Of Savages And Civilized Men
Jewish Week Online Columnist
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By the time this article is published, much will already have been written and spoken about the American Freedom Defense Initiative’s very crude ad that was placed in the most public of New York City spaces -- our subway system.

“In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” 

My friend and colleague Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, published a fine op-ed piece in The New York Times about this, and I would imagine that countless rabbis -- not to mention priests, ministers and imams, have addressed themselves to the issue.

At the risk of possibly doubling over some of what has already been said, I want to try and look at Pamela Geller’s (she of the American Freedom Defense Initiative) unfortunate effort at Israel advocacy from a uniquely Jewish perspective -- one that is two thousand years old, and as relevant today as the current controversy.

Interestingly, this perspective that I think best and most authentically frames the aforementioned issue is rooted in a comment on the Torah portion that we read in synagogue over the first two days of Sukkot. The Torah portion itself was from the book of Leviticus, dealing primarily with an overview of the biblically mandated Jewish festivals. But before that particular section of the reading, there was a command not to take a newborn ox, lamb or goat from its mother for a sacrifice for a full week after its birth, nor to slaughter an ox or lamb and its offspring on the same day. 


The verses that immediately follow these commandments make it clear that there is a straight line to be drawn between the way we act, even and perhaps especially in communal matters of ritual, and the way God is perceived in the broader community.  Says the Torah: And you shall not profane my holy name, and I shall be sanctified amongst the people Israel, I am the Lord your God. How we treat helpless animals- even those we intend ultimately to offer up as sacrifices- reflects not only on us, but also on God.  In fact, Judaism will ultimately broaden this teaching to include absolutely everything that we do in the public domain. As Jews, our behaviors reflect not only on our own dignity and values, but also, as it were, on God’s.  When we behave in a way that reflects well on Torah and its teachings, we are sanctifying God’s name- or, as the rabbis would have said, we are engaging in Kiddush Hashem.  And when we engage in behaviors that lead others to think that the Torah and its values are crude and/or cruel, we are engaging in just the opposite: Chillul Hashem- causing God’s name to be profaned.  n the pantheon of egregious sins in Judaism, causing God’s name to be profaned in the public arena is a major wrongdoing.

In the tractate of Bava Metzi'a in the Jerusalem Talmud, a story is told of the famous Pharisee leader Rabbi Shimon ben Shatach, whose life bridged the second and first centuries before the Common Era. Rabbi Shimon was a merchant of flax, and his students wanted to make life easier for him by purchasing a beast of burden that would carry his merchandise.  To that end, they purchased a donkey from a group of Ishmaelites, and brought it back to their teacher.

When Rabbi Shimon examined it, he discovered that there was a precious stone tied to the donkey’s neck.  The students exulted; “Now you don’t have to work at all,” they said.  “Why,” asked Rabbi Shimon?  They replied that the donkey had been purchased from Ishmaelites, and he could keep the stone. 

Rabbi Shimon immediately instructed them to return the precious stone to the Ishmaelites. The students were stunned.  “But why,” they asked?  “Even according to one who forbids theft from a non-Jew, that which the non-Jew loses by mistake is not forbidden to us!”?

But Rabbi Shimon was insistent.  And when the students returned the precious stone to its Ishmaelite owner, he joyously proclaimed “Praised be the God of the Jews, who has a nation of people like Rabbi Shimon.  Had I sold the donkey to an Ishmaelite, he would never have returned the stone!”

When Rabbi Shimon’s students returned, he said to them “What did you think, that Shimon ben Shatach is a barbarian?  I wanted to hear that Ishmaelite say ‘Praised be the God of the Jews’ more than all the money or rewards of this world!”

From where I sit, what the American Freedom Defense Initiative has done is cause a significant Chillul Hashem in the public arena- the exact opposite of what Rabbi Shimon ben Shatach would have prescribed.  And what is particularly sad- and troubling- is that Pamela Geller and her supporters don’t even seem to know it.  And perhaps even worse- they may indeed know it, but seem utterly not to care.

I am no bleeding-heart liberal, and I have less than no sympathy for those who would and do, in the name of jihad, engage is senseless and yes, even savage violence against innocent people. The strain of radical Islam that preaches violent jihad is a mortal enemy of our way of life. I believe that most Americans, and most western leaders, understand that.

But painting all of Islam with the same brush, as that ad not so subtly does, merely serves to alienate good people of all faith communities from the cause of a safe Israel.  In so doing, it violates what Shimon ben Shatach was trying to teach two thousand years ago.  Caring about how our tradition presents itself to the outside world matters- greatly.  Support of Israel is tenuous enough; alienating members of other faith communities from Israel’s cause is a losing strategy, and does nothing good for Judaism as a whole. The deeds of the truly savage are a threat not merely to Israel, but to all who cherish life and hold it dear.  Thumping our chests in public accomplishes only the opposite of what we would like…. and, most importantly, it is a Chillul Hashem.

Last Update:

10/09/2012 - 04:38

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Otto Berk's observation that the definition of Jihad (and in my view, Islam itself) will be determined by Muslims is axiomatic, since the fundamentals of all religions necessarily evolve from within.

However, for others to imply that Jihad (aka radical Islam) evolved into something violent as a result of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is disingenuous at best and obfuscating at worst. The origins and context of this ongoing cultural and land dispute can be found in legal documents and history books by anyone prepared to do the research. Unfortunately, disputants on the left are apt to rely on Arab propaganda rather than verifiable facts, when presenting their homilies and arguments in favor of deconstructing the modern Jewish state. But propaganda, no matter how often it is repeated, cannot metamorphose into truth.

Jihad acquired its violent aspect long before the rebirth of the Jewish homeland in 1948. Nor are the Israelis its only target. Terrorism engendered by Jihad extends far beyond the Middle East and the Jews. One need only scan New York City's altered skyline to confirm this sad, frightening reality.

I quote Hillel. If I am not for myself, who will be with me. The ad compares Israel with civilized behavior, and contrasts it with the savagery of those who oppose it in the name of Jihad. Words have meaning, otherwise communication is impossible. It is you, Rabbi Skolnick, who is either afraid or embarrassed to defend Israel. All the is necessary for the triumph of evil is for the good to do nothing. Let those who define Jihad as Islamic for Teshuva say so. Let them say it loud and clear. Otherwise, you, like Humpty Dumpty, are using words in your idiosyncratic fashion, making conversation impossible.

Your article and that of Rabbi Rick Jackobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, reflect nothing less than Wisdom and Love to Your Faith. I salute you. Thanks to Allah the creator of all mankind Jews, Christians, Muslims and others.

I strongly believe that if all Priests, Rabbi, and Imams spend even one minute in their weekly congregation to remind their members to Love God and their Neighbors the world would live in peace and harmony.


Dear Rabbi Skolnik

Whatever Jihad is in terms of Islamic history may be one thing. However, it is the Jihad that the Jews have experienced for 65 years and recently has been visited upon the other nations of the world that we are obligated to confront. That confrontation must arrive into our lives as a re-definition of Jihad. However, it is not for non-Muslims to define the place of Jihad within Islam. It can only be genuinely defined by the behaviors associated with the word. It has only been Muslims who have defined Jihad; in practice. I do not believe that most American Muslims agree with or participate in Jihad as the world has witnessed this beahvior. It is the responsibility of moderate Muslims to eradicate this act of hijacking from their religion. We Jews, as the greatest single recipent of terror and murder at the hands of Jihadist Mulsims do not have the luxury of time or geography of "negotiations" or "sanctions". As I am confident you know, Israel was created with a "Red Line". That line was imposed upon us by the neighbors of a people who were not supposed to exist. Making the sociologically minor argument that most Muslims do not endorse "Evidence-Based Islamic Jihad" may be important for some future historians to note. Given the times in which we Jews currently live, your argument serves only to mollify the importance of vocal resistance and minimizing the challenge to your fellow Islamic clergyman to rise up and take back their religion from their fellow Musllims.

If Not Now When

Otto M Berk, LCSW

Rabbi Skolnik,
I am not a religious person, but your point derived from the teaching of your books, is very well taken. The sad side of Ms. Geller and her likes, is their intention and ultimate goal of spreading hate and racism among us all. The bottom line of her action for years, is to insight violence against violence and keep that cycle going. What does that make her,any better than those who she wishes to criticize and demonize? I think not.! Did she take a minute and put her self in the shoes of those who are almost left with no choices in life, and the strangling hold on their well being almost took that life away from them? I doubt, if she ever bothered to find out, what cause those people to act the way they do, and try to offer remedies and solutions instead of hate and venom. After we take a look at all those Jewish American settlers in the west bank, and observe what they do ;from land theft to poisoning live stock, and water wells of the Palestinians, to shooting them and taken over their homes? All Jews are Savages, and we need to stand against them? I think not, we all know what happens when such a thing is done. She needs to get down from her high horse, and start working to make the world a better place, by spreading less venom, and try some love and care. I am glade to have people like you who could remind people like her of what is important.

Once you start to talk of Israelis poisoning water wells and livestock- a total myth of the Palestinian propoganda machine- you forfeit any right to consider what I have written as being supportive of your point of view. When it comes to spreading venom, comments like yours only give rise to actions like Ms. Geller's. Please don't claim me for your side of this argument.

Rabbi Skolnik....with all due respect....in THEORY maybe Jihad is a peacful concept. maybe on paper it is non-violent. But take a look at the reality of this day and age. It is a very savage and violent state of affairs. Please, let's get REAL. The theory has gone up in flames with the American and Israeli flags burning.

I am certain that decent, non-violent Muslims exist. They may even constitute, as many on the left maintain, a vast majority among their coreligionists. But the deafening silence of this "vast majority" in the face of ever-increasing violence against modernity, Israel, Jews globally, women, and more recently, American diplomats, ought to elicit certain questions from well-meaning leftists rather than their customary, defensive reaction on behalf of Islam.

British historian, author, commentator and friend of the Jews, Douglas Murray, once observed that one can arrive at conclusions about nations and people fairly easily "by looking first at what they say and second by what they do." I understand that moderate Muslims in Muslim countries must remain silent. They would be (and have been) executed when they oppose the Jihadis. But why are moderate voices not being raised in mosques all across America? Why have American Muslims not long since organized a Million Muslim March on Washington? Where are their letters to the editor in local newspapers? Why are their videos, denouncing the actions of radical Islam, not going viral on the internet? It is both frightening and revealing that those few and valiant Muslims who do, in fact, protest the violence of Muslims must frequently (even in North America) go into hiding. If only the Jihadis speak and act for Islam, is is they, and not Muslim moderates, who will ultimately define their religion.

Jews everywhere, but particularly Reform Jews, need to wake up and smell the acrid fumes of American and Israeli flags set ablaze in Muslim countries around the world. Instead, we Reform Jews make excuses for the bad behavior of our own (and Israel's) enemies while advising Reform congregations to exercise even more tolerance towards Muslims.

We fiddle, while Jerusalem may soon be burning.

Ms G-Frank,
I knew of Jews who blow up the King David hotel in Jerusalem. and killed many innocent civilians with the british officers, that they wanted to murder. I new Jews who committed Massacres in Deir Yassin and other Palestinian villages , when they killed women, men and children, when they gutted pregnant women guts and took the babies out, so as to spread fear, and terror in the heart of the people. I heard many chants of Jews in the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Death to the Arabs, Kill the Arabs. Even in the streets of New York city. I watched to genocidal massacre of over 1430 women men and children in Gaza by the Israeli Jewish soldiers, and the total destruction of fields and even chicken farms, that is beside the destruction of 6000 homes. Shall we then say, and words and action of those Jews is an indication of all Jews? Those are things of what they said, and what they have done. You be the judge, and call upon your friend Mr. Douglas Murray to review. We as Jews, we need to get rid of the ON/OFF switch, when we judge ourselves, and when we judge the others. Justice, is justice and fairness for all.

Please, please, please show any proof that Israeli soldiers gutted pregnant Arabs and pulled the baby out. I am quite sure that nothing like this has ever happened. As was said before, do not believe the Arab propoganda without first trying to find the info in a verifiable western source.

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