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Israel at 70 – ‘Lay’ sermon

The Reform sermon for Shabbat Ha’atzmaut was delivered by Judith Bara.  Judith Bara (pictured) is a member of Mosaic Reform and a political scientist whose academic interests include analysis of political language, comparative politics and Israel. She is currently Hon. Research Fellow in Politics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

The insightful sermon discussed the background to the establishment of the State of Israel seventy years ago in terms of how the Jewish people became ‘strangers’ in the lands where they settled after the dispersion. It highlighted the development of Zionism in which the notion of ‘return’ to Ha’aretz provides a chance to build both a haven and the ’good society’.

The sermon is well worth reading in full and can be found below:

 

Sermon

At first sight it may seem that today’s full portion, Thazria, which focuses on the laws of purification bears little relevance to the fact that in a few days time we shall celebrate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel.

Leviticus chapter 13, as Dr Hertz’s commentary tells us, deals with laws relating to how to manage people with leprosy. But as he also points out, this has not necessarily always been seen as just dealing with the physical symptoms of the disease. Rather, there are grounds for also seeing it as how to deal with a moral disease, namely slander (shem ra – giving someone an undeserved  bad name). Those who engaged in such activities would have been regarded as moral outcasts and kept apart – excluded from engaging with mainstream society. Excluding felons, is a normal state of affairs. Excluding people for spurious reasons, e.g. because they ‘look different’ should never become the norm. Such exclusion has of course never been far from Jewish experience.

In biblical times, the flight from Egypt as portrayed in Exodus is a detailed narrative about how Jews were treated as a community apart and persecuted. Why? Because they were not of the prevailing tribe or clan; because they worshipped another god and practised different religious and social rituals.

Although they escaped from Egypt and settled eventually in the Promised Land, their problems were not over. There were a number of occasions when Jews were excluded from their own land, such as the Babylonian exile and, most notably, the dispersion of the Jews during the period of the Roman Empire. This led to our becoming rootless strangers and we have existed as minorities – or, as Moses Hess suggested, as ‘guests who outstay their welcome’- in many lands ever since.

Today, most Jews outside Israel live in Anglo-American and European countries. Given the fact that the moral code set out in the Torah also contributes to the basis of Western ethics, can we say that we were always treated justly and in the same way as the host population?  Of course not. Only two days ago we had Yom Hashoah when we remembered victims of the Holocaust – the most terrible chapter not only in Jewish history but in the history of the world.

Even in Britain and clearly at a far less horrific level we might reflect that things have not always gone too well for Jewish people. Let us not forget that in medieval times Britain was the birthplace of the blood libel and that Jews were murdered or expelled. Even in modern times we have suffered prejudice and discrimination from all strata of society.  One hundred and thirteen years ago the Aliens Act of 1905 was passed. This was one of the first pieces of legislation to restrict immigration into Britain as a result of pressure from a variety of sources and for a variety of economic, political and cultural reasons. Ironically it was introduced to Parliament by the Home Secretary of the day, one Arthur James Balfour!  Why do I mention this? What relevance does it have for the anniversary of the foundation of the State of Israel?

Well, in the first place, it was aimed clearly at ‘stemming the influx of Jews from Eastern Europe’; or to use contemporary rhetoric, excluding  Jewish ‘asylum seekers’ and/or ‘economic migrants’ who were fleeing pogroms or seeking a more secure future for their families or both.  Britain was traditionally seen as a liberal and tolerant country. After all, the British establishment had provided refuge to victims of persecution in the past, e.g. the Huguenots and various political revolutionaries, such as Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. But it seemed that in the early twentieth century this magnanimity was not be extended to too many poor and (generally) hard-working east European Jews.

Later, the British establishment appeared reluctant to admit too many Jews fleeing from tyranny and persecution after 1933. This is not too say that the British people as a whole agreed with this approach nor that Britain was any better or worse than other supposedly liberal powers, including the USA. But there was a crucial difference between Britain and the other powers. Britain held a mandate to govern Palestine on behalf of the League of Nations, which included responsibility for supporting the creation of ‘a national home for the Jewish people’. In 1939 Britain placed significant restrictions on the numbers of Jewish migrants who were to be allowed into Palestine.

In biblical times, some of the prophets recognised that exile, whether voluntary or enforced, would lead to dangers other than oppression or exploitation. It could lead to abandonment of faith and loss of awareness of people-hood. Hence they used the vision of ‘return’ to the land of our ancestors as a means of both safeguarding solidarity and giving hope for the future. One example is found in Amos 20, 14-15. ‘And I will turn the captivity of my people Israel and they shall build the waste cities and inhabit them. And they shall no more be plucked up out of their land which I have given them.’ Arguably this ‘return’ signifies not only a return to Ha’aretz (the land) and to safety, but also a return to morality and observance.  It was to take some three thousand years and a very different kind of prophet to set the basis for achieving this by elevating the notion of Zionism to the world stage.

By the late nineteenth century Zionism was not a new idea in terms of invoking the idea of ‘return’ to the land. However, prior to that period it had been largely bound up in religious debate and led by rabbis. From the eighteenth century, debates concerning Zionism were also fed by Enlightenment ideas of nationalism and rationalism. Increasingly, secular Jews came to realise that the notion of ‘return’ to a revitalised Jewish homeland was the only solution to the ‘Jewish question’. and it was hardly surprising that the countries of eastern Europe represented the seedbed for this new idealism, given that they were particularly liable to persecute their Jewish ‘guests’, not only on the basis of the belief that they were the killers of Christ but also on economic grounds.

The man regarded by many as the founder of modern Zionism was the urbane, assimilated journalist Theodor Herzl, the writer who mixed with the literati in the salons of Vienna and Paris in the late 19th century. It was Herzl who cut through the debate and rhetoric to make possible the realisation of the dream. As he says in the introduction to his 1896 monograph, Der Judenstaat, written in the aftermath of the Dreyfus Affair, ‘The Jewish Question is…a national question which can only be solved by making it a political, world question’.

Herzl realised that no matter how much Jews and their gentile supporters relied on recourse to the Torah or to humanitarian instincts, they were bound to be unsuccessful in convincing the world of the rectitude of the Jewish case. In any event, Jewish philanthropists could never raise enough money to buy enough land! Rather, they had to convince the rulers of the great powers of the day that it was in their interests to support the idea of a Jewish state – a ‘normal’ state, a state able to stand alongside others. Herzl and his colleagues argued that a homeland for the Jewish people – ideally their historic homeland- would free them from the inhumanity of the host nations where they resided in the galut, the diaspora.  Herzl envisaged a possibility that a Jewish state could come about in 50 years. It happened in 52!

Seventy years ago and only three years after the end of the war which thwarted Hitler’s ‘final solution’ to the ‘Jewish question’, the State of Israel came into being. So has this put an end to prejudice? Has it meant that Jews are always accepted on an equal basis?  Has anti-Semitism gone away?

One aspect of the problem for Jews was encapsulated in a comment by an elderly member of the remnant of the Jewish community of Sarajevo.  Talking in 1995 of the city’s Serb community, he said ‘You can’t be a Serb if you are not born from a Serb mother and father. They can accept you as a Jew, they won’t persecute you as a Jew, but you can’t become one of them’. In other words, you are different.’

And we are still often seen as different and our experiences are still often diminished or ignored. Who would have thought that over seventy years after the end of the second world war and nearly thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes, a nationalist government in Poland would create a new criminal offence which punishes people for suggesting that Poland had anything to do with the Holocaust or that the newly re-elected Prime Minister of Hungary would invoke a conspiracy between Jews and Muslims as undermining Hungarian identity! This suggests that in 2018 we still need a State of Israel as the place of sanctuary envisioned by the early modern Zionists. So do we all sell up and make Aliyah en masse?

I suggest that we are nowhere near this situation and that there are actions we can take. For one thing we need to keep trying to create greater understanding not simply of our history but especially of what it means to be excluded in terms of our own experiences and by empathising with those of others. One way we might try to break down barriers is to try lead by example.

We will never be able to achieve perfect agreement on priorities here because we are human (and Jewish!) and we disagree on what constitutes fairness or, indeed,  the ‘ideal society’. Nevertheless, we could agree, both among ourselves and with the wider society, on the desirability of practices whereby victims of prejudice are judged essentially on the basis of their humanity rather than their national or ethnic or religious origin. One tangible activity is to persuade other countries, including Israel, to try to do better in terms of treating migrants fairly and to try to make existing mechanisms established to assist those fleeing persecution work better. Despite its flaws the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention at least provides some basis for international co-operation and states that host countries have a duty to treat refugees as human beings in a non-discriminatory manner.

So as we celebrate 70 years of Israeli statehood, achieved under difficult circumstances and which remains beleaguered in many ways, we should remember those, like the Ethiopian Jewish community, which would probably have perished or wasted away had it not been for Israel’s existence. But is this enough?

Israel was conceived by its pioneering founders as providing a ‘light unto the nations’, a living example of the practice of humanity, justice and the rule of law, as well as a beacon of hope for the Jews of the world. Despite the difficulties in trying to bring this about, we should try to keep that beacon alight. We need to encourage Israel to nurture the ‘good society’ that is at the heart of the Zionist ideal. A society which will be able to flourish, at peace with at least some of its neighbours, which will treat all of its citizens fairly and justly and reach out to those in the wider Jewish world and beyond who are in peril or distress, whilst obviously not compromising its own security.

In wishing ‘mazal tov’ to Israel on its 70th anniversary, I would like to end by quoting from a poem written in 1982 by a modern Zionist sage – Professor Shlomo Avineri of the Hebrew University – to mark the award of  a prize for his book  The Making of Modern Zionism.

‘We are a People of the Book.
We are also a people heavy with memory.
Let us remember- nizkor …
that Zionism is about the future, not about the past,
that Zionism while embedded in history should never be imprisoned by it,
that Zionism means listening to the voice of our own people, not silencing the voices of others,
that Zionism is about national self-consciousness, not about real estate,
that Zionism is about getting the Jewish people back into history, not opting out of it,
that Zionism is about  being Jewish but also about being human …
that Zionism is about people…’

Amen.

 

April 24, 2018