Israel’s new government and the Judaism we must struggle for

I’m never sure if it’s the Jewish thing to say ‘Happy New Year’ on January the first, or whether this greeting should be reserved strictly for Rosh Hashanah. But there’s certainly nothing wrong with the words and I’ve spoken them dozens of times already this 2023.

Only, I’ve been struggling with what ‘happy’ means in the context of today’s world. The definition I’ve come up with for myself is that this should be a year of striving to live faithfully by my deepest values as a Jew, a human being, and as privileged, albeit briefly, to belong to this breathing, vital, interconnected world of nature.

The challenges are overwhelming. In this time of shortages, one thing we aren’t short of is causes for which to fight. Whether it’s supporting our beleaguered health services, creating innovative social projects to alleviate hunger and loneliness, finding homes and work for refugees and displaced persons, or protecting nature in that slow, patient work of planting hedgerows and monitoring the numbers of newts and frogs, I’m constantly moved by the good so many people do. Across the world there are countless individuals and groups whose hearts and conscience are astutely awake, and who find the courage, creativity and commitment to act accordingly. They are my goad, my hope, and my unfailing source of inspiration.

But this week colleague after colleague and article after article has focussed on Israel’s new government. The Rabbinical Assembly, to which I and most Masorti rabbis across Europe belong, issued a powerful statement in response to Justice Minister Yariv Levin proposed changes to limit severely the powers of Israel’s High Court and make the judiciary a political appointment:

It is excruciating to see this government directly undermine the core values of democracy and religious freedom that we value so deeply…The integrity of the State of Israel and the well-being of the entire Jewish people hang in the balance.

Thinking also of the racism, homophobia, xenophobia and potential violence incited my key ministers in the government, my friend and teacher Rabbi Arthur Green, a true lover of Israel, sent an open letter. After acknowledging that the causes lie deep and include the long Jewish experience of being hated and persecuted, he wrote of certain racist members of the Knesset:

The damage these people threaten is not only to the State of Israel and its democratic institutions, but to Judaism itself and its place as one of the world’s great spiritual traditions. We are engaged today in a great struggle for the soul of Judaism. Those who read it in an exclusivist and xenophobic way have taken center stage… But this is about a legacy that we all share, one in which we take great pride. Do we really want to give it away to the racists among us?

This is no time, he stresses, for retreat.

What, then, is the Judaism for which I believe we should struggle? Any proper answer is inevitably complex, and that’s part of the point: it is a Judaism whose core is the Torah, the Prophets of Israel and the Hebrew Bible; whose teachings have been pondered, prayed, and argued over word by word through the extraordinary works of the Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, Responsa and the entire two-and-a-part millennia of rabbinic culture; whose values have been forged in the crucibles of exile, persecution, marginalisation and martyrdom, but also challenged and enriched by other faiths, and by the arts, science, and political cultures of enlightened humanism and universalism. It is Judaism which has, throughout and despite these trials of history, preserved and deepened the search for God and for the sacred in every human being and every living thing. It is a Judaism which fights for justice against tyranny, compassion against cruelty, and human dignity against all forms of bigotry and contempt. It is a Judaism which, while contributing to and learning from the rest of the world, has maintained its spiritual, legal-halakhic, ethical and communal disciplines, cultures and integrity.

The happiness in ‘happy new year’ to which I aspire lies in trying to live by and struggle for these values.

Never think there’s nothing we can do

‘Queen Zelenska, Queen Zelenska:’ the boys were bursting with excitement after we got home. We’d been invited by Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski, who a few days earlier had been our guest in the synagogue, to the formal opening of the welcome centre for refugees from the war in Ukraine. ‘I never dreamt I’d be a refugee in London,’ said Halina who, with her daughter and grandsons, is living with us, ‘Nor that I’d meet the king.’ But King Charles meant little to her grandchildren; what impressed them was that their babushka had met Queen Zelenska.

The First Lady radiated presence and warmth. But what must have been on her mind! Over the previous days she’d addressed Parliament, then, with the Queen Consort, spoken to hundreds of women about the particular horrors, war-crimes, violence, abuse and misery to which the fighting left girls and women especially exposed. With all this on her heart, and with an agenda of summoning the maximum possible help, not least in prosecuting war-crimes, Mrs Zelenska nevertheless left an impression of dignity, courage and grace. What came across from King Charles was a quiet humanity; he cared. ‘After his first visit to us in the opening days of the war,’ Bishop Kenneth told me, ‘His office called every few days to ask what we needed.’

I believe all of us who were there left with similar thoughts: How can we help? What can we do, in whatever contexts or situations we can, to mitigate suffering in the world?

Wrongs and hurts assail us from every side. Some are caused by life itself with its illnesses and ill-fortunes: I’m mindful that yesterday was World AIDS Day. Other wounds are the result of human cruelty: this Shabbat is devoted to publicising the essential work of Jewish Women’s Aid, JWA. It’s shocking to realise the huge numbers of women, and sometimes, though more rarely, men, who suffer verbal, financial and physical abuse, very often in enforced or lonely secrecy, for years and even decades.

There are further home truths we also need to face. I’m troubled by the betrayal of what I consider Judaism’s core Torah-based values and of what history has taught us as a people, by the rise to positions in Israel’s government of Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who incite race-hate and homophobia. Not just they but those who appointed them must be challenged and held to account. We can, and should, support Israel by supporting those who truly uphold the just and democratic principles on which it was founded.

Trapped in Europe in the 1930s, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that we humans have two faces: the image of God and the visage of Cain. Later, a refugee in America saved at the last moment, he wrote in The Meaning of This War

The mark of Cain in the face of man has come to overshadow the likeness of God.

But, he continued, we have a choice:

There can be no neutrality. Either we are ministers of the sacred or slaves of evil… God is waiting for us to redeem the world. We should not spend our life hunting for trivial satisfactions while God is waiting….

I’m moved that the motto for this year’s World AIDS Day is ‘To Our World With Love.’ What, can we do to foster that love and bring healing, safety, joy and hope to our world?

I feel greatly challenged virtually every day, yet deeply inspired almost every day. So I want to include with another beautiful moment I, with Nicky, was privileged to share this week, and which I determine to carry in my heart through thick and thin.

We stood near the top of Skirrid, a sacred mountain in South Wales, a small group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders, and prayed together:

Eternal Spirit, Earth-Maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver…

We hold brothers and sisters who suffer from storms and droughts…We hold all species that suffer…

We pray that love and wisdom might inspire our actions…so that we may, with integrity, look into the eyes of brothers and sisters and all beings and truthfully say, we are doing our part to care for them and the future of the children.

May love transform us and our world with new steps toward life.

Then we joined local farmers and volunteers, and, as the sun set, planted trees to form windbreaks to protect the land.

We must try never to think that there’s nothing we can do.

Hope, and how to find it

The first I heard about the results of Israel’s elections was an email from the Freddie Krivine Initiative which brings children together from every background: We shall not give up on our work! That was enough to tell me all the rest.

That vote, and other world events besides, made me turn urgently to Emily Dickenson’s poem

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul –

We need hope; we need it to land like a familiar robin on our outstretched hand and hop down into our heart.

The stirring Psalm recited through the Hebrew month of Elul and the High Holydays concludes with the repeated instruction

Hope in God; be brave, make your heart strong, and hope in God (Ps. 27)

The rabbis taught that every repetition in the Bible has a purpose. The point here is that to have true hope we need to work at strengthening our heart with everything which inspires us.

So these are some of the things which motivate me. The first is people. Three secondary school boys came to my home for lessons yesterday. The first two said ‘COP 27 is going to be a disappointment, like COP 26.’ ‘Only partly,’ I replied, wishing I disagreed more. But the third said something different: ‘I’m in a local group which plants trees, clears weeds and improves paths. I go once a month with my father. The sustainability committee at my school has got rid of plastic bottles.’

So the first message I tell myself when I feel low is ‘Stick with people who’re doing good. Find them, follow them, keep them in sight.’ That’s how I felt at Parliament for a launch of the Walking Inquiry into Immigration Detention. Here were people, some who’d been detained themselves, who listen to asylum seekers, walk together, act together, and who’re determined to keep going until they right the wrongs of the system.

That’s why, regarding Israel, we must speak out for the dignity of all people, condemn racism clearly and specifically from wherever it originates and support everyone working for a respectful, pluralist society.

Fortunately, across the world there’s no shortage of people from every faith and walk of life whose purpose is to do what’s good, and who’re passionate about it. I try to go where I can learn from them. They strengthen my heart.

My second source of hope is the world’s beauty. This isn’t about aesthetics; it’s about love. My wife and I saw a deer trapped in a fence. She’d misjudged the height of the top wires and caught her hoof between the strands. She hung upside down, her head on the turf. I tried to speak gently as I wedged the wires apart and watched her limp off, her leg sprained but not broken. ‘She’ll rest in the woods. There’s food there, and water,’ Nicky said.

How can one not love our fellow creatures, our companions on this earth, especially when they don’t harm us? That’s my second source of hope: the sheer preciousness, the vulnerability and wonder of human life and all life, inspiring us to work for people, also animals, trees, nature itself which needs our urgent engagement.

‘Od lo avdah tikavetnu, Our hope has never ceased…’ runs Israel’s national anthem, expressing the secret of Jewish, of all human, resilience.

Our hope may never have ceased, but few of us can honestly say that it’s never even faltered. That’s when we need to nourish that hope and, fortunately, as Emily Dickenson concludes in her final verse

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -

And on the strangest Sea -

Between Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut

When I was compiling the synagogue’s shivah book for prayers in the house of mourning, I came across this short teaching by the Slonimer Rebbe, Shalom Noach Barzovsky (1911 – 2000)

A broken heart…

must always belong to the world of building

not to the world of destruction.

Moved by these words, I included them in the short section on Hasidic teachings at the back of the book. By mistake they were moved by the printers to the front page. I left them there, where they stand as an introduction and a motto.

This Shabbat finds us between Yom HaShoah, commemorating the Nazi Holocaust, and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, marking the creation of the State of Israel. That in the wake of so much horror people could find the courage, energy, initiative and vision to establish a new country is remarkable.

I have only to think of my father. It’s his Yahrzeit on Yom Ha’Atzma’ut. How I wish I had asked him more questions, listened to him more and thought more carefully about his life while he was with us! The family fled from Germany to Jerusalem in 1937, where he became a main breadwinner for his parents and three sisters in the difficult years of the war and the even harder, uneasy and impoverished times between 1945 and 48.

Family letters explore the empty spaces after the Holocaust: Is there any news of Mama, the family matriarch, my great-grandmother, last heard of in Theresienstadt? A handful of Jews have returned to Holesov in Moravia, from where she was deported: is it worth travelling there to ask? What about my father’s aunt Trude, and her husband and son? Or Sophie, always elegant, who hoped she could live the evil times out in Czechoslovakia? There is no news. The gaps cannot be closed; the silences remain. None of them will be coming back.

Yet at the same time the surviving family participated in an extraordinary intellectual life and the building of the country. My father’s uncle Alfred was offered the directorship of the National Library and considered as a candidate for the Supreme Court. He travelled length of the land, teaching:

We saw another part of our beautiful countryside, the whole strip along the coast is like one flowering, fertile garden…We’re working hard at the preparations for the Jewish State. I’m responsible for the department of religious, family and inheritance law.

Tragically, he was killed in the convoy to Mount Scopus in the War of Independence on April 13, 1948.

I hear from so many other families too about this determination to build a new future after the Shoah: ‘My parents met in the DP camps in ’46; all they wanted to do was start a fresh life.’ ‘My mother lost everyone; nothing mattered to her so much as creating a new family.’

This capacity to ‘belong to the world of building’ despite so much loss, heartache and trauma is brave, visionary and extraordinary.

Faced today with the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and so much stress, trouble and stalemate across the world, that courage, hopefulness, creativity, imagination, determination, and zest for life is exactly what we all now need.

It’s the actions of ‘ordinary’ people which prepare the way for redemption

If I could time-travel, I’d love to meet Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (1505-1580) who wrote the Shabbat hymn ‘Lecha Dodi, Come my Beloved’ and tell him how much his wonderful song means to me – and thousands of others in each generation. Every line is my favourite, but today it’s the words ‘Mah tishtochachi umah tehemi: Why be confounded and why be downcast, for in you, God, the poor of my people trust.’

I have felt downcast. I’ve just watched footage of the terror attack in Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv, which left at least two dead. My heart goes out to the bereaved families and all those injured. I join everyone praying and working for an end to the conflict, the killing and wounding from which Israelis, and Palestinians, have so long suffered.

I’m worried also because I’ve heard nothing substantive from the Home Office about the visa applications we submitted to host the Ukrainian family of good friends. I feel useless in the face of the outrages perpetrated across that blood-soaked land.

I receive pleas too: Don’t forget the refugees from Afghanistan; they’re still without homes in which to rebuild their lives.

Then there are the troubles and heartache in our own community, always leaving me wishing I could do something more, something, in the Talmud’s phrase, to take at least a sixtieth part of the hurt away.

This adds up to why those words ‘don’t be downcast’ speaking to me so persistently today. They’re nudging my spirit, like my dog who prods me with her paw when she wants attention.

Therefore, I’m determinedly counting everything good which has touched my heart this week. Here’s a small selection, all just from yesterday:

-        In the first wave of the pandemic, I couldn’t practise medicine like usual. There were literally no treatments we could give. So all day I talked to patients and their families. Often I spoke with the same daughter every day. It felt deeply real. Many people wrote thank-you letters afterwards.

-        I’m checking out homes on behalf of London boroughs, because so many people have offered to host refugees. It feels so worthwhile.

-        May this picture of the dawn light through the blossom bring you joy.

-        I tried to capture in a photo a hundred swifts across the sky.

-        There’s thirty-two families in the synagogue baking challah and having fun. D’you know anyone who’d like some? It’s the last chance before Pesach!

-        I’m bringing together Jewish and Muslim leaders working for reconciliation.

Speaking of Pesach, here’s a short comment on our much-loved Haggadah. The text attributes the defeat of the tyrant Pharaoh to God alone: ‘Not through an angel, not via a messenger, but God, directly and in person’ saved the people.

But I wish the Haggadah could also have mentioned all those whose small, and not so small, courageous actions prepared the path to liberation. What about the midwives, the first to defy Pharaoh and refuse to murder babies? Or Moses’ mother, who hides her little boy in a reed basket? Or Pharaoh’s own daughter, who rescues a forbidden Hebrew child from the water? Or Moses’s sister Miriam, who, just a young girl, bravely runs up to her asking ‘Shall I find you a wet-nurse?’

Redemption is created from such brave, determined actions of ‘ordinary’ women, men and children. That’s why I value every positive deed and word I hear. They’re what make me ‘not confounded and not downcast.’ In them I put my trust, as our people always has. They bring God into our world.

Building God’s sanctuary

It’s not the gold, silver or the fine cloths; the word which occurs most frequently in the detailed description of the Sanctuary which occupies the next several weeks of readings from the Torah, is the simple verb ‘make’.

‘Make me a sanctuary and I shall dwell among them,’ God tells Moses. God intends to live not in it, but among them; the holiness lies in the making and with those who make. Though the Torah records the completion of the sanctuary, in truth the work is anything but finished.

We live in a world full of cruelty, some inflicted deliberately, some through neglect. Too often life itself, people, nature, the very earth is measured almost exclusively in terms of utility. In this desacralized age, every act of kindness, generosity, respect, neighbourliness, connection and creative imagination is part of the making of the sanctuary.

During the week I thought about person after person I know in those terms:

-  You’re a healer; you try to ease pain and help people live at peace with their bodies.

-  You teach in your spare time. I remember when you took that noisy group of teens outside at twilight and said ‘Just look,’ and they fell silent watching the first stars.

-  You sent me pictures of you and friends planting trees in a neighbourhood project in Uganda.

To my mind, every one of them is helping make this world holy, in very ordinary, very special ways.

There is also the extraordinary. I watched the wonderful programme on the seven portraits of Holocaust survivors commissioned by Prince Charles, who spoke movingly about the project. One of those whose picture was painted was Anita Wallfisch, who went to the same school in Breslau as my father. The programme told something of the horrors through which each of the seven had passed. But what it revealed most deeply was their remarkable attitude to life: the inner resilience, the determination to create a new family, to do good: ‘Hate? No; I don’t hate. I try to be kind to everybody…’

This project will contribute its profound and unique dignity to the marking of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s seventy years of reign and service on the throne.

There is also the painful and wretched. I skimmed many hurt or angry reactions to the report by Amnesty branding Israel as Apartheid, a term I don’t agree with. It brought instantly to mind all the bigotry, wrongs, rights, pain, fear, injustice, misery and seemingly hopeless intractability of the situation and the accounts of suffering I have personally listened to from many sides. ‘Use your energy,’ I was advised, ‘supporting those, like The Bereaved Parent’s Circle, or The Centre for Creativity in Education and Cultural Heritage (CCECH), who’re making connections, trying to bring healing, teaching and living the Torah of understanding, creating the basis in civil society for when a just resolution will finally come.’

We must try not to lose faith. The tasks of making the world whole and holy lie before us. They call to us from every part of the globe and every sphere of life with unmistakeable urgency. There’s nothing especially pious about them. What they need is our goodwill and commitment. What they don’t need is our indifference.

Who may contribute to building God’s sanctuary? ‘Whoever’s heart prompts them to give,’ says the Torah. Which means, explained Rebbe Avraham of Slonim, ‘Whoever is prompted to give from their heart.’

Standing in solidarity with the bridge-builders and healers

‘And give you peace:’ these words, which we read in the Torah tomorrow, could not sound with greater urgency. They command us to be on the side of the healers, wherever and through whatever we live. Sometimes this is obvious and easy. Sometimes it demands the greatest vison and courage.

Just hours ago, a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas began. We must pray not only that it endures, but that it brings negotiations which lead to more than a temporary cessation in killing, to something which brings not just brief respite but well-founded hope to all, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs.

The rockets and bombs have left terrible new wounds and torn old injuries open. ‘When the siren went, my first thought was “I am a mother”,’ said an Israeli colleague with a six-month-old baby. What can one possibly say to parents in Gaza, or Israel, who have seen their child torn apart?

Frightful, too, are the wounds which cannot be captured in searing pictures: from the impact of fear, from the knowledge that there are those who want you dead, from the long-term effects of terror and trauma on the heart and psyche. ‘No one wanted to kill me in the place where I grew up,’ said an Israeli friend.

All around are the wound-harvesters, collecting the pain, anger, dread and frustration as ammunition for the next round of hate. They find no shortage of evidence to back their cases.

That is why it is so important to stand alongside the healers. It would be easy to underestimate the courage of those many groups of Jews and Arabs who have stood together, despite the destruction and threats, in Jerusalem at the Jaffa Gate, in Zichron, in Haifa and elsewhere. This is an act of inner as well as outer, courage under fire, in defiance of the voices which say, ‘Can’t you see, they all hate us?’

Here are the words of some of the leaders:

Living in Sderot, just a short distance from Gaza, I feel the explosions twice. I feel them at home and I feel them as they happen among our neighbours, the Palestinians in Gaza. Today we must and will continue to put the divine demand to “love your neighbour – your fellow human being – as you would love yourself” to the test. Avi Dabush, Executive Director, Rabbis for Human Rights

Today we are facing a test…on how we communicate to these young people that to be a hero means taking responsibility and to change reality, not through violence, hatred and incitement. Being a hero demands courage to talk, to meet reality head on. It demands strength and resilience. This is what we, as adults, must give to our kids. Parents, religious leaders, political leaders must take this mission up and go out and be with our young people, to meet them and speak with them and think with them about what we need to do to restore trust and faith. Ghadir Hani, Palestinian Israeli and activist.

Like everyone, I have read reports and opinions of all kinds, and failed or avoided reading many more. In the end, I don’t know where better to stand, albeit from a distance, than in support of the healers and bridge-builders. For the wounds of fear, grief, trauma and injustice cut to the heart on both sides.

My prayers are with these words, written together by Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum and Sheikh Ibtisam Mahameed in Jerusalem:

God of Life!
You who heal the broken hearted, binding up our wounds…
Hear our voice that we not despair…
That we have mercy on one another…
That we hope together, one for another…*

* The full text can be found here.

Standing together at a very painful time

We stand just three days before Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah. This Torah is always understood as Torat chaim, the teaching of life. In these terrible times across Israel and Gaza, we pray for the teaching of life.

We pray for the safety of everyone, an end to the violence, a restoration of calm and coexistence across shared cities and neighbourhoods, and leadership which can bring hope for the future to both Israelis and Palestinians. Our hearts go out to everyone bereaved, wounded, and living in anxiety and fear. Our thoughts are for our family and friends, – and everyone.

The first of the Ten Commandments spoken at Sinai is ‘I am the Lord your God.’ Since the human being is created in God’s image, the echo of that commandment can be heard in every person. God calls out in the unique sanctity of each life. There is therefore no place in true faith for race hate, vigilante groups, be they Jewish, Muslim or any other, or for cruelty, injustice and humiliation.

I will never forget my short visit to Israel towards the end of the fighting in Gaza in 2014. I visited Tel Hashomer hospital and listened to wounded soldiers. A family whose son was killed showed me his Siddur, his prayer book. Handwritten on the opening pages were his hopes for a life of goodness and generosity. He’d been due to get married in just a few weeks.

I was taken to a hospital in East Jerusalem which was receiving wounded children from Gaza. I’ll never forget this searing experience. I asked an older man sitting by the bed of a child whether this was his son. ‘No,’ he said; the parents were dead, killed together with eighteen members of the family.

There is only more hurt in all this violence, another ring of pain and anger which will someday have to be overcome. Only respect for all human life, fairness and something to hope for can bring a truly safe future.

So I turn with respect and deep admiration to some of the messages sent in these last days. Here is a letter from The Abraham Initiatives:

We are planning a national campaign entitled: “Only Together.” The campaign, in Hebrew and Arabic, will feature images of Jews and Arabs in everyday life: shopping together; studying together at university; working together in hospitals fighting Covid-19. Our campaign will feature on the main TV channels…

Here is a joint statement sent by Rabbi Ofek Meir from headteachers of Jewish and Arab schools in Haifa:

Our role as educators is to raise the younger generation to be independent, critical thinkers, with values; and to be a generation who will create knowledge, opinions, narratives and culture; and who respect the other’s opinion, and who believe in the values ​​of equality and human rights. This is true anytime, anywhere, but especially now and in Haifa in particular.

This is from Rabbi Arik Ascherman, so often attacked for his defence of basic human justice:

One of the few positive developments has been the religious and other civil leaders who have begun to stand together and call for an end to the hate and violence that has led to Israeli Jews and Arabs lynching each other. Tonight around the country average Jewish and Arab citizens stood together to say no to the violence.

Here is from Rabbi Yoav Ende of the Masorti community of Hannaton:

Tonight, activists from Hannaton will join together with others from nearby communities and Arab villages for a joint demonstration of peace and hope;spreading a message of change, a message of a better Israel that can and must be here – showing that living together without conflict, without violence, is not only imperative, it is immediately achievable.

I see in my garden Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, three of whose daughters were killed in Gaza, standing by the apple tree I planted in their memory, taking a photograph of it to send to his other children. I often reread sections of his book I Shall Not Hate.

Dr Abuelaish, Rabbi Yoav Ende, may our prayers ascend together.

Israel: the love, the fear, the frustration, the hope

Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, was brought forward to yesterday. But the official date is tomorrow, 5th Iyar, and seeing today is still only the 4th, I’m sticking with the subject. For, despite the wrongs committed against it, and sometimes by it, despite the ugly politics, with four inconclusive elections, Israel holds a place in my soul which even beautiful Scotland, nursing among its lochs my earliest childhood memories, cannot parallel.

Like many Jewish people, I’ve no single answer to why. It’s about ancient history; here Isaiah foresaw the day when nations would unite in righteousness. Here Rabbi Akiva taught that nothing matters more than concern for one’s neighbour. Here the rabbis dreamed and argued through every word of Torah. It’s about humility before the country’s achievements. It’s about frustration over the angers, the unhealed wounds of rejection and injustice, which hurt every sector of the population, each in different ways. It’s about fear; it’s about hope.

Scenes, beautiful, frightening, painful, pursue me. I’m focussing on the former.

It’s an unprepossessing entrance in South Tel Aviv. So the colour upstairs is like an embrace: baskets, small as nut-bowls, big enough to hide in, red and orange, blue and brilliant green. Here, Eritrean women weave and work, talk, cook, listen to music and earn just enough to feed their children. Refugees, robbed, raped in the deserts they fled across, find sanctuary here at Kuchinate.

I recall a not always edifying film about attitudes to refugees in Tel Aviv: a middle-aged man stands before an enormous vat of soup. He holds up his ladle: ‘This is Judaism,’ he says, ‘my parents fled too,’ then fills another bowl and hands it out.

It’s Jerusalem Marathon day, the year I hurt my back and couldn’t run. So Nicky and I watch a different race: the 100 metres for young people with mobility challenges. The children progress slowly, sometimes just one step a minute. A bevvy surrounds each one: family, nurses, maybe a physio. All faiths are here, all focussed on one matter: tender, practical love. This stamina is far deeper than out there on the 42k course.

It’s a path in the Jezreel valley. Yitzhak, over eighty, has silver hair and the wizened face of a truly kind man. Trained as a rabbi in Germany, he came here in the 1930’s. ‘Of course it gives satisfaction when the trees you planted in the bare hills give shade and the wild flowers grow.’

It’s East Jerusalem, and I’m looking at a street I know well, but until now from a very different angle. I’d rarely been in a Palestinian home before. This house was demolished, then rebuilt, and rebuilt again, by a joint Israeli – Palestinian team. It can be done. I’m reminded of sitting with the Imam in a village off the Jerusalem highway, with my close friend whom all the children run to greet: ‘Hey, Simon; Simon.’ I’ve been with the Imam many times; he died this Corona year. I don’t recall exactly, so I’m paraphrasing: ‘I’m often left feeling less than equal in this country. But the thirst for righteousness is here.’

It’s kilometre 34 in a year when I am marathon fit. Noach, who established Israel’s guide dog training school, shouts ‘Take the lead in your left,’ and, passing me golden retriever Harry, we run a hundred metres together.

If only the whole country, the entire region, had a faithful guide dog to see a safe way ahead!

Both times when I crossed that marathon finishing line I wept. I can’t explain why.

My Heart is in the East

‘My heart is in the East, and I – in the far distant West’, wrote Yehudah Halevi, in one of his best loved poems. That’s how I have felt much of this week.

On the night of Yom Hazikaron, the day of memorial to those fallen in Israel’s wars, I spent the midnight hour translating from the army’s tribute to Nadav Elad, the brother of a friend and colleague, who was killed before he was even twenty. His comrades, who were with us in our community on the Peace of Mind programme, wrote:

Nadav, you were the heart of the team, the spokesman, – now everything’s gone silent. Nadav, we’ll remember, remember and never forget, how you were a brother to us, a comrade and a role model….We’ll always be there for your family, and for you, Nadav, full of memories, longing for you….Your unit

I thought about my father’s uncle Alfred, who fled Germany in 1933 when he was dismissed from his post as a judge, who settled in Jerusalem and was set to be a leading expert on jurisprudence and Jewish law in the about-to-be-declared new state. He was killed in the convoy attacked and left to burn, with all its passengers trapped inside, on its way to the enclave of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus.

My heart was with the memorial gathering, organised despite many obstacles by the Parents Circle, and including several friends, Israelis and Palestinians, who for the last several years have come together to mourn their children, brothers, sisters, not in a spirit of anger but in the solidarity of grief acknowledged and shared, and in the commitment to work together until the longed-for day when fear, hatred and war are over and gone.

I thought of the beauty of the land. I remembered my father’s uncle Alfred’s letter in which he wrote after a lecture tour of kibbutzim in the north in 1946 or ’47 of the wild-flowers and the wonder of the spring. In idle moments before the Jerusalem marathon I took pictures of cyclamen, anemones, a pair of hoopoes feeding in a meadow.

Most of all, I reflected on the prayer which asks God to

Grant those entrusted with guiding Israel’s destiny the courage, wisdom and strength to do Your will. Guide them in the paths of peace and give them the insight to see Your image in every human being. Be with those entrusted with Israel’s safety and keep them from all harm. Spread your blessings over the land. May justice and human rights abound for all her inhabitants. Guide them ‘to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God’ (Micah 6:8)…May the vision of Your prophet soon be fulfilled: ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore’ (Isaiah 2:4)

Who would not want such a prayer to be read before the governments in Jerusalem, Tehran, Ankara, Gaza City, and perhaps every capital city in the world every single day?

I think with profound respect of all those who build bridges, in Israel, Jordan, Palestine, anywhere in the world, between different faiths and peoples, between community and community, school and school, refugees and people fortunate to be refugees no longer, between individuals and their own heart and soul, humanity and nature, the animals, the trees and the very earth. They are the fellowship to which I aspire to belong.

I would like to mark Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, as my colleague Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum does there at her Kehillat Zion, by praying together with rabbis, priests and imams for the peace and wellbeing of the city shechubrah lah yachdav, which is united all together (Psalm 122)

 

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