In my family of Russian and Polish immigrants, a new life in America a century ago meant truly becoming Americans. Losing the old ways of dress, the old ways of thinking, the old ways of speaking. Other than my Bubbie Rose, who clung to her Yiddish as a vestige of her past, and my grandparents who spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want me to know what they were saying about other people, English became everybody’s native tongue.
Except for one phrase that echoed in our family homes. That old Yiddish folk saying: “S’iz shver tsu zayin a yid.” It’s tough to be a Jew.
That’s what they used to say about life back in Russia and Poland. Where Jews could not own property, or serve in government, or hold jobs reserved for good Christians who ran the professional guilds. Where pogroms swept through hamlets and shtetls with regularity, Christian soldiers slaughtering Jews by the dozens. Where little Jewish boys as young as 11 or 12 were conscripted into the Tsar’s army and often never seen again. “S’iz shver tsu zayin a yid,” they would say. Which is why they left there to come here.
Jews who could, left by the boatloads in those years before an isolationist America closed its doors after World War One. Others made their way to Canada, or to British Mandate Palestine, or even to Western Europe and England, where they stood a better chance for a better life. Life might still be hard, but it would not be so hard to be a Jew.
“S’iz shver tsu zayin a yid.” It should not be so hard to be a Jew these days. Not in Paris, where Shabbat worshippers were essentially held captive in their synagogue by rioting thugs shouting “Death to Jews.” Where, for three days, pro-Palestinian protesters violently set upon unsuspecting Jews, tossing firebombs and shattering shop windows. Where the aftermath of the violence looked like Kristallnacht.
It should not be so hard to be a Jew in Austria, where this week members of the Maccabi Haifi soccer team were attacked by pro-Palestinian goons in the middle of a friendly little pre-season match against a club from France.
It should not be so hard to be a Jew in Calgary, Canada, where a family of six Israel supporters who were peaceably demonstrating were beaten by a crowd of 100 pro-Palestinian rioters spewing vitriol such as “Kill the Jews!” and “Hitler should have finished you off!”
It should not be so hard to be a Jew in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where they know something about the evils of hatred, and where a synagogue had its windows smashed on Friday night, and the replacement windows smashed again on Saturday.
It definitely should not be so hard to be a Jew in Berlin, where there are almost no Jews left. But that didn’t stop a group of Jew-haters from marching and chanting chilling slogans like “Gas the Jews!” And it didn’t stop a Berlin Imam from openly praying for Allah to annihilate every last Zionist Jew on earth.
“S’iz shver tsu zayin a yid.” It should not be so hard to be a Jew in Morocco, where a rabbi was recently beaten up, or in Amsterdam – Amsterdam – where the same thing happened.
Or in Chicgao, where anti-semitic leaflets were distributed in Pulaski Park, or in Connecticut, where a synagogue was sprayed with graffiti, or in Boston, where, three times this week, students supportive of Israel have been roughed up by mobs screaming “Send the Jews to Birkenau.”
“S’iz shver tsu zayin a yid.” It should not be so hard to be a Jew in Israel itself. Not in Moatza Ezorit Hof Ashkelon, and not in Moatza Ezorit Eshkol, and not in Moatsa Ezorit Sha’ar Hanegev, and not in Moatza Ezorit S’dot Negev, and not in Ashdod, and not in Kiryat Malakhi– all the places where the Red Alert sirens went off just during the time when I was preparing this sermon this morning.
Three-quarters of Israel’s population is threatened by the missiles being launched by Islamic terrorists in Gaza. And because Israel finally responded to those attacks, and because Israel has a missile defense system, and because Israel provides safe places for its population while Hamas uses Gazans as human shields – Israel is being villified – verbally and in writing – as a genocidal war criminal, while Jews around the world are being attacked for being Jews.
Let’s be clear about this. This is not anti-Zionism. This is Jew hatred. These crowds are not screaming “Death to Israelis.” They are calling for death to Jews.
If the crowds were so concerned about the killing of Muslim civilians, where have they been as Bashar al-Assad has murdered over 170,000 Sunnis in Syria over the past three years? Where have they been as Muslims murder Muslims in Darfur, where nearly half a million have died?
As Corey Feldman pointed out in a column this week in The Times of Israel, targeting people for slaughter simply because of their ethnicity is the very definition of genocide. Israel is not doing that. But Hamas – whose charter calls for the obliteration of Israel and the massacre of Jews – definitely is.
Within Israel itself, there are those who oppose the Gaza incursion. But even the extreme left, which regularly criticizes the Netanyahu government for its policies on settlements and peace talks, is starting to crumble. Israeli journalist Ari Shavit – the darling of the pro-peace left and the author of a book that challenges many fundamental Zionist myths – stated in Ha’aretz this week that, this time, Israel is right.
“Who are we fighting?” Shavit asked in his column. “A fascist organization that terrorizes the people of Gaza, oppresses women and gays, and shuns all democratic values of freedom and progress. . . . it is an organization of war criminals. By no means can they be allowed to win this difficult conflict, and by no means can we show any empathy for the evil they represent.”
The international community – which has been bamboozled by the PLO and Hamas and their ilk for decades now – bears responsibility for enabling what is happening in Gaza, for keeping Palestinians permanently in the status of refugees and victims. United Nations workers who have been on the ground in Gaza for years are now shocked – shocked I tell you! – to discover missiles in school-yards.
The European Union has been humiliated to discover that all the money and all the building supplies that they’ve been contributing to Gaza all these years have gone – not to build an infrastructure that will lead to a better life for the people – but to constructing elaborate, expensive labyrinths of tunnels that protect Hamas operatives and allow their killers to enter Israel with the express purpose of murdering Jews.
In fact, we’re getting confirmation this evening of reports that Hamas had planned an elaborate massacre for Rosh Hashanah, just weeks from now. The plan was to send over 200 terrorists through the tunnels and into moshavim and kibbutzim and communities in areas of Israel that are close to Gaza, slaughtering and kidnapping as many Jews as they could.
Israel has made many mistakes in its treatment of its own Arab citizens, in its settlement policies, in its lack of attention to the tunnels of Gaza until it was almost too late, in pursuing peace half-heartedly. But none of that mitigates the vile Jew-hatred spewing not only from Gaza, and Iran, and Syria, but from Paris and Antwerp and Amsterdam and Boston and Calgary and Chicago. It is real and it is terrifying.
This week’s Torah portion, which concludes the Book of Numbers and thus the wilderness narrative, spells out the settlement of the land, tribe by tribe and clan by clan, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. We may no longer lay claim to all of that land, but if nothing else, the violent expressions of Jew-hatred around the world this week prove how important it is that the State of Israel exists as a homeland of the Jewish people and as a haven for all Jews.
Again, I quote from the surprising column by Ari Shavit in Haaretz this week:
“Are we justified? Clearly. We’ve made terrible mistakes – politically, strategically and militarily. We were complacent and arrogant, and walked into traps with open eyes. But don’t get confused, friends. Don’t cross the lines, friends. We must stand strong against the evil tunnels and the wicked rockets that threaten us. We’ve forgotten how to say it, and sometimes it’s difficult to whisper it, but we’re right. In this sad, terrible story, we’re in the right. What we must do over the coming days is be smart, as well.”
“S’iz shver tsu zayin a Yid.” It may be hard to be a Jew these days. But it would be a whole lot harder without Israel.
Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
Copyright 2014 Audrey R. Korotkin