What is the message for the Jewish community after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11? Reuven Kimelman, keynote speaker at the Jewish Federation’s Major Gifts Dinner on Sept. 24, says one possible answer would be: Good and evil are always intermingled. Jews always search for the good in the midst of evil.
Kimelman, who was scheduled to speak about “Israel, Campaign and Modern Jewish Leadership,” was forced to throw his speech away about a week before his appearance in Seattle. He worked very hard to offer the audience something helpful to take home with them.
“It could be argued that these are the best of times and the worst of times” for American Jews, Kimelman said. “Was this an alarm call for America … before a significant portion of humanity is destroyed?”
The professor of Talmudic History and Midrash at Brandeis University, who has also been a scholar-in-residence for the Wexner Heritage Foundation and the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, focused largely on what the Jewish community has learned from history. Using the example of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Kimelman asked: Was World Jewry better or worse after that tragic day in American history? Then he argued that World Jewry was better after Pearl Harbor because that incident forced the United States into World War II. If our nation had entered the war a year later, Hitler may have finished his plan to murder all the Jews of Europe.
When we look back at Sept. 11, 2001, someday, will we remember the tragedies that occurred that day? Or will we remember the other tragedies that were prevented because the United States opened its eyes to how close terrorism was to our shores?
Kimelman pointed out some other positive results from Sept. 11: Unprecedented donations of blood, blankets and dollars to the American Red Cross and other organizations working to help the families of victims of the terrorist attacks; a coming together of neighbors and communities in this shared tragedy and an increase of prayer of all kinds.
Taking an historical view, Kimelman noted the change in the Jewish community response to Sept. 11 when compared to the American Jewish community’s actions at the beginning of World War II. “In 1943, many American Jews thought speaking out would make us more vulnerable,” Kimelman noted. There seems to be no such fear today. Kimelman said the Jewish community has been mobilized as a force for political action since 1981 when President Reagan was on the verge on selling AWACS to Saudi Arabia.
Kimelman used as an example of how things have changed a controversial question concerning American history. Why didn’t President Roosevelt bomb the concentration camps during World War II? The professor says destruction of the camps was neither a military necessity nor a political obligation because the American Jewish community did not have enough political clout to make it necessary. “There never was a greater moral cause — but not a single member of Congress lost office because they did not listen to Jewish concerns,” Kimelman said.
Congressmen today do not have that same luxury because of the strength of the American Jewish community as a political force. But that’s not all that has changed in American Jewry in the past 50 years, Kimelman added.
He said that in the 1950s, Jewish Federation meetings were never kosher, but today the Jewish Federation always serves kosher food. “Our public religion has exceeded our private religion,” Kimelman said.
Political candidates now confidently speak of their Jewish commitment, he said, noting that he has read about Seattle mayoral candidate Mark Sidran’s involvement in the Jewish community. “We are clearly a proud minority.”