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Jewish World Review
Nov. 24, 2004
/ 11 Kislev, 5765
Thanksgiving: Let us not be warped in our perspective
Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg
A sermon the author, a renowned orator, wishes he never had to deliver but feels he must
This Thanksgiving was supposed to be a special one for the American Jewish Community. This year we are celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Jewish presence in America an experience for us Jews unparalleled in our history. But what should be a time for rejoicing, for many American Jews has become a period of concern and introspection. Why? Because John Kerry lost and, even worse, George Bush won.
Jews have had a long-time love affair with the Democratic Party. For our parents even considering voting for a Republican was something akin to having a ham sandwich on Yom Kippur with a glass of milk! Our links to the Democratic Party had and still have a very good basis. The Democratic Party has traditionally been more closely aligned with the needs of minorities, the poor, the elderly, equal rights and social services … all causes that go to the heart of our religious underpinnings.
And so the re-election of George Bush was particularly painful for Jews who voted in such overwhelming numbers for John Kerry. The headline in the post-election edition of the Jerusalem Post said it all: "U.S. Jewish Left 'in mourning'". Dara Silverman, Director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a left-wing Jewish group in New York, is quoted as saying, "People are incredibly depressed. People are saying to me that this is like Germany in 1933 …" A national Jewish leader proclaims: "Once again we are afraid."
I, for one, find this entire mindset, this entire way of thinking, not only wrong and not only dangerous, but contrary to Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Chanina, the assistant High Priest said: "Pray for the welfare of the government since without the fear of it, men would swallow one another alive." Let me tell you something about the author of this statement. The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Chanina was next in line to be the High Priest. But he never made it! Why? Because at that time, the Roman government held power and they appointed who they wanted to be the High Priest. And yet, here comes the same Rabbi Chanina and, despite his unfair treatment by the government, he comes along and tells us "pray for the welfare of the government." That's right! You don't have to like the government, you don't have to agree with the government the government can be corrupt and misguided, but even so it is the government. And without it all is lost. We Jews have an obligation to support our government; irrespective if its Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative. That's the Jewish thing to do!
And while we're at it, let me ask you: Is this government really so terrible for us as Jews? Sure we have our concerns about Church-State and social issues. But I remember similar expressions of concern when Richard Nixon was elected President, when Ronald Reagan was elected President, and four years ago when George Bush was elected President. And I think of Mark Twain's observation: "I am an old man and have known a great many troubles but most of them never happened."
And let me ask you something else: Has George Bush been such a terrible friend to the Jewish people? The man who cut Yasser Arafat out of the loop once and for all, and whose government was the only one supporting Israel in the United Nations, and who publicly has said that the Palestinians will never be able to have the "right of return?" Was that so bad? That the overwhelming majority of Jews still chose not to vote for him? Well, there certainly are others issues besides Israel to take into consideration. What bothers me is the need of some Jews to claim that Bush has, in fact, not been a friend of Israel.
Steven Spiegel, the Director of the Mid East Regional Security Program at the Burkle Center for International Relations, wrote, "Instead of aiding Israel, Bush's policies have the potential to significantly compromise Israel's security." Really? The people of Israel don't seem to feel that way! Every poll in Israel indicated a majority of Israelis supporting Bush. And the Arabs don't see it this way. Every poll indicates the majority of Arabs were hoping Bush would lose. So you tell me: if George Bush has, in fact, been such a good friend for Israel, and Jews go around saying that he's not a friend … you tell me … why should he be a friend?
And before the Democrats here get their backs up if they're not already let me tell you that I ask this same question in regard to Bill Clinton. I hear many Jews today saying Clinton was no friend of Israel: Look how he pushed to have Israel give up so much and look how many times he met with Yasser Arafat. Those words are an injustice to Bill Clinton. Let us remember that he wasn't the only person prepared to make major concessions to the Palestinians. Ehud Barak, the Prime Minister of Israel was prepared to make the very same concessions. And let us remember, Clinton wasn't the only person who welcomed Yasser Arafat to his home.
When Israel's Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated, Mrs. Rabin would not allow Bibi Netanyahu into her home. But she welcomed with open arms the man her family referred to as "Uncle Yasser." Let the record be clear: Bill Clinton was a real friend of Israel. He did what he thought was in Israel's best interests and at that time many, if not most, Jews agreed. Now we know the policy was wrong. But there was no way of knowing it then. Let's not besmirch the good intentions of a friend. Because after a while people are going to wonder: Why be our friends?
George Bush and Bill Clinton have been our friends, and that is reason enough for us as American Jews to celebrate Thanksgiving with a full heart. It doesn't matter if Bush or Clinton, a Republican or Democrat … the government of the U.S. stands behind Israel. Let no Jew say that America today is a reminder of Germany in 1933. There are no brown shirts walking the streets of America. There are no laws being passed discriminating against Jews. There is no American political leader espousing anti-Semitic views.
Let us not be warped in our perspective. Let us not be blinded to the blessings that we Jews have in America. Let us remember this Thanksgiving, 350 years after the Jews first came to America, we have much to be thankful for as American Jews. I don't accept the belief an American Jewish leader recently proclaimed at the General Assembly in Cleveland that we Jews are "guests" in a "host" country. The fact is, Jews have won greater acceptance in America than most any other ethnic or religious minority that has immigrated to these shores. Look around you and see how Jews have been accepted … Jews have the right to live any lifestyle, from the 50,000 Chasidic Jews living in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn who choose to have a life insolated from America, to the many Reform temples that now have nearly half their membership made up of interfaith couples. Look around you and see how the bagel has become as acceptable in America for breakfast as bacon and eggs. (L'havdil) Look around you and see how this country has a disproportionate number of Jews in the highest echelons of society in government, in academia, in the arts and sciences, in real estate and finance and entertainment. That's today's America, a country where our Supreme Court at its opening session this year, chose not to hear any cases because it was Yom Kippur and two of the Supreme Court justices are Jewish.
Just think about it! Throughout the world, only two of every 1000 people are Jewish. And in the U.S. two out of nine Supreme Court justices are Jewish! And they are not just full-fledged Jews, they are full-fledged Americans! Just like Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia, with his Italian immigrant parents. And just like Justice Clarence Thomas, with his mother a maid from Georgia. With the exception of Native Americans, we are all immigrants … America does not belong to any particular ethnic or religious group. None of us are guests … that's what makes the United States of America the great country that it is.
Let's stop this nonsense that we're "worried" that we're "guests;" that it is "Germany of 1933." How do you think that sounds to the Congressmen and Senators Republicans and Democrats who provided the legislation that helped bring about freedom for Soviet Jewry? How do you think that sounds to the Congressmen and Senators Republicans and Democrats who vote every year to send $3 billion in economic and military aid to Israel? If this is the way we talk about our friends, don't they have reason to wonder: why be our friend? Let us ever be mindful and grateful for the blessings that we have here in America.
Gratitude and thanksgiving are for Jews what apple pie is for Americans! Our matriarch Leah was the first to express thanks to G-d and it is believed the Pilgrims borrowed the idea for Thanksgiving from the Biblical festival of Sukkos (Tabernacles).
And let me just add a personal note a personal expression of thanksgiving and gratitude for America. My father, of blessed memory, immigrated to this county when he was a teenager. After his death, we found a composition he had written when he entered New York University. It was meant to be the story of his life. He titled it "My Life in Your Hands." What follows are just a few paragraphs:
This is not the story of my life. My autobiography is yet to be written. For, to write about one's own life, a person must understand it first, and I cannot boast of that.
At the age of four, I lost my father. Mother was very kind to me and my sister and brothers. But late in the night she used to cry silently. I knew why. The echo of those sobs I can still hear.
At the age of ten I found myself in the midst of the world war. The Russian Cossacks had attacked my country, Hungary, and we left our birth place, never to return again. We found shelter in a beautiful town in Southern Hungary. Our neighborhood was surrounded by wonderful parks and playgrounds, but I could make very little use of them because I happened to be a Jew. The Christian boys hated us, their "fun" being to pull my hair when they got hold of us. My mother was compelled to send me away to another town where I could pursue my Hebrew studies and practice the religion of my fathers. I studied diligently our sacred literature. And G-d said: "Let there be light," and light appeared on the horizon. America! The Promised Land! My sister landed on American shores in 1921, to be followed by my mother in 1922, and I came in 1923.
What the future holds for me I do not know, but who will blame me if I dare to hope for a better and brighter future?
My father had a better life because he had come to America. America! The Promised Land! He and countless other Jews had a better life because of America. And we are the beneficiaries. If America is not as yet the "goldene medinah" it is still far better to the Jews than any other country has ever been. Despite its flaws we can celebrate Thanksgiving thankful for being a part of American society and the American Dream. G-d Bless America.
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Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg is Senior Rabbi of Baltimore's Beth Tfiloh Congregation. Let him know what you think by clicking here.
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© 2004, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg