Monthly Archives: February 2015

G*d’s Burning Questions: A Tribute to Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu Salha, and Razan Abu Salha

The following is a re-post of Rabbi Michael Bernstein’s piece.  Thoughtful and wise as always, Rabbi Bernstein’s words are worth contemplating.

Shabbat Shalom

 On Tuesday, February 13th, Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammed Abu Salha, and Razan Mohammed Abu Salha were shot to death by a man living next door to them at an apartment complex in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  Because they were observant Muslims and the man who murdered them had expressed what he called anti-theist views against believers of all faiths, there is an open question as to what motivated this murderer to pull the trigger and whether the killing was an act against the faith professed by these three students – whether they died because they were Muslims in America. For me, however, as I learn more about the incredible acts of devotion, kindness, and service to humanity performed by newly wed Deah and Yusor, and Yusor’s younger sister Razan, I am moved above all by how being Muslims in America shaped how they lived.

  Deah Barakat was a dental student who, among other projects, raised money for and led a mission to Turkey in order to provide urgent medical procedures and preventative oral care for Syrians whose lives had been ripped apart by war and turmoil.  His work on behalf of those in need also informed his messages on behalf of seeking peace for all without exception.  While the  views of the world and its conflicts he expressed were in solidarity with Palestinians and other Muslims, he explicitly spoke out against violence done against Jews and against anyone who thought killing was the answer.   He was a supporter of interfaith programming, including participation in sharing Ramadan with Beth Meyer Synagogue in Chapel Hill.

   What would be the last months of his life was a celebration of his love for his wife Yusor, a Muslim woman and fellow dental student.  Yusor spoke powerfully about the blessing of being a Muslim in America on this StoryCorp recording and posted on social media about the practice of wearing the hijab, a full head covering, from the perspective of women’s empowerment.  Her sister, Razan, was an award winning artist who, along with Deah’s brother Farris, was instrumental in helping to create an incredible video that affirmed the forward looking and hopeful mindset of Muslim students at North Carolina State University in a way that also showed the playfulness and individuality of a community often treated as monolithic by others.

  Deah, Yusor and Razan spent a significant part of their lives responding to a burning question read this week in the Book of Exodus (Mishpatim).  This question arises in an unexpected place, an enumeration of laws of civil behavior that is explicitly concerned with not favoring any party in a dispute or legal proceeding.  And yet in the midst of cases involving oxen being gored or goring others, and the laws of lending to those in need, the text breaks out of its legalistic tone and demands to know what would happen if a lender insisted on taking the only coat of a poor person as collateral and did not make sure to return it before the sun set.

  “This is his only cloak, in what will he sleep?”  If a person has no cloak, no wealth, no protection either from nature or from malice, no one to care about his or her well-being —- “In what will they sleep?” And in many ways it was questions such as this that led Deah Barakat to dedicate his talents and his time to trying to alleviate suffering in Syria seeing what he could provide as a dentist as his version of the cloak. It is the revelation that G*d demands our attention for each person’s well-being  that drives the kind of reflection on faith that inspired Yusor and Razan to articulate so powerfully how their beloved traditions must lead to understanding between different people and be a source of communal responsibility.

  For me, this bittersweet opportunity to learn more about these three remarkable people, “three winners,” as those dear to them have chosen to name them, has made me think of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker, may their memories be a blessing, dear friends murdered  nineteen years ago by Hamas terrorists practicing a faith that is so unlike the understanding of Islam that these three students professed .  Unlike the killers of Matt and Sara, it is not clear that the man who murdered Deah, Yusor, and Razan hated everyone like them.  However, like Matt and Sara it is clear that the murderer’s cruel, unfathomable act of violence took from the world people whose incredible faith, talents and commitments to do good would have brought so much more compassionate insight into a world so in need of love. I imagine them having much to learn from each other should they meet  beyond this world.

  A beautiful commentary called the Kli Yakar (“Precious Vessel”) reads the question “In what will he sleep?” also as a reference to the tradition that when a person dies their soul is cloaked in the good deeds they have done on behalf of others.  If a person refrains from helping someone in this world, “In what will that person sleep” in the next world?  Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammed Abu Salha, and Razan Mohammed Abu Salha are, I believe, among those clothed now in the deeds of the righteous.  Yet we are poorer for not having the new answers that they would have provided to G*d’s burning questions.

 May G*d, to whom we call by many names, provide for these witnesses an abode in Paradise, may their memories be a blessing to all they touched and the entire world.

 Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Michael

 

The Bibi Blunder

 The Prime Minister’s decision to speak before Congress at the invitation of Speaker Boehner is poorly thought out and ultimately does not serve him, Israel or American Jewry.

 Although Mr. Netanyahu is ostensibly coming to speak to the issue of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon capability, everything about this visit undercuts this message and works against him. First, is the matter of propriety. Acceptance of Mr. Boehner’s invitation is also effectively a snub of the President of the United States. This is bad. Neither Israel nor American Jewry wants the Prime Minister creating tensions between these two important allies. This is the time for the two countries to be joined ever more closely. Interests align as never before.

 There exists a political power play in this country. Congress and the Executive branch are engaging in a process.   While this is going on, the Israeli Prime Minister should not want himself or his country to become embroiled in the internal politics of the United States, becoming a pawn of one branch of government only to alienate the other. This would run counter to the interests of Israel, as the State needs to maintain and deepen its relationships at every level to the United States.

 The timing of this reflects badly within the Israeli political system as well. This visit is scheduled in close proximity to the Israeli elections. Therefore the appearance before Congress is cynically seen as a ploy to bolster the Prime Minister’s position at home. This does not serve anyone’s interest either.

 Finally, there is a policy and plan that the President has put forth regarding sanctions against Iran and negotiations with that country. Congress and the Prime Minister may both disagree with that policy and have legitimate reason to do so, but publicly displaying such a disagreement is imprudent. It is divisive at a time when divisiveness precisely the opposite of what you need to achieve. It is more than a bad idea, it is a ham-fisted attempt to voice legitimate concerns and circumvent the President that will cause far more damage to an important relationship than it will do to further Israel’s concerns for its security.

 It is in the best interests of Mr. Netanyahu to pass on this opportunity to appear before congress. He should go home, campaign to win the election to become Prime Minister of the new government and then approach the United States to make his case for a different approach to the Iran nuclear problem.

A Bad Mistake

The decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and House Speaker John Boehner to cook up an address to Congress by Netanyahu on why the U.S. should get tougher on Iran is churlish, reckless and, for the future of Israeli-American relations, quite dangerous.

If Netanyahu wants some intelligent advice, he should listen to the counsel of his previous ambassador in Washington, the widely respected Michael Oren, who was quoted as saying that the whole gambit was creating the impression of “a cynical political move, and it could hurt our attempts to act against Iran.” He urged Netanyahu to cancel the speech.

And if Netanyahu and his current ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, who organized the gambit with Boehner, want to know how offensive the whole thing is to average Americans they should listen to conservative Fox News Sunday talk-show host Chris Wallace, not a usual critic of Israel, who gutsily said of the Bibi invite on Friday, Jan. 23: “To make you get a sense of really how, forgive me, wicked, this whole thing is, the Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Israeli ambassador to the United States for two hours on Tuesday, and Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador, according to the State Department, never mentioned the fact that Netanyahu was in negotiations and finally agreed to come to Washington, not to see the president, but to go to Capitol Hill, speak to a joint session of Congress and criticize the president’s policy. I have to say I’m shocked.”

Imagine that Israel’s Labor Party invited President Obama to address its Parliament about why Israel should give negotiations on Iran more time, and it was all worked out with the U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv behind the back of the Likud Party prime minister. A lot of Israelis would see it as an insult to their democratically elected leader. I’ve polled many of my non-Jewish friends, who follow world politics and are sympathetic to Israel, and they really don’t like this. It doesn’t only disrespect our president, it disrespects our system and certain diplomatic boundaries that every foreign leader should respect and usually has.

You know how this happened: Netanyahu; his ambassador; the pro-Israel lobby Aipac; Sheldon Adelson, the huge donor to Bibi and the G.O.P.; and Boehner all live in their own self-contained bubble. You can tell that nobody was inside there telling them: “Bibi, this speech to Congress two weeks before your election may give you a sugar high for a day with Israeli voters, but it’s in really poor taste for you to use America’s Congress as a backdrop for your campaign. Many of Israel’s friends will be uncomfortable, and the anti-Semites, who claim Israel controls Washington, will have a field day.”

Already, in reaction to this maneuver, 10 Senate Democrats — who had advocated putting more sanctions on Iran now — have instead parted company with the Republicans and granted the White House the two-month reprieve it was seeking to see if negotiations can still work. It was exactly the opposite of what Netanyahu wanted, and it shows how upset are many Democrats.

But this isn’t just churlish. For Israel’s leader to so obviously throw his lot in with the Republicans against a Democratic president is reckless. Israel and its defenders are already under siege on college campuses across America, where many university boards are under pressure to divest from companies doing business with Israel. Making support for Israel more of a Republican cause is not at all in Israel’s interest — or America’s. Israel needs the support of more than just Congress or one party.

Netanyahu’s concerns about Iran are not without merit. But his aggressiveness is also not without critics in Israel. If Congress wants to get Israel’s perspective on how to deal with Iran, then it should also invite the top Israeli intelligence and military officers, current and retired, who have been arguing publicly against Netanyahu’s threatened use of force against Iran. Why are we getting only one Israeli view? How is that in America’s interest?

Personally, I’m still dubious that the U.S. and Iran will reach a deal that will really defuse Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Such a failure would be very serious and could end up, one day, with the U.S. deciding it has to use military force to set back Iran’s program. We surely don’t want Iran to get a bomb that sets off a nuclear arms race in an already unstable Middle East.

But, even if we do use force, success is hardly assured and the blowback unpredictable. That is why it is absolutely not in Israel’s interest to give even the slightest appearance of nudging America toward such a military decision. Israel should stay a million miles away from that decision, making clear that it is entirely a U.S. matter. Because, if we do have to strike Iran, plenty of Americans will not be happy. And if it fails, or has costly consequences for us and our military, you can be sure a lot more Americans will not be happy — and some will ask, “How did we get into this mess?” One of the first things they’ll dig out will be Netanyahu’s speech to Congress.

Why in the world would Israel risk putting itself in that situation? Just lie low, Mr. Netanyahu. Don’t play in our politics. Let America draw its own conclusions.