Address by Rabbi Michael Melchior,
Deputy Foreign Minister,
to the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities

Washington D.C., 13 November 2001

Last year in Chicago, I stood before you and shared the difficulties we faced in Israel with the renewal of violence and terrorism. I counted on your sympathy and support, and thanked you for being there for us. "With God’s help", I told you, "we will be there for you as well."

This year, in circumstances more tragic than any of us could have imagined, I come to the United States to offer the sympathy and support of the people of Israel. To say: "We are here with you."

The attack of September 11, the brutal and deliberate murder of more people than are gathered in this hall, raises profound and bewildering questions for all of us. And ever since that day the civilized world has struggled to formulate a coherent response on many levels – political, military, legal and economic. But as we gather here, bonded together even more closely by this tragedy, I think we also have to stop to ask ourselves: what is our Jewish response?

I think we need a Jewish response to the worst terrorist attack in history, above all because this atrocity was carried out in the name of religion. That someone could shout out – in any language – ‘Allahu akhbar‘ ‘God is great’, at the very moment that they sent hundreds of innocent people to their deaths, is, in the very clearest sense, a chillul hashem, a desecration of the Divine Name.

The third of the ten commandments is usually translated as "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain," and it’s generally understood to mean that you shouldn’t blaspheme or write God’s name. But the literal translation suggests something much more powerful: "You shall not carry God’s name in vain" – you mustn’t use God as your justification – don’t devalue religion for your own ends. This is the only one of the ten commandments that God says He will not forgive, because it doesn’t just discredit the sinner, but religion as well.

The terrorist attack of September 11 was a human atrocity, but it was also a religious atrocity – and needs a religious response.

It also needs a Jewish response because, in addition to being perpetrated in the name of religion, this terrorism is, at its very root, diametrically opposed to three fundamental values that the Bible gave the world: the sanctity of human life, the tradition of tolerance, and the ideal of human progress.

The first of these values that the terrorists seek to destroy is, quite simply, the sanctity of human life. The single sentence in the Bible that tells us that God created man in his own image is perhaps the most radical idea that Jewish teaching has given to mankind – the notion that we are, all of us, irrespective of race or faith or gender, equally reflections of the divine image, and the life of every one of us is of absolute value.

This is in total opposition to the credo of the terrorist, for whom human life has no intrinsic value; it is nothing but a means to his political ends. The lives and hopes and dreams of mothers and fathers, the futures of their children, are nothing but fodder for a campaign of fear and intimidation.

I think this is what the Mishna meant when it said: "He who destroys a single life, it is as if he destroyed an entire world." No human life is less than a world. So there is no cause so important, that it can justify the taking of a single innocent life, let alone the hundreds killed in terrorist attacks in Israel this year, and the thousands murdered here in the United States.

But, incredible as it may seem, we hear repeated assertions that there are certain goals which are so elevated, that they can justify acts which would otherwise be acts of terrorism. On this we can be categorical: there is no goal that can justify the deliberate butchering of innocent people. The contortions of certain parts of the international community to prove that "all terrorists are equal but some are more equal than others" miss the fundamental point: Terrorism is defined by what terrorists do, not what they say they do it for.

Our fight against terrorism has to begin with a recognition of the sanctity of human life, of every human life. The first murder in the bible was the murder by Cain of his brother Abel, a lesson that every murder of another human being is really the murder of a brother. We have to fight against any and every attempt to deny this common humanity.

Terrorism, which seeks to destroy this recognition of the humanity of others, reminds us that we have to root out incitement in school textbooks, and hate-speech in sermons, and vicious caricatures in newspapers; we have to use every effort to stop conferences such as the Durban conference against racism from being hijacked as vehicles for mindless and venal hatreds, not only because these are wrong and hurtful, but because they are the first step in a heinous process that leads from hatred to delegitimization, from delegitimization to dehumanization, and from dehumanization to death and destruction.

The second value terrorists abhor is the idea of tolerance. The poisonous cocktail of fundamentalism and nationalism which fuels the terrorism we witness today could not be further from the Jewish vision. The Jewish world vision is of unity – but not unanimity. Nations, we pray, will live in peace – but not lose their separate identities. This is the idea of the rainbow that God made the symbol of his covenant to Noah – a covenant that would embrace the whole world, but would maintain and respect different hues and colors. And it’s also the reason why Abraham, the father of monotheism, was called Abraham, to emphasize, as the Bible says, that he was av hamon goyim, the father of not one, but many nations.

For Judaism, any belief in a universal God that doesn’t lead to a belief in universal humanity is nothing but idolatry.

Tolerance doesn’t just mean accepting other peoples and cultures, but also, and maybe more importantly, other ideas. The fanaticism that drives people to take others’ lives, derives from a dangerous and absolute certainty. Suicide bombings are the ultimate statement of such certainty – a willingness to stake one’s eternal life for one’s beliefs. This fanatical certainty is an anathema to Judaism – and to democracy. It’s striking that when we think of the great Talmudic sages, we think of them in pairs: Hillel and Shammai, Rav and Shmuel, because in the Jewish view the truth lies not in any one particular opinion but the dialectic of debate between them.

The secret of Jewish learning through the ages has not been agreement, but machloket – dispute. Indeed the Mishna teaches that the reason that the opinions of both Hillel and Shammai are recorded is to teach future generations that no-one should insist on his view, since the great teachers did not insist on theirs. It goes on to give a description of cooperation between the two schools of teaching, despite their differences, that serves as a powerful lesson for the Jewish people today: Despite differing opinions over marriage laws, the Mishna tells us, the disciples of Hillel and Shammai would still marry into each other’s families, and despite differing opinions on the laws of purity they would still use each others vessels.

The terrorist stands at the far end of the spectrum from this democratic and Jewish tradition of tolerance and argument. For him there is no "other hand". There is only the imposition of the will of the minority by force and by intimidation.

Confronting the fanatical certainty of terrorism, our response must be to renew our commitment to tolerance and dialogue. There is a very real danger that the fear of seeming weak in the face of terrorism may lead us to curtail our internal debates, or to engage less in questioning among ourselves as to the rightness of our actions. But we must remember that such debates and questioning do not undermine our resolve. To the contrary they are the very basis for that resolve.

This means that in Israel, in spite of the attacks we face, we have to continue to struggle over moral issues. Until our Palestinian partners are ready to make a lasting peace, we have to continue to engage in painful dilemmas, weighing security and humanity, finding the elusive balance between protecting our citizens and easing the hardships of those Palestinians who find themselves under our control. And if there are those who seek to paint these deliberations as weakness, or concessions to terrorism, we have to remind ourselves that the real surrender to terrorism would be sacrificing our conscience. In the fight against terrorism our greatest asset is not our power but our conviction.

And the third fundamental value is the idea of progress; the idea that the past must serve us as the foundation for building a better future. The Jewish people were not the first to imagine a perfect world, but it was Judaism that proposed the radical idea that it could be here – and not in an afterlife or elsewhere. And to this radical idea, Jewish teaching added an even more astonishing notion: not only could this become the perfect world, but that we, human beings, could be the ones to make it so. With this outlook, every mark of progress, every scientific advance, becomes another tool to be used in building a better future, for perfecting the world.

But for the terrorist every technological advance is not a hope for a better future, but merely a more powerful means of destruction. Global communications are merely a means for spreading incitement, postal services for spreading biological warfare, airlines for committing mass murder, all in a manic attempt to undo civilization and return us to a world of anarchy and chaos.

There’s a curious feature of biblical Hebrew: Whenever the word ‘vehaya‘ ‘and it will come to pass’ is used, it almost allways introduces a positive or happy episode. But when the phrase ‘vayehi‘ ‘and it came to pass’ appears, it presages a negative or unfortunate episode. Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook suggested a fascinating explanation. Both of these phrases use an unusual Hebrew conjunction, it’s called the vav hahipuch, which changes verbs from the past tense into the future, and verbs from the future into the past. The word and ‘it will come to pass’ is actually the past tense – ‘it was’ – turned into the future. And that’s Judaism’s ideal: to take the past and build on it as the foundation for the future. But ‘and it came to pass’ is the opposite, the future transformed into the past – that is the antithesis of the Jewish vision. It’s a regression, a return to tohu vavohu, the chaos of a world without order and morality. To take the past and use it as a foundation for building a better future – that’s Judaism’s ideal. To take the future and bury under the rubble of the past – that is the essence of fundamentalist terrorism.

Our response to this attempt to drive us back into the dark past has to be to redouble our efforts to build a better future. And, in the Jewish context, this need to build a brighter, more united, more purposeful Jewish future, gives added urgency to the work we have begun to do together.

Now more than ever we need to give our youth a sense of our history, and vision, and peoplehood, and encourage them to embark on their own journey of Jewish discovery through programs like Birthright. Now more than ever we need to address the challenge of denominational divisions in Judaism, especially over the issue of conversion – and to take pride in the fact that under new interdenominational programs we have introduced to help deal with this issue in Israel, there will be more conversions this year than ever before. And now more than ever, we need to work to make Jewish unity, between Israel and the Diaspora, not a slogan but a fact.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once described the Jewish people as "a messenger who has forgotten his message". The Jewish response to the fundamentalist terrorism we are witnessing must be to remember that message, and in particular the values of respect for life, tolerance and progress.

These are the values which we live by, and which today we need to fight for. Of all the enemies the Israelites faced in ancient times, only one were they commanded to wipe out entirely, to the end of generations – the Amalekites. The Amalekites had to be completely destroyed because they were the terrorists of the Bible. They attacked from behind, they killed the weak and defenseless, they showed no mercy or compassion, just a blind hatred for the values of humanity.

The Bible describes the battle of the Israelites and the Amalekites: when Moses’ hands were raised, it says, the Jews prevailed. But when they were lowered the Amalekites prevailed. The rabbis explain: when Moses’ hands were raised, the Israelites looked to heaven and remembered the divine values they were fighting for. This gave them the strength to be victorious.

While the Amalekites of the Bible were lost in history, we are facing a long and hard battle against the Amalekites of our day. A battle for our most fundamental values. But if we remember that, if we raise our eyes and see – above and beyond any pragmatic coalitions that we may need to make – the true values that we are fighting for, we also will be sure to be victorious.

I began by saying that the fanatical terrorism we are witnessing today is a chillul hashem, a desecration of God’s name. In Jewish teaching we have another concept, an antidote to hillul hashem – and that is kiddush hashem, the sanctification of God’s name. That sanctification can mean different things: for those innocent and holy people who have lost their lives to terror, it means the recognition that they have died in defense of the values we hold dearest. And for us the survivors, it means the response of those they left behind them, our commitment and rededication to fighting for those values.

The most powerful statement of kiddush hashem is the kaddish, the prayer for the dead. It’s a remarkable prayer. Not sad or morbid, not fixated on loss or the past. But an affirmation of hope and commitment to the future. It tells us that the greatest credit to those who lost their lives is the way that we live our lives, and the extent to which we renew our commitment to fighting evil, to ensuring that yitgadal v’yitkadash shme rabba, that the divine values of life and tolerance and hope they died for, will be cherished and defended.