Rabbi Dr. Michael Berenbaum spoke at Congregation Schara Tzedeck on Nov. 5. He said: “We can’t raise a generation that is scared of being Jewish.” (photo from kolotmanagement.com)
The mood at Congregation Schara Tzedeck was solemn Sunday night, Nov. 5, when parents, grandparents and students from the Jewish community gathered to listen to Rabbi Dr. Michael Berenbaum, an American professor who is considered one of the world’s preeminent Holocaust scholars. Berenbaum came to discuss the importance of campus conversations, and specifically how to handle the critics of Israel who are voicing their support of Palestinians vociferously on college campuses throughout Canada and the United States.
Until the Oct. 7 terror attacks, Berenbaum said, our children had never known serious difficulty as Jews. “They’ve had the privilege of living in the greatest time to be Jewish, maybe in the history of the Jewish people,” he said. “Now, we’re asking our kids to toughen up, because they’re now going to face difficulty, pain, anguish and danger – physical or intellectual – for being Jews. This is our test of the hour, and it comes with the shattering of easily held assumptions about Jewish life.”
The Oct. 7 pogrom, he said, was worse than the 1906 Kishinev pogrom and worse than Kristallnacht in 1938 in terms of the number of Jews killed and the vehemence with which they were killed. “We believed Israel was founded to protect its people from these pogroms, and yet we were not safe.”
Berenbaum said it is crucial for Jewish students to be armed with accurate knowledge so they can counter the anti-Israel rhetoric they hear on campus. That means refuting claims that Israel is committing genocide. “Understand that this is war, and it has both direct and collateral consequences,” he said. “You cannot deal with war at this point without significant civilian casualties. While Israel is taking significant steps to avoid that, it’s unavoidable.” He noted that, since March 2011, the conflict in Syria has claimed the lives of 500,000 people – “and the rest of the world has heard nothing about this.”
On the claim that Israel is “occupying Gaza,” he clarified that Israel left Gaza in 2005, displacing 8,000 settlers so that Gazans would take control of their lives. “Israel is the only country in the world who has sacrificed land for normalization. We gave up Sinai for normalization with Egypt, and the reason the invasion happened now was because it appeared Saudi Arabia would establish a certain kind of peace with Israel,” he said. “Normalization represented a danger to the lateral forces in the region and that’s why this broke out now.”
On the claim that “Jews are colonizers,” he noted that Jews have never forsaken their connection to the land of Israel, and that there have been five cities with a permanent Jewish settlement in Israel. “When they came to Israel, they settled and worked the land, which is the opposite of colonization,” he said. “They didn’t take its resources and export it elsewhere.”
He noted that Palestinians were offered a state in 2000 and again in 2006, and they turned both opportunities down. “The Palestinians have never lost an opportunity to lose an opportunity, because their leadership is weak and corrupt,” he said.
There are a few things we can do now to ensure we are strong, he continued. One is to educate ourselves on the history of the state of Israel and Zionism. Another is to ensure we have solidarity by reaching out to one another.
“These are not easy times and we need Jewish toughness and resilience,” said Berenbaum. “We can’t raise a generation that is scared of being Jewish. I want our Jewish students to be proud, tough and confident enough to accept the animus that will come their way, but to have the human capacity to respond to it.”
He ended his talk by calling Jews the “canary in the coalmine. You want to know if a society is healthy? See how it treats its Jews. We’re living in a world that’s fundamentally unhealthy, but it’s important to remember that we have many friends, we are not alone. We have to cultivate and respect those friendships, and not take them for granted.”
The events of Oct. 7 precipitated an earthquake, he added, “and the ground won’t settle for awhile. But earthquakes give the opportunity to build in a different way. We are in for a tough and difficult time, which will demand the best of us. But I fundamentally believe we have it in us to rise to the occasion.”
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond.