Virtual Talmud

I’m not going to waste words here on why Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s revolting remarks on Israel and the Holocaust are both patently false and deeply offensive, and to its credit the world community has largely stepped in to say the same. But, as a friend of mine remarked, “He may be crazy but he’s no joke.” I think there is a lot of wisdom in that comment.

From a geo-political standpoint, we know that Iran is resuming its nuclear program in defiance of U.N. orders, and it certainly appears like the goal is to develop a nuclear weapon. As if that weren’t enough cause for grave concern, his regime is contributing to instability in the Middle East by actively meddling in Iraqi politics and promoting the Sunni-led insurgency in Southern Iraq.

“He may be crazy but he’s no joke”: It’s important to remember that many threats are allowed to take root precisely because no one took them seriously enough to deal with them when it was still possible to contain them (Hitler making hate speeches in beer halls in Munich comes to mind. More ominously, Hitler invading Poland also comes to mind.)

But dismissing Ahmadinejad is dangerous to the world on more than a geo-political level. It is also dangerous on a moral level. For when remarks viciously denying the Holocaust go unchecked, our common humanity is diminished as we turn away from or ignore those darker impulses of humanity that can give rise to genocide and the inconceivable mistreatment of fellow human beings. These impulses are not ancient history, or even 60-year-old history. They are being tragically played out today in Darfur, as they were in Rwanda, as they were in Bosnia, as they were in Cambodia, as they were…. The list is far too long for us to deny the very real evil people can do to one another, and failing to confront Holocaust deniers does exactly that: by failing to stand up for human suffering and against the large-scale bloodshed of innocent millions, we desensitize ourselves to similar atrocities when they take place around us. It is not only the Holocaust survivors themselves who are violated as their reality is denied; it is all of us.

The symbol of evil in Jewish thought is the nation of Amalek, which attacked the Israelites from behind in cowardly fashion as they left Egypt, according to the Book of Exodus. In response, we are commanded to destroy Amalek wherever we may encounter him. But the manner in which we are to do this is uniquely Jewish: We are to remember. In the Book of Deuteronomy, we are enjoined: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way, when you were faint and weary, and struck down all who lagged behind you; he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies on every hand, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget.” (25:17-19)

In other words, our weapon in the face of evil is memory. It is a powerful weapon, because it is the opposite of that more comfortable and familiar impulse to look away, to ignore, to forget, to deny. In being called to remember, Jews–and all people–are called on not merely to passively recall, but to remember through action, to take a stand against those evils being perpetrated in our own time until we can all finally say together in one voice, “Never Again.”

They are easy to miss. They are displayed way above eye level in a corridor that one passes through from one exhibit to another. Interactive booths with seats line the walls, attracting everyone’s attention down instead of up. Perhaps the designers of the United States Holocaust Museum planned it this way to make a point about how easy it is to ignore the “writing on the wall.”

In this case, the writing literally on the walls are the front pages of newspapers from the 1930s and 40s reporting on Hitler’s plans to exterminate the Jewish people. What these newspapers tell us is that the Holocaust was not inevitable. It happened not because Hitler was a maniac; not because German culture was authoritarian; not because centuries of Christian anti-Judaism gave power to Hitler’s anti-Semitic claims. The Holocaust happened because otherwise good people and the nations they lived in let it happen.

Will they let it happen again?

That is the specter raised by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent statement that Israel should be wiped off the map. He clearly has the will and the motive, and may soon have the physical nuclear capability to make his threat real.

His statement is the most recent reminder of the special role Jews play in the world.

It used to be that when miners descended into the earth to dig, they took with them a canary. If the canary died, they knew that they had to get out of there because the air had turned deadly.

We Jews are the canaries of the world. In a society in which Jews are attacked, no one is safe.

The killing machine the Nazis created to destroy the Jewish people killed not only six million Jews but millions of others. The terrorists who hijacked the planes that flew into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and crashed in a Pennsylvania field on 9/11 were the heirs of those who first hijacked planes to take Jewish hostages. If Iran talks with impunity about wiping one country off the map, no country is safe.

Speaker of the Swedish Parliament Bjorn von Sydow understood this when he said: “I am willing to defend the right of Israel to exist as strongly as I defend the rights of my own country to exist.” While Ahmadinejad’s statement has been condemned by Western leaders, only Sweden responded unequivocally by cutting all bilateral contact with the Iranian parliament. If anything is to be learned from the Holocaust, other nations will follow Sweden’s lead and go even further to impose sanctions and isolation.

What about us? It’s not exactly a privilege to be the canary of the world. As an Israeli congregant once quipped, “For this we were chosen? Let God choose someone else!”

To be fair, we are not the only people to suffer as the world sits idly by. Rwanda and, currently, Darfur ( are just two of the recent genocides to come to mind. However, Jewish history is among the most marked by such recurring atrocities.

I am not sure why God chose us, the Jews, for this particular purpose, as canary of the world. Perhaps it is the burden of being custodians of the special message which is Torah: that human equality, the rule of law, the limits of power, and the dignity of every individual are not idle dreams but concrete, achievable goals for which we are to consistently strive. Being the canary for us is not a state of being the victim. Being the canary of the world comes with a moral responsibility to be the conscience of the world as well.

The newspapers on the walls of the Holocaust Museum remind us that it is all too easy, when reading bad news, to simply turn the page. Our job, as Jews, is to make sure no one turns the page, not just for us, but for all who are the targets of unmitigated hatred.

The newspapers also remind us that such hatred spreads to envelope the world when left unchecked. That is why it is not just for Israel’s sake that America and other nations should sanction and isolate Iran. It is for all our sakes.

Iran’s President Ahmadinejad‘s latest declarations that the Holocaust is a myth and that Israel should be wiped off the face of this earth speak for themselves. What everyone is trying to figure out is just how seriously should we take what he says, and what if anything at all can we really do about it.

In recent days there has been much discussion regarding whether Israel or America should use force to stop Ahmadinejad and Iran from gaining nuclear capability. To be honest, I am sympathetic to such an argument. Power and force are not always unethical. Still, any use of force would inevitably only be a piecemeal solution. Even if we bombed their nuclear reactors, all we get is 10 years until the threat resurfaces. Physical force can only sidetrack someone with such a sick and horrid worldview.

Unfortunately, it seems that Ahmadinejad’s words are not an anomaly in the Muslim world. Even more depressing is that his comments are not only not condemned by Iran’s religious leaders but actually supported and encouraged. As reported by the AP, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei supported Ahmadinejad’s calls for Israel’s elimination. Instead of standing up to Ahmadinejad and others like him, religious leaders in the Muslim world continue to cheer on those who call for murder and violence. They try to cloak themselves in ethical garb, taking up the plight of the Palestinians when in truth, their blatant anti-Semitism only hurts the Palestinians cause.

The only thing that can save us from such violent dreams is Allah. Only Allah has the power to stop such people. Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric will only be stopped when Muslim clerics get out in front of their communities and condemn those who abuse Allah in such a manner.

So I ask: Where are those religious leaders in the Muslim world ready to take responsibility and fight for peace? No army, no Israeli air force strike, no missile has the strength these religious leaders could have in engendering peace and breeding a more tolerant atmosphere in the Middle East.

Though there are some in the Muslim community who have spoken up, why don’t we hear of any major Islamic clerics ready to put their life on the line in the name of saving Islam from itself? Why are there so many who are prepared to martyr themselves in the name of violence and destruction, but so few ready to give their lives for peace and pluralism. Why are there so few true martyrs in the Muslim world?

I was hurrying through Reagan National Airport on the way to the United Synagogue convention last week when I passed an enormous Christmas tree on the lower concourse. I appreciated the beautiful decorations and automatically looked around to see if a menorah was also on display. There was not one in sight.

We have made some progress, though. “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” messages now fill the airways and even a few chain stores. The Christmas trees and glitter are still there, but at least there is an effort to show sensitivity and courtesy to those who of us who hold different beliefs.

As Jews, we are particularly aware of the importance of such sentiments, because our holiday, Hanukkah, usually falls around this time of year. However, my neighbors who are Hindu (and celebrate a different winter festival of light) similarly prefer a “Happy Holiday” to the exclusive Merry Christmas. At the very least, the secular New Year is around the corner, so everyone, technically at least, can feel part of a “Happy Holiday” greeting, regardless of religious affiliation or inclination.

That is why recent calls for a boycott against stores who have replaced their Merry Christmas signs with Happy Holiday signs strikes me as mean-spirited. These moves have been labeled as an “attack on Christmas.” Exactly who is attacking whom?

People become angry when they feel that their “rights” have been violated, often when what they were used to has changed. Our American culture is changing, as we begin to publicly acknowledge our diversity, and rightfully so. This is not a cultural minimalist position, just the opposite: When each religion and ethnicity deeply lives its own traditions, the mosaic of American society is enriched. The freedom to be different is a right constitutionally guaranteed by the separation of church and state and the disestablishment of religion. That calls for a little appreciation for and consideration of others, as well as making room in our public culture for those differences.

It is unfortunate that those who launched this “attack on Christmas” boycott feel their holiday cheer diminished by a simple Happy Holiday sign. However, that doesn’t give them the “right” to be totally inconsiderate of others who do not share their beliefs. Perhaps some self-proclaimed rights are really wrongs, which is why a just society must at times protect the rights of the minority from the demands of the majority.

Last I looked, Christmas is alive, well, and … everywhere. The real attack is not on Christmas by the Happy Holidayers, but on courtesy and kindness by the anti-Happy Holiday crowd.

“Love thy neighbor as thyself” is a cardinal virtue of both Judaism and Christianity, part of the Scripture we both share. That means showing the same courtesy to others that you would want for yourself.

That means when I know someone celebrates Christmas, I wish that person a Merry Christmas. However, when in doubt, or when greeting an ethnically or religiously mixed group, a Happy Holiday instead of a Merry Christmas becomes a basic act of kindness, a way of showing consideration and courtesy to others.

My minister friends tell me Christmas is supposed to be about showing kindness and generosity of spirit to others, not about whether a store sports a “Merry Christmas” or a “Happy Hanukkah” sign. That’s why my family will be making a special effort this year to shop at Target and the other stores being boycotted by the “attack on Christmas” crowd. On our way out, I’ll be sure to let the store managers know just how much I appreciate their “Happy Holiday” signs.