by Aaron Warner
Rabbi Jan Salzman came to Vermont in 1978 fresh out of college. Prior to that she grew up in Skokie, Illinois, made famous for its Neo-Nazi marches that took place when she was a child. Skokie, at the time, had the largest Jewish population of Holocaust survivors in America outside of New York City, precisely the reason it was targeted by the Neo-Nazi’s.
Among her neighbors were “Anne Frank types” who had been protected by righteous Christians years earlier while in Nazi Germany. Rabbi Jan recalls hearing of the horrors endured by her neighbors and a father who was a medic in the US Army, among the first to enter concentration camps at the conclusion of the war. He was also shipped to Hiroshima shortly after it was devastated by American nuclear bombs.
This past week Rabbi Jan, who leads her Burlington congregation Ruach haMaqom, participated in the Burlington call for solidarity with the people of Israel. Burlington is Vermont’s most ethnically diverse and multicultural city, home to the majority of Vermont’s synagogues and the primary Islamic worship center. She spoke fondly of this fact as we discussed the terrible ordeal facing both groups of people in the latest iteration of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Rabbi Jan’s unique perspective is colored by her visits to Israel where her sisters still resides in the coastal city of Haifa. Her sister is one of many pacifists working with the Arabs in Israel to foster peace. She tells me Israel is home to the largest number of peace groups in the world per capita, no doubt wondering what it will take to pacify the current tension.
When asked to explain her thoughts on the situation she makes it clear she does not view the problem as one of religious differences. “Islam is not the problem. Hamas is the problem. Terrorism is the problem.”
Hamas grew out of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in the early 2000’s. Campaigning on a promise to improve the rising crime and perceived “immorality” among the population in Gaza City, the seven founding families of Hamas would gain political power by winning popular elections in 2004. Though they would make good on some of their fundamentalist promises they would also turn their attention to waging military Jihad on the Jews in Israel, their annihilation being part of their creed as well as as occupiers of Palestinian land.
A series of terror attacks since the 2000’s would cause the Israeli government to turn Gaza into what Rabbi Jan likens to the “world’s largest open air prison”, a meme that is a talking point repeatedly mentioned by critics of the situation.
“Gaza is not an apartheid state. People don’t know the difference. In apartheid South Africa the black Africans were not only forced to live in separate areas, they couldn’t get employment, or access to quality healthcare, or hold political offices. Palestinians do work in Israel, and there are a lot of economic and social interactions with the citizens of Gaza. Yes, there are barriers, but there is a lot of interaction that happens ‘under the radar’.”
Israeli politics is another source of what she considers problematic. Israel’s current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a member of the right wing, supported by orthodox Jews who take a hard line position on how to deal with the Palestinian problem and Hamas. Prior to the attacks Netanyahu was working to create changes in Israel’s judiciary that looked to consolidate power among conservatives. Rabbi Salzman points out there were massive protests throughout Israel disputing this move. The Hamas attacks occurred as Jewsish Israelis were observing a celebration known as Simkhat Torah, when the reading of the scroll has ended and the Torah is rerolled to begin the yearly cycle once more. The attacks focused on a Nature music festival taking place in the desert. Hamas militants poured over the border for a surprise attack that would see over 1,000 Jews slaughtered and many more wounded, kidnapped and terrorized.
Citing war crimes and human rights violations by Hamas, Rabbi Jan focuses her desire on the freedom of the Palestinian people by the dismantling of Hamas.
“The people of Palestine overwhelmingly don’t support Hamas. They are captive. If they speak out they can be killed” she laments as she tries to describe a situation layered with political, territorial and religious entanglements. She told me of daily life shared by Arabs, Christians, Druze, Israelis, and who work among and with each other, and emphasized that Israel is the only democracy in the Arab world. She is careful to remind me “Islam is not the problem, it’s terrorism” stating the vast majority of the Muslim world follow the compassionate teachings of their tradition.
Nevertheless Hamas remains in power in Gaza and their charter calls for the eradication of the Jews often serenaded as “from the river to the sea let Palestine be free” which implies no more Jews nor Israel.
As for America’s response Rabbi Jan believes they should support Israel as an ally, however she is deeply concerned with America’s role in arming the Israeli army and people “wanting to make money off war”. American weapons manufacturers like General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and McDonnell Douglas will see billions in profits this year. As will cybersecurity firms such as Fortinet. Many have recently expressed concern regarding American politicians making investment moves, some even days before the attack, with Republican lawmakers preferring defense or energy contractors and Democrats found investing in cybersecurity. Rabbi Salzman prefers America’s leaders focus on taking out terrorists rather than full scale war.
The dialectic of opposition, often seen in American politics, is the same narrative that Hamas and others use to perpetuate these ideological conflicts against both the Jews and the west. In the wrong hands a simple difference of views can be used to justify acts of terrorism, which is why Rabbi Salzman sees any hope of resolution as changing the dialectic from oppositional to reconcilable.
When asked what she’d like to say to Vermont’s Muslim community she makes it clear. “I stand with the people of Palestine but against Hamas. My new saying is ‘Free Palestine. From Hamas’.” Our conversation turned briefly to the Jewish practice of praying three times daily called the Amidah. Among the nineteen prayers of the Amidah is a different dialectic – to end the violence perpetrated by the enemies of the Jews through the destruction of their arrogance.
“Arrogance is the opposite of humility. From humility comes gratitude and with gratitude we can begin to see each other differently and start the process of reconciliation.”
The author is a fitness expert living in Hartford.
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