Photo of Rabbi Ettedgui

First Day of Rosh Hashanah 5776 (September 14th, 2015)

Welcome to 5776!

May this year be for you and your family, as well as for all of us and hopefully the world, a year of good health, happiness, prosperity, and above all a year of peace - a year of Shalom.

The year we have just concluded has been a difficult year, to say the least, for our people and for the world. For a good part of the year, we have all been pre-occupied by the negotiations with Iran. Will there be an agreement? How many times should extensions be granted before an agreement is reached? And what concessions are being made to get an agreement?

Two months ago, when the Iran Deal was finally reached, the American public and especially the Jewish community became totally involved in analyzing the deal and expressing their views - whether it's a good deal or a bad deal. Will it stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb or will it just postpone that fearful day? By lifting the sanctions and providing Iran with billions of dollars, will it bring Iran back into the family of peaceful nations, or will it encourage Iran to continue to engage in terrorism and in arming the enemies of Israel? Will some of those billions go to provide more missiles and rockets to Hamas and Hizbollah? One could go on and on with many more questions with confusing answers.

Some have termed the deal as an historical event, while others described it as a bad mistake of historic proportions. Never before has the Jewish community been as divided as it has been when it came to this issue. While the polls show that even the American public is divided on the Iran Deal, the Jewish community has been more vocal in expressing their opinions, whether to support the administration or oppose the administration.

By now, it seems that the deal will go through. We hope that the promises made by the administration - that it is a good deal and that it will indeed prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon - will be kept.

While this issue has taken center stage throughout the summer months, during the last few weeks our attention has turned to the the unbelievable level of human suffering, as witnessed by the thousands of migrants and refugees who have converged on or are trying to get to Europe. We have seen masses of people fleeing for their lives, trying to get away from the war zones of the Middle East. People are leaving their homes in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other countries, trying to escape the killing fields where Muslims are killing not just infidels but mostly other Muslims. Some sell everything they own so that they can buy a spot on a boat or in a van from smugglers, who sometimes take the money and run. Hundreds have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea from capsized boats. The world was shocked by the discovery of seventy-one decomposing bodies inside a van abandoned on a highway in Austria. These were human beings, who left their homes and families, paying for a chance to start a new life in a safe place, only to die from lack of air or water.

We were all shaken by the sight of the body of that little three year-old boy, Alyan Kurdi, that was washed up on the Turkish shore, laying there on the beach. Many had tears in their eyes hearing and watching the heart-breaking pain of the father of that child who told us how he lost his wife and two children as they were attempting to reach European shores in a dinghy which capsized.

In the last few days we have seen waves of humans beings trying to reach Europe while those countries are discussing how they will distribute the refugees among the different members of the European Union. How will the influx of hundreds of thousands of Muslims impact European society? We have seen what happened in France. Integration into French society has been difficult for many who came from Muslim countries. There are entire neighborhoods that have been taken over by Muslim extremists.

The demographic changes in many European communities have caused the increase of anti-semitic and terrorist attacks against the Jews and Jewish institutions. Guards have been posted by synagogues and Jewish schools, and Jews are afraid to walk down the streets wearing a Kippah or a Jewish star. Now that hundreds of thousands are entering Europe, will other European countries face the same problems that France, Belgium and Sweden are facing today? What will be the future of European Jewry? Will they become targets of these new arrivals?

As a human being and as a Jew, I feel for all these refugees no matter what their religious and or national background is. These are human beings, God's creatures who have been uprooted from their towns and villages. They have lost hope in being able to live in peace in their own land and neighborhoods. The majority of these migrants or refugees have left their homes in search of a better future for themselves and for their children.Imagine what it is like to leave the country where you have lived for centuries and find yourself at the mercy of smugglers and, once you make it, to start over with a new language and culture.

As we see these human sufferings of displacement and exile, we are reminded of the biggest displacement of all, and the tragedies of exile that took place a little over seventy years ago. World War II brought not only the displacement of millions of people, but also the total ethnic cleansing of entire Jewish communities in Europe and the deaths of millions, including the killing of six million Jews.

Many of us here today are the children or grandchildren of families who have experienced displacement and have lived for a while in DP camps, or refugee camps, before finding a haven here in America. America has been a great haven for millions of immigrants who have come from all corners of the world, including Jews who have come and were able to build the most viable and strongest Jewish community that ever existed under the sun.

As we see all these refugees from Arab lands, we hope and pray that they will succeed in finding new homes in non-Islamic countries, and build a better future for themselves and their children.

I would like to share with you at this time, the story of another group of refugees from Arab lands, which I believe many of us are not aware of. The world has forgotten or chooses to forget the experience of this group. The world refuses to treat the story and experience of this group in the same way that it treats the story and experience of the Palestinian refugees.

Seventy years ago, about one million Jews lived among the various Arab states of the Middle East and North Africa, in communities that existed for thousands of years. After the Arabs rejected the UN decision to partition Palestine and create a Jewish State, the Jews of the Arab lands became targets of their own governments' anti-Zionist fervor. As Egypt's delegate to the UN in 1947 chillingly told the General Assembly, "The lives of one million Jews in Muslim countries will be jeopardized by this partition." The dire warning quickly became the brutal reality.

Just like what we see happening today of Muslim refugees fleeing their homes in Arab lands, before and following 1948, close to one million Jews fled their homes of origins in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria and Yemen, when these countries became too dangerous for the Jews to remain in.

Where did all these Jewish refugees go?

Close to 200,000 found refuge in Europe, while another 600,000 were resettled in Israel and the rest went to North and South America. The majority of the Jewish refugees left their homes penniless and destitute and with nothing more than the shirts on their backs. It is estimated that there are less than 5000 Jews left in all Arab countries combined, out of close to a million who lived there before 1948. Morocco, which had the largest Jewish Community in an Arab country - numbering over 250,000 - today has less than 3000.

What is most interesting is that the United Nations never considered these Jews as refugees and never set up refugee camps for them or helped them settle anywhere. Yet there is an organization within he United Nations today called UNRWA, which was established in 1949 to help the 600,000 Palestinians that became refugees during Israel's War of Independence. Unlike any other refugees in the world, this organization continues to provide services to supposedly Palestinian refugees from that war, except that their numbers have now grown to between 2 and 5 million. UNRWA's very raison d'etre, with a budget of close to $1 billion, is to perpetuate the refugee status of the Palestinians. Rather that settling in the countries to which they moved during the war, they continue to receive benefits from UNRWA which has a staff of over 30,000 people, most of them Palestinians.

You think such an organization will ever give up the goose that lays the golden egg? What is the rationale for the Palestinian cause being carried from generation to generation, so that today the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original 600,000 are still called Palestinian refugees, while the one million Jews who left the Arab lands are not mentioned in any discussions on compensation or an exchange of populations?

The Palestinian people, according to a recent study by the Jerusalem Institute of Justice, have received, per capita and adjusted for inflation, 25 times more aid than did Europeans to rebuild war-torn Western Europe under the Marshall plan after the Second World War. UNRWA is the only UN refugee agency dedicated to a single group of people, and the only agency that designates individuals as original refugees if they have lived in areas effected by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war for a minimum of only two years before being displaced. UNRWA is also the only UN agency that designates the descendants of the original refugees as refugees as well – even though 90% of UNRWA-designated refugees have never actually been displaced.

UNRWA also encourages people who have been given full citizenship in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon to continue to call themselves Palestininian refugees, and encourages them to act on a "right of return". UNRWA's budget is supported mostly by Western countries with more that a third coming form US taxpayers. I believe that the time has come for the Jewish community to bring up this issue before our lawmakers, just as we have stood for other issues.

We know that one of the major road blocks to Israel/Palestinian peace negotiations, has been the insistence by Abbas for the right of return to all these millions of Palestinians. For Israel to accept their return is to commit suicide, and give up the idea of a Jewish state.

This past year, more than ever before, we have seen how Israel is an oasis surrounded by a sea of savagery which is reminiscent of the Dark Ages, with Islamic barbarians gleefully filming the decapitation of hostages, murdering hundreds of thousands of civilians and creating millions of refugees who we see are seeking asylum in Europe.

The Jerusalem Post pointed out today that, aside from the US where Israel enjoys strong public support, Israel's global standing has continued to erode, especially in Europe, where they are now poised to announce new measures to pressure Israel to make further unilateral concessions to the Palestinians. The same article points out that the global anti-Semitic tsunami is still raging and Europe is becoming transformed into a cemetery for Jews. Public opinion in Europe, the continent drenched with the blood of Jews from the Shoah, regards the Jewish state as a greater threat to global peace than Iran, Syria or even North Korea and views Israelis as genocidal, their behavior to the Palestinians likened to that of the Nazis toward the Jews. This at a time of mayhem in the region and with the level of incitement against Israel from the Palestinian Authority virtually indistinguishable from that of the openly genocidal Hamas.

How can we explain such blindness among Europeans?

As we review the year 5775, it would seem that there aren't many good things we can be proud of. The Arab countries and Iran would rather e liminate Israel than find a way to co-exist. The fight is not about land anymore. It is an ideological fight that will not accept Israel in that part of the world just like they cleansed their countries of all Jews and most Christian communities. All we can do is strengthen ourselves and be ready to stand up for our people and for Israel.

With all the stresses that Israelis face, polls have shown that people in Israel are among the happiest people in the world. The Mitzvah from the Torah of "Vesmahta bekhol hatov" - "Be happy with all the good that G-d gives you - is a Mitzvah that we Jews, and especially Israelis, love to fulfill.

As we pray for a good year, we are grateful to G-d for watching over us. Because despite the internal divisions and ongoing external challenges that the Jewish community and Israel continue to face, we seem to be blessed by continuing to prosper and grow from strength to strength.

There is no comparison between the state of our people today and what it was like seventy some years ago when all those refugees fleeing their homes were our our people - from Jewish communities - who had no place to go. Yet, we helped one another. Our people live with dignity and security.

We hope that it will continue to be so.

Shanah Tovah.