Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Tale of Two Boats

A Tale of Two Boats
Parashat BaMidbar;
Tenth Grade Graduation
May 26, 2017

         We have fled from Pharoah, and we have fed the priests.  The sea split, the waves were walls, we crossed through the water.  Exodus is behind us, Leviticus is over.  Now we wander.  Bamidbar.  In the wilderness.  The Hebrew name comes from the first significant word of the book.  The English name, however, reflects the content.
         Numbers.  We open by taking stock.  By looking around.  With a census.  By drawing a border, with division and distinction, who counts -- and who does not.
         It is with numbers that I want to begin this night, numbers and anniversaries.  Looking backwards but with an eye to what is going on around us, this night I want to share with you… a tale of two boats.
         It was 1939, and the world was dark.  On the 13th of May, 937 men, women and children, refugees all, set sail from Germany, bound for Cuba.  They had paid, they had papers, the way was clear.  The SS St. Louis arrived in the port of Havana sometime between May 26 and May 27, exactly 78 years ago today.

         But by the time the boat arrived even the passengers could tell there was some kind of problem.  Resistance to refugees in Cuba, along with possible antisemitism, had flared, and forced authorities there to revoke their word, refuse entry to all save the 30 non-Jewish passengers, and attempt to return the boat to its port of origin.
         Calls were made, telegrams sent out.  The St. Louis approached the Florida coast, close enough to Miami, it is said, that the desperate souls could see the city lights from the deck of the ship.
         The frantic calls failed.   On June 6, 1939, the United States, knowing there were hundreds of children on board, fully aware of their likely fate, refused the pleas of the St. Louis and the appeals of Jewish agencies advocating on their behalf.  (This, by the way, despite a ready solution close at hand, an easy sail away.  Just a short while earlier, the legislature of a United States territory had passed, and the sitting governor had signed, a decree welcoming European refugees.  Using its statutory power, the State Department summarily overrode the bill passed by the parliament of the United States Virgin Islands.)
         In the wake of the American decision, but also acting independently, dozens -- dozens! -- of other nations followed suit.  Canada said no.  Canada!  As did... every single nation in Latin America.   Every one.
The St. Louis did indeed return to Germany.   One passenger slit his wrists and threw himself overboard as the ship turned around.  Some eventually escaped -- to France, or to Belgium, only to fall into the hands of the Nazis again.  To England, as did the one woman I know who, as a child, was on board that ship.  Some escaped but hundreds, including, of course, many of the children, hundreds died in concentration camps.
*    *      *
The war is over, and the world has changed.  But now in France, from whence the phrase "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose."  Seventy years ago, in July of 2017, from a port in the south of France, another boat set sail.
It was an old packet steamer once known as the SS President Warfield.  It began its life currying cargo back and forth right near here, in between Baltimore and Norfolk.  It served both the US Navy and the Royal Navy during the war.  And now the cargo it carried was composed of what some would call illegal aliens, and others undocumented immigrants.
Leon Uris and Paul Newman made this boat famous, with a bit of embellishment and creative license, but the true tale is amazing enough.  The boat, renamed Exodus, left Europe with 4515 displaced persons, all Jews, including 655 children.  On July 18 it came tantalizingly close to port in British Mandate Palestine, only to be rammed by British patrol boats, boarded and, physical resistance overcome, with casualties and fatalities, towed into Haifa.  The would-be immigrants were forcibly removed, placed onto different boats and sent back to France – where they refused to disembark and held out for 24-days.  They were out of rations.  There was a heat wave.  There were less than 20 toilets for the close to 5000 human beings.  France finally refused the boats entry so the British, in their infinite wisdom and with no sense of irony, tugged the boats off to… Hamburg, in occupied-Germany, removed everyone by force, and consecrated them all… in camps.
But the press was present, and no one assaulted any of the reporters.  At least as far as I know.   Eyes were open, and the world was watching.  Pressure finally forced a change in policy.  Those who managed to escape from Europe but were caught en route to Palestine – at least they would now be held in a new Displaced Person camp in Cypress, rather than returned to the killing fields of their former homes.   Repatriated to countries which never viewed them as patriots in the first place.
Cypress was… horrible.  But it was closer to their destination.  And, eventually, even though hundreds had to wait until after May of 1948, most of those on board the Exodus and in Cypress found their way to a new home, in the land of Israel.

To our Tenth Graders I have said, and I will say again now in the last time you will hear it from me… I know… I know that you hear, or will hear, when you go off to college… I know that you will hear a great deal of criticism of Israel.  Some of that criticism I share; it is justified, it will be based on values we share, things we all care about.  But some of it comes from somewhere else, a place of hate, a distortion of history, a denial of Jewish rights and even an attempt to eradicate our existence.  In the midst of that cauldron I remind you, even now, even seven decades later, I remind you of the tale of two boats. 
And I share with you an image, a sign seen just after your arrival, when you get off the plane and board a bus and leave behind Ben Gurion International Airport.  The sign reads: “Ein Lanu Eretz Acheret.  We have no other land.”  Or, to put the matter even more bluntly: we have nowhere else to go.
We who are at home here in America, yes, this was and can be and still  is a great country, with lofty ideals and a human experiment in freedom and opportunity which is unfolding still.  But remember.  Remember the St. Louis, and remember the Exodus.  And know, as Jews, that there has to, there just has to be a place where our fate does not depend… on the good will of others.
But there are other lessons to be learned on this night.  We will remember, this Memorial Day Weekend, and later tonight, in the moments before Kaddish, we will remember the sacrifice of men and women who died in service of this country.  The "ultimate" sacrifice, it is called.  What, then, did they die to defend?  What are the values and visions, the things that make this country great that they were willing to offer themselves in its defense?  And what does this mean for us?

         My friends, in America, and in Israel, in headlines and in a hidden revolution taking place almost out of sight while we are distracted and watching out for other things, in policies and in attitudes we see hearts and minds and doors and gates closing before our eyes.  If there a lesson from history, if the past calls us and values bind, then we must link our history and memory with what is unfolding around us now.  We must join our dreams and journeys with those of others who are, figuratively and sometimes literally, in the same boat.
         “Great win,” is what the leader of our country just said, unprompted, about the victorious Congressional candidate in Montana.  Talk about an assault on the first amendment!  And, steps away from here, goons and thugs in the direct employ of the elected dictator in Turkey initiated a violent attack on peaceful protestors and then hid under the protective cloak of diplomatic immunity and a collegial sense of shared values and mutual appreciation between their leader and ours.  Violence in word spilling over to violence in deed.  The suppression of dissent, the quashing of questions, the closing of borders.  Where does it stop?  What will it take?  Who will step forward to draw a line, and somehow say in way which will work: Dayyeinu.  Enough is enough is enough.  As Israelis say: “ra’inu et a seret hazeh; we have seen this movie before.”
         On June 6, the exact anniversary of the United States’ refusal to admit the refugees on the St. Louis, HIAS – the organization once known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, will be holding vigils across the country as part of its Welcome Campaign, drawing attention to parallels between the refugee crises of yesterday and today.  Such vigils will take place at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, and outside of the Capital building.  Watch for more information in the week to come.
         And on June 7, in a follow up to questions asked by our own young people, including some of our Tenth Grade students, I have arranged for our congregation to host one of the area’s first ever Jewish-Muslim Teen Talks and Kosher-Halal Iftar Dinner Discussions, in which  8th- through 12th graders in our congregation and other synagogues can get to know Muslim peers, not just as classmates they come across in school, but in terms of sharing each other’s sense of their faith and identity, their hopes and dreams.  To our young people who are here tonight, I hope many of you can come to this really important evening we have planned.
         And for all of us: what are we going to do to make sure that this country, our home, and that Israel, our homeland, live up to the values and ideals we believe in?  How will you move from the sidelines and as spectators, to being the actors and shapers of the world we want, we know, we need it to be?
         In eerie and haunting imagery, in works which echo now anew, the late, great Israeli poet Yehuda Amicha writes:

בטרם השער יסגר
בטרם האמור יאמר
בטרם אהיה אחר...

Before the gate is locked and shuttered
Before every word is said and uttered
Before I have become something different --
Something other.
Before the mind has lost its way
Before the possessions are packed and put away
Before the pavement hardens --
Here to stay.
Before the apertures of flutes are sealed
Before the laws of nature are revealed
Before the vessels break --
and can’t be healed.
Before decrees and edicts are imposed
Before the hand of God is closed
Before we rise to leave this place –
and go.
         Bamidbar.  Numbers.  A census, and a taking stock.  Who is in, and who is out?  Who counts, and how?  And what will you do to welcome home those who wander in the wilderness?
         Shabbat Shalom.

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