Terrorism in America
Rabbi Dr. Laurence Elis Milder
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5762
I. The Rise of Terrorism
We were traveling in Israel last March, and wondering out loud why there were so few tourists there. Our small group from Congregation Beth El turned out to be one of the few Reform synagogues that had not cancelled their tours to Israel. Yet, there we were, having the time of our life, learning, exploring, discovering, absolutely enthralled with the wonder that is Israel. We did Kabbalat Shabbat on the shore of the Mediterranean in Tel Aviv. We shopped along the pedestrian mall of Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. Two months later, a suicide bomber murdered 21 teens and young adults only a stone's throw from our Kabbalat Shabbat location in Tel Aviv. Another two months, and a deadly explosion ripped through a pizzeria where some of us likely stopped for a bite in Jerusalem, leaving 18 dead.
And now, the unimaginable has happened. Not in Israel, where we have grown numbly accustomed to hearing about terrorism. But in New York, where many of our loved ones live and work, a short distance from where I lived and went to school. And in Washington, where we also have friends and relatives. And in Pennsylvania, just a short distance from places that many of us have also visited, to see family, or in our travels.
We have gotten used to thinking that Israel is a dangerous place to visit. But while we were touring Israel, we were surprised to discover how safe we actually felt. We joked that we felt safer walking the streets of Jerusalem than we felt walking the streets of New York or Washington.
Something has changed, and it is not just in the past week or the last few months. My parents did not grow up in a world in which America was demonized by religious fanatics, and in which Americans were the object of gruesome acts of terror anywhere in the world that they might be. True, there was a battle of superpowers, an ideological and deadly military conflict between Communism and democracy. But it was not terrorism. That is different. That is something horribly distinctive to our generation. We think back to the hostage crisis in Iran, to the images of a country given over to the fanatic demonization of America as the ally of Satan, and we realize: We have been on a trajectory toward terror that was not known in any previous generation. U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Tanzania and Beirut; a U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia; a Pan Am flight over Scotland; a U.S. naval ship in Yemen. It is horrifyingly easier for terrorists to unleash torrents of destruction than it has ever been. The bitter reality of this new possibility, which Israel has endured in increasing measure over the last six months, has finally dawned on America. We are no safer here than there.
II. America and Israel
Never before has it been so clear just how intertwined are the fate and destinies of Israel and America. We, in America, have become the target of terrorism in part because we have bravely stood behind a tiny, beleaguered nation, a country vilified on the stage of international politics, a people begrudged their very right to exist under their own sovereign rule. America has been insulted, denounced and terrorized, because we are seen as an extension of Israel’s demand that its security, its very existence, be respected. And when America bombed Iraq to force it to withdraw from Kuwait, the Iraqis bombed Israel.
I realize that there are many reasons why radical Islamic militants hate America, not just their association of Americans with Israel. There is a long history of conflict between Western culture and the Third World, and after World War II, America emerged as the standard bearer of Western culture. There are political reasons, including resentment over the regimes that we have supported that did not themselves live up to American ideals of democracy, such as the government of the Shah of Iran. There are economic reasons, a battle that used to be fought between the proxies of the United States and the proxies of the Soviet Union, but has now placed the U.S. and Israel face to face with terrorists who are recruited from those who have nothing left to lose. And there are religious reasons, a belief that the West is morally bankrupt, corrupt; a fanatical belief that religious justice can be accomplished through extraordinary deeds of self-sacrifice, including the murder of the innocent. What has changed, what we have never really witnessed before, is the confluence of money and technology on the one hand, the funding of terror and the tools of terror, with a religious ideology on the other hand, religious and not simply nationalist, that leads people to commit suicide in order to lash out at the enemy.
There is not one single reason that explains how terrorists came to select America as the arch-villain in their schemes. But, if there is one single symbol that has come to epitomize what these extremists hate about us, it is Israel.
American support for Israel has never been first and foremost about political, military or economic advantage. If it were about oil, we would have given up on Israel long ago, as many European countries have. It has always been about a sense of shared values. Americans understand Israel as a bastion of democracy. That doesn’t make Americans anti-Palestinian. It doesn’t mean that they favor the occupation, or oppose the peace process. It is simply that Americans recognize in Israel a country that, like the United States, has sought to define itself by democratic values: a fair electoral process, an independent judiciary, the restrained use of military force for the purpose of national defense. We don’t always agree with Israel, but then again, many of us also find much to criticize in our own country’s failure to live up to its democratic ideals. That is a far cry from the tremendous number of nations that are ruled by despots, plagued by corruption, who abuse the many to indulge the elite, and who regularly deny their own citizens freedom of speech, assembly and the right to criticize their own government. Political activism is a national pastime in Israel; they are news addicts, they vote in higher proportions than we do. We know a democracy when we see one.
Americans also have an intuitive understanding of the Jewish people, an understanding that does not exist in most countries of the world, even in Western Europe. When Israel was established as a state, Americans understood the essential need of the Jewish people for a homeland. The world had witnessed the horror of unbridled hatred. Americans understood that statehood meant the ability of the Jews to care for our own, to defend the interests and security of Jews everywhere, to pursue justice on behalf of a people abandoned by the world.
Most of the nations of the world actually did understand this at the time. In 1948, the United Nations voted to partition a land for a Jewish state, out of territory that had been under British sovereignty, and before that ruled by the Turks. The Palestinians, too, were to be given a homeland, a country which they, too, had never had, though they did not accept this offer.
But in the intervening years, nation after nation has turned its back on Israel, abandoning it out of narrow self-interest, or out of a lack of courage. The United States has remained steadfast. We have understood that doing the right thing has not been popular, or endeared us to those who begrudge Israel its very right to exist.
III. American Foreign Policy
I have heard a number of people suggest that America needs to examine its own deeds, to understand how we came to be a target of the intense hatred we suffered this week. I understand the desire to look inward. I think that part of the greatness of our nation is that we are, indeed, inclined toward self-examination, toward a critical perspective on our own actions. I am proud to be an American, not because of our perfect judgment, but because of our active tradition of protest and the will to hold our own government accountable.
To have such a will, however, does not mean we should be immobilized from passing moral judgment on others. It does not mean that we need accept the implication that we should, indeed, change our values, our deeds, or our foreign policy, in order to reduce the likelihood that others will hate us. Others may hate us because of our commitment to values that they cannot tolerate. We should not reverse course in the face of hatred.
Perhaps they hate our way of life, our affluence, our democracy. Perhaps they hate the way that people around the world want to share those same values, and that threatens the political tyranny and religious fundamentalism that is the agenda of extremists and militant nationalists around the world.
And, most likely of all, perhaps they hate our support for Israel. I cannot conceive of American foreign policy toward Israel being dictated by the threat of terrorism. Israel, because of its values, is our ultimate ally against terrorism.
Those who committed these acts of terrorism are the face of evil in this world. I have no problem calling them wholly immoral. There is nothing that we, as a nation, have done, that ought to be considered a warrant for such unredeemable hatred. May all those responsible be brought to justice, however long it takes, and let the record of history show how they chose to murder thousands of innocent people for their own twisted political and religious aims.
But, besides pursuing the guilty, what shall we do? I believe we must redouble our efforts to demonstrate our commitment to Israel. Jews, especially, must make sure that the world does not watch us cower in fear. I intend to say more about that topic on Yom Kippur.
III. A God Who Cries
But there is, of course, something much more immediate that we must do. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations has created a Disaster Relief Fund to benefit the families of disaster victims, many of whom have been cast into the worst kind of dislocation. The fund will also help the families and children of firefighters, police officers, and military personnel who perished or were injured trying to save the lives of others.
The Jewish Community Council, too, has announced a campaign to raise money for the Red Cross. Please, wherever you give, let’s all give something, and be a part of the relief effort.
Some in our own congregation are still waiting for news, or mourning the deaths of their loved ones. Now is the time for us to show love and compassion for one another, for our children and our parents and our friends and our neighbors. In this way, we begin to bring healing to a world that is in pain.
Some of us have deep questions, questions that trouble us above and beyond the political explanations that we seek. How could this happen? Is there something irrevocably broken in all the universe, or some irredeemable evil that lurks beneath the surface? Is God a presence, a force for good? Or has any notion of God been shattered like the broken pieces of the World Trade Center, ultimately violated like the walls of the Pentagon, thrown from the heavens into a field in Pennsylvania?
I want to share with you two answers to the theological questions we have. The first is one we don’t believe; yet, astoundingly, it is an answer that millions may find compelling.
On Thursday night, Rev. Jerry Falwell offered the following opinion on Rev. Pat Robertson’s television show, the “700 Club”: "God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve". Falwell went on to say that the American Civil Liberties Union “has got to take a lot of blame for this,” to which Robertson also gave his assent. Falwell blamed the federal courts for “throwing God out of the public square,” and added: "The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way-all of them who have tried to secularize America-I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.' "
In a subsequent interview Falwell explained that it is not that the terrorists aren't guilty, but that America's "secular and anti-Christian environment left us open to our Lord's [decision] not to protect. When a nation deserts God and expels God from the culture . . . the result is not good."
This is a theology that I can only describe as obscene. It reminds me of the ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel who said that the reason for a terrorist attack on a bus could be related to the failure of local residents to ensure that their Mezuzahs were kosher.
Honestly, though, Falwell is too easy a target. We are so angry, that he provides us with someone convenient at whom we can be angry.
We do, indeed, need a more subtle theological response, because when the only explanation we hear is the facile and politically self-serving theology presented by the Falwells and the Robertsons, we remain stymied. Is this the best that religion has to offer?
Falwell might have been thinking about the prophets, like Isaiah and Hosea, who warned the Israelites that their behavior would lead to their defeat at the hands of their enemies. Not that the particular sins he mentions have anything to do with the prophets; Isaiah and Hosea had other transgressions on their minds, namely insincere worship and turning our backs on the needy. These are not exactly the sins that Falwell cites. As far as the ACLU goes, for example, we have to assume that the prophets were positively inclined toward protecting the right to free speech.
But the prophets did believe that God would remove divine protection from the people of Israel, if they failed to uphold the terms of the covenant by flaunting their duties to God and taking advantage of the powerless. Such transgressions would not necessarily mean that God would punish them, but rather, that God would, as Hosea describes it, uproot the hedges, and let them be overrun by their enemies.
The prophets developed this idea as a way of dealing with a theological problem. When the Assyrians, and later, the Babylonians, decimated the nations of Israel and Judah, and burned the Temple to the ground, there was another possible explanation: those other countries had stronger gods. And if that were true, then there would be no point in continuing to remain a Jew. The answer of the prophets: No, those other countries do not worship real gods. Nor are they mightier than our God. It is our God who has allowed this to happen.
What solved one problem for the prophets, though, created a different kind of problem for religious thinkers in subsequent centuries. A God that removes his protection from people, allowing innocent people to be slaughtered, is a morally culpable God. If God chose to do that, would you choose to worship such a God?
We have a different sense of God. Any notion of God as pulling strings, a giant puppet master deciding when people will enjoy divine protection and when they won’t, was finally and decisively ended for us by the Holocaust.
I am not always certain where God is. But this week, I repeatedly found myself responding in an outpouring of spirit. I know some of us could not watch the television, but I have been drawn to it. Every scene of those volunteers sifting through the rubble was, I believe, the hands of God at work. What else is it that motivates people to do extraordinary acts of compassion, even when the prospects are so dim? A worker helps his disabled boss walk down 70 flights of stairs. Another stays behind with a man who had once helped him, refusing to leave him, though he could not make it out. God was not killed in that stairwell. God lived in that final moment of grace and compassion. And God lives in us, too.
God’s protection? What else is it about our humanity that leads us to reach out to others at the cost of our own lives? What is the source of the courage it took to overcome those hijackers and bring that flight down, before more lives were lost?
I don’t know what those people’s religious beliefs were, or are. But God’s presence is evident to me today in a way that I never believed we were capable of experiencing. If Jerry Falwell thinks that God is absent, that is sad, even pathetic. God does not punish or reward, or choose to let terrorists in because of our sins, or turn them away at the border if we have been good. But God renews in each of us the knowledge of what is good, the longing to exercise the greatest degree of humanity of which we are capable, the instinct to show affection to those closest to us and to heal the wounds of those farthest away. We will not allow the Godly in each of us to be defeated. Adonai, oz l’amo yitein: God, give strength to your people; Adonai yivarech et amo vashalom: God, this year, may you bless your people with peace.