Whose faces do we see?

I received a remarkable WhatsApp from Raba Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, rabbi of the Tsion community in Jerusalem. The colleague who introduced us said to me ‘Meet your soul-sister’. It’s an honour I don’t deserve, though now that her family has a puppy maybe it’s a little less untrue.

Rabbi Tamar had just concluded a ten-day hunger strike out of deep anguish for Israel. Two weeks ago, she told me at the demonstrations in Jerusalem, ‘Don’t compromise your principles. But listen to everyone.’ The struggle for democracy and justice must be won. But behind it lie further dangerous rifts, angers, insecurities, wrongs and fears.

Tamar reflected deeply on the words of the Hatikvah, “The Hope”, Israel’s national anthem, especially on the line kol od baleivav penimah, ‘For so long, deep within the heart…’ Penimah means ‘within’, but panim are also ‘faces’. She wrote:

 ‘So long as I have within my heart the faces of my brothers and sisters, so long as I acknowledge them, carry them, seek their peace as I seek my own…’

Her words reminded me of Pasternak’s poem ‘Daybreak

In me are people without names,

Children, stay-at-homes, trees,

I am conquered by them all

And this is my only victory.

So who are these people we must carry in our heart?

Some are our nearest-and-dearest because we feel and care in similar ways. But Tamar’s point is that’s not enough. What about others?

Pharaoh asked Moses this very question three thousand years ago: Who’s going with you on your journey to freedom? ‘Our old and our young,’ he replied, ‘our sons and our daughters.’ Moses was leaving no one behind.

Now, approaching Pesach, ‘The Festival of Our Freedom’ who must we carry with us in these troubled times? To whom as we open the door to Elijah, prophet of peace, can we open our hearts and minds?

Some things are easily said, just hard to do. We must take the poor with us in our increasingly unequal societies, refugees, children, all children, those who cope readily in our fierce-elbowed world and those who find it tough.

Some things are hard even to say. Can we carry in understanding, without agreeing or conceding, those whose views, and often actions, we oppose, including, perhaps, communities we call ‘ultra-orthodox’ who fear modernity? Are there values with which we can empathise?

Is there a place in our thinking for those whose hurts are also, alongside the oppression and hatreds of so much Iranian and Middle Eastern politics, partly our responsibility after fifty-five years, Palestinian people on the wrong side of those concreate walls, without rights we mostly take for granted? If not, to what shared pain are we jointly condemned?

Is there even space in my imagination for those whose actions I utterly deplore and in no way seek to justify, supremacists and racists who profane the name of Judaism? Should I see their actions, without in any way exculpating them, as in part the product of hurts and wrongs, pogroms and attempted genocides, absorbed by Jews for centuries and now poured forth in vindictive anger, and fear?

To what wrongs – I write this with trepidation – here in the UK, across this unjust world, and among my own people, am I too party? We read the famous verse v’ahavta le’re’acha kamocha, as ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, which numerous rabbis, being pragmatists, understand as ‘respect and acknowledge others as you want to be respected.’ But the words, vowel-less in the Torah, can be misread as ve’ahavta lera’achah. It’s a harsh misreading, but not beyond the scope of what one sometimes finds in Hasidic discourse. It means something like ‘acknowledge the bad which is like you,’ the wrongs in which I also have a share.

If we wish to advance our journey towards freedom and redemption this Pesach, these are some of the questions we may have to face.

I love the festival and shall write affectionately and uncritically about its details on Monday.

Why I went to the demonstrations

Sometimes people do things they shouldn’t, but years or even generations later one’s grateful. My cassette machine, if people remember what that is, stands gathering dust on my study windowsill; I guess I’ve left it there just in case its very antiquity should somehow prove it useful. It was an instrument like that which someone smuggled unlawfully into the synagogue in Berlin’s Pestalozzistrasse one Rosh Hashanah. That’s how we have a series of recordings of my grandfather Rabbi Dr Georg Salzberger’s sermons, audible despite the static, in that strong, clear voice which, even in his nineties, he never lost.

So this morning, as I think of the fighting in Ukraine, where I was six weeks ago, or the battle for true democracy and the impartiality of justice in Israel, I hear my grandfather’s voice as he opens a sermon with the words of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, the leader of the Jewish People through their struggles under Roman tyranny in the mid second century:

The world is established upon three things: truth, justice and peace. (Chapters of the Fathers 1:18)

Then I hear my grandfather ask: ‘Ist es denn so, wirklich so, meine Freunde? – Is that so, really so, my friends?’ He had, after all, lived through two world wars, persecution, flight, and the Cold War after that.

It’s because of these same principles that I will shortly set out to join the demonstrations in London, because they constitute the foundations of Torah and the soul and strength of Judaism throughout its long history of moral courage and survival.

I will go in sorrow, because the very fact that it should be necessary to demonstrate against the Prime Minister of Israel Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to London troubles me. But I will go willingly, because I will be standing in public support of Israel, in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands on the streets of its cities every week. They want their, and our, beloved country, for whom they are ready to give their lives, to be precisely a place of truth, integrity, justice and peace, because these are the qualities upon which a free, honest and equal society depends.

Truth, and the unflinching readiness to tell it to power, is the very heart of the prophetic literature, which forms a full third of the Hebrew Bible. Time and again, kings and ministers turned on the prophets; many knew they might die for their cause and several were indeed murdered. Yet still they spoke out, because God’s words ‘burned like fire in the bones’; because they could not witness wrong and keep silent.

This fire was inflamed by every form of injustice, the wrongful accrual of wealth, the arrogance and dishonesty of high office, the heartless dispossession of the poor, the failure to honour the supreme value of chesed, loving kindness, which must always be the partner of justice.

This same cruelty and wrongdoing, the similar endeavour to corrupt and pervert justice, is manifest today before our eyes in many lands today, sadly now not excluding Israel.

The prophets had probably never heard of democracy; their chant was not de-mo-krat-iah but tsedek, justice. For them, theocracy was the ideal form of governance and God the supreme Judge.

But the underlying values were the same. They understood that God is the God of truth ‘who sees to the heart.’ They knew that justice had to be placed in the hands of those who ‘respected God, loved truth and hated corruption.’ (Exodus 18:21) They understood that a peaceful society depends not just on the rule of the majority, but on how it upholds the dignity, voices and rights of minorities because every human being is created in God’s image.

They knew, and we know, that it is on these principles that the good name of Israel and the reputation of Judaism rests.

A frank and heartfelt report from Israel

My body is back from Israel, but not my head and heart. ‘Don’t turn away at this critical hour. Stay by us. Know that there are many Israels; decide with which you stand.’ That’s the key message I was given in this time of danger, when both Israel and the meaning of Judaism are at stake.

I’ll describe elsewhere the amazing UK-bound rabbinical students gathered at the Conservative Yeshivah to share their learning, spirit, values and devotion to each other.

I’ll say little of my half marathon, the guide dogs I met, and how in the last metres I looked the wrong way and carelessly, idiotically, ran into a road, was missed by a bus by 3 inches, am lucky to be alive and must say the blessing ‘for the unworthy to whom God does good.’

No: I’ll focus on what’s seared in my mind from meeting after meeting. Forgive me; I must write more than usual.

De-mo-crat-ya; the chant from the demonstrations doesn’t leave me. No one gave Israel’s present government the right to tread down those principles, which, beyond the word’s literal meaning of ‘power of the people,’ are the essence of democracy: the supremacy of justice and law, equality, freedom of conscience and expression, respect for minorities. ‘I’m terrified,’ a gay activist tells me. These values are at risk not just in Israel but in many lands.

Everyone I know is there, right, left and friends who don’t go to demonstrations. The speakers are well-chosen: leading women, an Arab Israeli, a senior academic, an ultra-orthodox rabbi. As they name the wrongs of the proposed legislation, the chant turns to ‘bushah, bushah, bushah, shame, shame, shame.’

There’s power and hope in these demonstrations, which keep going, growing, can’t be ignored.

I pick up the sticker ‘Democracy and Occupation cannot Coexist.’ ‘You can’t dissociate this from the occupation,’ says orthodox rabbi Alon Goschen-Gottstein, who created the Elijah Interfaith Institute, as we walk through the lanes of beautiful Yemin Moshe. Injustice knows no green lines and crosses back over separation walls.

I sit with scholar Dror Bondi, raised among settlers with the belief that ‘God is Jewish,’ until, spiritually troubled, he encountered Abraham Joshua Heschel’s ‘any God who’s my God and not your God isn’t God.’ Is it conceivable, he writes, that in a Jewish state the high court of justice should not be above and independent of the government, just as in times of monarchy the king was subject to the Torah’s law ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue?’

Israel’s crisis is political, but it’s also about the nature of Judaism. Now more than ever is the time to uphold the spiritually, morally, culturally, rich and courageous Judaism whose God is the God of all, against a nationalist, literalist narrowing down. For Judaism’s reputation is on the line.

I go with the New Israel Fund and Ir Amim to the valley flowing from the Old City to the Arab village of Silouan. Below, donkeys graze sweetly in a model biblical farmyard. But it’s part of a land grab led by El Ad who’re also behind the cable-car project and a bridge across the valley to dominate the neighbourhood. I’m reminded of a conversation years ago with the CEO of a nearby Palestinian hospital: ‘You’re an intelligent people,’ he said, ‘And I’ve been a peace activist for years. So what are you doing trying to force us out? What consequences will this have?’

I hadn’t thought of as animals as political. But next day I’m in the West Bank with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director of Torat Tsedek (Torah of Justice). His car stuck in mud in the rainswept hills, he documents settlers calculatedly grazing their sheep on undisputedly Palestinian land. He phones the police and army; when we leave, they haven’t yet arrived: ‘By the time anything happens the sheep may have eaten all the produce…’

Arik, who has extraordinary physical and moral courage, has been attacked many times. At the trial of the seventeen-year-old who held a knife to his throat, he pleaded that the young man not go to prison, saying “We must honour God’s image in every human being.” About those words Professor David Shulman, author of Dark Hope, Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine, wrote: ‘Out of the 613 mitzvot the Jews are meant to perform, this one stands out. Its existential priority, in the awareness of a person like Arik, speaks to the old tradition of Jewish humanism that I knew from my grandfather and my parents.’

We love our country and look after it for everyone, say the leaders of The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel when we meet to discuss partnership with Jtree over planting shrubs and trees round wetlands project. But the proposed legislation will remove all safeguards over nature, allowing virtually unlimited ‘development’.

‘Stand by your principles, but meet everyone,’ says my dear friend Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum. Day and night, she works to get people together: ‘Our society’s torn apart. We must hear each other if we’re to heal. She’s bringing women leaders, Jewish, Hasidic, Druse, Muslim, Palestinian, Christian, right-wing, left-wing, west bank, to listen to each other at Bet Hanasi, the President’s House. ‘I don’t compromise on principles,’ she says, ‘But we must hear one another; it changes hearts.’

‘I’m hopeful,’ says a friend who’s senior in Israel’s bank: all the financial institutions, at home and abroad, all the high tech, is telling this government to stop. So are high officers in the army and air force, whose lives are constantly on the line for our country.

The current government stands on three dangerous pillars: militant settlers, who don’t want to be held to justice by the courts; ultra-orthodox who don’t want equality for women or different branches of Judaism, or to serve in the army; and corrupt leadership at the highest level. It’s also supported by many who, often with reason, have long felt hurt and unheard.

Facing it are millions deeply devoted to Israel who seek to uphold the true meanings of democracy, groups from right and left, countless NGOs, people practising chesed, tzedek, ve’emet, lovingkindness, justice and truth, people who risk their own and their children’s lives for a country so often wrongly attacked, hated and defamed. Alongside them are millions of Jews and non-Jews abroad.

Time and again I’m told: Say to your community ‘Stand with us. Tell them there are many Israels; tell them to choose carefully which ones to support. Use your influence. We need you all.’

The demonstration in Jerusalem falls silent, then everyone sings Hatikvah together: ‘Our hope has not ceased, to be a free people,’ free for everyone. It is deeply moving.

From a troubled Israel

I spent yesterday morning at the Israel Bird Observatory seeing tiny migrating birds being expertly ringed.

The Observatory is situated exactly between Israel’s Knesset and the Supreme Court; politicians go past frequently. An extraordinary green haven in the middle of the city, its location is critically symbolic.

I watched closely as birds as light as just five grams were measured and ringed. It was a privilege to witness the loving skill with which they were handled. There’s a careful technique to holding them, either by their legs, or by cupping them in the hand with fingers placed round their neck. A careless movement and the creature would be strangled.

In that location and at this hour I couldn’t escape the thought that this was symbolic: that Israel’s current government has its rough fingers round the neck of Israel’s judiciary, Israel’s democracy, its ethical standing, its reputation as the Jewish State and the good name of Judaism across the world.

In the words of Yuval Noah Harari, (The Times of Israel) the legal reforms it proposes would give it ‘unlimited power to pass any law it wants…without checks on its power and without protection for minority rights,’ those very rights on which we Jews have depended, and in the absence of which we’ve often been betrayed, in numerous lands for many generations. Without judicial protection, society, and especially the most vulnerable groups in it, would be left at the mercy of the very ministers who ‘have often expressed racist, misogynist and homophobic views,’ a prospect viciously evidenced in Minister Ben Gvir’s despicable response to the appalling pogrom in Hawara last week. (There’s a deeply disturbing relationship between the occupation and the attack on justice and freedom within Israel itself.)

‘It seems that the current Israeli government has simply forgotten what it means to be Jewish,’ Harari concludes.

In an emergency address to the nation last night, President Herzog put himself on the line, telling his government, history would judge if it did not act immediately to calm the national emergency and rethink its proposed legislation which would destroy ‘the supreme values’ of democracy and justice, and imperil Israel.

Moments afterwards there was an appalling terrorist attack on the streets of Tel Aviv, horribly highlighting the all-too-real dangers Israelis regularly face.

I was asked last night about the connection between Purim and Pesach. This year it’s bluntly clear. ‘If you are silent now,’ Mordechai tells Esther, demanding her, despite the risk, to intervene on behalf of her people. Pesach is the festival of liberty and human dignity. If we are silent now, we will watch those very values corroded and corrupted by a leadership which is not only betraying its own courageous and creative country, but Judaism itself.

Writing in the New York Times, Thomas Freedman quoted three Israeli thinkers, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, Yossi Klein Halevi and Matti Friedman who, though representing different political perspectives, deliberately came together to tell American Jewry to stand up and defend Israel ‘from a political leadership that is undermining our society’s cohesion and its democratic ethos, the foundations of the Israeli success story.’

On Wednesday I was with leaders of local protests (half a million people are expected on the streets this Saturday night). One, a senior doctor, had coordinated a letter signed by three hundred medics in the reserves, stating that they would not serve if the government destroyed those very freedoms for which they had time and again put their lives on the line.

The massive, strong and peaceful protests across the country are a deep indication of the country’s health, symbolised by the reclaiming of the national flag as representing the core values for which the state of Israel was founded: democracy, justice and equality for all its citizens.

We, who live abroad, must stand up too. It is not just for Israel but for Judaism itself that those same values must be claimed. Otherwise, others will represent Judaism for us, as proved by the religious far right in the current government. We mustn’t let ‘Jewish’ be merely an adjective we apply to ourselves when it suits. We must study, know, love and live by its creed of justice, compassion, and the service of God through the creation of just, compassionate, knowledgeable and dedicated communities and societies.

My mother’s 100th birthday

I remember, I remember, how, when I was small, Isca, my mother, would come to say goodnight and I would beg her, ‘Tell me about your childhood.’

Isca will be a hundred tomorrow.

She would tell me about the huge family gatherings in Frankfurt on festivals, when there’d be poetry and plays and she and her sisters would talk so much they had to be allocated numbers to give them all a chance to speak. Later, when the Nazis came to power, she’d put her head under the pillow each night and pray no harm would reach her.

She told me how she spoke English on the street so that they wouldn’t be stopped, and how, once they reached the British Consulate, they were treated as humans once again. On Kristallnacht her sister Ruth made them all darn socks to keep calm.

She spoke of the Micklem family, who took them into their home in Boxmoor, five refugees. The family were wonderful, but so bad at washing up that she’d creep downstairs while they slept and clean the dishes again.

Being a child of refugees has formed me more deeply than I will ever understand.

But I was lucky, not just because we were safe and prosperous. The horrors of life under the Nazis, and of World War II, were communicated to me in stories in which goodness and kindness proved stronger than hate. (In my father’s family the silences were deeper, the losses greater.) The message I absorbed was that hate is combatted through generosity and love.

Tomorrow is Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Memory. Judaism is full of positive memories, the Exodus from slavery, the wonder of creation. But on Shabbat Zachor we recall evil: ‘Remember what Amalek did to you, attacking your stragglers and you were weak and weary.’ Shabbat Zachor always precedes Purim, when we read the final round of this long conflict between Israel, guided by Esther and Mordechai, and Haman, the descendant of Amalek.

The commandment to remember Amalek is the Biblical equivalent of the famous words dubiously attributed to Edmund Burke: ‘All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.’

Amalek as a nation no longer exists, as the Talmud long ago established. Yet it remains as a concept, the embodiment of hatred and vengeance. As such, it knows no geographical boundaries, and no one is immune from its impact. An astute Hasidic insight rereads the Torah’s injunction not just as a warning against what Amalek can do to us, but against Amalek can turn us into: Don’t let cruelty make you cruel, or hatred make you hate. It’s easier said than done.

I’m troubled more than usual as we approach this Purim amidst so much violence, including in Israel and Palestine. Immediately before telling us to love our neighbour, the Torah commands us not to bear grudges or seek revenge. Yet across the world we witness how hatreds fester over centuries.

It’s unclear who originated the saying that the world will be healed not by sinat chinam, gratuitous hate, but by ahavat chinam, love which seeks no other reward than doing what’s compassionate and kind. This feels more like a prayer than a reality.

Yet there are countless people who, despite everything, manage to live like that.

Isca used to tell me that when she lay with that pillow over her head, hoping the family would find some route to safety, she determined that she would use her life to help other people become able to help themselves.

That’s exactly what she’s achieved. Her hundredth birthday marks one person’s remarkable and courageous triumph over hatred.

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