Thursday, February 1, 2024

In This Moment: 110 Million Neighbors Looking for a Home; The "Great Replacement," Replacing Charlottesville with... Khan Younis?


In This Moment

This Friday at services, join us as we welcome

guests from Building One Community.

Click here for more details about our guest speaker, Ivonne Zucco of B1C

Born in tragedy, Refugee Shabbat honors our 110 million neighbors looking for a home

February 1, 2024

By Joshua Hammerman

(RNS) — This weekend (Feb. 2-4), as for the past six years, the immigrant aid organization HIAS and participating synagogues will observe Refugee Shabbat to reaffirm the Jewish value of welcoming and protecting the stranger. The event was born with a tinge of tragedy: The murderer who showed up to kill 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh was fixated on HIAS (founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and the inaugural Refugee Shabbat, in 2018.

This is all the more reason for us to embrace it. And this is also the right time to place the earth’s millions of wanderers at the top of our agenda. As a 2016 Pew analysis shows, since 2005 the world has witnessed an exponential rise in refugees, asylum-seekers and those internally displaced. 

In the years since Pew did that analysis, the number of displaced people has increased even more dramatically, to upward of 110 million people as of June 2023, or more than 1.2% of the world’s populationaccording to the U.N. Refugee Agency. As the chart below shows, there was an enormous spike in 2022, which doesn’t even take into account the massive internal displacement in Israel and Gaza since Oct. 7.

As we look around today, we see so many wandering far from home — those flocking to the United States’ southern border in record numbers; war refugees from Ukraine; people streaming from Venezuela, Myanmar, Sudan, Afghanistan and Syria.

Hundreds of millions are climate refugees, from Bangladesh to California. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, 3.2 million U.S. adults were displaced or evacuated due to natural disasters in 2022, of whom more than 500,000 had not returned by the beginning of 2023. And let’s not forget those in America who are housing-insecure for financial reasons, a number that has been on the rise since 2017. It’s not just in California or big cities.

Can this disturbing trend now be reversed? Perhaps it can, if these staggering numbers can help us to see this as a shared crisis, truly global and universal. Leaving home is a quintessential human experience. Even those currently at war with one another can relate, on some level, to those exhausted, bleary-eyed faces on the other side of the fence.

Recently, I’ve been packing up my home of 30 years, in preparation for my retirement. I’m making no comparison between my situation and those of refugees and asylum-seekers. I am not suffering, not in the least. But, living in a parsonage I do not own, I have to move, with all the associated feelings of displacement and disorientation, where down is up, here is there and things feel out of whack. Each decision becomes an existential dilemma. Do I save or discard my fourth-grade math homework? What about that grainy photo of my great-grandparents that my mother left when she died? And when I get to where I am going, will it feel like home? 

One can plausibly argue that the yearning for home is the strongest human impulse, an instinctive one. Whatever its basis, the restoration of “at-homeness” is a return to a sense of wholeness and balance.

It is heartbreaking to see images of destroyed and uprooted communities in Israel and Gaza: children ripped from their swings and seesaws, Jews from their synagogues and Muslims from their mosques, farmers from their greenhouses, and people from houses where they had lived for generations.

For Israelis and Palestinians alike, all the politics, all the fighting, all the turmoil comes back to one simple wish — to return home and be safe there, wherever home may be. Like many refugees from that region, I carry in my pocket every day the key from my childhood home that my parents sold 40 years ago.

Let me state clearly that the brutality of the Hamas pogrom of Oct. 7 stands alone in its cruelty. But the experience of displacement is a fate that people on all sides of this conflict now share. From that shared suffering might possibly arise some sympathy and goodwill.

The Book of Psalms is a remarkable collection of poems encompassing the full spectrum of life experience. Psalm 137 offers a GPS for dealing with displacement. It begins, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, we also wept, when we remembered Zion.”

This Psalm takes us on a journey from exile to restoration, from homelessness to the promise of return. It begins by those rivers, where tormentors forced the Jews to sing songs of their home. But singing those songs was just what they needed. For in doing so, they learned how to sing the songs of God on alien soil.

It’s not easy to do, but they did it. They set up entirely new institutions so that they would not forget Jerusalem. They called them synagogues. They set up Hebrew schools. They wrote down from memory all the stories and laws that had sustained them back home, all those things they took for granted all those centuries. They painted verbal pictures of what life was like back there in Jerusalem, so their children would not forget.

They collected all these stories and laws and customs into a single scroll, which they called the Torah. And these people came to be known by an entirely new name — not Israelites but Jews. And that Torah they wrote would begin with the Hebrew letter bet, the letter that means and physically depicts “home.”

All this happened by the rivers of Babylon. In the face of utter homelessness, they faced Jerusalem and held it up above their highest joy. Disregarding their sorry lot and defying their tormentors, they forged a new destiny. And then, the enemy was destroyed, and redemption was at hand.

Psalm 137 is truly a snapshot of a single moment of triumph in Jewish history. The triumph of memory. This psalm marks the moment when the home team learned how to win on the road.

Our planet is filled with people on the move. We have to learn how to survive on the go and then to help our neighbors survive — because our flooded shorelines, parched fields and heightened regional tensions over water and food supplies are only going to get worse. 

And we have to understand that despite our massive differences, all of us share an innate longing for home.

To read and share this article on the R.N.S. site, click here.

The "Great Replacement,"

Replacing Charlottesville with... Khan Younis?

At least someone in the Israeli government is doing some serious thinking about "the day after" the fighting in Gaza ends. Unfortunately, it's the right wing radicals, and they want to prove all the "Great Replacement Theory" conspiracists correct - not in Charlottesville, however, but in Khan Younis.

This week, a group of right wing radicals got together in Jerusalem to discuss things like ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and resettling Jews into the godforsaken strip of land that no one has wanted to control since Napoleon.  This is part of the far right's master plan that also includes the "encouragement" of Palestinian emigration from the West Bank, which President Biden took a huge swipe at today. It looks some Jews want to replace other people after all.

If this sounds shocking, giving all the pain this antisemitic - and false - theory has caused Jews over here, including acts of domestic terror and murder, then that explains why we should be so shocked that the Prime Minister of Israel hasn't shut down all talk of Gaza resettling and "encouraging" emigration. Thank God we have President Biden to stand up for Jewish values.

This plan is equal parts reckless and ridiculous. But let me address the part that I'm most qualified to address:

Gaza is not part of the Holy Land. It is primarily considered as being OUTSIDE of the land promised to our ancestors. Even if may have been tossed around in conquest conversations, it was never conquered. The proof that i was considered outside the territory is the rabbis allowed crops to be cultivated there during the Sabbatical years, when that was not allowed in the Land of Israel. Even if you believe that the West Bank cannot be relinquished because it is part of the ancient land of Israel (and I believe that it can be under certain conditions, because for God, human lives and peace are holier than land) - but even if you do feel that Hebron and Shechem are sacrosanct, when it comes to Gaza, the history is completely different. It is not part of the traditional land of Israel. it can't be gerrymandered in.

Here are some excerpts from a JTA explainer on the topic, which came out at the time of Ariel Sharon's controversial disengagement in 2005. Sharon's move was a security mistake in retrospect, because Hamas took over a year later and we see what happened, but it was justifiable at the time. Gaza was an unnecessary burden and never part of the plan, even for those pulling for a "Greater Israel." IDF soldiers were put at risk to guard a tiny minority of settlers living among 1.3 million Palestinians. And Sharon's gambit could have worked out differently if the Prime Minister for the better part of the two decades after his sudden demise - Netanyahu - didn't give Hamas free rein to freely rain missiles on Israel.

Here are excerpts from the backgrounder:

Samson is the only biblical Israelite noted for having set foot there. In the 17th century the false messiah Shabbatai Zevi gave the area a bad name when he launched his movement from its shores.

During biblical times, Gaza was part of the land promised to the Jews by God but never part of the land actually conquered and inhabited by them, said Nili Wazana, a lecturer on Bible studies and the history of the Jewish people at Hebrew University.

Wazana, who is currently writing a book on the borders of the biblical Land of Israel, said there are contradictory references to Gaza in the Bible. One passage in Judges — often cited by Jewish settlers and their supporters — says the tribe of Judah took control of the area. But other biblical stories contradict this — a pattern typical of the Bible, she said.

...The one period when Jews appeared to have sovereignty over Gaza was during the time of Hasmonean rule, when the Jewish King Yochanan — whose brother was Judah the Maccabee — captured the area in 145 C.E.

Haggai Huberman — who has written extensively on the history of Jewish settlement in Gaza over the centuries and is writing a history of the Jews in Gush Katif — maintains that the Jews who lived there always considered themselves residents of the Land of Israel.

He says that Jews have lived on and off in Gaza since the time of Roman rule, their settlement following a pattern of expulsion during times of war and conquest and return during more peaceful periods. The remains of an ancient synagogue found in Gaza date to around 508 C.E. Its mosaic floor, unearthed by archeologists, is now displayed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

There reportedly was a large Jewish community living in the area when the Muslims invaded in the seventh century. The Jews were noted for their skills as farmers and for making wine in their vast vineyards.

After the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, some Spanish and Portuguese Jews fled to Gaza. They abandoned the area when Napoleon’s army marched through but later returned in the early 1800s.

When the first wave of Zionist settlers arrived in the region at the end of the 19th century, a group of 50 families moved to Gaza City. According to Huberman, they established good relations with local Arabs.

The settlers stayed until they were expelled in 1914 — along with Gaza’s entire Arab population — by the Ottoman Turks during World War I. The Jews returned in 1920. But tensions simmered with Arab and Jewish nationalisms on the rise, and the relations with local Arabs began to sour, Huberman said.

The major Jewish presence in Gaza on the eve of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 was a kibbutz called Kfar Darom, set up in 1946. It was evacuated during the war and was among the first places to be resettled by Jews after 1967. Initially inhabited by Israeli soldiers from the Nahal brigade, it soon evolved into one of several civilian settlements established in the 1970s as the settler movement gained strength.

Wazana said present-day debates over territory mirror those in the Bible.

“Descriptions of borders reflect different ideologies even back then,” she said. “People have put words in the mouth of God even in biblical times. If you have an ideology, you will find the right words to support it.”

Some who argue that Gaza was not part of the biblical Land of Israel point to the fact that Orthodox Jews are allowed to consume produce grown in the Gaza Strip during shmita — the seventh, or sabbatical, year when fruits and vegetables are not to be cultivated in the Land of Israel, according to Jewish law.

But Kamietsky said it is permitted to grow produce in the Gaza Strip because even though it is every bit “as holy” as the rest of the Land of Israel, it was not an area settled during the Second Temple period, when Jews returned from exile in Babylon.

The logic of that last line is somewhat circular. If Jews didn't choose to live there during the Second Temple period, the last time Jews had sovereignty over the region, how could it be considered so holy? If the most famous Jewish residents of the strip were Samson, who died there and "brought the house down," and Shabbtai Tzvi, a 17th century heretic, along with Napoleon, this is hardly an all-star lineup. The great Jewish heroes have always lived on the outskirts of Gaza, in places like Yad Mordechai in 1948 and now, all those towns and kibbutzim attacked on Oct. 7.

Resettling Gaza makes no sense, unless your goal is to destroy all chances for coexistence and eventually a little bit of calm, if not peace. If Ben Gvir and his cronies have his way, any chance for a positive outcome, like Napoleon, will be "blown-apart."

To conclude, I leave you with these 18 biblical verses mentioning Gaza. This is all of them. Not exactly Jerusalem. It is a cursed land. Judge for yourself whether you would be rushing back in to settle that land like Ben Gvir.

The only replacement we should be supporting is the replacement of him, from the government.

Genesis 10:19 - Gaza is within the Canaanite border

Friday's Front Pages

Jerusalem Post


Yediot Ahronot

Sunrise in Nepal, photo taken by me on New Year's Day, 2018

Is Groundhog Day a Jewish Holiday?

For those who might be wondering if there is a Jewish connection to Groundhog Day...but of course. There's a Jewish connection to everything! Not that we are afraid to see our shadows -- I'm thinking of the other "Groundhog Day." The movie. 

The Jewish response to Groundhog Day can be seen in a single verse from the prayer book, one recited each morning just before the Sh'ma, in the Yotzer (Creation) section of the service: "Ha-mechadesh b'tuvo b'chol yom tamid ma'ase b'reisheet." In the midst of thanking God for the gift of light, we also express gratitude to the One who "renews each day completely the work of Creation." 

What is that saying? Not that we awaken each day to the same old nightmare, as Bill Murray did in the movie and we've done for the past four Covid years. How many times did you wake up and say, "Is this still happening?" (I did just this week - so much Covid out there again.)

Jewish tradition takes precisely the opposite approach. Every day presents us with a fresh start, as if all of Creation is being renewed along with us. With that fresh start comes a second chance, and a third chance too. We can keep trying until we get it right. And if we get it wrong again, as invariably we will, well, there's always tomorrow. The alarm rings and we make a go of it once again, 

A Jewish groundhog might indeed return to the hole if it sees a shadow. But it will be right back out there the next day, hoping the world will be a little bit better. And, as the Israeli song states, "V'im lo machar az machartayim," "And if not tomorrow, then the day after tomorrow."

Hebrew song "Machar" - "Tomorrow"

Harold Ramis, director of the film "Groundhog Day" (he also had a bit part), once compared his film to the Torah...sort of. He said, “One reason Jews respond to the idea is that the Torah is read every year — you start at the same place on the same day.” he said. “The Torah doesn’t change, but every year we read it we are different. Our lives have changed … and you find new meaning in it as we change.”

He laughed. “I’m not comparing ‘Groundhog Day’ to the Torah ... but there’s something in it that allows people every time they see it to reconsider where they are in life and question their own habitual behaviors.”

So Hag Samayach! And let's hope the groundhog sticks around for a while, to see the sun rise yet again, dawning on a new day.

Recommended Reading

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