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Saturday, 6 December 2014

Israel, Racism & the Diasporic Imagination

Fifty years ago this weekend you could have heard a great sermon. You would’ve had to have gone to St Paul’s Cathedral to hear it, 6th December 1964, and you would’ve been one of 3,000 people gathered there. You would have heard the preacher build up slowly, softly, a low drawl to his voice, but with gathering momentum; and, as The Times reported, you’d have heard the tempo increase and the words coming ‘tumbling out in a flood of oratory. Biblical quotations rolling off’ the speaker’s tongue, who ‘was actor, poet and preacher all at the same time’.  (Those were the days).

Martin Luther King took his text from the Book of Revelation, in the New Testament, and although it is not one of his most famous speeches it contains all his distinctive themes about justice and oppression and the quest for freedom, that renowned fusion in him of religious vision and political passion, or maybe we can say religious passion and political vision, because for him political and social action was the arena in which religious ideals were to be enacted – he had a profoundly Judaic understanding of how the two are intertwined, necessarily.
There is of course a private domain for religious feeling, and spiritual experience and yearning – but the ways in which the personal dimension of religiosity is then enacted in the outer realm of action has always been foundational for Judaism as a religious culture. As this week’s Torah text reminds us, Jacob doesn’t just mourn the loss of his beloved Rachel, he sets up a pillar on her grave:  a public memorial although it is a personal, private loss (Genesis 35: 20).
And in this week in which the State of Israel has teetered on the brink of a truly alarming decision to change its basic laws to declare that its national rights would be extended only to Jews, it is worth re-calling King’s message, repeated by him countless times in various forms; that, as he put it, ‘God is not interested in the freedom of white, black or yellow men, but in the freedom of the whole human race.’ And perhaps even more pertinent now to Israel’s historical situation were his words that ‘We must not seek to rise from a position of disadvantage to one of advantage, substituting injustice of one type for that of another.’ Although he wasn’t talking at all about Israel as a state, that’s a prescient encapsulation of the whole drama of Israel’s short existence as a nation state, born out of disadvantage but slowly, gradually, and now to many eyes, ‘substituting injustice of one type for that of another’. 
The new laws which have been proposed – on hold now, maybe, because of the rebellion in the cabinet which has led Netanyahu to sack his dissenters and call an early election in March – are in direct contradiction to the democratic principles enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, that the state was to be ‘based on the principles of liberty, justice and freedom expressed by the prophets of Israel’ to ‘affirm complete social and political equality for all its citizens, regardless of religion, race or gender.’  The great irony of the proposed legislation is that it is being done in the name of Israel’s Jewish identity, but to deny national rights to the 20% of Israeli citizens who are not Jewish is in direct opposition to the Torah laws which state that you are to have ‘the same rules for yourself and the foreigner residing amongst you’ (Numbers 15: 15-16, 29). To promote the so-called Jewish character of the state in a way that is against both the letter and the spirit of Torah is breathtakingly hypocritical , to say nothing of morally crass.
We should be under no illusion that what will start by the downgrading of Arabic from its current status as an official language of Israel will not be the end of it. Although it is a historical analogy I am loathe to bring to bear here – because it can be misused by those who harbour a hatred of Israel - we do remember how the anti-Jewish legislation in Germany was instituted in stages during the 1930s: first of all came the barring of Jews from the civil service and various professions (1933); followed by quotas on Jewish students at universities and in the medical and legal professions; next came the Nuremberg laws prohibiting relationships between Jews and Aryans, and the holding by Jews of any public office (September 1935); in 1937 and 1938 Jews were forbidden to enter into Aryan areas – Rachel’s Tomb by the way is already in an Arab-free zone, it has a huge 12 foot concrete and barbed wire wall around the road leading to it in Bethlehem, and there is military security you have to pass through  to get anywhere near it (but I digress) - Jewish doctors couldn’t treat non-Jews, eventually Jews couldn’t own radios, go to public swimming pools... well, I don’t need to rehearse the way a country slips into racist and semi-fascistic legislation to manage ‘alien’ presences in its midst.  
One example of the pernicious atmosphere that is now present there is the recent arson attack, last weekend, on the Yad B’Yad bilingual school in Jerusalem, the only school in the city where Jews and Arabs learn together. On the wall, lest we are in any doubt about the mindset behind this, was spray-painted the slogans ‘Death to Arabs’ and ‘There is no co-existence with cancer’.
So those of us who have always believed that Israel was both a historical and moral necessity get more and more frightened, more and more disturbed, more and more angry, when we see the erosion of core democratic principles being enacted or mooted within Israel. Ethnic transfer is now openly suggested by some parliamentarians – and who knows who will hold the balance of power come March?  and what would we do then, we Jews in the diaspora? Are there no red lines for us?
Does there not come a point when we Jews in the diaspora who still have a wish for, a faith in, the Torah’s vision for Israel being a ‘light to the nations’, a model for how to live in the world, where justice and compassion and righteousness are the guiding principles of society, does there not come a point when the nation state that carries this numinous name ‘Israel’ so degrades its Jewish values that we say ‘Enough’? Enough injustice, enough apologetics, enough name-calling any criticism as anti-semitism (or Jewish self-hatred), enough legalist attempts to justify the morally unjustifiable.
When do we say that only if the Jewish national project is a project congruent with the messianic spirit of those prophets of Israel mentioned in the Declaration of Independence will it be a project worthy of our unyielding love and our unbreakable support? Are we allowed to think that? To say that?
When I read the texts of our tradition, a sedrah like the one we read today (Genesis 32:4 – Genesis 36), which reminds us that the patriarch Jacob metamorphosed through his life from being a trickster, a ‘heel’ (the root meaning of Ya’akov), to this ambiguous, numinous name of Yisrael, ‘the one who wrestles with the divine’, ‘the one who struggles to bring the divine into the world’; and when I read how he fought with his brother Esau but eventually becomes reconciled with his brother after a lifetime of deception; when I read how to gain the name ‘Israel’ he wrestles with something, internal and external (the text can be read in different ways), a wrestling that leaves him with an injury, a limp - he staggers away from this encounter with a wound that he carries for the rest of his life – when I read this narrative, I recognise its power as a story that applies to each one of us as we journey through life.
Do we not recognise ourselves, battling with our demons, wrestling to enact our visions, our deepest beliefs, carrying the scars, the pain,  of life’s journey? For we can’t avoid the pain: Jacob is bereaved here in our text - and he still has all the tragedy  to come of his loss of his favourite son Joseph, torn to pieces by a wild animal, or so he thinks when his sons bring back to him the bloody coat of many colours; though the wild animals are his sons, or some of them. In this sedrah, chapter 34, Simeon and Levi massacre the men-folk of Shechem after the rape of their sister - who would be a parent of this bunch, born of four different mothers, the mothers fraught with rivalry, and the sons too?
And we think dysfunctional families might be a modern phenomenon; but they are our ‘First Family’, our mythic ancestors.  What a mess they were, what a mess they made of their lives, the Torah doesn’t hide it from us – yet through it all something is working itself out, some vision of formulating a way of being as a people, ‘a nation and a company of nations’ (35:11), who will inherit a  land – and this is where the individual story becomes collective – a land on which they are to try to live ethically, try to live having learnt from mistakes, trying to live in ways that reflect the divine spirit which animates the whole story, that spirit of El Shaddai, God Almighty, who speaks to Jacob here (35:11) but evolves too as the characters evolve, evolves into Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum v’chanum, erech apayim v’rav hesed  (Exodus 34:6) – ‘the Eternal, the  Spirit that animates all of being with the potential for compassion and grace and the capacity to bear suffering without retaliation and filled with love and kindness’. I think of all this when I read these texts, they are the underpinnings of Jewish identity, complex and ambiguous, but truthful to life in their complexity and ambiguities.
This is the vision that we in the Diaspora, we Jews who inhabit the faith of Judaism without committing ourselves to live in the land of Israel, or the State of Israel, this is the vision we try to stay true to, to uphold, try to live out in our own lives; and it’s the vision that we have to unashamedly insist that those who speak in the name of Jewishness in the so-called Jewish national home also uphold, and commit themselves to. Their failure to do so, and the continuation of the path they have set themselves on, does not bear thinking about. Though thinking about it we have to: thinking and speaking about it - the unbearable being what the prophets of Israel did find themselves speaking about, and warning about, much good did it do them; though they didn’t do it for their own good, but for the sake of the integrity of their people, and their faithfulness to the Holy One of Israel and that divine vision of how people are meant to treat each other in the down-to-earth realities of everyday life.
‘Substituting injustice of one type for that of another’ cannot be the way forward. Let’s hope, and pray, and find ways of ensuring, that our darkest fears, born out of our historical diasporic memories, do not come to pass in this Promised Land that threatens to become another Egypt.

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, December 6th, 2014]

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