Between Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’Atzmaut

The days between Yom Hoshoah, the Jewish date for Holocaust Memorial Day, and Israel’s Independence Day are always poignant.

I immediately think of my father. He came by ship from Trieste to Haifa in the autumn of 1937, fleeing Nazi Europe. Just a few days ago I found a letter giving him a place to study at the Bezalel Academy of Arts in 1936. He never was able to take up that offer. At the age of 16, in the impoverished Palestine of those years he suddenly found himself the main bread winner. His own father had managed a timber mill in Germany, not a transportable skill. He never could find serious employment in Jerusalem; it fell to my father to support his sisters, and the family. But the future Jewish state had saved their lives, as it saved millions more, from Europe, Arab lands, and later Africa and Eastern Europe. My father died on Yom Ha’Azmaut; for the first time this year I will be in Israel for his Yahrzeit.

I think too of my friend Aaron Barnea, whose son was killed by a roadside bomb near the Beaufort fortress in South Lebanon, one of so many thousands for whom Yom Hazikaron, the day of mourning which precedes Yom Ha’Atzmaut, never becomes less poignant. The Parents Circle, in whom he was active for many years, now brings together bereaved families, Israeli and Palestinian, to mourn with one another and share the pain of loss, but above all to affirm the value of life and to work for a different future.

Like so many of us, I have thought about Israel in so many ways: with love, wonder, worry, fear, dismay, frustration, appreciation and admiration. In my many tens of visits, in the times I have taught there, and the innumerable times I have learnt there, I have looked out at the country through numerous windows.

I have looked through the windows of the Egged bus as it climbed the road to Jerusalem, past the burnt-out trucks left as a reminder of the terrible losses in the siege of Jerusalem. I have seen with joy the green of the forests and fields. I have loved wandering around the campuses of the Hebrew University on Givat Ram and Har Hatsofim, taking out books in the National Library. I have watched the ringing of tiny birds on the reserve in the Hula Valley, and the passing of storks and cranes. I have looked for the different coloured anemones in the spring, and admired the wild cyclamen, Israel’s national flower.

I’ve listened to the stories and viewpoints of family and friends, of the left and of the right. I’ve been out with many groups devoted to building bridges, between rich and poor, religious and non-observant, Israeli and Arab. I’ve looked at the same landscape from the living room of Israeli friends, and, from the opposite side of the valley, through the windows of a Palestinian home. I’ve stood on the roof in an Arab village and watched the house next door being slowly demolished, and seen the school children returning home, and wondered what questions they will ask and who will answer them and how.

I’m dismayed by the reception the Israeli Ambassador received outside SOAS yesterday, the hatred, the prejudiced assumptions, the singling out of Israel for abuse. But I’m also troubled deeply by those who ignore the reality in which so many Palestinians have to live, behind the wall where our thoughts, imagination and empathy usually find it easier not to follow. A country which limits the freedom of some, risks over time compromising the freedom of all. I’m frightened by the mire of intransigence, breeding hatreds.

I’m left with affection, anxiety, hope and prayer. The hope, Hatikvah, rests in the immense courage, creativity and moral imagination with which the country was built, and in witnessing the similar courage with which so many defend the values of its founders and seek to develop it for the good of all its citizens, for justice and compassion, in spite of everything.

The prayer is that, despite the violence and hatred with which not only the Middle East but so much of the globe is riven and divided, the spirit of humanity and generosity, the spirit of God apprehended by the prophets of Israel in the very hills and valleys of this land will prevail and that there shall one day be ‘Tranquillity and harmony, and none shall be afraid’.

Shimon Peres

We are deeply saddened by the passing of Shimon Peres and share in the mourning experienced across Israel, the Jewish community and the world.

In the words of President Obama

Shimon Peres was a soldier for Israel, for the Jewish people, for justice, for peace, and for the belief that we can be true to our best selves… A light has gone out, but the hope he gave us will burn forever.

Shimon Peres was as a member of the Knesset for 47 years, holding all the most senior positions including that of Prime Minister. He went on to serve as President of the State of Israel from 2007 to 2014. In 1994 he received the Nobel Prize for Peace, a blessing which tragically still eludes his beloved country.

Tributes have been sent from all around the world. A more personal appreciation, not shared in the international media, comes from Shuki Levinger in the village of Kishorit in the Galilee,‘a caring community of adults with special needs’, a beautiful place where a number of relatives of families in our congregations live:

It is with broken hearts that we mourn the passing of former President of Israel, and exceptional friend of Kishorit, Mr. Shimon Peres. [He] guided Kishorit from its earliest days, always taking a personal interest in our work and smoothing political potholes that we encountered along the way.  Despite his intense international schedule and myriad commitments, he and his staff were always accessible to us, eager to help with whatever was needed.

This speaks not just of a great statesman in the national and international arenas, but of a profound, sensitive, caring and outstanding human being.

May his soul be bound up in the bond of life.

‘Peace with security’

‘Peace with security,’ these words are so painfully familiar, that I had never realised that the first time we see them together is in this week’s Torah portion: ‘You shall dwell securely in your land; and I shall make peace’. (Vayikra 26:5,6)

Security is a most serious matter, sadly. I feel better if my bags are searched when I enter a large public building. Since the terror attacks is Paris one senses a different attitude to the police at Central London stations; one’s glad to see them. We ourselves need more help with voluntary security duties in front of our synagogue (and this is volunteer week).

The security of nations is equally essential, as we know all too well in regard to our worries about Israel. Security in this context means not just the challenging capacity to defend borders, but the ability to govern in such a way as allows the population, and the land itself, to feel safe, productive and prosperous. We should therefore pray for the security of Syria too.

But, while ‘secure’ is a fair translation, the Hebrew betach has a very different resonance in the Bible. It signifies security based on trust in God, divine protection merited by performing God’s will. That’s why in rabbinic literature bitachon means not ‘security’ but ‘faith’. This, alone, is the ultimate source of peace.

We might quarrel with such an idea. After all, it’s failed the reality test: many people have placed their faith in God, only to be murdered by their former neighbours. In the realpolitik of this world, we need more practical forms of protection too.

Yet, though you may say the Torah is a dreamer, the dream is profound. It’s a dream connected especially to the practice of the Sabbatical, the culminating year of the septennial cycle, when the earth itself must rest. For those twelve months ‘our’ land ceases to be ‘ours’ in the usual sense. Gates must be opened so that rich and poor, refugee as well as citizen, and both wild and domestic animals, can freely share the produce of the land, while the only form of trespass would be a sign saying ‘Private; No Access’.

This too has largely failed the reality test. But not the idea behind it. For within this dream, or truth, that the earth ultimately belongs to God lies the awareness that for any land to merit peace its population must provide for the needs and sensitivities of all who live off it. Only one voice is ultimately entitled to say ‘Mine!’ and that voice belongs to God.

This Sunday is Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day. I was nine years old during the Six Day War; I vividly remember how my father, who had been in the Hagannah during the siege of Jerusalem, woke me up to explain that the Old City was once again in Jewish hands.

If the city is truly to be as the Psalmist envisaged, ‘ir shechubrah lah yachdav, a city united all together’, this will depend on deep sensitivity to the needs of all its populations and faith groups, by all its populations and faith groups. The same applies, in macrocosm, to the earth itself.

Together with many Israeli organisations, Noam* and other youth movements have been concerned that celebrations of Yom Yerushalayim are conducted with such sensitivity. It’s an important moment, as Ramadan begins on Sunday night. Jerusalem is, and has been for thousands of years, central to Jewish history, geography and faith; we pray that it may be as its name indicates, a true city of peace.

I wish our Muslim neighbours here in Britain Ramadan Mubarak, a blessed Ramadan. I hope that these weeks enable us to deepen our sensitivity towards each other, because cities, like land, belong in the final analysis only to God and it is in the awareness of our shared trusteeship of God’s world that our hopes of peace and security ultimately reside.


*Noam is one of the Youth Movements that have signed a letter to change the route of the Yom Yerushalayim march.

  • Click here to read an article in The Jewish News.
  • Click here to listen to a New Israel Fund Podcast featuring Noam movement worker, Dan Eisenberg.

We must never forsake our vision or lose hope

Every week we pray in the words: veshav Ya’akov veshakat vesha’anan, may the descendants of Jacob return [to their historic ancient home] and find quiet and tranquillity.

My father’s uncle, who found refuge in Palestine from Nazi Germany and had been destined to play a major role in the early legislature of the state, wrote shortly after the end of the Second World War of his travels to different kibbutzim through a land in blossom. It’s a beautiful country, he said, if only they let us live in peace. He was killed in the convoy ambushed on the way to the Mount Scopus Campus of the Hebrew University less than a month before the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel.

Sixty-eight years later quiet and tranquillity are still elusive, and many thousands of soldiers and civilians across at least three generations have given their lives for our country. Grief is a universe of its own and obeys no conventional laws of time: we stand in quiet reflection and silent solidarity with all who long for voices they will never again hear and the companionship of those who never came home. Perhaps no one has written more poignantly than David Grossman, following the loss of his son, in Falling Out of Time

In August he died, and / when that month was over, I wondered
How can I move / to September
While he remains / in August?

We acknowledge, too, with pain and regret, the loss of all innocent life; we know that heartache and sorrow know no boundaries of nationality or religion. Grief is grief; injury is injury; fear is fear.

At the same time, we affirm our commitment to life and hope and to making our own personal contribution to the wellbeing of Israel, which, we hope and pray, will be part of the peace and wellbeing of all peoples in the region, as the founders of the State declared:

the country [will be developed] 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…

We hope that the time will soon come when the country will not be threatened by the imminence of further conflict, when fear will be diminished, when justice and peace will dominate public discourse and action in Israel and among its neighbours, and Israel’s remarkable achievements will be properly recognised and appreciated and bring benefit across the region and the world.

However hard the times, that remains Hatikvah, our Hope.

Running for the dogs

I’m writing feeling somewhat achy but very moved. Since I started running it’s been my ambition to run the Jerusalem half marathon [I think that’s my maximum distance in this lifetime]. I ran with [or rather behind] my son Mossy this morning, among thousands taking part in the marathon, half marathon, 10k, 5k and various other distances.

I admit I was rather nervous at the start, but I found myself carried by the crowd, the singing at almost every corner, and above all by memories. I can’t really call it a memory, but I kept thinking of my father: what was this part of Jerusalem like when he came in 1937; was this a street with which he was familiar?

There wasn’t a road without associations from the various periods when I worked or taught here in my twenties, or where I brought Nicky and the children, or where I have precious friends. Here the artist Yehoshua Hass lived, may his memory be for a blessing; here is the railway station [sadly no longer in use] where my mother’s father arrived in 1935, by train from Cairo [with a boat across the Nile] to share the 1935 celebrations of Maimonides.

Even the last stretch went well, although I did feel rather tired. I wrongly imagined that there was still a further kilometre to go and found that I’d finished before I realised it, when someone said ‘stop running’.

Early in the week I spent a day at the Masorti kibbutz Hanaton [I always thought the name came from the Hebrew hanat – to bud or blossom; but in fact it was a place known to the ancient Egyptians, named after the Pharaoh Achnaton]. Pluralist, including secular and orthodox in the surrounding suburbs, egalitarian also, with emphases on strong Jewish learning, living in close contact with Bedouin and Arab neighbours, and relating to the earth and nature, it is the obvious place in Israel for our community to cultivate a sustained relationship [and several members are already living there…]

Rabbi Yoav Ende took me on a tour [he’s one of several scholars forming a community of serious learning]. ‘Here’s the refe’t, he explained; ‘what does Judaism have to teach about looking after cows?’ We stopped to try to identify the birds of prey hovering above the hillside opposite. ‘Here’, he showed me a valley, ‘we’re planning to plant an almond orchard’. He took me to the education centre where there are courses for young people from abroad [run by Jonny Whine] as well as a year-long pre-army programme for Israelis on Judaism, humanism and Zionism.

Rabbi Haviva Ner-David, with whom I have a special connection as we both received our rabbinical ordination from the same teacher, Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky, nero ya’ir, explained the uniqueness of the local mikveh, accessible to Jews of all denominations, as well as non-Jews who occasionally wish to use it. She is a world recognised expert on the subject.

I can see all kinds of ways we can connect with this amazing place, only recently regenerated over the last decade.

I have also seen some of the poverty and suffering, some of the harsher realities of life for different populations in Israel today. But I will keep writing about that for another time.

I’ll finish with the dogs. I’ve already made one visit to the centre for training guide dogs, and hope to be there again on Tuesday, on my way home. The thoughtfulness with which every detail is built is extraordinary; different kinds of flooring, small bumps on bannisters, signal to a blind person where a corridor begins, where there is a doorway opposite. Height barriers, beneath which they themselves can easily pass but not their humans, teach dogs to read obstacles from the point of view of their significant other. Pampered cats experience schadenfreude when the dogs are told off should they so much as attempt to chase them.

While running that half marathon to sponsor the training of those dogs, I passed a fellow runner who had his canine with him on a lead. Sorry Mitzpah [my dog, whom I left behind in London] – maybe next time.

Letter from Berlin

I’m shown a child refugee’s drawing of the journey to Europe. It’s graphic, with people drowned on the way. Another depicts a Daesh beheading.

“Expression can relieve stress,” says Yotam Polizer, director of IsraAID’s field work, as we walk through a huge refugee reception centre in Moabit, a neighbourhood of Berlin.

Hundreds of people mill around, waiting. First they need to be issued a number; next, they have to wait until it comes up. Only then can they register. Everywhere, charities have set up tents. There’s also food, and an X-ray clinic to check for TB.

As well as assisting in Germany, which is absorbing hundreds of thousands of refugees, IsraAID is already active in Greece, Croatia, Kurdistan and Jordan.

Mr Polizer tells me: “We’ve two teams on Lesbos. An island of 85,000 people, it’s had 100,000 refugees arrive in a single month. One team is medical; they stay above the beach, watching the boats arrive, then run to where they are needed. Boats come in at night. Rubber boats for 20 people bring in 50 or 60. There are many cases of shock and hypothermia.

“The UN High Commissioner for Refugees asked us to be a focal point for victims of shipwrecks, because of our experience with trauma. Many have lost their children; they stay until the bodies are found. There’s no Muslim burial on the island. We try to accompany those families, often for one or two months.”

Back at the reception centre, Mr Polizer points out the photos on the walls: missing persons, about whom relatives long for news; wanted persons, too. There are people from all over, he tells me; Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Africa, Chechnya, Kosovo. Many get temporary leave to remain; others get deportation orders.

He says: “The big gap we’ve identified is psychosocial. In Germany our focus will be mainly mid- and long-term. Experts come from Israel as volunteers for several weeks, providing training and support. They’ll work side by side with the Germans.’

A particular area of IsraAID’s expertise is its work with victimised women. Christian and Muslim Israelis from Nazareth and Galilee come, Jewish Israelis, Bedouin. There are few trauma experts from elsewhere who speak Arabic.

“Syrians are surprised, then glad, Israelis are helping them,” Mr Polizer explains. “One Syrian doctor said: ‘My worst enemy has become my biggest supporter; the people supposed to protect me chased me away.’ It’s a chance to build bridges.”

Last week IsraAID hosted shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper on Lesbos. It would welcome volunteers with appropriate skills and support from the UK too.

For more information, visit:

This originally appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.

From darkness to light

These are terrible times in Israel. Many people are simply afraid each time they have to leave their homes and worry constantly for their children. Our thoughts and prayers are with our family and friends and all the people of Israel. Our sympathies are with all the bereaved and the wounded and their families. We stand in solidarity with all people against terror and violence.
We pray that anger and frustration may be replaced by a politics founded on hope, understanding, peace and security for all the citizens of the country, so that no one will have to live in fear, pain or hopelessness any more.
I’ve received many moving and courageous emails from Israel. One of the most striking came from Devora Greenberg of Hanaton, the Masorti kibbutz in northern Israel:
       As the wave of terror continues to engulf the streets of Jerusalem and other cities and communities across the country, our minds are filled with thoughts and prayers for a more peaceful time. Images that we saw through social media shocked us to the core and some footage was eerily reminiscent of memories from the Second Intifada. One of the ways for us to deal with these days of tension, unrest and fear is to respond with acts of love and kindness. In order to counter hate and bloodshed we spread comfort and a sense of gratitude.
She then described how Noam youth together with members of the kibbutz took part in a demonstration at the Zarzir Bedouin village, Jews and Muslims calling together “we refuse to be enemies”.
The Parents Forum PCFF for Israelis and Palestinians who’ve lost loved ones in the conflict are resuming their regular public events so as ‘to be a resource for reconciliation and dialogue and to change minds, one heart at a time, inspiring others to support peace and reconciliation instead of revenge’.
Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann, active at the forefront of conflict reconciliation through Rabbis for Human Rights, wrote with courageous dignity that ‘We too, even when faced with a wave of murderous violence which might, God forbid, lead us to devalue the lives of others in our fear, must remember that the Torah teaches us that all life is precious, without distinction.’
At a time when it is easier simply to be angry, afraid or hopeless, these remarkable people present examples of fortitude and hope. If they can conduct themselves in this manner while while living in the midst of the conflict, then we in the diasporas, whether Jews or Muslims, must do no less. We must avoid passing messages through social media which exacerbate prejudice, falsely accuse and increase hate. 
Instead we should reach out to family, friends and colleagues in Israel and beyond, help those protecting lives and treating all the wounded, support those trying to build bridges or keep them open, and work for peace and understanding. We should increase our efforts to create connections across our faiths within our local communities.  

I asked an activist friend what we should do from here. ‘Pray’, he replied. We pray that, like God who as we read this week in the Torah decides never again to send a flood, we draw back from the brink of destruction and find a way forward defined by respect and mercy for all life.
Here are two prayers to hold in mind:

  • May God protect your going out and your coming home, now and for evermore.        Psalm 121
  • Our brothers and sisters, the whole house of Israel, and all people whoever and wherever you are,  in distress or captivity, on land or sea, may the All-Present God have mercy on you and lead you from trouble to deliverance, from darkness to light and from oppression to freedom, speedily, soon, now.

On the current situation in Israel

In these terrible, frightening times our thoughts and prayers are with our family and friends and all the people of Israel. Our sympathies are first of all with the bereaved and the wounded and their families. We stand in solidarity with all Israel against terror and violence.

‘We pray that anger, frustration and violence may be replaced by a politics founded on hope, understanding, peace and security for all the citizens of the country, so that no one will have to live in fear or pain any more.’

‘May God protect your going out and your coming home, now and for evermore.’ Psalm 121

‘Our brothers and sisters, the whole house of Israel, who are in distress or captivity, whether on land or sea, may the All-Present God have mercy on you and lead you from trouble to deliverance, from darkness to light and from oppression to freedom, speedily, now, and let us say ‘Amen’.’

‘We too, even when faced with a wave of murderous violence which might, God forbid, lead us to devalue the lives of others in our fear, must remember that the Torah teaches us that all life is precious, without distinction.’ Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann

What we can do:
- Phone and keep in touch with family and friends
- Support medical organisations treating all the wounded (such as Magen David Adom and Hadassah)
- Pray and work for peace and understanding

The dreadful attacks in Israel

The murder of a young Palestinian child in what appears to be a ‘price tag’ extremist attack is utterly appalling and a desecration of God’s name and a perversion of Judaism. Our thoughts go out to the family.
Similarly vile are the stabbings of 6 people at the Pride march in Jerusalem yesterday, allegedly by a man who has perpetrated the same crime before. Our prayers are with all those who have been injured.

Concern into blessings

I open the book to which I turn time and again over the years, Kolot Kore’im leZion, Voices Call for Zion. Here are the words of Jews and non-Jews through the centuries of exile from when Jerusalem fell to the Romans in 70CE until the early years of the new country, crying out ‘Yet my people lives’.
Here is the poet Yehudah Halevi as he sets sail from the western Mediterranean to follow his heart ‘which is in the east’. ‘Zion’, he asks, ‘aren’t you going to ask about the wellbeing of those imprisoned for your sake?’ a line which 900 years later gave the name ‘prisoners of Zion’ to the Refusenik movement in the USSR. Here is the Jewish Agency in 1942 declaring that the future homeland will give refuge to any and all who escape Nazi occupation.
But few voices are as haunting as that of Jan Karski. A young (non-Jewish) Pole, he was recruited into the Resistance, smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto and the death camp Belzec, then sent on false papers through occupied Europe to Britain and America to tell the world what was happening to the Jews. Reflecting years later on why his message went largely unheeded by Allied politicians and Jewish leaders alike, he said that the tragedy of the Jewish People was that it had no state, no internationally recognised political leadership to make itself heard.
We who were born since the establishment of Israel cannot fathom the depth of the difference which the existence of the state has made.
Today, the complex political, social and military issues concerning Israel, and the often ignorant and strident rhetoric with which it is discussed, mean that when we so much as hear the country mentioned our anxiety level often instantly soars. Yet this in itself is a measure of engagement, and there are two kinds of involvement from which, whatever our politics, we cannot and in my view should not be free.
I don’t know whether to call the first love, fellowship, participation or pride. It concerns each and every remarkable facet of Israel’s life: the replanting of forests and restoration of beautiful plants and animals which filled the land in Biblical times (in which I’ve participated with joy); the creation of medical care and facilities for the elderly which rival anywhere in the world; the deep, enduring  courage and skill of generations of Israeli soldiers (which we respect even more deeply with IS, as well as Hamas and Hizbollah, on the borders); democracy and the vibrancy of free and open discourse; the passion for social justice (such as the daily redistribution by Leket Yisrael of tons of otherwise wasted food to the poor); the establishment of outstanding universities; the brilliance of high-tech achievements; the reputation of Israel’s artists, especially in music and literature.
The second is worry, anguish, questioning, fear. It concerns every aspect of the challenges facing the country. How can Israel defend itself in a vicious world? What does that cost in Israeli lives; what does it cost in lives of hapless others? What of the prophetic dream of social and economic justice between different sectors of society, and between all peoples? What of the urgent need for equality of hope and opportunity for Israel’s non-Jewish citizens? What of the consequences of occupation for Palestinians; what of the consequences for Israelis? What of the long term impact on everyone of violence and its rhetoric, angers, wounds and griefs? What of the many in every faith and region who live below the poverty-line with constant food insecurity? What of the future of Israel’s and its neighbours’ beautiful natural environments? What of the future? What of the hope, however distant, for peace?
We care. We worry. My argument is simply that we should and must do both. We are not at liberty not to care, or to fail to turn that care, wherever we live in the world, into active engagement. There is no sphere in which there is not good we can do; possibly no other country in the world has so many avenues to express the ideals of tzedakah and hesed, justice and compassion, both hands-on and from a distance.
I don’t believe that every single Jew must necessarily live in Israel. I believe also in vibrant Jewish communities across the world. I believe in partnership and interaction with people of all faiths and none in the pursuit of universal ideals and the creation of free, open and plural societies. But I do know that wherever we live, our destiny is bound up not just with all humanity and life, but specifically with the Jewish People and that Israel is a central part of this identity and peoplehood. Israel concerns us all, and the more we can turn that concern into blessings, the better.

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