After I first lived in Israel, I promised myself that I would regularly preach about Israel. Not in terms of the politics but to paint a picture of life in Israel for those born in the land and those who have chosen to make their home there.
I was still a student rabbi and was not yet in a congregational position where I had to preach, pretty regularly, about Israel when conflict erupted. Which means that the sermon I once gave about my first landlord’s near adoption of me and my housemate as his grandchildren has since worn thin – first given on this week’s Torah portion because of the reference to the seven species of the land of Israel. Because, the luxury of speaking about an octogenarian who once fly-posted for Etzel against the British mandate as a 10 year old has been pushed aside with regular discussions about conflict on the Syrian border, Lebanon, Gaza, legislation about progressive Judaism, the Kotel (Western Wall), lack of peace process, murder of Shira Banki at pride (commemorated just yesterday at Pride in Jerusalem three years after her death). But…
In this last week I wrote an extended version of my thought for the week which also referred to Israel. In it I note that:
“Israel, one of the central subjects of our Torah portion this week, is the case that proves the point when it comes to conspiracy theories by antisemites. For in the fantasists mind it is Israel that shows how much power the Jews really hold, manipulating the west. Israel is a symbol of the problem of Jewish power. And as more fuel is given to antisemitic theories, it seems more people feel a gag is lifted and they can show their true colours and deny Israel’s right to exist.”
I continued, “I want to tell you the opposite is the case. Israel was not the gift that absolved Europe’s descent into industrialised genocide. The Holocaust was what happens when the fantasists take power and are able to act on their delusional racist theories. The State of Israel is a fulfilment of a vision for the Jewish people to live fully as Jews, something that predated the Holocaust but was made ever more urgent by it.”
We are in troubling times as a world with regards to politics. Because no matter the forward steps that have been made in so many other areas of life, the one area that seems to be retrograde is our political life. It cannot be reduced simply to economics but that is part of it. It cannot be reduced to identity politics, but that is part of it. It cannot be reduced to personality cults, but that is part of it. The waves of populism that defy honesty are surging forwards on the right and the left. We see it in the extreme left and right in this country. We see it in Trump and we see it in Israel too.
Pained as I am to say it, my friends feel devastated by a triple whammy of: the Nation State Bill in Israel that, whilst not saying wholly explicitly, seems to downgrade minority groups (noted in particular yesterday by a senior Druze officer) and the Arabic language (leading to an amazing ‘teach in’ of Arabic in Tel Aviv); at the same time, the law was introduced that seemed to prevent gay couples using surrogacy (note, the argument is not about whether surrogacy is morally acceptable); and finally where the detention of a Conservative Rabbi seemed to herald a new level of religious coercion by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.
And by the way, the people who have expressed to me their greatest fear about these moves in Israel, who live and whose children live the reality of Israel and the threat to their wellbeing from terror and conflict, are also our greatest allies when it comes to seeking some kind of resolution to the situation between Israelis and Palestinians. Whatever the solution to the lack of peace, they do not want to be controlling Gaza anymore than we want Israel to be. They don’t want to be an occupying force in the West Bank and believe me they worked harder than anyone for peace believing a great many sacrifices were worth paying for the sake of avoiding death.
Today, our friends in Israel are in need of allyship more than ever before, I cannot ignore this reality. The Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and its members, rabbis and institutions are not demanding our allyship because that is not their way – but we need to step forward and offer it. And we must do this in an unafraid way – not reluctantly stating the word Zionist for fear that we will be delegitimised as having dual loyalties or supporting a plot to take over the world. We cannot be scared to speak out about our passionate commitment to Jewish life in Israel, to a democratic state where the Jewish people can live free and peacefully. We must celebrate the achievements of the State of Israel, her incredible journey to become the largest population of Jews in the world. We must recognise there are grave and significant challenges facing her and that our friends in Israel are on the front line of those challenges. If we’re not going to make Aliyah – which by the way should be an option on the table to seriously consider – then the least we can do is recognise we care about our brothers and sisters in Israel enough to say so.
We are in the period of the seven weeks of consolation and I am drawn to consider how the Jewish people have rebuilt time and time again after destruction. More than that, in the midst of the upheaval, what does it mean to step forwards and speak to the future at times of fear and trepidation. After the Holocaust on the cusp of the foundation of the State of Israel I found Weizman’s words powerful.
Chaim Weizman, at the 22nd Zionist Congress in Basle in December 1946, spoke the following words:
“Five years ago, under the shadow of the impending Jewish tragedy. I wrote; “The Jewish State in Palestine will be more than a merely necessary means of securing further Jewish immigration. It is a moral need and postulate and would be a decisive step towards normality and true emancipation. I believe that after the war, Jews everywhere can gain in status and security only through the rise of a Jewish State.”
“If this was true in 1941, it is even more true today. This is the logical climax to the Balfour Declaration as the authors always understood it. Our claim for a state is sometimes represented as an act of extremism. What is natural for Bulgarians. Armenians, Transjordanians and many other national groups, which have no greater claim themselves upon the conscience of the world, is somehow regarded as an unreasonable benefaction for Jews.
“We refuse to accept this inequality. We ask for free scope in which to develop our national culture. And the culture of a nation comprises not only its literature and art but also its political institutions, its conception of economic organizations and existence of a field of social experiment. These things, which all other nations possess, we claim in the name of equality and of our sufferings for ourselves…
“Let us pray that in unity and in singleness of purpose, we will achieve peace and freedom in Zion reborn.”
The project that faces us now is not creating a state. We have a state. The challenge facing us now ia statesmanship – the future of the state.
On this Rabbi Gilad Kariv – CEO of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism wrote (in response to the Nation State bill):
“A calculated attempt is being made here to exempt the State of Israel and Israeli society from the difficult challenges that face any modern, law-abiding, and advanced sovereign nation: The social reality; ensuring equal opportunities for all citizens and residents; relations between the majority and the minority; decent treatment of asylum seekers and refugees; relations between religion and state; and – of course – the desire to reach a reality of peace and agreement.
“This proposed law is based on a stubborn refusal to accept that, after seventy years of independence, the task that faces us is to integrate Jewish nationhood with a thriving Israeli culture that profoundly recognizes the existence of a large and important minority in this land. This culture acknowledges the need to nurture coexistence and to protect and ensure the rights of every citizen. We want to bring our children up in a nation where Hebrew and Arabic are both official languages. We want to bring our children up in a country where people choose where to live without anyone inspecting their religion or national identity. We want to bring our children up in a country where alongside the Jewish festivals, other days are also celebrated reflecting the heritage of all the partners in Israeli society, as well as our joint heritage. It is certainly possible that it may take a long time to build this reality. But in the meantime, we bear an obligation to prevent the aggressive attempt to place an obstacle along the path we seek to travel together.
“It isn’t easy for us to gather here as battles rage not far from us. We offer the prayer that all the children of this Land will be able to sleep peacefully in their beds, will not be afraid to play outside, and will be able to dream of a future of security, calm, and hope.
“Many years ago, a Hebrew poet (Saul Tchernikovsky) wrote these words:
“Rejoice for I have faith in friendship
I’ll find a heart – in this I’ve faith –
A heart that shares in all my hopes,
A heart that feels both joy and pain.
And I shall keep faith in the future,
Though the day be yet unseen
Surely it will come when nations
All live in blessed peace.”
He spoke those words along with tens of thousands of others demonstrating and making their case freely in the democracy in Israel. It must surely be our job to stand by him and the community he represents to seek a time when we can all live in blessed peace – May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.
[First delivered Parashat Ekev 5778 at West London Synagogue]
 One day I’ll give the sermon that ties the famous quote by Ben Gurion “We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew” to the credit card fraud I experienced leading to donations to some west bank yeshiva – not sure that’s what Ben Gurion meant to be honest.