COVID Diary- Reflections from Our Advisory Board Member Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs

October 28, 2020

Every Day during the Corona crisis our Advisory Board Member Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs (NL) writes a diary, on request of the Jewish Cultural Quarter in Amsterdam, which is published on the website of the NIW, the only Jewish Dutch Magazine. Rabbi Jacobs is the head of Inter Governmental Relationships at the Rabbinical Centre of Europe. We will be regularly publishing a selection of his informative, sometimes light hearted, but always wise pieces.
For our Dutch readers you can follow the diary every day at NIW home page: https://niw.nl
Diary October 26, 2020
This is, and sometimes I forget the fact, a diary in corona time. I felt that ‘corona time’ particularly today. It is not only the nagging feeling of uncertainty, but also the media that never stop talking about it and, naturally enough, the discussion within the Jewish community itself.
Incidentally, that discussion taking place both within and outside of the Jewish community will be completely identical.
I think we have roughly three schools of thought on Covid 19. The ultra-orthodoxy, the moderates and the apostates.
Ultra-Orthodoxy almost compulsively adheres to the rules, does not take any risks and tries to convince others to live in isolation.
The apostates think everything is nonsense. Nobody knows anyway and you cannot prevent it, and it is all chronically exaggerated.
I count myself among the second school of thought, the moderates, who try to stay calm, not to exaggerate, but who refuse to downplay reality. But there was a crack this morning in that staying calm. And then what do I do? I WhatsApp’ed my professor. Who is my professor? The husband of a former student with whom I have regular contact about all kinds of things, but especially about legal matters. Just an example of such a contact: that former student of mine, now a middle-aged lawyer, has a bit of the same problem as I do.
She can’t say no! And so, when I have something on my mind again, I get her on speed dial.
Years ago, I met an old man who was quite young at heart. He looked like my grandfather in appearance. He was one of the few who survived Auschwitz as a child. He was friendly, easy-going, reliable. The kind of person I wouldn’t think twice about asking to bring € 100,000 in cash from A to B.
However, he had a tricky problem: he had a habit of stealing! Not just because, but only when he needed something. This is how he managed to survive Auschwitz.
After the war, as I have written before, the welcome-home-in-the Netherlands was not always warm (understatement!). His parents had been murdered, he had no family and he had no possessions, no roof over his head and no form of income. And so, if he needed anything, clothing or food, he continued his learned survival technique and had no qualms about stealing.
And now he got caught. He had, if I remember correctly, Fl. 4000 received from the WUV, the Persecution Victims Benefit Act (a fund paid in compensation by Germany for Dutch Jewish citizens who suffered under the Nazis), for the purchase of an electrically adapted disabled car. He had managed to get that car for Fl. 2000 (cash, no receipts) and the remaining Fl. 2000 he had put in his pocket. Busted! And so, a lawsuit. I engaged my former student and there we stood in the courtroom in front of three honourable people in togas.
At the request of the defendant’s lawyer, my former student, I was asked to say a few words at the very end of the trial. Your Honour, I can still hear myself say, of course theft is punishable. You have a duty to enforce the law. But do you realize that the same legal system that correctly indicates that the defendant did something against the law, do you realize that the same system sent him to Auschwitz?
And to the representative of the fund, who was present as plaintiff, I said that I refuse to understand how, as the body responsible for making amends, he would take it into his head (I had phrased it a little more sharply) to give this survivor the indignity of standing in court. The judges got it: immediate acquittal.
That former student is now a mother and married to a professor. And that’s my professor. We actually only know each other via WhatsApp and telephone, have never had any real contact, but he is now my point of contact for all information about corona. What is nonsensical conspiracy theory and what is correct. Where the boundary between ultra-Orthodox, moderate and apostate actually lies.
And so, this morning, when I was just at a low ebb and contemplating switching from moderate to ultra-orthodox, it just took a WhatsApp to my medical spiritual counsellor the professor, and see, I am one of the moderates again.
I do feel the link to the war strongly. I am beginning to realize that our Lockdown is in no way comparable to the two years and eight months that my father was locked up, without a laptop, without a phone, without any contact with the outside world that was life-threatening. I feel guilty that I never felt that. I now understand very well that my father, like almost all fathers of my generation, never mentioned their Lockdown.
They couldn’t and wouldn’t talk about it. After the death of my dear and sensible father, I wanted to talk to his niece, Aunt Wies, who was also at the same hiding address, about their period in hiding. Please, she said, don’t do this to me. I can’t and don’t want to think about it!
But because my professor, who is always available for me and regularly calls me back from the operating theatre, had put me back on the right mental track, I was able to quietly answer a number of phone calls from people who sought support from me. And there were more than usual today, unfortunately.

Additional Articles

Nechama Rivlin - ת.נ.צ.ב.ה

The European Jewish Association expresses its heartfelt condolences to Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin on the passing of his beloved wife Nechama. Like the President himself, Nechama represented a respected and unifying force for good in Israel, her patience, steady hand, compassion and love for her country was evident and exerted a huge and positive influence on her husband. It was a symbiotic patriotism that demonstrated the best of Israel.

We send him our love and thoughts at this difficult time.

ת.נ.צ.ב.ה

 

The latest reflections from our esteemed colleague and advisory board member Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs

I am a tightrope walker
With fear of heights

You probably know those images of a tightrope walker who has strung a rope between two gigantic high-rise buildings In Manhattan and walks on the tightrope with a stick in his hands. One slip and the show is over! It is vital that the tightrope walker constantly concentrates, does not get distracted, keeps his goal in mind and is not afraid of heights. In this week’s Sidra as well as in the Pirkee Awoth – Proverbs of the Fathers that we will learn this Shabbat, I meet myself as the tightrope walker. And on the eighth day he must be circumcised on the foreskin of his body (Leviticus 12: 3). In the Halaga, Jewish law, it is stated that although the Brit Mila, the circumcision, can be performed during the whole eighth day, it is nevertheless better to fulfill this mitzvah early in the morning. Keeping a commandment or any good deed should not be delayed! We learn this lesson from patriarch Awraham. When he was ordered by G’d to sacrifice his son Yitzchak, he did not postpone thatorder, but he got up early to do what was required of him.
Knowing this, the question arises: Why didn’t Awraham circumcise himself in the morning, but delayed his Brit Mila until later that day? One of the answers I found was that Awraham didn’t just think about himself. He wanted others to hear what he was doing. He wanted the entire society to stop idolatry. He hoped that everyone would realize that there is only one G’d and that He demands of the men to be circumcised. He understood that if he fulfilled this mitzvah early in the morning, hardly anyone would notice. And so, for the sake of publicity, he decided to do it later that day. So that others would be inspired.
In the Proverbs of the Fathers (chapter 2:1) we read: What is the right way for man to choose? Any way that honors him who follows him and at the same time honors him by the people.
From this we see that Awraham’s position is a general rule. In everything we do we have to look at the context. What is the influence of my behavior on my environment? Judaism is not black or white. On the one hand you always have to walk the right way, but on the other hand, depending on the situation, you sometimes have to choose an alternative route to achieve the same goal.
So life is a continuous tightrope walk. If you only look up, you lose sight of the road you have to walk. If you only look down, you will be overwhelmed by the fear of the abyss. Especially in this difficult period in which we all find ourselves, it is vital
not to think black and white. It will be fine and I will ignore all the adapted rules that the Government and the physicians require from us, is a one- sided and therefore completely wrong position. It is like that tightrope walker who has no eye for reality and only tries to reach the other side with his head up. But also just looking into the depths, seeing everything
black, letting your thoughts be determined solely by screaming terrifying media reports, is a wrong position.
I feel like a tightrope walker. I make sure that I am not getting sick by alarming headlines on FB, newspapers, radio and TV. At the same time I have to consciously observe new rules and good advice. I must not shut myself off from reality. I also have to realize that I am constantly observed and that my unstable behavior can also instill fear or indifference in others.
Dear people. Do not take this column personally. I just wanted to show you how I am constantly balancing. I am a tightrope walker who refuses to look down due to fear of heights. But I also know that only my view upwards is not the Jewish and right way. I try to keep my balance. Do you do that too!
Binyomin Jacobs, Chief Rabbi

Why Israeli Politicians Aren’t Talking About America’s anti-Semitism Crisis, Even After Monsey

Many are fearful of saying the wrong thing, with Netanyahu and Bennett’s tone-deaf approaches to previous Diaspora attacks seemingly serving as warnings

As news of the horrific knife attack in Monsey was breaking on Saturday – the police still in pursuit of the perpetrator, the injured victims being rushed to hospitals – the CNN anchor turned to the network’s correspondent in Jerusalem for reaction.

It’s hard to imagine how, in any other circumstances, a violent crime in the heart of the United States would cause a network to turn to a foreign nation for comment. But the spate of anti-Semitic attacks on American Jews over the past few months, culminating in this month’s Jersey City and Monsey attacks, sent them to what they assumed would be a logical address for the most immediate reaction to Jewish persecution: the Jewish state.

In reality, though, Israeli leaders are now often hesitant to be among the first to speak out against anti-Semitic violence in the Diaspora. It isn’t because they aren’t deeply concerned by the phenomenon, which is being covered thoroughly in Israel, but because the odds of saying the wrong thing are high.

The degree of difficulty in devising the appropriate response has also risen in an era where anti-Semitism has become a political weapon. Israel’s leaders are justifiably fearful that the slightest slip of the tongue will be transformed into ammunition in the left-right political wars overseas, and then fired against the Jewish state itself.

That caution was evident in the defensive tone of the very first official response to the attack, provided by President Reuven Rivlin. “Anti-Semitism is not just a Jewish problem, and certainly not just the State of Israel’s problem,” Rivlin stated. “We must work together to confront this rising evil, which is a real global threat.”

Rivlin’s words set the tone for other Israeli officials. They walked a tightrope between Israel’s commitment to defending Jews around the world, refusing to stand by passively as they suffer and die at the hands of attackers, while avoiding the appearance of treading on the internal political and security matters of another country.

It took until Sunday for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to issue his carefully worded reaction at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting. “Israel strongly condemns the recent displays of anti-Semitism, including the vicious attack at the home of a rabbi in Monsey, NY, during Hanukkah,” he said. He also expressed willingness to “cooperate however possible with the local authorities in order to assist in defeating this phenomenon. We offer our assistance to every country.”

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, meanwhile, vowed to “work tirelessly to restore the sense of personal security each and every Jew deserves,” lacing his statement with a pro-Israel advocacy message, saying that “the delegitimization and anti-Semitism we face every day has raised its ugly head once again.”

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, pushed a bit harder, calling for unspecified “action” against violent anti-Semitism, declaring that “This is a time for action, not words. … This is a time for enforcement that deters the perpetrators of hate, whoever they may be.”

Only one Israeli official – Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman – offered up the traditional Zionist response to anti-Semitic violence in the Diaspora: Suggesting Jews could only be truly safe in their own state. “Again and again, we are witnessing the dire consequences of anti-Semitism,” he wrote. “Alongside the deep grief and best wishes for the injured, it is important to know that the main solution to such phenomena is immigration to Israel.”

Maybe it is because Lieberman is not currently serving as a government minister, or perhaps because he made his call for embattled Diaspora Jews to move to Israel in Hebrew, that the blowback was minimal.

In contrast, when Netanyahu sent the same message in 2015, following the murderous attack on a kosher grocery store in Paris, France’s Jewish community was infuriated.

Two days after the attack took place on January 9, Netanyahu responded by forming a special ministerial committee to discuss steps to encourage aliyah from France (and Europe in general), stating: “I wish to tell all French and European Jews – Israel is your home.” He reiterated that message when he visited a synagogue full of Parisian Jews shortly afterward, pointing out that “Jews these days have an opportunity that did not exist in the past: to live freely in the only Jewish state, the State of Israel.” He added that “any Jew who chooses to come to Israel will be greeted with open arms and an open heart. It is not a foreign nation, and hopefully they and you will one day come to Israel.”

There was a fierce negative reaction from France’s chief rabbi, Haïm Korsia, and other representatives of French and European Jewry. Rabbi Menachem Margolin, general director of the European Jewish Association, said Netanyahu and others “must cease this Pavlovian reaction every time Jews in Europe are attacked.”

He complained that “after every anti-Semitic attack in Europe, the Israeli government issues the same statements about the importance of aliyah, rather than employ every diplomatic and informational means at its disposal to strengthen the safety of Jewish life in Europe.” Margolin added that “every such Israeli campaign severely weakens and damages the Jewish communities that have the right to live securely wherever they are.”

France’s then-prime minister, Manuel Valls, also rejected Netanyahu’s call, stating that if 100,000 Jews left the country, “France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.”

Whether because Israel’s government leadership learned a lesson from the 2015 experience, or due to its general caution around American Jews, there has not been a hint of a call for American Jews to consider emigration to Israel – even after the most shocking recent anti-Semitic attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway in October 2018 and last April, respectively.

After those incidents, the official Israeli response ran into a different kind of trouble: the perception of political partisanship. Israeli officials were criticized for taking sides in the bitter round of finger-pointing that followed the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, after supporting President Donald Trump and defending him against those who felt he had fanned the flames of white supremacism.

Then-Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, who visited the United States following the Pittsburgh shooting, insisted in an interview that “using the horrible anti-Semitic massacre to attack the president is unfair, it’s wrong,” adding that Trump was “a great friend of Israel and of the Jews.” And at a public event, Bennett indicated that the reaction to the massacre was overblown, saying: “This is not in any sense Germany of the ’30s, it doesn’t resemble that in any possible way.”

Bennett was slammed for stepping out of line – for lecturing, instead of listening to the pain of American Jews trying to cope with the threat of anti-Semitism. The minefield of U.S. identity politics has only grown more treacherous since, with an intensification of what pundit Benjamin Wittes calls “selective outrage” around anti-Semitism.

Increasingly, those on the right and left are pointing fingers at each other depending on who the perpetrator of an anti-Semitic attack may be, refusing to acknowledge that hatred of Jews “does not align with any simple political narrative,” Wittes wrote in The Atlantic on Sunday.

And so it is little wonder that Israeli leaders – particularly while they are consumed with their own country’s domestic political turmoil – are choosing the path of issuing carefully worded statements about Monsey and other attacks, and then, for the most part, staying out of the fray. They have much to potentially lose, and little if anything to gain.

As The Forward’s opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon pointed out Sunday in an op-ed titled “Why no one can talk about the attacks against Orthodox Jews,” “At a time when ideology seems to [reign] supreme in the chattering and political classes, the return of pogroms to Jewish life on American soil transcends ideology. In the fight against anti-Semitism, you don’t get to easily blame your traditional enemies – which, in the age of Trump, is a nonstarter for most people.”

Including, it seems, Israel’s political leaders.

The article was published on Haaretz

Greetings for the Upcoming Rosh HaShanah by Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Belgium, H.E. Mr. Charles Michel

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