugees. Rather, they grant refugee status to the descendants of refugees, even when they are born in other countries and have citizenship there, conditions that do not apply to the refugees cared for by the UN’s main refugee agency, UNHCR, which cares for all other refugees worldwide. Therefore, instead of declining Palestinian refugee numbers through resettlement and natural attrition, the number of Palestinian refugees according to UNRWA’s definition has soared from 650,000 who fled their homes in 1948 to five million currently. As such, UNRWA’s massive social welfare system which serves millions of Palestinian perpetuates a state of victimhood, and does little to practically lift those suffering out of their current plight.
Meanwhile, there is no similar body for the 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries, mainly Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, who were uprooted from their homes at the same time that Palestinian Arabs fled their homes in Israel. Instead, in 1952, the Israeli government took over responsibility for Jewish refugees. As we have done throughout our history, in the face of tragedy and victimization, our nation found a path forward. Indeed, the Gemara in Brachot cites Rav Matna who states that the Rabbis established the bracha of “hatov v’hameitiv” on the day that those massacred in Betar were buried because they were permitted to be buried and their bodies did not decompose in the meantime. But why is the bracha one of “hatov v’hameitiv?” We should recite a blessing at this time that God is so good? That God is so wonderful? At this point they are burying their dead! Maybe recite “dayan ha’emet,” that God represents truth. But why “hatov v’hameitiv?”
Perhaps the bracha of hatov v’hameitiv is the response of our Rabbis to the tragedy of hopelessness after the fall of Betar when the Bar Kochba revolt was crushed, at which point in time it was so easy to give up on God. The Rabbis were searching for the good and when they found any amount of good, they celebrated it. The bracha of hatov v’hameitiv does not allow us to play the victim and mire in hopelessness, but it forces us to try to pick ourselves up and move forward. And this value is so important that, according to Rav Matna, the Rabbis also established a holiday to connect with this event, the burial of our dead, on Tu B’Av. The truth is that all of the historical events, including this one, that are associated with this holiday of Tu B’Av, are all days of restoration and rebuilding. According to one opinion, it was the day when the tribe of Binyamin could marry those from other tribes after the debacle of pilegesh b’Givah when the tribe was decimated. According to another opinion, it was the day when the last people in the desert died. Tu B’Av is a time of hope, a time to find a sliver of light, to thank God and to begin to rebuild. In fact, if Tisha B’Av is the first day of shiva, of mourning for the fall of Betar, then we rise from shiva on the seventh day, which is Tu B’Av. The Gemara in Taanit tells us that there were no days of joy in the Jewish calendar like Yom Kippur and Tu B’Av. I understand why Yom Kippur is such a joyous day because it is a day of repentance, but what about Tu B’Av? Perhaps the answer is that Tu B’Av celebrates the Jewish day of hope, return and rebuilding. While UNRWA may be one response to tragedy, Tu B’Av is the Jewish response.