Dogs Bark, and the Convoy Passes Through

August 23rd: Ekev
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This week’s Torah portion is extremely important theologically. It establishes what is known as Deuteronomic Theology, the belief that that God will reward the obedient and punish the disobedient. If we (Israel) obey our covenant with God and follow all of God’s mitzvot, there will be lots of blessings. However, if we disobey God’s mitzvot and betray the covenant, the consequences will be disastrous.
“If you shall obey My commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve Me with all your heart and with all your soul, then I will give you the rain of your land in its due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your grain, and your wine, and your oil. And I will send grass in your fields for your cattle that you may eat and be full. Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and God will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain, and that the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you.” (Deuteronomy 11.13-17)

 There is something hopeful about this theology—that good will be rewarded and evil punished, but the facts of life are not always so fair. From the Biblical Book of Job to Rabbi Harold Kushner’s modern When Bad Things Happen to Good People, we have been wrestling with this Deuteronomic Theology for millennia. Too often, we see the wicked prospering and the good in dire straits. Is God paying attention? Is God holding judgment for some later date? Sometimes we wonder whether there is any sense in the world. Is there a connection between what we do and what happens to us?

This question—of the connection between what we do and what happens—brings us to a modern news story: the attempted trip to Israel by U.S. Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. As with most controversies, there are lots of angles. And, as with most controversies these days, there is a tendency to focus on Donald Trump’s role or reaction. The news media cannot seem to take their eyes off of our President—even when he is not the main player.

Who are the main players in this story? The main players are:
(1)   The State of Israel and its established law that bans BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) and other anti-Israeli propagandists from visiting and using their visits to incite trouble and bad publicity.

(2)   A BDS effort to bring the two U.S. Representatives, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, on a propaganda and incitement tour of Israel. This tour was organized by or coordinated with Hanan Ashrawi, an eloquent and well-connected Palestinian diplomat and propagandist.

We can argue all day about the strategic wisdom of the Israeli policy or of the way that the policy was enforced, but the ultimate truth is that the trip was intended to bring shame upon Israel and incite riots in sensitive areas (like the Temple Mount). We may pretend that the strategies with which Israel handles such attacks matter, but the fact is that there is no way that Israel could have dealt with the proposed trip that would not have ended in indignation and existential criticism of the Jewish State. It is reminiscent of an ancient commentary in Midrash Rabba on Lamentations:
A Jew passed in front of Hadrian and greeted him.
The Emperor asked, “Who are you?” He answered, “I am a Jew.”
The Emperor exclaimed, “How dare a Jew pass in front of Hadrian and greet him?! Take him and cut off his head.'’
Another Jew passed, and, seeing what had happened to the first man, did not greet Hadrian.
He asked, “Who are you?” He answered, “A Jew.”
Hadrian exclaimed, “How dare a Jew pass in front of Hadrian without giving greeting?! Take him and cut off his head.”
The Emperor’s senators said to him, ‘'We cannot understand your actions. He who greeted you was killed, and he who did not greet you was killed!”
The Emperor replied, “Do you seek to advise me how I wish to kill those I hate?!”

This is what the Holy Spirit meant when It cried out (in Lamentations 3.60), and said, “Thou has seen all their vengeance and all their devices against Me!”

In other words, those who hate Israel will hate Israel no matter what Israel does. This indeed is one of the problems with BDS. While there are some members who are supporters of Israel but think that boycotts, divestment, or sanctions will help nudge the Israeli government into different policies, most BDS activists are against the existence of the Jewish State and are working to destroy it.

Now, back to the news media—and our responses to them. Not only can reporters and editors not take their eyes off President Trump, they are also fixated on everything the four new congresswomen—Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley, and Tlaib—say and do. Part of it may be an insatiable desire to focus on underdogs or aberrations. The other may be playing into President Trump’s attempt to make these political outliers the face of the Democratic Party. In either case, all the attention is far out of proportion to the significance of the controversy. These new congresswomen are not representative of the Democratic Party’s attitudes or actions on anything, much less Israel. And, American support for Israel is essentially a non-issue. While the American community or American Jewish community may discuss or argue about particular policies, the unequivocal support for Israel in both parties is over 90%.

Yes, there are those who hate Israel and work to destroy it, and Representatives Omar and Tlaib are among them. This is not news. Why elevate their cause by making them the center of attention? Why engage in their antics when we all know their true purposes?  As an old Hebrew saying puts it: “The dogs bark, and the convoy passes through.”