This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on Oct. 21, 2023. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.
In the Genesis story, wicked violence pushes God over the edge to wipe out humanity. In my mind, that became the violence that Hamas inflicted upon Israelis in the towns near the Gaza border this month. Noah’s ark became a metaphor for the safe rooms that allowed a few of those targeted Israelis to escape the massacre. This season, we are reading the Torah thinking about life, death — and reckoning.
After the flood, God makes a promise: “Never again will I doom the earth because of humankind, since the devisings of the human mind are evil from youth.” (Genesis 8:21) The narrative assumes that humans will still act wickedly. But instead of God judging and punishing evil behavior, that responsibility will now fall on humans.
We get some specific instruction on the human responsibility to deal with violence in the very next chapter, where we learn that when someone takes another human life, a “reckoning” is required: “Whosoever sheds human blood, by human [hands] shall that one’s blood be shed; for in the image of God was humankind made.” While some rules in the Torah come with no rationale, this one is justified by a teaching: Humans are made in the image of God.
The context of the verse is important too. At the beginning of chapter 9, God instructs Noah and his sons to “be fertile and increase, and fill the earth.” To sustain themselves, humans are given plants and (most) animals to eat, provided they do not eat the “life-blood” in animal flesh. The Torah permits taking animal life to sustain human life, but killing a person is different because humans are made in the image of God. So when a human is killed, a reckoning must take place. If the taking of a single human life requires a reckoning, how much more so does the murder of 1,200?
There are tough questions now facing Israelis and the Jewish people. What constitutes a reckoning? How do we act morally, rooted in our values, as we carry that out? And can Jewish tradition guide us as we do?
Alongside the value of human beings created in the image of God, Jewish tradition offers other models of how our ancestors understood God’s instruction to reckon with wickedness. There’s the story of Jacob’s sons, Shimon and Levi, who massacred a whole town in response to their sister’s defilement. And there’s the Purim story, in which the Jews kill not only Haman and his sons, but 75,000 others. Yet these stories don’t feel up to the task of this moment because they don’t struggle with the moral challenges of being sovereign, of wielding power over others.
But there is a story from our texts that comes close, about a moment when the Israelites did wield power in the land. In the books of Joshua and 2 Samuel we find the story of the Gibeonites, a Canaanite people who lived alongside the Israelites for generations but were slaughtered by King Saul. Years later, when David was king, the Israelites faced an extended famine, and when David inquired of God, he was told that it was a result of the injustice inflicted upon the Gibeonites. David is then faced with the daunting task of making restitution with the few surviving Gibeonites in order to save his people.
This is a story worthy of our present moment. While the text doesn’t tell us what precipitated Saul’s slaughter of the Gibeonites, the killing was evidently so unjust that it became a moral blot on the Israelites that spanned a generation. An act of injustice now can trigger another crisis later.
The challenge of this moment is to hold on to our values and moral commitments as we fight those who would destroy us — and only those who would destroy us. As my colleague and teacher Yossi Klein Halevi recently wrote, “Fighting evil does not mean a suspension of moral ground rules; the opposite is true. One must be careful not to become tainted by the evil you are fighting, for both practical and spiritual reasons.”
Wielding power is, by definition, morally fraught. The lesson of the Gibeonites is that if we lose our moral compass during this reckoning, we will pay the price — by the hand of the next generation of our enemies, by the international community, or by our own spiritual decay. And yet, a reckoning is still required. It may not be possible to be morally pure in war time, but it is possible to be morally grounded. This is the challenge for Israelis, and for the Jewish people who love them and support them, in this moment.
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Julie Platt, chair of Jewish federations group, is helming Penn’s board amid leadership transition
(JTA) — To steer the university through an unexpected leadership change induced by debate over antisemitism, the board of the University of Pennsylvania turned to their vice chair — who is also one of the most prominent Jewish communal leaders in the country.
Julie Beren Platt, a 1979 Penn graduate, has been on the Penn board of trustees since 2006 and recently started her second stint as vice chair, making her a natural fit to step up when chair Scott Bok resigned from the management body on Saturday, following the resignation of the university’s president, Liz Magill.
Platt is also the chair of Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella of 146 local Jewish communal bodies that has collected more than $700 million — and allocated more than $240 — to drive the American Jewish philanthropic response to the Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Platt cited that commitment in emphasizing that her leadership of Penn’s board would last for a short period: She said she will step down in January when a permanent chair is selected.
Platt’s dual roles mean that she has been on the front lines in two of the most prominent organizations reshaped by the Oct. 7 attack and its aftermath. It also suggests, as she acknowledged in a statement, that even the presence of a seasoned Jewish leader in a senior university board position is not sufficient to address antisemitism on college campuses right now.
“I have worked hard from the inside to address the rising issues of antisemitism on campus. Unfortunately, we have not made all the progress that we should have and intend to accomplish,” Platt said in a statement issued by JFNA, adding, “I will continue as a board member of the university to use my knowledge and experience of Jewish life in North America and at Penn to accelerate this critical work.”
A JFNA spokesperson declined to elaborate on how she will balance the two roles.
Platt, 66, is the daughter of Robert Beren, the Kansas City oil magnate and Jewish philanthropist who died in August at 97. She is also the mother of five children — four of them Penn graduates — including the Broadway actor Ben Platt and Jonah Platt, a musician who also sits on the board of 70 Faces Media, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s parent company.
Previously the chair of the Los Angeles federation and the Foundation for Jewish Camp, Platt also chairs a foundation named for her and her husband, Hollywood producer Marc Platt, and has been involved in an array of Jewish educational initiatives.
She became the second woman to helm JFNA’s board last year, assuming leadership of the fundraising organization at a crucial time. The organization has distributed hundreds of millions to groups providing emergency aid in Israel since Oct. 7. The group has also supported local Jewish communities in the United States in strengthening their own response to antisemitism through an initiative, LiveSecure, created in 2021, that Platt was instrumental in launching.
“We are leading the largest mobilization in our history in support of Israel’s right to protect its citizens and against the rise of antisemitism in North America, including staging the largest Jewish rally in American history on the National Mall,” Platt said in her statement. “We will continue this fight with all our energy.”
Penn was already grappling with a crisis related to antisemitism in the weeks prior to Oct. 7, as a festival featuring Palestinian writers drew criticism. Platt and Bok had issued a statement of confidence in Liz Magill, Penn’s president, in the wake of that crisis and in the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7, even as some criticized the school’s initially response as tepid.
But last week, Magill was one of three college presidents who declined during a congressional hearing to say that the genocide of Jews would violate their schools’ codes of conduct. Her testimony drew criticism from Pennsylvania’s Jewish governor, Josh Shapiro, and even the White House.
Platt said in a statement that she believed Magill had fallen short in the hearing. “In my view, given the opportunity to choose between right and wrong, the three university presidents testifying in the United States House of Representatives failed,” she said. “The leadership change at the university was therefore necessary and appropriate.”
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Thousands of Jews and non-Jews rally against antisemitism in Berlin
BERLIN (JTA) – Several thousand Berliners braved a chilling rain Sunday to demonstrate against antisemitism at an interfaith rally at the city’s iconic Brandenburg Gate.
The event — which drew a broad coalition of politicians and religious leaders as well as popular stars — was a response to a record increase in reported antisemitic incidents across Germany in the month after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7.
Dubbed “Never again is now — Germany stands up,” the rally was organized by a Jewish real estate magnate, Nicolai Schwarzer.
In announcing the event, Schwarzer, 48, said he wanted “to send a powerful and unmistakable signal to the world — from the heart of the capital — that no form of antisemitism, hatred or xenophobia will be tolerated in Berlin or anywhere else in Germany.”
The rally joins several others organized in major cities in Europe and the United States to demonstrate opposition to antisemitism. They have been organized in part as a counterpoint to the large pro-Palestinian rallies that have taken place in many of those cities. Such rallies have been relatively muted and heavily monitored by police in Germany, where antisemitic speech and criticism of Israel are circumscribed by laws enacted in part because of the country’s role in perpetrating the Holocaust. Still, pro-Palestinian sentiment, including among Germany’s large immigrant population, is high.
“Sometimes I don’t recognize this country, something has gone out of control,” Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said at the rally.
He described a pro-Hamas protest that took place at Berlin’s University of the Arts on Nov. 13, where he said participants “dressed in black to look like Hamas terrorists. They had painted their hands red — a clear reference to the murder of two Israeli soldiers by an Islamist mob in Gaza more than 20 years ago. The whole thing was orchestrated by visiting professors from the global south – how can that be?” Schuster said the incident was proof of the danger of the movement to boycott Israel, which has been considered officially antisemitic in Germany since 2018.
Bärbel Bas, the president of Germany’s parliament, read through a litany of antisemitic incidents: “Swastikas and Stars of David have been daubed on synagogues, memorials and even private homes.” In one notable incident on Oct. 18, two Molotov cocktails were thrown at a Jewish community center that houses a synagogue as well as a kindergarten.
Bas described hearing from a student who was the only child to attend class at her Jewish school on a day when fear reigned about a Hamas call for violence abroad.
“Jews are afraid, and they feel left alone. And it’s not only hate that creates this feeling, but also silence and indifference,” she said. “And that’s why it’s important that we make a powerful, wipeable and loud statement here today. Never again is now.”
Other speakers included Israel’s ambassador to Germany, Ron Prosor; Berlin’s mayor, Kai Wegner; author Michel Friedman; 1990s pop music icon Herbert Grönemeyer; and Hubertus Heil, Germany’s minister of labor and social affairs.
The rally began with the lighting of a Hanukkah menorah by Rabbi Yehudah Teichtal, the head of Berlin’s chapter of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Representatives of Catholic and Protestant churches lit advent candles.
Eren Güvercin, a member of the German Islam Conference — which the German government started as a forum for dialogue in 2006 — delivered a prayer of his own, for “peace for the souls” of the Israelis murdered on Oct. 7 and for the hostages and their families, “who fear for their loved ones.”
“And we pray for peace for the people who are now suffering the consequences of this terrorist organization’s crimes in Gaza,” he added. “Nothing we say here today will solve the Middle East conflict. But we raise our voices to remind everyone who lives together here in this city, in this country: Faith is a source from which we draw to create peace. Faith must not divide us. It must unite us.”
Organizers claimed 11,000 people had taken part in the rally, though police estimated the attendance at 3,000. Those gathered were praised by many speakers for braving the weather to show their support. They included members of Berlin’s Jewish community, estimated at over 30,000, as well as non-Jewish allies.
“This is the third time we have been here in front of the Brandenburg Gate since Oct. 7,” said Berliner Melanie Schmergal, 55. “It upsets me that you don’t see any big demonstrations for Israel’s right to exist and against antisemitism. You see other people screaming quite a bit. [But] I believe… that the others are not in the majority.”
“It is important to take a stand against any kind of extremism,” said Christian Götz, 60. “And that Israel has a right to defend itself, and that we as a population have to show, especially here in Berlin, that we are on Israel’s side.”
The pair, who are not Jewish, said they had met the descendants of Jews who used to live in their building in Berlin, and who were either deported or managed to flee Nazi Germany.
“It’s so incredible that something like this seems possible again,” Schmergal said.
On Dec. 8, the Bergen-Belsen Memorial in Lower Saxony hosted a public panel discussion marking 75 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, specifically addressing the issue of antisemitism after the Hamas terrorist attack.
Next week, the Berlin-based Tikvah Institute is co-hosting the presentation of a study on how Russian-speaking Jews in Germany perceive antisemitism after Oct. 7. About 90% of all Jews in Germany today are migrants from the former Soviet Union.
And though not in Germany, the annual Claims Conference International Holocaust Survivors Night on Dec. 11 — a star-studded event whose virtual guests of honor will include German Chancellor Olaf Scholz — “takes on unique significance,” said the organization’s president, Gideon Taylor: “We are reminded that some of the strongest among us survived during the darkest of times.”
Despite the alarming statistics in Germany and elsewhere, Jews are in a better position today in terms of world support than they were in the 1930s-40s, said New Yorker Menachem Rosensaft, who was born at the displaced persons camp at Bergen-Belsen and participated in the recent round table at the memorial.
“President Biden, for one, is the polar opposite of FDR in his unequivocal support for Israel after Oct. 7 and his equally unequivocal repudiation and condemnation of all manifestations of antisemitism,” said Rosensaft, who is also the chair of the Advisory Board of the Lower Saxony Memorials Foundation.
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Jews don’t count, but do we want to? Phoebe Maltz Bovy on why the Ivy League antisemitism hearings (sort of) matter
Someone clue me in: What’s a “Harvard”? There is but one university in North America that anyone cares about, to the point that if someone at it has a hangnail, it’s front-page news. Only one that gets the euphemistic treatment: I went to school in the Boston area, as though if the H-word were uttered […]