This coming weekend, there will be two major events in the Jewish world, each representing a unique perspective on Israel and Judaism.
In Washington, D.C., thousands of American Jews will gather for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. This year’s conference comes at an interesting time in Middle Eastern politics. The Arab uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Syria, the signing of a peace treaty between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the recent demonstrations by Palestinians on Israel’s Lebanese and Syrian borders, and, of course, the downing of Osama Bin Laden by U.S. Special Forces. Not to be forgotten is the prospect of a nuclear Iran still looming strong. AIPAC attendees this year will hear from President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and a host of U.S. political figures. The conference will begin on the rebound of the Middle East policy speech delivered by President Obama this morning, and, upon the conclusion of the conference, Prime Minister Netanyahu will be on Capitol Hill addressing the U.S. Congress. This entire “political buzz” is not only exciting, but it is also crucial to Israel’s security and long-term survival. What will be said (although today, President Obama did not really say much), and the follow-up to the speeches, standing ovations and promises for peace with security, is of great concern to the thousands of delegates who have found the time in their busy schedules to spend the next few days in Washington, and to Israelis and Israel supporters around the world.
Also on the calendar this weekend is the celebration of Lag B’Omer (the 33rd day of the Omer). Beginning on the second night of Passover, the Torah commands us, on a daily basis, to count seven complete weeks, culminating with the celebration of Shavuot. This counting is known as “Sefirat Ha-Omer” (The Counting of the Omer), and it relates to an ancient agricultural ordinance from the Biblical period. In the Talmud, the period of the Omer took upon a new character, one of mourning and sadness. It is customary during the Omer period to observe certain rituals of mourning, including not shaving or cutting hair, refraining from hearing live music, and not scheduling weddings or other celebrations. This is all the result of the following story related in the Talmud and Midrash:
It was said that Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students (24,000), and all of them died from a plague during the same time period, because they did not treat each other with respect…It was taught: All of them died between Pesach and Shavuot (the Omer period)…The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva developed a new set of students. He gathered his new students and said to them: My sons, listen to me, my first students died because of their narrow-mindedness and jealousy toward one another. Beware not to repeat their unfortunate behavior. (Talmud Yevamot and Midrash Genesis Rabbah).
According to tradition, on Lag B’Omer, the plague that befell Rabbi Akiva’s students came to a stop. This marks a relaxation in the rites of mourning during the Omer, hence the celebratory character of the day.
It is more than symbolic that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva – the great rabbi who declared the verse “Love your neighbor as yourself” to be the greatest of all principles in the Torah—died a tragic death precisely because they violated this very principle. On Lag B’Omer, in addition to the bonfires and celebrations, we also take time to pause and reflect upon the lessons learned from the tragic deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students. We contemplate the dangers of inner strife within Jewish society, with the grim realization that political divisiveness, social strife, ethnic discrimination, jealousy and hatred are as much a threat to the survival of Israel and the Jewish people as are the rhetoric of Hamas and the threats from Iran. In fact, our rabbinic sages remind us that both times we lost our Jewish state had nothing to do with threats from the Hamas and Hezbollah’s of the day. As powerful as the Babylonians and Romans were, the powers of inner corruption or causeless hatred were the true evils that brought about the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people off of their land.
Obviously, these issues will not be raised in Washington this coming weekend, but any Jew who sincerely cares about the future of Israel and the Jewish people must ask: have we learned and internalized these harsh lessons from our past?
Recent news from within Israel – having nothing to do with the Palestinians or any other security issues – sadly indicates that we have not.
The leading Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Acharanot reported this past Tuesday:
The 2011-2012 school year will open in four months, but it seems racial discrimination is already raising its ugly head: Ynet has learned that nearly 200 haredi (ultra-Orthodox) girls in Jerusalem have yet to be admitted into educational institutions in the city, although registration has already ended. The students, most of them of Sephardic/Mizrahi descent, make up 7% of the city’s ultra-Orthodox female students and are slated to begin studying in a seminary (high school for girls) next year. Almost a year after the arrest of parents of Ashkenazi students in the Emmanuel community over local schools’ discriminatory policies, it seems racial discrimination in Israel is still alive and kicking.
The following day, Israel’s State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss released his annual report on the state. Within his report, Lindenstrauss devoted sixty pages to the serious faults and weaknesses of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) school system, which is funded by Israeli taxpayer money. He also criticized the Ministry of Education’s lack of oversight on these problems, and the conclusion of this section of his report read:
The administrative system for accepting students into haredi schools, as well as certain regulations (within these schools), demonstrates a clear discrimination against female students from Sephardic/ Mizrahi descent.
According to further reports and explanations, the “administrative system” referred by Lindenstrauss includes an overt “weeding out” of girls of Sephardic/Mizrahi descent, with claims that “they are not socially or intellectually fit” for the rigors of a seminary High School, and would be better off in a vocational school. The “regulations” within these schools referred to by Lindenstrauss includes that if a Sephardic/Mizrahi girl should be accepted, one of the conditions of acceptance is that she agrees that she will no longer pronounce her prayers with a Sephardic/Mizrahi accent, and will fully adopt the Ashkenazi pronunciation.
If racial discrimination within Jewish segments of Israeli society is not painful enough, the extra added tragic twist – much like the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva – is that this discrimination emanates from a segment of Israeli society that consider themselves the true guardians of an “authentic Torah lifestyle.”
Of course, this is no matter for an AIPAC conference, but it is narrow-sighted to put our heads into a bucket of sand and ignore such awful manifestations of causeless hatred within our own society. Israelis, along with Jews around the world, must begin to address these matters seriously – as seriously as we do the matters taken up at an AIPAC conference—lest we forget the grave lessons of the first two destructions of our land, and the death of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students.
In this week’s Torah portion – Parashat B’Chukotai – God tells the Jewish people:
“If you follow My laws and are careful to keep my commandments…I will grant peace in the land…but if you do not listen to Me, and you denigrate my commandments…I will make the land desolate, and I will scatter you among the nations.”
While we stand with Israel at AIPAC, let us also commit to effect a change within Israeli society. In addition to lobbying our congressmen and senators, let us also lobby Knesset members to create a fair and just society within Israel, void of discrimination against any sector of Israeli society. Let us lobby to introduce anti-discrimination laws in Israel’s legal systems, so that all Jewish students have an equal opportunity to be educated within the state-sponsored schools of their choice. Let us spend as much time promoting Rabbi Akiva’s dictum of “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself – This is the greatest of all Torah principles” within Israeli society, as we do on Israel’s security-related matters.
On this Lag B’Omer – around bonfires, at celebrations, and even at AIPAC – let us remember what Rabbi Akiva said to his new round of students:
My sons, listen to me, my first students died because of their narrow-mindedness and jealousy toward one another. Beware not to repeat their unfortunate behavior.