Letter to Japan: Why we mourn, what we lost

Many people I meet in Japan ask, why we Jews revere the memory of Chiune Sugihara. The obvious reason is that this man, along with his wife, through their bravery and steadfastness, saved thousands of Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis during the WWII Nazi Genocide, known as the Shoah.

When the Simon Wiesenthal Center had the honor to host Mrs. Sugihara in Jerusalem, on the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel, I had the honor to accompany her to a Beit Midrash—the study hall of the Mir Yeshiva—the very Judaic academy whose students and teachers the Sugihara had been saved by supplying Japanese visas in 1940. “You and your husband not only saved Jewish lives”, I told her as she shared astonished looks with 2,000(!) young religious scholars. “You see Mrs. Sugihara, you also helped save and insure the continuity of Jewish life and the spiritual and humane values of our Torah (written laws) and Mesorah (Oral traditions).

Indeed, Judaism places parents and teachers on the same plane, with the child/student taught to respect and love them both for their nurturing and caring for their physical and spiritual growth.

That is why the entire “House of Israel” is in mourning. The four brilliant, saintly, peaceful scholars, who were butchered while praying in a holy synagogue, are mourned not only by four wives, many children and dozens of grandchildren, but by all their spiritual offspring—including me.  

When word first came that the terrorist attack took place in the Har Nof neighborhood—an area home to many fellow Americans—we feared that there would be numerous personal connections to the tragedy—and there were. Our hopes were quickly dashed.  Of the three American rabbis who perished, my colleagues and I at the Simon Wiesenthal Center learned that we had fairly close ties to all of them.

In the early 1980s Kalman Levine studied at our Yeshiva for two years where he began his journey of scholarship and piety, before leaving for the Holy city of Jerusalem. After a few more years of study at successively more intense schools, he joined the faculty of a Yeshiva there. His love for learning was so deep that his son told reporters of his father sleeping only a few hours a night. He raised a family. When he was murdered, he left behind a wife, ten children, and five grandchildren. 

Aryeh Kupinsky stood at 6 feet, 3 inches tall. His friends called him the “Gentle Giant.” Some called him the nicest person they had ever met. He was the kind of person you didn’t ask for help, because he volunteered it before you could ask. Before his marriage, he was the study partner and good friend of the eldest son of one of my colleagues. When he was murdered, he left behind a wife and five children.

Moshe Twersky was a public figure whose scholarship and gentle guidance touched the lives of many Jews on both sides of the Atlantic.  As such, his loss was experienced as everyone’s loss. His grandfather, Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik, was one of the most important figures in 20th century Orthodoxy as a Talmudist and philosopher. One of his daughters married Dr. Isadore Twersky, a professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy at Harvard.  His son, Moshe, blessed with the intelligence of his parents, became the head of Toras Moshe yeshiva in Jerusalem—an academy founded by a former colleague from Los Angeles. Rabbi Twersky had many students. When he was murdered, he left behind a wife, five children, and ten grandchildren.

I hope that these details offer a glimpse into the deep sense of loss felt by millions of Jews from Tel Aviv to Toronto, to Tokyo.

There are of other dimensions to this barbaric attack. It could sound the death knell for—the “Two-State Solution” , where after negotiations, Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority would eventually lead a new (peaceful) state—abutting the Jewish State of Israel.

But many Israelis no longer view Abbas’ PA as a reliable negotiating partner. In recent weeks, Abbas himself has incited Palestinians with the false claim that Israelis are “desecrating” the Al Aqsa Mosque. According to the New York Times, Abbas condemned the brutal murders of the rabbis only after US Secretary of State John Kerry forced him to do so. His colleagues in the Palestinian Authority actually celebrated the murders and the murderers. Genocidal Hamas distributed sweets to children in Gaza, as the Jewish families were burying the fathers and husbands. In Amman, legislators held a moment of silence—not for the innocent religious scholars but for their brutal executioners!

Last Friday, I attended a conference at the United Nations headquarters in New York devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Instead of using the rostrum to call for an end to recent violence, including the murder by a Palestinian terrorist who used his car to mow down a three month old Israeli girl in her stroller, Palestinian speakers –diplomats and legislators— unveiled a new lie: That Israelis’ continued “desecration” of Muslim Holy sites threatened to transform the struggle to a religious war.

The opposite is true. Israel is the only country in the Middle East that protects the religious rights of all faiths, including Muslims. It seems that the genocidal religious doctrine of Hamas and the thuggery of ISIS are influencing too many Palestinians, in word and brutal deed. It is they who threaten to morph a political dispute into a religious conflict. If that happens, the Palestinian leadership will plunge their people into an abyss from which there will be no exit.

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