[Sermon] What makes the Jewish state Jewish?

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah – Yom Kippur 2018/5779

 
We have gathered here today on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, to mark a sacred moment that has been commemorated by the Jewish people for over 2000 years since the period of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

For the past 45 years, Yom Kippur has also been the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War1. Less than two weeks ago on the 13th September, it was the 25th anniversary of that momentous handshake between the then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat that was supposed to be the beginning of the end of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians2. Meanwhile, this year is the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the modern State of Israel and last year was the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War and subsequent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. How many more anniversaries will pass before a resolution to the conflict is finally achieved?

My niece, Bella, who was born sixteen days after President Clinton facilitated that famous handshake on the White House lawn wants an answer to this question. Having spent time helping with the refugee crisis on Lesbos three years ago, and then gone on to work with Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Bella is about to embark on an MA in Middle Eastern Studies at SOAS, London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where her special subjects will include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

My response to Bella is that we must never lose hope. We must never say that the situation will never change because change is always possible. Nevertheless, the twists and turns of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have not yet transformed the lives of Israelis and Palestinians for the better. Amongst the most significant developments of the past thirty years has been the phenomenon of popular Palestinian uprisings – from the first intifada in 1987, through the second intifada in 2000 that followed the failed peace process and acceleration of settlement-building, through the unrest in the Gaza Strip today. Sparked by the move of the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem3, the past few months have seen continuous protests in Gaza, involving mass gatherings at the border and retaliation by the Israeli army, resulting in scores of deaths, including the deaths of ordinary protesters alongside Hamas activists4. This, in turn, has led to a new wave of rocket attacks and subsequent Israeli reprisals5. The cycle of violence grinds on.

Meanwhile, here we are in Britain, a congregation of Jews, living as a minority. What can we do about events far away and beyond our control, which have nothing to do with our lives? We can’t do very much – but we can think and reflect – which is, after all, the main purpose of our being here on Yom Kippur. We can – and we must – think and reflect about Israel; not least because we have been reminded in recent months that Israeli government policy towards the Palestinians in the Palestinian territories, and also towards the 1.7 million Palestinians who live in Israel6, is predicated on the Israeli government’s understanding of Israel as a Jewish state. So, what does it mean to say that a country or a congregation is Jewish? Our Jewish congregation is home to many non-Jews and the Jewish state is also home to many non-Jews. One of the far-right parties that has emerged in Israel in recent years is called Yisrael Beytenu. Founded in 1999, Yisrael Beytenu translates as ‘Israel Our Home’. According to the vision statement of Yisrael Beytenu, published on their website, the party is guided by ‘three basic principles’: “1) Unity of the Nation, 2) the State of Israel as the National Homeland of the Jewish people, 3) No Citizenship Without Allegiance.” Israel has a multi-party system, so Yisrael Beytenu is one of many. However, its leader Avigdor Lieberman has held several ministerial roles, including, Deputy Prime Minister, and since 2016, he has been Minister of Defence. And so, the agenda of this far-right party has been for some years now at the heart of the Israeli government. Further, with the passage of the Nation State Bill into a law, entitled, ‘Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People’, the ‘three basic principles’ of Yisrael Beytenu have become the law of the land.

Of course, many Israeli political parties and national organisations committed to pluralism oppose the ‘Basic Law’, which was adopted with some amendments by the 120-seat Knesset on 19th July, with 62 voting in favour, 55 against, and 2 abstentions8. Significantly, the clause dealing with ‘the Capital of the State’, declares that Jerusalem ‘complete and united’, is the capital of Israel. In this way, the law not only officially relegates Israeli Palestinians to second-class status, but has ramifications for Palestinians living in the Palestinian territories, by legally enforcing the de facto treatment of Palestinian East Jerusalem as integral to Israel.

Clearly, from the perspective of the Basic Law, a Jewish state is one that privileges the Jewish people. Needless to say, this understanding of Israel as a Jewish state is at odds with its claims to be a democratic state in which all citizens have equal rights and responsibilities. It also contradicts a major clause of Israel’s Declaration of Independence9:

    THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

So, according to the Declaration of Independence, the founding statement delivered by David Ben Gurion on 14 May 1948 that established the modern State of Israel, a Jewish state is one that treats all its citizens equally. Echoes of other independence declarations going back to the establishment of the United States of America in 1776, resonate in this clause. But the clause is not just the product of a modern, enlightenment consciousness. Let me quote a key phrase again: ‘The State of Israel … will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.’ In that phrase, we see the fusion of two understandings of what it means to say that Israel is a Jewish state: that it is the State of the Jewish people and that it practices Jewish values. The haftarah we read on Yom Kippur, from the second part of the Book of Isaiah proclaims these values. As we read it today, let us imagine the prophet addressing the Jewish people today (58:1-7):

    Cry aloud, do not hold back, let your voice resound like a trumpet; declare to My people their transgression, and to the house of Jacob their sins. / True, they seek Me daily, and say they long to know My ways, as if they were a nation that did justly and had not forsaken the precepts of their God. They ask of me just laws and long to be near to God. / When we fast, you say, ‘why do You pay no heed? Why do we afflict ourselves, and You take no notice?’ Because on your fast day you think only of your business, and oppress all your workers! / Because your fasting leads only to strife and discord, and hitting out with cruel fist! Such a way fasting on this day will not help you to be heard on high. / Is this the fast I look for? A day of self-affliction? Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Eternal One? / Is not this the fast I look for: to release the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? / Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to cloth them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?

Of course, the imperative of justice is not only found in the words of the prophets. The opening statement of Israel’s Declaration of Independence refers to ‘the eternal Book of Books’ bequeathed by the Jewish people to the world. In that ‘eternal Book of Books, the Hebrew Bible, we find many statements about justice – including in K’doshim, the Holiness Code, Leviticus chapter 19, at the heart of the Torah, from which we will read this afternoon. In addition to the declaration, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Eternal’ (19:18), the Holiness Code also states, ‘You shall not oppress the stranger … you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Eternal your God’ (19:34).

When I was a child, and getting into scrapes, my mother taught me to make a particular declaration when challenged as a way of letting her know that I was being completely truthful: ‘on my Jewish word of honour’. And so, I learnt that being ‘Jewish’ means being honest and honourable. What did Avigdor Lieberman learn when he was growing up? The chief architect of a vision of the Jewish state that is completely devoid of Jewish values, migrated to Israel from Moldova in the Former Soviet Union in 1978 at the age of 20. A large proportion of the early Jewish immigrants to Israel also came from what was then the Russian Empire. One of these, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, brother of the well-known Bible scholar and educator, Nehama Leibowitz, was born in Riga (now the capital of Latvia) in 1903 and settled in Jerusalem in 1935. It would be an understatement to say that Yeshayahu Leibowitz had an entirely different outlook from that of Avigdor Lieberman. An Orthodox Jew all his long life – he died in 1994 at the age of 91 – Yeshayahu Leibowitz lived up to his name: ‘Yeshayahu’ is the Hebrew for ‘Isaiah’. This particular Isaiah was a true modern prophet of Israel. Indeed, he was one of the first Israeli thinkers to recognise that the occupation that ensued after the 1967 Six Day War, would have a terrible impact on the ethical fibre of Israel if it continued. This is what he wrote in his essay on ‘The Territories’ published just a year later, in 1968:10

    A state ruling a hostile population of 1.5 to 2 million foreigners would necessarily become a secret police-state, with all that implies for education, free speech and democratic institutions. The corruption characteristic of every colonial regime would also prevail in the State of Israel. The administration would suppress Arab insurgency on the one hand and acquire Arab quislings on the other. There’s also good reason to fear that the Israel Defence Force, which has been until now a people’s army, would, as a result of being transformed into an army of occupation, degenerate, and its commanders, who will have become military governors, resemble their colleagues in other nations.

I mentioned that Yeshayahu Leibowitz was an Orthodox Jew. The notion that a Jewish state should adhere to Jewish values is not a progressive idea. Jewish teaching about the land beyond the Jordan from the Bible onwards makes it clear that the nation must be rooted in the practice of justice. Indeed, the practice of justice is the nation’s principal purpose and if it is not rooted in the practice of justice, it will not endure. That is the message of the Torah and of the prophets – of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Micah, in particular – again and again.12 A verse in the book of Deuteronomy puts it very succinctly: ‘Justice, Justice you shall pursue – Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – so that you may live and inherit the land that the Eternal God is giving to you.’13 It is also the message of history. The last independent Jewish state before the current one was the Hasmonean state that was established in 140 BCE after the defeat of the Assyrian Greeks. The Hasmonean state was short-lived, succumbing to Roman rule in 63 BCE. On the surface, it simply looks as though a small state was overcome by a massive empire. But the internal dynamics of the Hasmonean state tell a different story: a story of division and hatred, and of a leadership that became arrogant and corrupt13.

When the Knesset passed the ‘Basic Law: Israel and the State of the Jewish People’, I tweeted my response using the hashtag, #notinmyname. The Jewish state is not just another country far away. Israel is maintaining a ruthless occupation of conquered land and subjecting 21% of its own citizens to second class status in the name of all those who identify as Jewish. If we want Israel to return to its founding ideals and be a refuge for Jews in flight from persecution and a beacon of Jewish ethical values, we must all say, not in my name.

Israel can be a Jewish state in the deepest sense of the word Jewish. Amongst the forty-nine nations of the world where Islam is the dominant religion14, the vast regions of the world where Christianity predominates and the fifteen nations where it is the state religion15 – including, England – the nations where Buddhism or Hinduism is the majority faith, the multireligious and officially nonreligious nations, Israel can be as the new Basic Law puts it, ‘The Nation-State of the Jewish people’. But it can only be ‘The Nation-State of the Jewish People’ if it practices Jewish values – or, as Israel’s Declaration of Independence puts it, if it ‘is based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.’ In order to become this kind of Jewish state, it must extend equal rights to all its citizens and end the occupation.

It may feel impossible to imagine that Israel could become this kind of Jewish state. But the assertion of the ethical teachings of Judaism has always gone hand-in-hand with the determination to make what seems impossible possible by putting those ethical teachings into practice. One of the foremost Israeli champions of a just resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians, Uri Avnery, the founder and leader of Israel’s peace movement, Gush Shalom16, died on 20 August in the midst of a period of huge demonstrations held in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, against the ‘Basic Law’17. In his tribute to Uri Avnery, Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, wrote:18

    Avnery devoted himself entirely to the struggle to achieve peace between the state of Israel and the Palestinian people in their independent state, as well as between Israel and the Arab and Muslim World. He did not get to the end of the road, did not live to see peace come about. We – the activists and supporters of Tikkun magazine, as well as the members of Gush Shalom as well as very many other people who were directly and indirectly influenced by him – will continue his mission and honor his memory.

Jews have always looked ahead to a better world – not a better world in the hereafter, but rather one that we build here on Earth. May our experience of observing this Yom Kippur inspire us and renew our spirits, so that we are ready to support and contribute to the efforts of all those, both in Israel and the Diaspora, who are working to make the Jewish state worthy of its name.

And let us say: Amen.

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yom_Kippur_War
2 http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/september/13/newsid_3053000/3053733.stm
3 http://www.theweek.co.uk/jerusalem/90266/why-the-us-embassy-move-to-jerusalem-is-so-controversial
4 https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/palestinians/50-of-dead-in-gaza-protest-were-hamas-activists-says-hamas-official-1.6094899
5 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-45124357
6 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_citizens_of_Israel
7 http://www.beytenu.org/the-vision-of-yisrael-beytenu-israel-our-home-2/
8http://www.jewishpress.com/news/israel/the-knesset/basic-law-israel-as-the-nation-state-of-the-jewish-people-approved-by-knesset-62-55/2018/07/19/
9 https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-declaration-of-the-establishment-of-the-state-of-israel
10 Published in: Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State. Harvard University Press, 1992. pp. 225, 226.
11 See for example, Amos, chapter 9, which states that the Eternal One has no special preference for Israel, and will, indeed, destroy ‘the sinful nation’.
12 Shof’tim, Deuteronomy 16:20
13 See: Jewish People, Jewish Thought: The Jewish Experience in History by Robert M Seltzer, chapter 4, the Hellenistic diaspora and the Judean Commonwealth to 70 CE, pp. 178-184. Macmillan publishing, New York, 1980.
14 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muslim_world
15 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_by_country
16 http://uriavnery.com/en/
17 https://972mag.com/tens-of-thousands-of-druze-protest-for-equality-in-tel-aviv/137069/ https://www.opednews.com/articles/Equality–100-000-demon-by-Joseph-Zernik-Civil-Rights_Israel-180805-652.html
18 Tikkun E-Newsletter, 20.08.18.

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