Israel: our Hope and Pride

BY RABBI LORD JONATHAN SACKS זצ”ל

Rabbi Sacks delivered this address at the Bnei Akiva Yom HaAtzmaut ceremony on May 11, 2005 at Finchley Synagogue.

“And he said, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have commanding power with [an angel of] G-d and with men, and you have prevailed’” (Bereishit 32:29).

Not lightly does the Torah give the name Israel to our people and to our Land, for it means “you have struggled with G-d and with men, and have prevailed.” To be a Jew, to be a member of Am Yisrael, has always been a struggle, sometimes with G-d, sometimes with our fellow human beings. But that is our destiny, our call, our task.

For more than 2,000 years the Jewish calendar went without significant addition, whether of new holy days or new fast days, whether of remembrances of grief or of joy. Four new days have been added, all in the period of Sefirat HaOmer, between Pesach and Shavuot, between the Exodus and revelation – two days of grief, two days of joy; Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron on the one hand, Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim on the other.

The American writer Milton Himmelfarb once said that we are a tiny people, but great things seem to happen around us and to us. Already before the 20th century, Jewish history was recognized as unique: by Pascal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Tolstoy. Little could they have known that some of the most dramatic of all chapters of Jewish history were yet to be written: the Shoah, the attempt once and for all to silence the Jewish voice and eliminate the Jewish presence, rachmanah litzlan, from the face of the earth.

On Yom HaZikaron, we remember those who fell in Israel’s defense as they discovered that the Jewish people still have to fight for the right to be, to exist, to have one place on earth where we can defend ourselves.

Yet out of the very depths of those very tragedies came two of the greatest moments in 2,000 years of history: Yom HaAtzmaut – the restoration of Jewish sovereignty after 1,900 years – and Yom Yerushalayim, the return to the ancient and holy city, Jerusalem, home of the Jewish heart, focus of all our prayers, embodiment of all our hopes.

Yet Israel is again under attack. At the very moment that terror is being contained, Israel is facing a new attack – a systematic campaign of delegitimization and demonisation among the media, non-governmental organizations, university teachers, and perhaps even among the churches – as if the cause of peace, or justice, or reconciliation, or coexistence were served by listening to only one voice in the conversation, only one side, the other side, in the conflict.

No one summed up the irony of our present situation better than the Israeli writer Amos Oz. “In the 1930s, our enemies said: Jews to Palestine. Now they say: Jews out of Palestine. They don’t want us to be here. They don’t want us to be there. They don’t want us to be.”

Why? Why, after 57 years and more of seeking peace, is Israel still seen as the aggressor? Why, after ten years of negotiation, in which the Palestinians were offered their own state in all of Gaza, 97% of the West Bank, with a capital in East Jerusalem, is Israel still seen as the sole obstacle to peace? Why, in a world in which there are 57 Islamic states and something like 100 Christian ones, is the desire of the Jewish people to have just one state of its own seen as – G-d forbid – racist or exclusionary? Why, when Israel occupies a quarter of one percent of the land mass of the Arab world, is it deemed to be Goliath against David? Why, alone among the almost 200 nations that comprise the United Nations, is Israel the only one whose very right to be is still called into question? Why is the Israel-Palestinian conflict seen by one European public after another as the greatest threat to world peace, when anyone with the most rudimentary understanding of the contemporary world knows full well that were – G-d forbid a million times – Israel to cease to be, not one of those problems of the world would be changed by a millimeter?

There would still be conflict in Kashmir, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo, Indonesia, the Philippines, China, Sudan, Algeria, and Zimbabwe. There would still be global warming, poverty, illiteracy, disease. Most people of the world would still be deprived of the most basic freedoms and human rights. All that would have happened is that the bravest experiment of modern times – the introduction of freedom and democracy into a corner of the Middle East – would have failed, and with it the hopes of many peoples, not just our own.

Why is Israel blamed for almost every problem affecting the 21st century? Why is Israel held up as the explanation for the underachievement, inequality, and lack of human rights in other countries?

This afternoon, I attended the service of remembrance for the victims of the tsunami with its devastating loss of life throughout the Indian Ocean. The tsunami. A tidal wave. I thought, here was a disaster for which Israel could not be blamed. I was wrong. Within days a religious teacher (in another part of the world) let it be known that the tsunami was caused by Israel’s program of nuclear testing. When it comes to hate, the capacity for self-delusion knows no bounds.

Why, when the whole history of the 20th century tells us what happens when hate is unchecked, when lies are told in the media as truth – as they were in the case of Jenin – when universities discriminate against this or that one, we know what happens at the end of that path that begins that way. Why do these things still happen?

Do we still – after 60 years of Holocaust education, 60 years of anti-racist legislation, 60 years of inter-faith activity – have to defend the right of the Jewish people to be?

All too often, in defense of Israel against defamation, we, the Jewish people have had to stand alone. No people should be left to face hate alone. As Martin Luther King said, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

“You shall be called Israel, for you have wrestled with G-d and with men.”

Consider the five overriding problems that will face all humanity in the 21st century:

  1. The environment: Israel was the first country in the modern world to plant trees, not cut them down, to reforest not deforest. Long before ecology had entered the moral imagination, the Jewish people were turning a land that for centuries lay desolate into a fertile landscape of farms and forests and fields.
  2. Asylum seekers. Israel is the only country other than the United States built out of asylum seekers. They came from 103 different countries, speaking 82 different languages, and out of that global mixture of refugees a great nation was born.
  3. Terror: Israel’s security fence, so often described as a wall, is the only effective non-violent protection against terror yet devised in this age of global terror.
  4. Economic divisions: according to Harvard University’s Professor of Economic History, David Landes, only one country in the world has moved in 50 years from being a third world economy to a first world economy, and that is Israel.
  5. Democratic freedom: Not only is Israel the only genuine democracy in the Middle East, but it has sustained its democratic freedoms under strains and stresses that would have broken the back of weaker cultures.

If there were justice in the world, Israel, a tiny country of indomitable courage, would be seen as the role model among the nations, not the pariah among the nations.

“You shall be called Israel, for you have wrestled with G-d and with men.” The struggle continues and is part of what it means to be a Jew.

Yet today, this evening is a religious moment, and of all the words in the religious vocabulary of Am Yisrael and Torat Yisrael, the key one is the word: emunah.

Emunah is normally translated as faith, but it does not mean faith. What it means is faithfulness, loyalty, not walking away when times are tough. It means being steadfast in our loyalty to our people and our Land, the home of all our hopes, the place where long ago the Jewish people was born, and where, within living memory, it has been reborn.

Ve’erastich li be’emunah. We are betrothed to Israel in unbreakable, unshakable loyalty. Nothing will stand between Israel and our love.

Not for nothing were our people and land called Israel. Throughout more than a hundred generations of our history, we have known that to be a Jew involves struggle – sometimes with our fellow human beings, sometimes with G-d, sometimes with both. Yet in that very name, a momentous hope, a promise, was born – that though the people of Israel must struggle, vatuchal – it will always prevail. That, for the State of Israel, is our faith and our prayer. Israel is our hope, our people’s freedom, and our pride.

And so it will be forever. Amen.

 

The Rabbi Sacks Legacy perpetuates the timeless and universal wisdom of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks as a teacher of Torah, a leader of leaders and a moral voice. Explore the digital archive, containing much of Rabbi Sacks’ writings, broadcasts and speeches, at www.rabbisacks.org, and follow The Rabbi Sacks Legacy on social media @RabbiSacks.

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