Purim is coming! Over the past several weeks, our amazing teen Purim Shpielers have been rehearsing their “Encanto”- themed Purim shpiel under the direction of Cantor Sacks. This past week we have been dressing up in costume, tasting Hamentaschen, marching in our Foster Early Learning Center Purim parade, preparing for this weekend’s Purim Carnival and having a lot of fun in the process. But, in addition to all of the fun and excitement that Purim represents, it also has a darker, historical association.
On 25 February 1994 – Purim Day, Baruch Goldstein, a resident of the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba near Hebron, entered a room in the Cave of the Patriarchs that served as a mosque. Dressed in an Israeli military uniform, he opened fire on the 800 Palestinian Muslim worshippers praying during the month of Ramadan, killing 29 and wounding 125 worshippers, until he was beaten to death by survivors.
Putting this in context, the year that this atrocity happened, 1994, was an extremely difficult time in Israel. The great hope for peace that the 1993 Oslo Accords represented was met with skepticism, resistance, and violence from many sides. Both Jewish and Palestinian extremists condemned the Accords for what they believed was abandoning key, existential assumptions about both Israel and Palestine. Those on the Far Right of the Israeli political and religious camps felt that Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin’s attempts to negotiate with Yassir Arafat’s PLO was akin to appeasement of terrorists. The Far Right on the Palestinian side echoed similar sentiments – claiming that any form of negotiation with Jews was an abomination. This all took place between the First and Second Intifada – a time of great violence, with many bombings and attacks on Jewish targets and subsequent reprisals by the Israeli military.
One year after Goldstein’s massacre in Hebron, Rabin was himself murdered by a far-right Jewish terrorist named Yigal Amir during a peace rally in Tel Aviv.
It is important to understand that both Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir were followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahana – the founder of the radical US-based organization, The Jewish Defense League (JDL) and leader of the “Kach” political party in Israel that advocated for violent resistance to any form of negotiation or compromise with the Palestinian people. Kach was believed to be so far out of the mainstream that it was banned in 1992 due to its overt racism and calls for violence.
Rabbi Kahane preached that one of the main purposes of the Jewish people was to destroy Amalek, the biblical tribe that attacked the Israelites while in the desert and continued through each generation to try and destroy the Jews. Amalek represents the most reprehensible behavior possible, the most immoral violence, the act of vultures who prey on the weak.
This Shabbat before Purim, is known as Shabbat Zachor – the Shabbat of Remembrance. Traditionally, in addition to our weekly torah portion, Tetzaveh, we also read a passage from the book of Deuteronomy, 25:17-19
17. Remember what Amalek did to you by the way, when you came forth out of Egypt;
18. How he met you by the way, and struck at your rear, all who were feeble behind you, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God.
19. Therefore it shall be, when Adonai, your God has given you rest from all your enemies around, in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget it.
Tonight, as we prepare for Purim, we also need to understand that the legacy of Amalek – our arch enemy – lives on not only in the external forces who are seeking our people’s destruction, but also, to my great sorrow, within the Jewish people itself.
I’m sure that many of you have been following the news about recent events taking place in Israel. The current Government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu, is the most extreme far right coalition ever assembled in the Jewish State.
One prime example is that of Itamar Ben G’vir - Minister of National Security in the Netanyahu Government. Ben G’vir is an unabashed Kahanist. Until two years ago, he had a picture of Baruch Goldstein hanging in his home – a shrine to a terrorist, bigot, and murderer.
This past week, tensions in Israel and the West Bank have exploded. Following the brutal murderous attack on two Israeli Jews outside of the West Bank, Palestinian Village of Huwara, a large gang of Far-Right Jews from the Settler movement rampaged through Huwara – torching buildings, burning cars and beating innocent civilians. Israeli security forces, for the most part, stayed back and allowed this to happen. This action was reminiscent of the pogroms in Eastern Europe that cause many of our ancestors to flee their homes and emigrate to what was then called Palestine, the United States and other countries. The fact that the originators of these pogroms in the territories are themselves Jews is horrific.
Another member of Netanyahu’s cabinet, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich declared, in the aftermath of the Huwara Massacre, that the village should be “wiped out” following the attack on Israeli settlers. Smotrich is well-known to Israeli security forces and was accused of inciting hate against the Arab citizens of the State of Israel. In 2021, he told Arab Israeli lawmakers in that "it's a mistake that Ben Gurion didn't finish the job and didn't throw you out in 1948!"
In 2005, Smotrich was arrested for being in possession of 700 litres of Gasoline and suspected of participating in an attempt to blow up the Ayalon Highway – the largest arterial road in Israel.
Smotrich is also virulently opposed to the LGBTQ community in Israel and is on record for stating that Gay Pride parades are “worse than Bestiality.” In 2006 he organized a “Beast Pride” parade in Jerusalem as a protest against the gay community.
The Netanyahu Government is currently attempting to fast-track legislation that will effectively neutralize Israel’s Supreme Court – the only check and balance to the far-Right, racist, homophobic and ultra-orthodox government.
This is a frightening development. Israel’s critics have long accused it of being an Apartheid State. The enemies of Israel have used propaganda to create a narrative that casts the plight of the Palestinians as victims of an oppressive, racist and hateful regime – ignoring the fact that the Palestinians daily victimized, not only by Israel, but by their corrupt leadership and the dangerous currents of radical Islam represented by Hamas and the Iranian-backed terror movements who manipulate and rejoice in Palestinian suffering as a means of gaining world sympathy for their anti-Zionist and Anti-Semitic goals.
And if this wasn’t bad enough, the current Government is also determined to erase any gains made by liberal Jewish movements – such as our own – around the areas of Conversion, Immigration, funding for Progressive Jewish Institutions and support for minority communities in Israel. The anger, fear and despair that many leaders of the American Jewish Community are feeling at this time of crisis is palpable. Even Abe Foxman – the long-time head of the ADL and stalwart supporter of Israel has been quoted as saying that if Israel continues down this path, he will have to reconsider his support.
As we can see, the echoes of Amalek that we are currently seeing in Israel come not only from the outside – those who would seek our destruction – but also from within. The extremist efforts to undermine Israel’s democracy could have a chilling effect on the future of the Jewish State.
Fortunately, not everything we see from Israel is depressing. Over the past several weeks, 100’s of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to protest the new government and its agenda. American Jewish leadership – from multiple movements - has publicly appealed to Netanyahu to restrain his government from its extremist positions. The cries for Democracy in the face of fascism are daily growing.
I also recently read about an Orthodox Jew and Israeli left-wing political activist, Yair Fink, a former Labor Party candidate, who has launched a crowdfunding campaign for the residents of Huwara. As of this writing, he has raised more than $400,000, with the sum still growing. In his fundraising appeal, Fink mourned the murder of the brothers, Hillel and Yigal Yaniv, whose death was the supposed cause of the massacre and then wrote: “Even in our place of deep rage and sorrow, we must never lose our humanity. That is not our Judaism.”
As many of you know, this April, I will be travelling to Israel as a delegate and representative of the World Union For Progressive Judaism at a special Zionist Congress that has been convened to celebrate Israel’s 75th anniversary. My goal in attending is not to support the current government, but to lend a voice to world Jewish concern about the direction that the State of Israel is heading.
I believe strongly that it is vital to raise our voices in protest when we feel that the current government is acting in a way that is not only counter to Jewish Values – but also endangers the entire Zionist enterprise.
To those who would abandon Israel at this difficult time, I say – would you abandon a parent, child or sibling who has lost their way? This is a time when Israel needs us more than ever – to be a moderating factor; to shine a light against forces of darkness from within that endanger its very soul? This does not mean that we should be silent, however.
This June, Cantor Sacks and I will be leading a Trip to Israel with over 67 members of our community. While there, we will be celebrating the B’nai mitzvah of several of our young people and rejoicing together as families and community. We also will be able to see what is unfolding in real time and sharing our love and concern while we are there.
This Sunday night, we will be celebrating the festival of Purim. Our rabbis teach that there is much more to Purim than simply masks and hamantaschen. When we read the megillah of Esther, we find that it is the only book in the Bible where God is absent. God plays no role in the unfolding of the story. And yet, we also know that in places where God’s presence is not felt, it is our responsibility to do all that we can to bring our own holiness and awareness of the Divine to the surface. Purim teaches us that our enemies will never disappear – but as long as we work to find God’s presence into the world, we will succeed.
Ken Yehi Ratzon