from the heart of jerusalem

Unity, a double-edged sword From the Heart of Jerusalem


June 19: Passengers boarding Air France Flight 139 discover it will stop in Athens en route to Paris. Some, like George and Rivka Karfunkel, don’t want to board—Athens Airport is renowned for its terrible security, and a plane was hijacked from this very airport in 1970. But their luggage is already on board, so they board as well.

In Athens, two Germans join the flight—Brigitte Kulma and Willie Burs—along with two Arabs connecting from Bahrain. There is no security inspection for transit passengers, so they are able to board with weapons brought from Bahrain. The two Germans are members of Baader Meinhof and the two Arabs members of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine, founded by Wadi Hadad, who did not consider Yasser Arafat radical enough. He had masterminded the 1972 Maalot massacre in which 22 children were murdered. 

Five minutes after takeoff, they hijack the plane, refuel in Benghazi and end up in an old airport terminal in Kampala, Uganda. (The new terminal continues to service flights throughout the affair.) One hundred ten Ugandan soldiers guard the old terminal to protect the terrorists. The terrorists give a deadline: on July 1, if their demands are not met, they will start killing hostages. In Benghazi, they called out names; it did not take a genius to figure out that not thirty years after the Holocaust, German terrorists were separating the Jews. Ninety-three Jews and Israelis were separated and, along with the crew, who refused to leave, were taken to Uganda.

Yitzchak Rabin, Israel’s Prime Minister, upholds a policy of not negotiating with terrorists, and eventually approves a mission led by Yoni Netanyahu to fly thousands of miles through enemy territory to rescue the hostages.

Legend states that Yoni Netanyahu, just before boarding the planes and entering radio silence, gathers his men, Israel’s most elite commandoes, and tried to put into words why they are doing this, risking everything for people they do not even know, many of whom are not even Israeli. He says, “We may not know who they are, but they are our brothers and sisters. If we don’t go, no one will.”

The moment recalls the well-known Jewish axiom: kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh, all Israel (i.e. every Jew) is responsible for (literally, ‘mixed in with’) every other Jew. Ultimately, we are all one. 

Achdut, unity, is a powerful idea that cuts to the core of what the Jewish people are all about. And ultimately it’s not only about Jews; we are meant to be a model of brotherhood and unity for the world. What could be more beautiful than true unity, when we all put aside our differences in deference to something greater than ourselves?

This week’s portion, Noach, seems to suggest otherwise.

Everyone knows the story: the world created with hope and light has sunk into a morass of idolatry and violence to such a degree that there is no longer a point to its existence. If G-d, and G-dly ethics, no longer matter, then we no longer matter. So G-d brings a great flood that destroys the world and pushes the “restart” button with Noach. The world gets a second chance. 

Yet later, it seems like humanity is about to make the same mistake. In their building a city and a monstrous tower, rabbinic tradition suggests, they were going to war with no less than G-d Himself!

But this time, despite all of mankind uniting against G-d, the world is not destroyed. Why?

(Of course, one might suggest that G-d promised never to bring another flood, but, as my good friend Dr. Meir Becker pointed out in shul this past Shabbat, G-d has no shortage of options. If You don’t want to destroy them in a flood, explode them with fire!)

The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah) suggests that what saved the builders of the Tower of Babel was that they were unified (Bereishit11:1). Unity is beloved before G-d, so they were spared.

A beautiful idea, save one detail: the Bible makes very clear that the consequence of the Tower of Babel was (ibid. 6-9) that G-d caused the people to speak many languages, and scattered them across the face of the earth! Why would He undo their greatest merit?

Unity is a double-edged sword. We need only recall images of tens of thousands of Germans with outstretched arms yelling Seig heiltogether to realize just how dangerous it can be. Indeed, sometimes allowing for divergent opinions helps to createhealthy unity.

One of today’s most worrying phenomena is how easily non-consensus opinions are shot down, their authors ostracized. This dangerous trend is not limited to left-wing campuses, Bernie Sanders fans, or sycophants who surround President Trump, or any other president.

Back in 2005, in the midst of the Gush Katif expulsion, it was difficult to suggest that the rabbis who advocated that no one should pack their bags (because “G-d would never let such a folly occur”) might be mistaken, just as were the rabbis who told Jews not to leave Poland.

Perhaps this week’s portion of Noach teaches us that unity is meant to build bridges, not guard towers and walls.

Shabbat shalomfrom Jerusalem.