Understanding the complexities of the Israel-Hamas conflict: A Personal Insight

In the wake of my recent journey to Israel, marked by the tumultuous period from October 7 to October 12, I find myself compelled to share a personal insight into the complexities surrounding the Israel-Hamas conflict. Having returned to Montreal, my reflections extend beyond the borders of Israel, aiming to illuminate the profound implications this ongoing conflict holds for the global Jewish community.

To comprehensively understand the current situation, I have been keeping myself updated through various channels of information. I have been actively participating in synagogue services, engaging with local events, and closely monitoring diverse sources, including traditional mediums such as radio and television, as well as contemporary platforms like WhatsApp, Zoom, LinkedIn, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Substack, and ChatGPT.

As I returned to my Montreal synagogue, a palpable concern for the outbreak of conflict in Israel became evident. Regular prayers for the safety and well-being of Israel *1 took on a new urgency, with an additional prayer for the recovery of hostages *2 introduced on October 7. This prayer has resonated across synagogues globally, becoming a poignant expression of solidarity in the face of adversity.

The discourse within the synagogue community further heightened as Rabbi Poupko addressed the alarming surge in anti-Jewish sentiments. This trend manifested before the Israeli Defense Forces intervened in Gaza. The pressing question emerged: How do we navigate and comprehend this troubling phenomenon amid geopolitical tensions?

The aftermath of the attacks on Israel witnessed an unsettling celebration by some Palestinians and their supporters worldwide. This celebration escalated into violent attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions, leaving a trail of defaced buildings, vandalized businesses, and instances of persecution against Jewish and pro-Israel students on university campuses. Tragedy struck with the heart-wrenching murder of a Jewish man during a Palestinian protest in Los Angeles, highlighting the gravity of the situation.

In Montreal, the repercussions unfolded with a Molotov cocktail targeting a synagogue and two Jewish schools, while tensions at Concordia University reached a boiling point, resulting in an altercation between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel students, requiring police and ambulance intervention.

These recent events underscore the urgent need for societal unity against hate and discrimination. It is imperative that we actively engage in discussions, promote education, and advocate for understanding among diverse communities to counter the alarming rise of antisemitism.

Historical Roots of Antisemitism

Understanding the challenges facing Israel and the global Jewish community requires an exploration of the historical roots of antisemitism. Antipathy towards Jews originated in supersessionist ideologies within both Christianity and Islam, the junior cousins of Judaism.

Christianity

Christians, the followers of Jesus, were Jews who broke with traditional Jewish Torah practice but incorporated the Hebrew Bible into their religion. The Catholic Church is the successor to the “Roman” Church. In the fourth century CE, the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. In 380 CE, the emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica, making Christianity the Roman Empire’s official religion. It is often said that at the beginning of the fourth century, you could be killed for being a Christian, and at the end of the fourth century, you could be killed for not being a Christian. The Catholic Roman Church is the heir to this tradition following the collapse of the Roman Empire.

During the Enlightenment, when the Protestant Church was born to counter Catholic domination and foster a more individual and “rational” approach to the Hebrew Bible, influential scholars like Voltaire and Marx continued the vilification of Jews and Judaism, contributing to the development of “scientific antisemitism” in the nineteenth century. This led to the ideologies of communism and Nazism, fostering social animosity. Marx, for instance, falsely depicted Jews as oppressors of the working classes. This narrative fueled the rise of the Communist Party and also the Nazi Party, leading to the tragic persecution of Jews in Communist Russia and Nazi Germany.

Islam

Islamic antisemitism, evidenced in historical attacks on Israel, has deep roots tracing back to Muhammad’s vision of Islam as the sole global religion. Throughout history, Muslim armies achieved dominance in regions like Medieval Spain and Muslim India, and their advance into Europe was only halted in 1683 at the Battle of Vienna. Despite historical setbacks, the influence of Islamist ideology endures, supported by figures such as the Ayatollahs of Iran, who finance insurgencies in Africa and the Middle East. This poses a threat to various nations, including the UK, France, Germany, the U.S., Canada, Yemen, Sudan, Syria, and Turkey.

For those seeking insights into the particular history of Gaza, I recommend watching the YouTube video “Gaza in Jewish History, from the Bronze Age to the Present” by Harry Abramson. The footage offers valuable perspectives on Gaza’s history, from ancient times through historical periods right up to the present.

Mobilizing Communities

The breaching of the Israeli border and the unprovoked, brutal attack by Hamas on October 7 on Israeli communities living along the border prompted Jewish people worldwide to unite swiftly. I was among 200,000 individuals at the Washington, DC Mall, specifically at the Lincoln Memorial, who gathered from all corners of the U.S. and Canada to condemn the actions of Hamas. They openly declared their intention to repeat the October 7 attacks, to annihilate Israel, and to continue holding over 240 hostages. Our collective stand aims to support the Israeli effort to recover all hostages. Simultaneously, we strive to permanently eliminate the power of Hamas in Gaza, preventing them from orchestrating any future attacks. To this end, we remain determined and strong.

The Washington event had an intense but joyous atmosphere, marked by a collective determination to condemn the violence of Hamas and support those affected. Various voices spoke eloquently, including Jewish and non-Jewish politicians, representatives from Black, Christian, and Iranian communities, as well as families directly impacted by the hostage situation. A comprehensive 2.5-hour transcript of the rally is available here.

The following week, I attended a rally organized by pro-Israel students at Concordia, protesting violent Palestinian activities on campus. One speaker, Julia Langleben, a McGill student, passionately shared her experiences and described the intimidation faced by pro-Israel students since October 7. You can watch her talk here. The Montreal Gazette reported on the event; you can read about it here.

Additionally, a protest demanding the release of hostages held by Hamas took place on the steps of Place Des Arts in Montreal.

 

On December 4, amidst a snowstorm, I joined over 16,000 individuals in Ottawa to voice support for Israel and call for the release of hostages held by Hamas. Again, in addition to Jews from all parts of the country, politicians, community leaders, individuals representing the Ukrainian, Persian, Black, and Christian communities, religious leaders of all faiths, and family members of hostages raised their voices in support of Israel and its predicament. Coverage is available here.

Voices of Support: Diverse Perspectives on Israel in the Current Conflict

In the ongoing Israel/Hamas conflict, various notable voices provide unique perspectives:

  1. Mosab Hassan Yousef: The eldest son of Hamas co-founder Sheikh Hassan Yousef, Mosab defected from the terrorist organization in 2005. His 2010 book, “Son of Hamas,” offers a firsthand account of his experiences, revealing atrocities committed by Hamas against prisoners in Israeli jails. He shared his insights with the University of Michigan students on November 29, 2023. Watch the discussion here. In the book, he reports that he “first saw the light” after a stint in an Israeli jail during the mid-1990s. At Megiddo Prison, he witnessed Hamas inmates leading a brutal year-long campaign to weed out supposed Israeli collaborators. During that time, he said, “Hamas tortured and killed hundreds of prisoners.” He recalled vivid memories of needles being inserted under fingernails and bodies charred with burning plastics. Many, if not all, had nothing to do with Israeli intelligence. “I will never forget their screams,” he continued. “I started asking myself a question: What if Hamas succeeded in destroying Israel and building a state? Will they destroy our people in this way?”
  2. Douglas Murray: An esteemed academic and scholar, Murray contributes a well-researched perspective on the geopolitical dynamics of the Israel/Hamas conflict. He founded the Centre for Social Cohesion in 2007 and discussed current deaths in Gaza during an interview with Piers Morgan on Sky News. Watch the interview here.
  3. Niall Ferguson, John Cochrane, and Stephen Kotkin: Esteemed scholars in their respective fields, they shared valuable insights on the geopolitics of the Middle East in a discussion at Stanford’s Hoover Institute. Their conversation reviewed the challenges posed by the war and discussed possible outcomes. Watch the entire debate here.
  4. Brigitte Gabriel: An American citizen of Lebanese Christian origin, Gabriel founded the NGO Act for America after seeking refuge in the U.S. following the Islamic takeover of Lebanon. Her mission is to raise awareness about the challenge of Islamism in America. Watch her perspective here.

The Price of Peace

Amidst the ongoing conflict in Gaza, the toll on human lives and the impact on all communities are stark. However, the Israeli cost of war is rarely mentioned in the mainstream media.

Today, on December 22, the IDF announced the deaths of two more soldiers killed during the fighting in the Gaza Strip, bringing the toll of slain troops in the ground offensive against Hamas to 139.

Lt. Shai Ayeli and Sgt. First Class Tal Shua

1- Lt. Shai Ayeli, 21:

  • Cadet in the Bahad 1 officers’ school’s Gefen Battalion.
  • He previously served in the Air Force’s Unit 669 and is from Ashkelon.

2- Sgt. First Class (res.) Tal Shua, 31:

  • Combat Engineering Corps’ 7071st Battalion, from Beersheba.
  • Israeli hospitals are currently treating over 10,000 seriously injured individuals.

In response to the brutal attack on October 8, Israel had to immediately mobilize to comfort survivors, bury the dead, and relocate hundreds of thousands of evacuees from the southern border to central Israel and Eilat. Facing the Hezbollah threat from Lebanon and Syria, communities near the northern border were also evacuated.

The call for immediate action led to the mobilization of 300,000 reserve soldiers. This created a logistical challenge of equipping, housing, and feeding this massive force. Volunteers from Israel and worldwide joined forces in a remarkable display of solidarity. An additional 300,000 Israelis returned to serve in the army, and global volunteers provided hands-on assistance all over Israel, with some even harvesting crops that had been left untended due to the crisis.

The response extends beyond the workforce, with millions of dollars swiftly collected from the general public, surpassing $60 million and reaching over a billion in the first month. This war’s motto is “Byahad Nenatzayach” – “United, we will be victorious,” reflecting the imperative to overcome a ruthless enemy that, for ideological reasons, refuses to accept the existence of Israel as a cooperative neighbour.

As we listen to the constant requests for humanitarian aid for Gaza, we must bear in mind that Hamas initiated this war and has never cared for its civilian population, squandering all resources previously provided on building massive and expensive attack tunnels and training children to kill Jews. This is what is fueling the current war.

In a year-end press conference on Wednesday, Secretary of State Tony Blinken laid bare the hypocrisy of those who call for a cease-fire and who place the onus only on Israel to end the war in Gaza.

“One of the things that’s striking to me is that, understandably, everyone would like to see this conflict end as quickly as possible, but if it ends with Hamas remaining in place and having the capacity and the stated intent to repeat October 7 again and again and again, that’s not in the interests of Israel, it’s not in the interests of the region, it’s not in the interests of the world. What is striking to me is that even as we hear many countries urging an end to this conflict… I hear virtually no one demanding of Hamas that it stop hiding behind civilians, that it lay down its arms, that it surrender. This would be over tomorrow if Hamas were to do that.”

A Call for Peace

As we embark on the joyous holiday season, let us reflect on the timeless message of Chanukah, which transcends all faiths. It highlights the idea of breaking free from oppression, representing the victory of freedom over both physical slavery and harmful ideologies.

Judaism and Israel have consistently aspired to preserve our way of life and actively collaborate to foster global harmony. Israel, demonstrating its commitment to humanitarian values, has consistently been at the forefront, extending aid to any nation grappling with natural or artificial disasters.

Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Ramadan, and whatever religion you practice, may we all contribute to increasing peace and harmony in our shared world. May we all witness the freeing of our hostages and the achievement of everlasting peace in Israel and worldwide. Hashta b’agala oo’bzman kariv – Speedily and soon in our present time!

 

FOOTNOTE:

  1. Special prayer for the safety and well-being of our soldiers and hostages.

Our father
Avinu,
In Heaven
Shabashamayim
Rock of Israel,
Tsur Yisrael
And its Redeemer
Vegoalo
Bless!
Barech!
The State of Israel
et Medinat Yisrael
The beginning of the flowering
Raishit Tzmihat
of our redemption
Geulateinu
Protect her
Hagen alecha
with the fullness of your compassion
b’evrat hasdecha
and spread over Her
u’fros alecha
the cover of your peace!
sukat shlomecha

2. A special prayer for the recovery of our hostages.

Acheinu,Our brothers
the entire Family of Israel.
kol beit Yisrael,
delivered into distress,
Hanetunim betzara, betzara
and captivity
oo b’shiviya,
Whether on sea or on land
bein hayam oo’bein hayabasha
May God shower compassion
Hamakom yerachem,
on them, and remove them from distress to relief,
vhotziam mitzara l’rvaha,
from darkness to light and
mi afela l’ora,
from oppression to redemption,
mshibud leg’ulah
Now, speedily and soon!
Hashta b’agalh oob’zman kariv!

3. Dr. Abramson, a Jewish history and thought specialist, serves as Dean at Touro University in Brooklyn, NY. Holding a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto, he has a rich academic background and shares a video on the history of Gaza from the Bronze Age to the present.

 

Confronting Antisemitism: Mobilizing Jewish Communities in Canada and Beyond

I recently visited Israel and witnessed the events that unfolded on October 7. The conflict began when Hamas, the ruling power in Gaza, breached Israel’s border defences on October 7, deploying three thousand fighters for acts of violence. It’s worth noting that regular citizens played a vital role in swiftly stopping the attackers on the first day, even before the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) arrived. The rapid response and intervention by the local people can be considered a remarkable and fortunate occurrence, given the seriousness of the situation.

Upon my return to Canada, I attended a conference in Ottawa on October 16 and 17, focused on addressing the issue of antisemitism in present-day Canada. The event, organized by CIJA (Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs), had been planned before the outbreak of the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict. The conference brought together a diverse group of 1,500 individuals, including 250 students from high school and college, as well as professionals from different fields, such as educators, law enforcement, NGO leaders, and scholars. They all came together to address the problem of hatred, particularly the insidious strain from social media platforms.

Notable figures, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and opposition leader Pierre Polievre, gave keynote addresses, emphasizing the gravity of the cause and reinforcing the collective resolve against bigotry. One of the most impactful accounts came from a teacher at Ottawa Public Schools, who courageously highlighted the persistent bullying faced by Jewish students. This revelation galvanized attendees, igniting discussions beyond the conference halls.

The gathering was an excellent opportunity for intimate dialogues with Members of Parliament like Sherry Romanado and Brad Redekopp. Their openness highlighted the potential for collaborative action. These interactions paved the way for sustained advocacy, a commitment shared by all participants determined to confront antisemitism head-on.

The conference taught us an important lesson: speaking out against hatred rather than being silent. Being silent only enables it to continue. The conference also highlighted the power of collective efforts and how they can bring about significant change. However, even as the conference ended, it was evident that we must remain vigilant, as demonstrated by the increased security measures and the presence of Palestinian protesters. It served as a stark reminder of the obstacles that we must overcome. Given these realities, we must reaffirm our unwavering commitment to fight against all forms of bigotry, utilizing the lessons of the past to guide us toward a more inclusive and just future.

Resilience and Unity: How the Jewish Community Responds

The Jewish people have a long and proud history of solidarity with their brethren, exhibiting remarkable resilience in adversity. For centuries, Jewish communities have consistently demonstrated their commitment to caring for orphans, widows, and strangers. In Montreal, this noble endeavour is entrusted to the Federation-CJA, which tirelessly works to provide for those in need. Every year, the community comes together for a fundraising campaign, gathering funds for these essential services. This year’s mission includes raising urgent funds for the war effort initiated on the first day of the conflict.

Our enduring traditions, commitment to Torah study, and alignment with Torah principles have provided sustenance for the Jewish people throughout millennia in both prosperous and challenging times. This emphasis on regular Jewish practice is pivotal in our collective efforts to support Israel’s existential war of survival, including the eradication of the threat to our people from Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. Whether inside or outside Israel, we are all dedicated to the common good, working towards the recovery of our captives and the elimination of threats like Hamas, ensuring the safety of our people.

The issue of antisemitism, which is the ongoing hatred and discrimination towards Jews, has been a long-standing problem. The Jewish community acknowledges this issue, as stated in the following passage from our Passover seder:

Through the ages, many groups have risen to destroy us. But the Holy One, Blessed Be, always saves us from their hand!

She’ lo echad bilvad amad aleinu l’chaloteinuV’ha Kadosh, Baruch Hu, matzileynu mi’yadam. (Hebrew)

On April 7, 2020, the talented Ishai Ribo enchanted the audience with his rendering of this Passover classic, ‘Vehi She’amda.’ With his mesmerizing vocals, he breathed life into the timeless lyrics, reminding us that throughout history, many have tried to bring harm to our people.

 

We must actively engage in the world to witness God’s miracles. As a collective responsibility, we must confront and oppose evil. It is the duty of every individual, regardless of age, to join the ranks of the Divine army to combat those who seek to harm us. As individuals and a unified community, we must consistently contribute to increasing goodness worldwide. This call extends to both Jewish and non-Jewish members of our society.

We hope to usher in the Messianic times only when we have successfully eliminated such malevolence. These are the times when ‘the lion shall lie down with the lamb’ – a peaceful world committed to universal well-being, health, and happiness.

Chazan Mutlu of Central Synagogue in NYC recorded this prayer that we all recite on behalf of our brethren facing adversity, wherever they may be on land or sea. We pray, ‘May the boundless mercy of God free them from distress to comfort, from darkness to light, and from slavery to redemption now, soon and speedily in our time – Hashta ba’agala uvizman kariv.’

 

My Journey in Israel from October 7-12: A Chronicle of the Jewish Community’s Resilience

Embarking on a journey through Israel from October 7-12, I found myself entwined in a tapestry of emotions, events, and the Jewish community’s resilience. The backdrop was set against the celebration of Simchat Torah, a jubilant occasion marking the completion of the annual Torah readings and the commencement of a new cycle.

I joined my nephew Rabbi Yair Silverman’s synagogue on October 7 for the Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah festivities. This marked a significant end to the Rosh Hashana-Yom Kippur-Sukkot holiday season. Simchat Torah is a unique event that signifies the completion of the annual synagogue readings of The Five Books of Moses, or the Torah, and the start of a new cycle with the story of Genesis/Bereishit, narrating the tale of the world’s creation.

Before the service started, Rabbi Silverman shared unsettling news about an ongoing attack in Israel. He offered refuge to anyone needing to return home but committed to continuing the service. Despite this news, most of the congregation stood together and decided to proceed with the synagogue services. The atmosphere remained festive throughout the day, and we reconvened at 6 p.m. for a scheduled talk by a congregation member and the closing service.

Later in the evening, we learned that Israel was in conflict with Hamas in Gaza. Rabbi Silverman received a remarkable phone call from a Rabbi in Tel Aviv that night. A couple scheduled to marry the next day insisted on proceeding with their wedding in Zichron Yaakov. This request was based on rabbinic teachings that emphasized not delaying joyous occasions, such as weddings or bar mitzvahs, even in the face of adversity.

A Joyous Wedding Amidst Adversity

Rabbi Silverman took on the responsibility and orchestrated a wedding for the young couple and their entourage with the support of his congregation. The heartfelt ceremony took place the very next day, on Sunday, October 8, at 1 p.m., hosted within the walls of their small synagogue housed in a school. The bride’s extended family and close friends attended the momentous occasion while adhering to cherished traditions. The synagogue community, spanning generations, celebrated the joyous event with the family, inviting strangers to participate as guests. This is a customary practice in the joy of a wedding celebration. Fortunately, I captured a video of this event, and the family graciously permitted me to share these precious moments with you.

Return to Jerusalem and Changing Realities

I drove back to my apartment in Jerusalem the next day, around noon. It’s located in the heart of Israel, amidst the picturesque Judean hills, and it takes about ninety minutes to reach from Zichron Yaakov, which lies just south of Haifa along the Mediterranean coast. When I arrived, my phone buzzed incessantly with updates from various WhatsApp groups, each one fervently discussing how to handle the unfolding situation. They shared information about cancellations, recommendations, and what events were still on track. Among them, my pilates community was particularly active, already planning for a class the following day.

My tickets for the highly anticipated concert featuring Ishay Ribo, a renowned artist celebrated for his soul-stirring interpretations of biblical texts, were initially scheduled for October 8 at Jerusalem’s Binyanei Hauma. However, they were cancelled, and refunds were promptly issued. To taste Ishay Ribo’s artistry, here’s a snippet from one of his concerts on a Jerusalem stage, dated November 26, 2019, retrieved from YouTube. Kicking off the evening’s musical journey, he performs “Modeh Ani,” a heartfelt ode expressing gratitude for each new day, a prayer commonly recited at dawn. What’s remarkable is the harmonious unity of the audience, fervently joining their voices in this melodic prayer. These concerts transcend mere musical performances; they evoke the essence of a collective spiritual experience akin to a live prayer service.

 

We were instructed by government authorities through official media channels and WhatsApp groups to prepare our homes for the current reality. This included ensuring everyone had enough water, food, flashlights, and transistor radios for their bomb shelters. I went to the mall with my friend Sarah Kraft, who offered to drive. During our visit, we explored various establishments such as the electronics store, hardware shop, health food boutique, and supermarket. While searching for transistor radios, we faced an unexpected challenge: the electronics store was out of stock. Fortunately, they directed us to a nearby place specializing in cell phones, where we purchased the last two radios available.

People in Israel came together to ensure soldiers and civilians were well-equipped with essential resources. Some gathered protective gear and ammunition, while others prepared meals for the 300,000 reservists called to duty at short notice. Meanwhile, many groups provided spiritual support through communal activities like singing, dancing, and Torah classes, both in-person and online via platforms like Zoom. Additionally, they crafted “tzitzit,” undergarments adorned with fringes to symbolize connection to the Torah, which were offered to any soldiers who wanted them.

In my Jerusalem residence, we are fortunate to have a bomb shelter in the building. However, my friend Sarah, who lives in a building without one, faced a difficult decision. We had to choose how to prepare for the uncertain times ahead. Despite having a pre-scheduled direct Air Canada flight back to Montreal on Thursday, October 12, all international flights to and from Tel Aviv were suddenly cancelled, leaving El Al as the only airline operating in and out of Ben Gurion airport.

I contacted my travel agent, who suggested purchasing an El Al ticket to Zurich, allowing Air Canada to honour my ticket and continue my journey to Montreal. I decided to proceed with this option. Before my departure, I entrusted Sarah with the keys to my apartment so she could access the air raid shelter if necessary.

Returning to Montreal

Upon my arrival, I was extremely grateful to have received an invitation to join my cousins for dinner on Friday night. The following day, I attended the Shabbat morning synagogue service with Rabbi Poupko at my usual place of worship. The atmosphere during the service was familiar, except for a brief additional prayer dedicated to remembering hostages and a heartfelt rendition of Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem. Hatikvah, also known as the “Hope” or “Aspiration,” resonates with the two-thousand-year-old yearning of the Jewish people for sovereignty and freedom in our homeland, making it a poignant and cherished moment for all who gathered.

Reuniting with the congregation filled me with relief and joy. As we reconnected, we openly shared our experiences and the challenges we had faced since the onset of hostilities. In this tight-knit community, many of us have family and friends in Israel, and some have connections to individuals who have tragically lost their lives. Our sense of unity and vigilance remained high as we grappled with the uncertainty of the situation.

That night, our community began a weekly tradition of gathering for an additional prayer service dedicated to reciting Psalms/Tehilim. We came together to listen to words of comfort and support from our rabbis and to recite our designated psalms as a group. Reciting Psalms, whether in a group or individually, is a cherished Jewish tradition that provides solace and strength during challenging times. This weekly act of unity and faith will continue for as long as necessary. Bacol Serlui, a prominent Israeli poet, esteemed literary critic, and dedicated educator of Hebrew literature, has also shared her perspective on the profound tradition of reciting Psalms.

“At noon on that dark Shabbat of the holiday of Simhat Torah, one of our sons went off to war. I almost died of fear, trembling, and sorrow for the little we knew, from worrying about him and others. And what does a person do when he has no way out? He cries and screams his way through. And like my mother and all the other women, I sat with my Tehillim, reciting from beginning to end until the close of the holiday, until my tears dried up and the breaking news broke me once again. I recite the Psalms again and again and feel that the Tehillim are reading me, dubbing my fear and sorrow, giving me a voice. Three millennia ago a Jew sat and poured out the agony of his soul in times of peace and war, and here he reaches out a hand of prayer and speaks to our own day, until we will be redeemed.” *1

Our influencers and rabbis have reminded us that we all actively participate in God’s divine mission, whether we serve in the armed forces, contribute on the home front, or engage in contemplative prayer. They encourage us to deepen our dedication to mitzvot, righteous actions, and prayer.

The Rabbis in Israel have decreed a three-day communal fast inspired by the story of Queen Esther in the Purim narrative. The tradition is a mirror of the time when Haman had secured a decree to annihilate the Jewish community in Shushan, Persia (modern-day Iran), on a specific day. On a mission to avert this catastrophe, Queen Esther implored the community to observe a three-day fast before her fateful audience with King Ahashverosh. This moving story is commemorated annually during the festival of Purim, as recounted in the Book of Esther.

On Sunday, October 15, we celebrated Rosh Chodesh, which marks the start of a new month. A few years ago, the women of Montreal started a unique tradition by hosting an exclusively female Rosh Chodesh service. Whenever I am in the city, I attend this special gathering. On this particular occasion, the service was even more extraordinary as we gathered to celebrate the Bat Mitzvah of a young girl who turned 12, a significant milestone in the life of every Jewish girl. It was an inspiring and emotional experience to hear her flawlessly chant the Torah portion of the day. We celebrated this important day in her life with her classmates, friends, and family.

Resilience and Unity: How the Jewish Community Responds

The Jewish community has a long-standing tradition of solidarity and remarkable resilience in times of adversity. Throughout history, Jewish communities have consistently shown compassion for the vulnerable, including orphans, widows, and strangers in need. In Montreal, the Federation CJA oversees these noble efforts and tirelessly works to support those in need. Each year, the community unites for a fundraising campaign to gather crucial funds for these essential services. This year, we focus on raising urgent funds for the ongoing war effort initiated on the conflict’s first day.

Last week, a remarkable fundraising concert showcased some of Montreal’s beloved Jewish entertainers who generously lent their talents on very short notice. Among them, Milena Kartowski delivered an awe-inspiring rendition of “Stand by Me,” leaving a lasting impression on all attendees.

Throughout countless generations, the Jewish people have relied on our enduring traditions, unwavering commitment to Torah study, and alignment with Torah principles as a steadfast foundation. We have weathered both prosperous and challenging times by consistently practicing Judaism. This emphasis on consistent Jewish practice is crucial to our collective dedication to supporting Israel’s existential struggle for survival, including the ongoing efforts to counter threats. Whether within or outside Israel, we are united in our pursuit of the common good, striving for the recovery of our captives and the elimination of threats to ensure the safety of our people.

The Jewish community is acutely aware that the pervasive issue of antisemitism, an enduring hatred directed towards Jews, serves as a motivating force for groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. This recognition is articulated in a poignant passage from our Passover seder:

“Through the ages, not just one, but many, have risen to destroy us… But the Holy One, Blessed Be, always saves us from their hand!

She’ lo echad bilvad amad aleinu l’chaloteinu…V’ha Kadosh, Baruch Hu, matzileynu mi’yadam.”

On April 7, 2020, Ishai Ribo delivered a remarkable performance of a classic Passover song that enchanted the audience. His mesmerizing vocals brought the timeless lyrics to life and served as a powerful reminder of the numerous attempts made to harm the Jewish people throughout history. Despite these challenges, the Jewish people have always shown resilience and triumphed.

 

Miracles occur when we fight against evil, emphasizing our collective responsibility to confront it. As individuals and a unified community, we are consistently called upon to contribute to goodness and improve the world. This call extends to both Jewish and non-Jewish members of our society.

Only by successfully eliminating such malevolence can we hope to bring about messianic times, where peace reigns, and universal well-being, health, and happiness prevail. We pray earnestly for this day to come soon, swiftly, and in our lifetime.

Hazan Mutlu of Central Synagogue in NYC has recorded this prayer, which we all recite on behalf of our brethren facing adversity, wherever they may be—on land or at sea. We pray for the boundless mercy of God to free them from distress, leading them from darkness to light and from slavery to redemption, swiftly and soon, in our time.

“Hashta ba’agala uvizman kariv”

 

We stand united and fully prepared, without a doubt, that we will triumph over the evil forces threatening us!

Am Yisrael Chai: The Jewish People are alive and living, now and forever!

 

Footnote:

  1. Psalms for the State of Vertigo, traditiononline.org

SHTTL

SHTTL, although not publicly released, has garnered acclaim and accolades at various film festivals (*1). I had the privilege of watching it during a recent screening at the Montreal Holocaust Museum.

Among the four movies, SHTTL stands out as the most challenging yet profoundly rewarding. The narrative unfolds in a Ukrainian forest, weaving a Hasidic folk story around two young men embarking on a journey. Their arrival at a bustling market, where familiar faces recognize them, sets the stage for a complex tale. Amidst a backdrop of a Soviet manager, overlapping conversations, and references to the protagonist’s former girlfriend—the Rabbi’s daughter, engaged to be married that weekend—the film ventures into dreamy sequences with the protagonist’s deceased mother, encounters with his father, and surreal moments in a synagogue with the Rebbe and the congregation. The audience is immersed in a 24-hour snapshot of life in an obscure Ukrainian village near the Polish border.

SHTTL skillfully immerses viewers into the pre-Nazi invasion era of Ukraine, portraying the intricacies of village life as an engaged observer. The film adeptly hints at the dynamics between religious and secular Jews, Russian occupiers, and other neighbours, showcasing the complexities of their relationships.

On the 22nd of June 1941, German troops launched Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union. From the point of view of the Nazis, this was not an ordinary military conflict but a battle against the chief ideological and racial enemies of the German nation…

At the rear of the German army were four Einsatzgruppen-special units whose task was to fight against ideological opponents. They were required to kill all Communist functionaries, Jews holding party and state functions, and other radical elements. In reality, however, the main role of these units was to massacre the Jewish communities.

To begin with, only Jewish men were murdered, but soon, women and children were also being killed. The largest single massacre was the execution of over 30,000 Kievan Jews in Babi Yar at the end of September 1941. It is estimated that these units, aided by local militia and in coordination with the army, slaughtered approximately 1.25 million Jews in all, as well as hundreds of thousands of other Soviet citizens. (*2)

As the Nazis advanced into the heart of the Soviet Union, their grip extended over numerous Jewish communities spanning a broad expanse from the Baltics through Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea. SHTTL serves as a poignant representation of one such village, functioning as a memorial that focuses on celebrating the vibrant lives of its inhabitants rather than dwelling solely on the tragic fate that ultimately befell them.

Remarkably, the movie is entirely filmed in the native languages of the villagers, predominantly Yiddish, interspersed with Ukrainian, Russian, and German, all accompanied by English subtitles.

Adding to its significance, SHTTL boasts a solid connection to Montreal. Notably, two of the producers are esteemed entertainment professionals from the city: Eric Gozlan, recognized for his work on films like Beautiful Boy, Stand Off, A Score to Settle, and Bandit (*2), and Joe Sisto, a well-known Montreal-based entertainment lawyer associated with projects such as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Upside Down, Brick Mansions, and Erased according to IMDB (*3).

Word has it that the producers plan to submit this film to the Oscars in the foreign film category. Filmed in Ukraine with a local crew, it’s a testament to the hard work and dedication of everyone involved in creating this 21st-century masterpiece. Kudos to the entire team!

 

Footnotes:

  1. “Shttl,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shttl
  2. Terezín Initiative Institute
  3. Eric Gozlan, IMDb, https://www.imdb.com/name/nm2480811
  4. Joe Sisto, IMDB, https://www.imdb.com/name/nm2339368

Oppenheimer: What is his story?

Intrigued by the buzz around “Oppenheimer,” I decided to watch the film because of its historical focus on Robert Oppenheimer, the architect of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. The film explores the complex world of scientific inquiry and the challenges of creating such powerful weapons. The latter part of the film delves into the political influences on Oppenheimer’s life after 1954.

As I watched, Oppenheimer’s character became more mysterious. Questions arose about his Communist party ties and whether he shared atomic secrets with the USSR. The film also delved into his extramarital affair and the tragic suicide of his mistress, adding layers of complexity. Oppenheimer’s demeanour throughout the film remained unreadable, making it challenging for viewers to understand his true nature. Struggling to grasp the movie, I researched online for more insights.

In an enlightening interview, JNS editor-in-chief Jonathan Tobin spoke with historian Harvey Klehr, an expert on Soviet spies in the U.S. during that period. Klehr’s insights revealed the Soviet interest in espionage, particularly regarding the Manhattan Project since the 1930s. This background shed light on the historical events and personal choices that shaped Oppenheimer’s legacy.

 

Before World War II, many Americans, including Oppenheimer’s students at Berkeley University and his friends and relatives, were attracted to the ideals of the Soviet International Communist Party and its utopian Marxist ideology. Notably, Oppenheimer’s wife’s second husband fought and perished in the Spanish Civil War in support of the communist cause. Furthermore, there were suspicions surrounding Oppenheimer himself, who was believed to be affiliated with the Communist Party, information that was likely in the possession of the FBI when he assumed leadership of the Manhattan Project.

Soviet archives indicate a persistent interest in obtaining information about the atomic bomb project dating back to the 1930s. Reports from Klehr suggest that individuals within the United States, spying for the Russians, had successfully infiltrated the U.S. federal government both before and after the war—a concern paralleling contemporary worries about Chinese Communist infiltration.

Despite these associations, FBI wiretaps released from that era reveal Oppenheimer’s deliberate distancing from Communist ties once he assumed control of the project, thwarting Soviet attempts to secure his cooperation.

Understanding this historical backdrop is paramount today, given that in 1941, many were oblivious to Stalin’s true nature as a Communist leader. Recognizing the depth of Communist influence and espionage during that period offers valuable insights into the intricate geopolitical dynamics of the time. It is a cautionary tale, underscoring the potential consequences of political ideologies and covert activities.

Stalin and his Soviet party led the endeavour to collectivize all of the farmlands of Ukraine in 1929. Teams of Communist Party agitators forced peasants to relinquish their land, personal property, and housing to collective farms. Many “kulaks”—wealthier land-owning peasants who resisted collectivization- were deported to the Soviet Gulag and a campaign of repression and persecution was carried out against Ukrainian political intelligentsia, political leaders and Ukrainian religious leaders. Collectivization led to a drop in production, the disorganization of the rural economy, and food shortages, a series of peasant rebellions and a very serious famine that resulted between 1931 and 1934 in the deaths of at least 3.9 million people. The Ukrainian term for this period is the “Holodomor.”

As the famine was happening, news of it was deliberately silenced by Soviet bureaucrats. Party officials did not mention it in public. Western journalists based in Moscow were instructed not to write about it. One of the most famous Moscow correspondents at the time, Walter Duranty of The New York Times, went out of his way to dismiss reports of the famine when they were published by a young freelancer, Gareth Jones, as he “thought Mr. Jones’s judgment was somewhat hasty.” Jones was murdered under suspicious circumstances in 1935 in Japanese-occupied Mongolia. Stalin himself went so far as to repress the results of a census taken in 1937; the administrators of that census were arrested and murdered, in part because the figures revealed the decimation of Ukraine’s population. (*2)

This brings to mind the narratives detailing the tactics employed by Chinese Communist leaders and North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un. These include political indoctrination, the existence of concentration camps for dissenters, individuals deviating from the prescribed ideology, or those with independent thoughts or religious affiliations.

Is Putin presently adopting the role of Stalin and employing similar tactics in the Ukraine conflict? According to Timothy Snyder, an American historian with expertise in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, this seems to be the case.

 

Many Western, left-leaning academics are still enamoured of communism and deny the brutality and aims behind the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the present time and are apologists for Putin and blame the US for what is happening.

Turning our attention back to “Oppenheimer,” the film uncovers the presence of not one but two scientist spies embedded within the Manhattan Project. Ted Hall, a remarkably talented graduate student, was recruited at eighteen through his Harvard professors. Surrounded by card-carrying communists as roommates, he independently chose to divulge atomic secrets to the Soviets. Hall believed that a shared possession of the nuclear bomb would contribute to a “safer world.”

A recent documentary titled “The Compassionate Spy” delves into Hall’s story, defending his decision to share crucial atomic information with the Soviets. His apology, featured in The New York Times Magazine under “The Boy Who Gave Away The Bomb,” provides further insight (*3).

The second spy, Klaus Fuchs, assumed leadership in the British atomic lab post-World War II. Operating as a double agent, Fuchs was eventually apprehended and served time in jail.

In the third hour of the movie, Oppenheimer’s alleged spying and the loss of his security clearance in 1954 are portrayed. However, an article from September 1977 in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists provides a more nuanced perspective. According to an eyewitness, the motives behind Oppenheimer’s troubles were more intricate than the personal conflicts shown in the film. The attack on Oppenheimer was influenced partly by President Eisenhower‘s desire to highlight Democrats’ perceived leniency towards Communists. Additionally, Senator McCarthy’s lawyer, Roy Cohn, was involved in these manipulative actions (*4).

In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Kai Bird, the author of “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” – the book upon which the movie is based – expands on these intricacies (*5).

Sadly, Oppenheimer’s life story is relevant to our current political predicaments. Oppenheimer was destroyed by a political movement characterized by rank know-nothing, anti-intellectual, xenophobic demagogues. The witch-hunters of that season are the direct ancestors of our current political actors of a specific paranoid style… Oppenheimer did not regret what he did at Los Alamos; he understood that you cannot stop curious human beings from discovering the physical world around them. One cannot halt the scientific quest, nor can one un-invent the atomic bomb but it is up to each and every one of us to ensure that our current technologies are integrated by our leaders into a sustainable and humane civilization.

These three historical films—”Golda,” “Shttl,” and “Oppenheimer”—remind us of human limitations and the contrast between our insight and the lasting gaze of the divine. Israeli rock sensation Yishai Rebo recently released a moving rendition of the Hebrew prayer verses in his latest chant, Ata Zocher, beautifully encapsulating the essence of divine remembrance across the intricacies of the universe (*6).

 

You (G-d) remember all the workings of the universe
And you note all the creatures of this world
All events and mysteries are revealed to you
Because there is nothing forgotten before Your Holy Throne
Or hidden from your gaze.
(English Translation)

Reflecting on historical events, we’re reminded that divine justice unfolds at a pace distinct from human justice, sometimes taking 70 years for the truth to emerge.

 

Footnotes:

  1. Explore the conversation between JNS editor-in-chief Jonathan Tobin and historian Harvey Klehr on the movie Oppenheimer and the enduring legacy of American Communism.
  2. Delve into the details of the Holodomor with Britannica.
  3. Check out the NY Times Magazine, Sept. 14, 1997, article “The Boy Who Gave Away The Bomb.”
  4. Read “The Oppenheimer case: A study in the abuse of law” by Harold P. Green, published on July 17, 2023, in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
  5. Gain insights from Kai Bird, the author of “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” in his NY Times opinion piece.
  6. Watch the captivating “Ata Zocher” performance by Ishay Ribo & Mordechai Ben David on YouTube.