In the years 1945 to 1947, Marie Syrkin travelled to the displaced persons camps in Europe to meet with Holocaust survivors, and then to Israel to meet with the leadership of the Yishuv. There was enormous fear in the Yishuv – they knew a state was forthcoming in the near future, but worried that the neighbouring Arab countries would succeed in battle and push the Jewish inhabitants into the sea.
In those anxious days of 1947, Syrkin penned a poem titled David, which reads in part: “Suppose, this time, Goliath should not fail; suppose, this time, the sling should not avail… suppose the tale should have a different end…”
This haunting poem asks a frightening question: what if Goliath won?
While we can speculate about tragic counterfactuals, thankfully, Goliath did not win. However, the question is as relevant as ever. Israel, despite its military edge, still faces existential threats from multiple aggressors including Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. We still must ask ourselves: “What if Goliath attacked and we did not help David?”
Jews have a mixed record on this question. In the 1940s, North American Jews in the United States did not do nearly enough during the Shoah. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, in his book Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers? reviews the halfhearted actions of the American Jewish community. At the end, he concludes: “The Final Solution may have been unstoppable by American Jewry, but it should have been unbearable for them. And it wasn’t.”
During the Holocaust, we were not our brothers’ keepers.
Yet 20 years later, our community got it right. The activists of the Soviet Jewry movement insisted on being their brothers’ keepers. They remembered the community’s failure during the Shoah, and refused to repeat it. Yaakov Birnbaum, the founding father of the Soviet Jewry movement, spoke at the initial meeting of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry on April 27, 1964. In a speech that launched a historic campaign to release millions of Soviet Jews, Birnbaum declared, “We, who condemn silence and inaction during the Nazi Holocaust, dare we keep silent now?”
Because of Birnbaum’s exhortations, American Jews were not silent. Twenty-five years later, American Jews would finally learn to be their brothers’ keepers.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” has often guided the policies of the State of Israel. Rabbi Sharon Shalom (an Ethiopian rabbi) related a wonderful anecdote when he spoke at our synagogue in Montreal last year.
In the early 1980s, he was rescued by the Mossad from a refugee camp in the Sudan. He was a child of eight, and Israel was smuggling Beta Israel children to Israel by spiriting them in the middle of the night to a beach, where they were carried onto a waiting boat that took them to Sinai.
Rabbi Shalom remembers being picked up and hugged by a big Israeli commando, who carried him to the boat. As he carried the child, the commando had tears streaming down his eyes. The rabbi remembers that, as a young boy, he couldn’t understand why the big, strong soldier would be crying; after all, what did he have to be afraid of? Now, of course, Rabbi Shalom understands. The soldier was crying because he was picking up his younger brother and saving him from danger.
We, too, must help our brothers in Israel. Last week, I attended the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy convention with 18,000 other supporters of Israel. (It’s disappointing a similar gathering does not take place in Ottawa.) For three days, a convention like no other unfolded. Yes, there were speeches from presidential candidates, an important part of AIPAC’s mission to lobby on behalf of Israel. But there were also informative and inspiring presentations.
Above all, there was the shared determination of 18,000 supporters of Israel. Their very presence declared: we are our brothers’ keepers.
And if Goliath attacks again, we will be there for Israel.