I felt much moved when we added special prayers for Israel’s peace and wellbeing to our daily Shacharit Service this morning, and when we read the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
God who scattered Israel, will gather [its people] back together and care for them as the shepherd for the flock….There is hope for your future, says the Lord, for the children shall return to their borders. (Jeremiah 31:10, 17)
Today is my father’s Yahrzeit. Being the 6th of Iyar, it does not always fall on Yom Ha’Atzmaut for which the historic date is Iyar 5. It happens only in years such as this, when the festival is delayed so that the sadness of Yom Hazikaron should not descend the very moment Shabbat is over. My father fled to Palestine with his family in 1937, joining his uncle who left Germany in 1933 when he was no longer permitted by the Nazi authorities to enter the courtroom over which he had previously presided as judge. Uncle Alfred was an eminent authority on Jewish law and belonged to a working party on a possible constitution for the future state. He was killed in the notorious attack on the convoy of scholars travelling to Mount Scopus on 14 April, just three weeks before Israel’s independence was declared.
I recently chanced to pick up an old copy of Jerusalem Embattled: A Diary of the City under Siege, by Harry Levin. My father was in the Hagganah there during those difficult months. He spoke about it, but only in fragmentary fashion. Maybe, I thought, this book would give me a fuller picture of what he went through. The entry for May 6, 1948 reads:
The heat blowing in from the dry, parched desert pierces every nook. No refuge anywhere from its incessant presence. Peculiar crackle to a shot in this heat…Shooting stiffened tonight. We edged low along the outer wall, then took cover behind the new defence wall before the Yeshurun Synagogue.
And for May 7
Mortaring heavy, too, especially at Rechavia towards dusk.
The pagazim, my father would sometimes say, – the shells. But I had no true notion of what he, or Jerusalem, or the country, went through in those decisive days.
Since that terrible battle for its capital, Israel has gone on to success and excellence in virtually every field of human endeavour, agricultural, artistic, scientific, scholastic, technological, military. Never in Jewish history has there been such engagement with Jewish learning and activity at all levels. A spirit of creative partnership links Israel and the Diaspora in innumerable ways.
Yet the final blessing has been and remains elusive, peace; peace which the rabbis describe as ‘the vessel which contains all other blessings’. Across the spectrum from right to left everyone will have a different explanation for this tragic impasse: the opportunities the Arab countries wasted or missed, those the Palestinian people missed, those Israel failed to take. Everyone will assign different percentages to each category. But nobody will disagree about the need for that ultimate blessing of peace.
Therefore let these be our prayers on Israel’s 66th birthday: prayers for peace for all the inhabitants of the country; prayers for a change of heart and attitude among all who deny Israel the right to exist at peace; prayers for deeper understanding between Israel’s citizens of all faiths and denominations; prayers for wisdom and kindness in the face of our shared humanity; prayers for courage both in the search for security, the search for justice and the search for peace.