Most of us here, I am sure, are deeply committed to the state of Israel. We recognize its importance, not only for the almost six million Jews who live there but for the safety it represents for Jews around the world. After the atrocities of the Holocaust, this can never be forgotten or underestimated. And of course we recognize also its significance as the place where our ancestors wandered and settled and where Biblical Judaism developed. There is no better classroom for so many aspects of the Jewish religion.
And so, when Israel is under threat from the outside, we rally round and do all we can to support it. Many Jews from around the world made their way there in 1967 to give practical assistance during the Six Day war. I remember my parents selling a precious pair of silver candlesticks to send support in 1974, when thirty eight years ago today, she was attacked in the Yom Kippur War. How much does it wrench our souls though when we begin to feel that some of the threat may be coming from within?
Whenever I teach about the Babylonian exile, I am struck by the comparisons between then and now, over two thousand five hundred years later. Babylon was the most developed and sophisticated civilization the world had ever seen at that time. The Judahite exiles from Jerusalem cannot have had it easy, arriving at the gates of Babylon with only what they could carry, and weighed down with memories. Although they came by land, by camel and by foot, they must have been similar to the refugees trying to make their way to Australia today; traumatized, dislocated, dazed and unfamiliar. Unlike those refugees though, they could immediately start to settle in, earn a living, become part of the society and integrate. The idea of the Babylonian conquerors was that the immigrants would assimilate, and as quickly as possible. Because of the teachings and warnings of the biblical prophets though, that was not to be.
When other populations were conquered, they took it as a sign that the gods of the conquerors were more powerful than their own. However, the Torah, and later the prophets such as Jeremiah, had warned that the people would be torn from their land if they did not obey God. So the shock of exile actually strengthened their belief in God, since the predictions had come true, rather than discrediting God! Instead of being absorbed and disappearing, some of them gathered regularly, remembering Jerusalem, singing songs and devising prayers. They developed new ways to be Judahites, without priests and sacrifices and the Temple. Thus the seeds of Judaism, synagogues and the rabbis were sown; a way to worship God, a framework for life that was not dependent on the land. Indeed, Torah has subsequently been termed the portable homeland – wherever the Jews went, the idea of the land went with them!
Only fifty years later, Persia conquered Babylon. King Cyrus invited the exiles to return to their homes in Jerusalem. But in reality, fifty years is a long time, more than two generations. Children and grandchildren had been born in the great metropolis of Babylon, with its ceramic blue tiled city walls, protected by roaring lions. The Judahites were by now Babylonians, the streets of Jerusalem a distant folk memory except for the oldest, akin to the details of the Holocaust for most of us today. They no longer spoke the language of Jerusalem. Even had they wished to return to the Temple with its priests and sacrifices, they could not as it had been razed to the ground. Jerusalem was a relative backwater, undeveloped, unsophisticated, with a foreign language and customs and food, if you could get any! For most of the exiles, presumably those who had settled and integrated successfully, the choice was easy. No thanks. We’ll stay here. We’re doing fine here, and our prospects are good. Perhaps we’ll send some money back to rebuild the Temple and the city, but that’s a sort of insurance, and makes us feel better.
Today, Babylon could be London, New York, Toronto… or Melbourne! We’re happy, safe and settled here. Why would we choose to uproot ourselves from our homes and work and friends, our children from their schools, to go and struggle in a foreign land with a language we don’t speak? The fact that some do is impressive – the reality that most don’t is hardly surprising. The number of Israelis who settle in Melbourne is not surprising either. I have said for years that the term Aliyah, going up to settle in Israel, with its opposite, yeridah, leaving Israel to settle elsewhere, is a problematic and dated concept. The idea that Israel is success and Melbourne, London, Paris, New York is failure, has no validity. Indeed, the reality is that, whilst Biblical Judaism developed largely in the land of Israel, Rabbinic Judaism – the practice that has been universally recognised as Judaism for the past two thousand years, didn’t come from Israel, in the main. It is the product of Babylon and other parts of the diaspora – its central text being the Babylonian Talmud. What happens Jewishly-speaking in Israel is important to us today – but so is what happens in America, and dare I say it, even here, where our new prayer book, one of the latest in the two thousand year history of siddurim, was compiled.
Israel is truly a miracle, and it is inspiring to those who visit, both Jews and, perhaps even more, for non-Jews. A couple of weeks ago, I hosted a school visit, sitting right here. How big do you think Israel is, I asked. The same as Australia, offered one. Much smaller. Victoria? Even smaller. Tasmania? No – only a third the size of Tasmania – you can fit more than three Israels into Tassie! How can such a tiny country have possibly had such amazing success in so many fields over such a short time? I have not been for several years and am eager to get back for another visit, another dose of amazement and education. I urge you to plan a trip, shorter or longer. Rabbi John Levi and Robyn are currently on their way to spend six months in Jerusalem, an amazing opportunity which we have available to us which our ancestors before have never had.
But we don’t want people to say ‘Israel’s a great place to visit but Melbourne’s a better place to live!’ That’s what they say about Sydney! We want to make sure that Israel is a great place to live as well, a viable option for Jewish families, a country of freedom and opportunity, a country at peace, the heart of a thriving Middle East, as the President, Shimon Peres, envisages. And whilst that may be a long-term goal and even a naïve dream, depending on many world political issues and pressures, we can at least hope and work for a time when Israelis are free to practice their Judaism as they wish, treated equally by the state – and the court ruling this year that fifteen progressive rabbis must be funded by the state is an important milestone on the way, though standing up for ourselves rather than accepting the religious steamroller will add to the tension and heat.
According to the Rabbis, Jerusalem was destroyed back in the year 70 because of sinat chinam, needless hatred – hatred, that is, between Jews. And today, Israel is in danger of going the same way again. There have been examples of Jews spitting upon Jews, throwing stones at other Jews, imposing their beliefs upon them, ignoring and spurning Israel’s court rulings, and undermining the parliamentary system at all levels. Some people are considered to be Jewish enough to fight to protect Israel, but not Jewish enough to be married or to buried in Jewish cemeteries. The large disparity of four to one in birthrates between Israelis who are like us, and other parts of the society, means that the problem is growing worse and more difficult to resolve, day by day. Visiting regularly, or even better, making our homes in Israel, are important ways to help support modern western values – hard-won values which are ultimately often derived from Judaism anyway – and which are sometimes being alarmingly eroded.
The word Hagira is the Hebrew for moving from one country to another, except Israel, where, as I said, the terms remain the values-based aliyah and yerida. But wouldn’t it be a great model if we welcomed Israelis to live in our communities around the world for some years, bringing their Hebrew, their warmth, their skills, their love and knowledge of Israel to us, bringing Israel closer to our everyday awareness and reality, instead of keeping their distance from the Jewish community, as they currently tend to? And wouldn’t it be great to help families to go to live for two or three or five years in Israel, so their children came to speak fluent Ivrit, and they knew their way around the sites of Israel, and the streets of Jerusalem were as familiar as Melbourne? And they would take their confident, modern Progressive Jewish identities, their understanding of variety and choice in the diaspora, to the cities of Israel? And eventually to welcome them back, not with a sense of failure but with a sense of connectedness and love for Zion? How much healthier this Hagirat Yehudim, this Jewish migration, could be, both for us and for Israel and for the relationship between us.
These are very complex issues and we should be wary of generalizations, but at the same time we should be careful of being so liberal and open-minded that our brains fall out. Those who passionately believe that God gave every inch of the land from the Euphrates to the sea to the Jewish people for all time, those who feel that Jews are mentally and physically superior to other people, are not going to willingly give up land for peace. It was not Netanyahu but Tzipi Livni who got the majority of votes in Israel’s last elections – yet Bibi is Prime Minister, because he was prepared to go into coalition with parts of the community that she was not prepared to negotiate with. It is hard to know who is right when realpolitik hits principle!
Yet, in practical terms, we can’t help agonising when, this year, we have seen horrible racist attacks, including one in Zion Square, in the heart of Jerusalem, where Arab Israelis were set upon for allegedly looking at Jewish girls! Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (a leader of the Likud party) visited a 17-year-old victim of this attack, and apologized, saying: "We are sorry... It is hard to see you hospitalized because of an inconceivable act… What happened is the responsibility of every leader and Member of Knesset." Jamal Julany probably could not hear him, and remembers nothing of the attack. He was struggling in his hospital bed to gain back the use of his limbs, his eyes and his ears.
Anat Hoffman, Director of the Israel Religious Action Centre, reminds us that this period calls us to search our actions and mend our ways, both individually and more broadly, to avoid the same mistakes recurring. It is time to admit that unprovoked attacks like this one on three Arab youths by dozens of Israeli teenagers is part of a much broader phenomenon, she says.
But it is not only Arabs who are the targets. Spitting on orthodox Jewish girls considered underdressed. Segregating buses and forcing women to the back, ignoring the supreme court’s ruling against it, and having women arrested for carrying a Torah scroll in the women’s section of the western wall; walking out of army ceremonies where there are women singing - Misogyny and racism meet again, and we should be horrified and ashamed when it is done in the name of Judaism. Jews everywhere have the responsibility to respond to racist statements and sexist actions by Jewish extremists. It is our duty as Jews to remind others and ourselves that the Torah commands us to love the stranger 36 times more than any other commandment, and that men and women were created together, both in the image of God, and have equal rights.
None of this is to say we should distance ourselves from Israel, though sadly I fear that is often the result, especially for our younger members – on the contrary, as I say, we should visit more often, read its newspapers, watch its TV, listen to Israeli news, hear visiting speakers, see what its own citizens are saying. We should show our support, and the model of normality, of being Jews in the modern world, to Israelis who too often see the choice as simply secular or haredi. It is time for our voices to be heard.
Avraham Burg, long time Member of Knesset and respected Speaker, wrote a hard-hitting article a couple of months ago for the Independent in London, saying that Israel urgently needed ‘feedback and intervention from the outside’ – that it is not anti-Semitic and not anti-Israel to convey these messages of concern - quite the contrary.
Such criticism is difficult and painful to hear, especially from the man that was not only Speaker of the Knesset from 1999 to 2003 but also the Chairman of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization. He should be in a better position than any of us to know!
I love Israel, but I do not love where it is going. The Judaism that is becoming more and more dominant there is not the Judaism that I study, practice, encourage nor believe in – and nor do most of its citizens, or, for that matter, politicians. I want Israel to have a shining, safe and secure future. I want our young people to visit, to be inspired, to develop a relationship – indeed we are planning for Naomi to spend her Shnat year there in 2014 – and I want some of them to study or stay for years, or a lifetime. I desperately want Israel to be a place where Judaism can be freely practiced and celebrated in the way I observe it, as well as being open to other expressions, and other faiths, and those who profess none.
I was the Jewish faith co-ordinator of the fifteenth Jewish Christian Muslim Conference this past July. As usual, there was a fair bit of discussion, both in the planning and at the conference itself, of what they call the elephant in the room, by which they mean the Israel Palestinian problems. We are used to this, and indeed we find various ways to discuss it, without it dominating and subverting the conference’s chosen theme. But it occurs to me that Israel’s internal challenges are themselves becoming the elephant in the Jewish room, with various strong but different opinions held, which is why I have chosen to make them the subject of this Kol Nidre sermon. Far better to admit our discomfort to ourselves, and then to our friends and family and community, and to explore, discuss, debate and try to understand and hopefully then to start to heal and resolve the issues.
Sha’alu shalom yerushalayim – seek for the peace of Jerusalem, for on it does our own peace, and quite possibly the peace of the whole world, depend! May we find peace of mind, and may Israel, her neighbours, and all the world, have a year, and a future, of peace. Amen