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Parshat Shekalim: None of Us Can Be Bystanders

A Torah scroll. Photo:

There is a timeless Jewish folklore legend, often set in the quaint, mythical town of Chelm, renowned for its endearing tales of simplicity and wit. The story always elicits a wry smile but also imparts a timeless lesson regarding the essence of community and the significance of each individual’s contribution.

One day, the residents of Chelm decided they were going to celebrate a great communal occasion, and that each household should contribute a bottle of wine that would be poured into a collective barrel. The barrel would then provide a blend of the town’s finest vintages for all to enjoy on the great day.

The local beadle was charged with taking the barrel from home to home, where each family poured their bottle of wine into the barrel, so that on the festive day, everyone would benefit from the full selection of wines from across the community.

Finally, the day of the celebration arrived, and, with great excitement, the community president was given the honor of opening the spigot into the first glass of wine. Imagine his surprise — and everyone else’s — when the liquid that emerged was crystal clear. The president took a sip, and lo and behold — it was water.

Apparently, each contributor to the wine appeal had reasoned that if they substituted water for wine, among all the other contributions, who would notice? The result was a barrel of water — and great disappointment.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “The greatest folly in a community effort is the illusion that someone else will do it.” His pithy observation was thoroughly underscored in 1968 by a seminal study conducted by John M. Darley, a professor of psychology at Princeton, and Bibb Latané, a prominent social psychologist at Columbia.

The study focused on a phenomenon they defined as the “bystander effect,” where individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. Critically, the lesser the number of bystanders, the more likely any one of them is to help.

Darley and Latané conceived the study after the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was stabbed to death outside her apartment in New York City. Reports claimed that numerous witnesses did nothing to intervene or contact the police. The researchers sought to understand why the witnesses failed to act, hypothesizing that the presence of others can lead to a diffusion of responsibility, with each bystander feeling less pressure to respond due to the assumption that someone else will do so.

To test their hypothesis, Darley and Latané conducted a series of experiments. One of the most notable involved participants being placed in a room alone or with others, who were actually confederates of the researchers and not real participants.

During the experiment, participants overheard what seemed to be a real emergency: for example, a person having a seizure in an adjacent room. The key measure was whether participants would leave the room to try and get help, and how quickly they would do so.

The findings were striking. Participants were significantly less likely to help when they believed that others were also aware of the seizure. If they were alone, 85% of participants went for help, compared to only 31% when they believed that there were four other witnesses.

This compelling evidence of the “bystander effect” demonstrated how the presence of others inhibits people from taking action in emergency situations.

This Saturday, in synagogues across the world, we will hear Parshat Shekalim, recalling the time in Jewish history when every adult Jew gave a half-shekel donation towards the upkeep of the Temple in Jerusalem. This passage from Exodus (30:11-16) describes God’s commandment to Moses to take a census of the Israelite men over the age of 20 by having each one give a half shekel of silver.

It has always struck me as odd that each person was expected to give the same amount, notwithstanding their economic circumstances. But perhaps this was God’s way of ensuring that the “bystander effect” never gained traction among the Jewish people.

By mandating the same amount from everyone, the Torah emphasizes a revolutionary concept: not just the equal worth of every individual’s contribution to communal life but the importance of everyone’s involvement in society, not just letting others do the work while you stand on the sidelines.

This message of half-shekel uniformity is that no one’s offering is deemed less significant because of its monetary value. It is a statement that every person, regardless of their economic status, has an invaluable role to play in the community’s well-being and sanctity. This inclusivity fosters a sense of belonging and significance among all members, reinforcing the idea that collective strength is derived from the unity and commitment of its individuals. No one can ever afford to be a bystander, and no community can afford to have bystanders.

The equality of everyone’s contribution also serves as a reminder that in the eyes of God, the intentions and heartfelt commitment behind an act of giving are as important, if not more so, than the gift itself. This perspective is an inspiration for a community where values like compassion, empathy, and collective responsibility are paramount, creating an environment where everyone’s participation is not only valued but seen as essential to the communal fabric.

This concept of valued contributions extends beyond financial giving to encompass the diverse talents, time, and energy that individuals bring to their communities. Just as the half-shekel symbolizes financial equivalence, the broader application of this principle recognizes the unique contributions each person can make, whether it be in the form of volunteer work, sharing knowledge, or offering moral support. In recognizing and valuing these varied forms of contribution, the community is enriched and strengthened in multiple ways.

In the wake of the harrowing events of October 7th, a profound and stirring example of the principles embodied in Parshat Shekalim and the psychological insights into the bystander effect has unfolded across Israel and the Jewish world. Amidst the devastation and heartbreak, a remarkable array of individual contributions has emerged, which has been a wellspring of strength for us all.

In this time of unparalleled challenges, each person has stepped forward, offering their “half shekel” — not in the form of silver, but through acts of kindness, solidarity, and support, tirelessly working to alleviate the pain and to address the multitude of challenges that have arisen. This collective endeavor, where no act of giving has been deemed too small and no offer of help too insignificant, reflects the very essence of communal resilience and unity. It is the anti-bystander effect phenomenon.

What Parshat Shekalim has taught us — and clearly, it is deeply embedded in our Jewish psyche — is that none of us are bystanders. And this is a principle that guides us, animates us, and ultimately helps us get through a crisis so that we get to see better times.

The author is a rabbi in Beverly Hills, California.

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Iran’s ‘Supreme Leader’ Welcomes Anti-Israel Campus Protesters to ‘Resistance Front’

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a televised speech in Tehran, Iran. Photo: Official Khamenei Website/Handout via REUTERS

Iran’s so-called “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, applauded the anti-Israel protesters who have thrown university campuses across the US into chaos over the past several weeks, declaring them part of a new “branch of the Resistance Front” against the Jewish state.

“Dear university students in the United States of America, this message is an expression of our empathy and solidarity with you,” Khamenei wrote in an open letter published on Thursday. “As the page of history is turning, you are standing on the right side of it.”

Rehashing antisemitic conspiracies of Jewish control, he derided “the global Zionist elite” for speaking against the campus demonstrations.

“The global Zionist elite — who owns most US and European media corporations or influences them through funding and bribery — has labeled this courageous, humane resistance movement as ‘terrorism,’” Khamenei wrote. “You have now formed a branch of the Resistance Front and have begun an honorable struggle in the face of your government’s ruthless pressure — a government which openly supports the usurper and brutal Zionist regime.”

Khamenei also praised students in other countries who have launched anti-Israel demonstrations on campuses, noting the leading role that faculty have played in fostering and supporting the unrest.

“Besides you students from dozens of American universities, there have also been uprisings in others countries among academics and the general public,” he wrote. “The support and solidarity of your professors is a significant and consequential development. This can offer some measure of comfort in the face of your government’s police brutality and the pressures it is exerting on you. I too am among those who empathize with you young people, and value your perseverance.”

Khamenei’s letter came amid an outpouring of praise for the anti-Zionist students by Islamist terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda.

“While we support the assassination of the infidel Zionists and the beheading of them, we also appreciate and value the movement of Western demonstrators and sit-in students from Western universities, who through their sit-ins and protests expressed their rejection of the genocide taking place in Gaza,” al-Qaeda leadership wrote in a recent communique

Hamas and Hezbollah, both backed by Iran, have also cheered the protests.

“Today’s students are the leaders of the future, and their suppression today means an expensive electoral bill that the Biden administration will pay sooner or later,” Hamas official Izzat Al-Risheq said in a statement last month.

Naim Qassem, the deputy head of Hezbollah, also praised the protesters during an interview with Al-Manar TV earlier this month.

“We appreciate and value this very much. Perhaps in the future, there will be cooperation among the youth of the world — in America, France, Britain, Germany, and all the activists,” he said. “The [campus protests] are important, especially because they will have an impact on US elections. They will have an impact on the American position.”

Earlier this month, when some universities suspended students who had occupied sections of campus and refused to leave unless school officials agreed to condemn and boycott Israel, the Iran-backed Houthi militia, a terrorist organization that has repeatedly violated freedom of the seas by attacking international shipping vessels passing through the Red Sea, offered to admit the disciplined students as transfers to Sanaa University, an institution it administers.

Some anti-Zionist student groups have reciprocated the admiration.

Last week, Columbia University’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) endorsed Hamas, the latest sign of its growing extremism and willingness to embrace Islamic extremism and antisemitism.

“The Palestinian resistance is the only force materially fighting back against isr*el [sic],” the group said in a series of posts shared by Documenting Jew Hatred on Campus, a social media account which exposes antisemitism on college campuses. “There is no way to eliminate the resistance without ending the occupation. When you see a video of a young palestinian [sic] boy traumatized in a hospital talking about how iof [the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF] shot his pregnant mother in cold blood in front of his own eyes, do not question how he chooses to resist years later.”

Campus Reform, a higher education watchdog which first reported Documenting Jew Hatred on Campus’ posts, noted that Columbia SJP has added an “inverted red triangle” to its social media biography, further indicating its support for Hamas. The Palestinian terrorist group has used an inverted red triangle in its propaganda videos to indicate an Israeli target about to be attacked, and anti-Israel protesters on university campuses have been using the symbol in their demonstrations.

Columbia SJP, a group that has re-formed under multiple names since being suspended by school administrators during the fall semester, was central in staging a slew of riotous demonstrations in which anti-Zionist activists verbally assaulted Jewish students with antisemitic epithets, clamorously expressed support for terrorism and Hamas, and caused thousands of dollars in damages to school property.

The anti-Zionist student movement’s support for terrorism and anti-American ideologies has been expressed before.

Footage of the protests which erupted on college campuses at the end of spring semester showed demonstrators chanting in support of Hamas and calling for the destruction of Israel. In many cases, they lambasted the US and Western civilization more broadly.

“Yes, we’re all Hamas, pig!” one protester was filmed screaming during the fracas at Columbia University, which saw some verbal skirmishes between pro-Zionist and anti-Zionist partisans. “Long live Hamas!” said others who filmed themselves dancing and praising the al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Hamas terrorist organization. “Kill another solider!”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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Advocacy Group Attempts to Shore Up Support for Israel Among US Democrats

US President Joe Biden addresses rising levels of antisemitism, during a speech at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Annual Days of Remembrance ceremony, at the US Capitol building in Washington, DC, US, May 7, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

A pro-Israel advocacy group is attempting to quell fears among US Democratic politicians that expressing support for the Jewish state amid the ongoing war in Gaza will lead to electoral defeat in November. 

Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), a group that advocates for pro-Israel policies within the Democratic Party, circulated a memo this week explaining that the war in Gaza is simply not a top priority for most of the electorate. The memo, first acquired by Axios news website, asserts that “it just isn’t true” that Democratic support for Israel will come at an electoral cost. 

The group argues that a series of misleading polls has caused Democratic elected officials to become more tepid in their support for the Jewish state. 

To bolster its claims, DMFI points to a poll conducted by the New York Times in May which revealed that only 2 percent of voters cite Israel, Palestinians, Hamas, or Gaza as their most important issue. Nonetheless, the Times tried to exaggerate the extent to which voters care about the Israel-Hamas war by highlighting the 5 percent of voters who cite foreign policy as their biggest issue, according to DMFI. However, these 5 percent of voters did not identify if the war in Gaza is their major foreign policy concern.

The group also points out a Harvard-Harris poll from April which showed that Americans overwhelmingly side with Israel in its ongoing war effort. Eighty percent of Americans support Israel and only 20 percent back Hamas, the poll revealed.

DMFI also suggests that Israel’s ongoing military offensive against Hamas has not had a noticeable impact on President Joe Biden’s national standing. According to polling data aggregated by FiveThirtyEight, the president’s approval rating on Oct. 7of last year stood at 39.6 percent, and on April 23 last month, his approval stood at 40 percent. The same poll reveals that presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s lead over Joe Biden did not grow over the same time period. 

DMFI president Mark Mellman told Axios that anti-Israel activists represent a small fringe of the American electorate. 

“People sometimes mistake volume for percentage, and the fact that some people are very loud doesn’t make them the majority. … It doesn’t even make them a substantial minority,” Mellman said.

The group’s efforts to reach out to Democrats come on the heels of a high-pressure effort by left-wing groups to force the Democratic establishment to stop supporting Israel. Anti-Israel organizations have organized efforts to encourage voters in Democratic primaries to vote “uncommitted” in lieu of voting for Biden. Moreover, nearly every appearance by Biden in recent months has been marked by the presence of scores of angry anti-Israel protesters

The relationship between Democratic politicians and the Jewish state has significantly soured in the months following Hamas’ Oct. 7 slaughter of over 1,200 people in southern Israel. High-profile Democrats such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA) have suggested that Israel is committing “genocide” against Palestinian civilians.

Meanwhile, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (CA) signed onto a letter urging Biden to pause weapons shipments to Israel. Biden vowed to stop arms deliveries to Israel if the Israeli army attempts to dismantle the remaining Hamas battalions within the city of Rafah in southern Gaza, expressing concern about the prospect of civilian casualties during such an offensive.

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Hate crimes in Toronto are predominantly antisemitic—and the numbers continue to rise: TPS security and intelligence commander

Antisemitic hate crimes continue to account for more than any other category of reported hate crimes in Toronto, according to the head of Toronto police intelligence. Superintendent Katherine Stephenson of Toronto Police Service (TPS) confirmed the ongoing spike in hate occurrences during a presentation at Holy Blossom Temple on May 29, where she addressed 350 […]

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