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Sunday, 15 March 2009

'Independent Jewish Voices'

Last Sunday I was invited to speak as part of a panel at the ‘Independent Jewish Voices’ (see ) day conference on Israel, Zionism, Jewish Identity and Human Rights. My co-panellists and I only had 5-7 minutes to offer some introductory thoughts before it was opened to the floor and to general discussion but the passion and thoughtfulness of my colleagues on the panel (Professors Jacqueline Rose and Gabriel Josipovici, Anthony Lerman and Eyal Weizman, and chaired by Professor Lynne segal) made for a stirring introductory session for the day.

All had contributed to a recently published volume ‘A Time to Speak Out: Independent Jewish Voices on Israel, Zionism And Jewish Identity’ (Verso, 2008), a book of essays written by a broad spectrum of thinkers who share a commitment to a self-reflective and informed public discussion of these themes - a discussion not predetermined by, or held captive by, Jewish institutional or ideological loyalties. My own essay in that volume, entitled ‘Living in Error’ (the phrase is taken from a Yehudah Amichai poem), started life as a sermon at Finchley Reform Synagogue ( ) on Rosh Hashanah 2002 then mutated in various stages into its current shape in the book. As the only rabbi of the two dozen or so essayists, I felt it an honour to be included with such illustrious co-writers.

The event last week had originally been scheduled for early February but had been a casualty of the snow that fell that day. We’d been asked to respond to the latest terrible events in Gaza, which in early February were still vividly alive in our minds. What I found extraordinary in the intervening month was the extent to which the sheer rawness of the experience of watching the daily news and the painfulness evoked by the images of bombing and destruction had become so rapidly assimilated by my mind, and my feelings dulled. It was as if it had all happened so long ago – so much more had happened since, so much ‘news’, so many other images and sights and thoughts had crowded in. Operation ‘Cast Lead’ had become just another past event. Life had moved on. New dramas had replaced the old ones.

This semi-amnesia on my part was shocking to experience. Is this how it always is? That so much stuff happens to us, we are so overwhelmed by experiences in the present, that the events of a mere couple of months ago fall away into some distant realm of past time? Of course it’s not always like this, but what stirs and excites or horrifies and repels us so viscerally at any one time can all but disappear as the next drama unfolds. This was sobering and I am still musing on it.

In relation to the IJV event, I decided to add to my remarks a small preamble– about forgetting and remembering - as a prelude to my original text composed for February. A few people have asked me what I said. Here it is.

The historian and essayist Tony Judt suggests that we live in an ‘age of forgetting’ – he was talking of the powerful imaginative appeal of Marxism across Europe in the 20th Century – but as a Jew I see ourselves as a people who treasure memory, for whom forgetting is a diminishment of our humanity.

We keep memory in mind – sometimes we celebrate what we remember, sometimes we mourn – but we are alive to the significance of remembering.
We even have days in the religious calendar symbolically dedicated to it – yesterday was Shabbat Zachor, the ‘Sabbath of memory’ before Purim, the archetypal story of Jews as the objects of hatred; and then at the New Year, we call Rosh Hashanah ‘Yom Ha-Zikkaron’ , ‘the day of remembering’, when we look not at what has been done to us, but at what we do to others: at our own hatreds, failures, inadequacies, individually and collectively - what used to be called our ‘sins’.

So: before the events of December and January fall completely out of mind, let me offer some words on what we have so recently witnessed.


The New York Times described it like this: ‘At sunset the streets were piled high with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror...and the city is now practically deserted...’ 49 were dead, 500 injured, 700 houses destroyed, 2000 families left homeless.

The Easter pogrom in Kishinev in 1903 shocked the so-called civilised world. Haim Nachman Bialik, who would later become the poet laureate (as it were) of the Jewish national renaissance, went to Kishinev to interview survivors. Before leaving he wrote a 4-verse poem, Al Ha-Sh’chitah : ‘On the Slaughter’:

“My heart is numb, my prayer gone,
I’ve lost my strength and hope –
How long? till when? how long? (ad matai; ad ana; ad matai)”

He calls on heaven to exercise immediate justice; but, if not, he calls for the destruction of the world, spurning mere vengeance with the chilling lines: ‘Cursed is the one who says “Revenge” / vengeance for the blood of a small child/ Satan has not yet created...’

In these shriven times I commend the poem to you. As I do another 4-verse poem Bialik composed some decades later, a sentimental ditty ‘For Hanukkah’, written for children and still, I believe, sung during the festival in Israel. The word ‘cute’ might have been coined for lines like these, describing the candles, the foods, the presents...

“Teacher bought a spinning top for me
Solid lead, the finest known
In whose honour, for whose glory?
For Hanukkah alone”

‘Solid lead’, ‘cast lead’ – Operation Oferet Yetzukah, launched on December 27th, during Hanukkah, and named after this children’s verse from Bialik, led to the deaths of 250 children. There are times when words like ‘tragedy’ (and ‘irony’) seem impossibly inadequate, when no language can convey the sadness and horror of it all.

Lead, as we know, is toxic – it poisons, slowly, inexorably. Bialik’s image of the spinning solid lead dreidl will haunt us for years to come. You probably know too that the dreidl has four Hebrew letters inscribed on its sides, each letter standing for a word of a rabbinic phrase that grows increasingly bitter in our mouths: ‘A great miracle happened there’. Over time the spinning dreidl was converted into a light-hearted Hanukkah gambling game, with each letter representing whether you gained or lost.

In Israel’s deadly serious game the stakes are high. Yet each time she acts, why does the dreidl always seem to land on the same side? - the letter nun stands for nichts, nothing. Nothing is gained, nothing tangible in what really counts: justice, peace, the valuing of human lives above ideology.

We have reached a terrible impasse. Let me put it as simply as possible and end here : for Israel there can be no healing of the psychic trauma of the Shoah - the culmination of that historic experience of Jewish victimhood - until there is justice for the Palestinians; but there is no way Israel can create justice for Palestinians because of the Shoah, toxic as lead, still corroding the Israeli soul.

Ad matai; ad ana; ad matai - How long? till when? how long?


I could have added that ‘nun’ now stands, again, for Netanyahu. And with Avigdor Lieberman chosen as Foreign Minister by Netanyahu, maybe our only hope is the experience that bullies often end up bloodying each other’s noses. Israel has reached a new and shameful nadir in its history.

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