Stand Up and Fight Back
Last week, Houston’s Beren Academy boys’ basketball team made a great kiddush Hashem when they showed their willingness to sacrifice their basketball ambitions, rather than sacrifice Shabbos. They reached the semifinals only to learn that the game would be played on Friday night. Despite their Christian opponent’s willingness to adjust the schedule, the league said no and insisted the game had to be played on Shabbos. The school sued, won, and the boys defeated their opponents in the semifinal only to lose in the final. But the truth is, at that point it no longer mattered if they won or lost. The statement had been made to the world, through Jewish media and more significantly, secular national and international media including CNN, Foxnews, ESPN and other. These boys had demonstrated their willingness to forfeit the dream of any adolescent, to win a championship, in order to honor Shabbos.
While most of the world focuses on the positive message this team sent the world about the value of Shabbos, I believe that the greatest impact of their decision was on themselves. These boys will grow up and forever remember the experience of standing up for something, protesting on principal and fighting for a core value. The fierce loyalty to Shabbos and the satisfaction of Jewish pride are indelibly impressed on them forever.
Last Shabbos morning, I gave a sermon that included referring to the relative silence of Jewish groups on Harvard’s campus in light of the anti-Israel conference being held there, as appalling. The response to my sermon was for the most part very positive, but surprisingly, this one point touched a nerve and drew some heavy push back. One man from outside our community, who had read the sermon on a blog, called my home late one evening to heavily criticize my message saying that his son attends Harvard and given the challenging nature of the Ivy League school, there is no time to protest or object even to inappropriate conferences. He also argued that there is less than a minyan of Orthodox students and therefore, no organized protest is possible.
While this man’s arguments in response to my sermon didn’t exactly convince me to retract my remarks, other comments did cause me to think about this issue further. I have learned that Chabad on campus did, in fact, organize a protest and I believe they deserve our encouragement and appreciation. I also heard from a leader of another Jewish campus group who was offended by my words and took great exception to the way I related the situation. He communicated that outrage and protest are not the only response and that a strategic decision was made not to react in this way. Instead, students shared their opinion through op-eds in the campus newspaper, the Harvard Crimson.
I feel terrible for having offended him or his students and told him so. As a person on the ground, his assessment of the situation and the impact of this conference directly affect him. The argument that we should not shine a light on our enemies and provide the attention they seek certainly has merit. Nevertheless, I still feel strongly that a more public response should have taken place for many reasons.
Firstly, the strategy of remaining mostly silent, not giving our enemies attention, not reacting with outrage and protest, is simply not working. We are losing the battle on campuses and we are losing badly. The pro-Palestinian students have dominated the conversation with their narrative of modern Israeli history and there is growing sympathy for the Palestinian plight, with increasing hostility towards Israel on campuses across this country. It seems to me that remaining shy, quiet and working behind the scenes, all arguments I have heard locally and now from Harvard, are simply not working to silence our enemies or slow the growth of their movement.
But, there is a second consideration that to me is as important as winning the public relations battle on campus and that is winning the hearts and identities of our Jewish students. Most of them, including Day School graduates are tremendously under equipped to handle confrontations with anti-Israel groups. While our local Jewish Day Schools do a good job, ask the average child who has been in Jewish school their whole life, simple questions like – What is an armistice line? What is the green line and when was it established? Are Arabs citizens in Israel and do they have a vote? What are the Biblical borders of Israel and how have the modern borders changed from 1948 to the present? Who started each of Israel’s wars and who did we fight? Has there ever been a country called Palestine and who were its citizens? You may be shocked by their ignorance, and to a certain degree lack of interest or passion.
I submit to you that our Jewish students on campus lack the knowledge, passion, spirit and courage to properly fight for Israel and it is largely our fault. We have failed them by not providing rigorous modern Israel history curriculum in their education. And, moreover, we fail them when we encourage a shy, behind the scenes, approach when pro Palestinians activists aggressively promote anti-Israel sentiment on campus. The strategy employed recently at Harvard and frankly, only a year ago in our own backyard, does a disservice to our Jewish students, in my opinion, who could use an experience fighting for something.
Mordechai told Esther 2,500 years ago, salvation and redemption will come from God through someone else, but if you don’t rise to the occasion by lobbying and protesting, you and your family will be lost. The same can be said of us. I am confident that Hashem has a plan for Israel and that security and prosperity will come despite what is happening on campuses and elsewhere. But, what will be with us and with our precious children if they go through life never having stood up for something, never having fought for a value or ideal, never protesting an injustice and never advocating for our beloved State of Israel?
The famous South African author Alan Paton once said, “When I go up there, the Big Judge will say to me, ‘Where are your wounds?’ and if I say ‘I haven’t any,’ He will say, ‘Was there nothing to fight for?’ I couldn’t face that question.”
We are correctly concerned about Jewish continuity, Jewish pride, and Jewish living. Let’s solidify our children’s Jewish identities and values by teaching them that there are some things worth fighting for, whether it is not playing a semifinal game on Shabbos, or confronting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activists on campus.
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