April 12, 2013 admin

Israel’s next great idea

I’m always moved by the Shabbat which falls between Yom Hashoah, the Jewish date for remembering the Holocaust, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. I’ve only to think of my father’s family; three of the four of his mother’s siblings who managed to escape Nazi Europe were able to do so only because of the Yishuv, the growing Jewish settlement in what was then still Palestine. It’s my father’s Yahrzeit on Yom Ha’atzmaut; it feels a fitting date given the fate of his family, and his own destiny, repairing tanks behind the lines at El Alamein in the Royal Engineers, then joining the Hagganah and being responsible for the refrigeration of emergency blood supplies during the siege of Jerusalem.
Two scenes pass through my mind as I think about the connection between these two decisive dates for Jews in the modern world. One happened at Birkenau; the last several times I have led groups from our community to that terrible place, there have been units of Israeli soldiers gathered in commemoration. Some of the ceremonies have been modest, reflective; others more demonstrative, with singing and marching.
‘That’s redemptive’, said one of my group; others clearly agreed. I understand that response. No doubt it can only truly be appreciated by survivors, who know exactly what it means to be powerless in the face of depravity and watch helplessly the torments inflicted on those you love most. On this earth we often need force to defend our humanity, our very right to exist. Expressing his scepticism about the nation-state as an ultimate ideal, Amos Oz nevertheless writes that ‘existence without the tools of statehood is a matter of mortal danger’. This is an obvious, and painful, lesson both of Jewish history and, sadly, of the present Israeli reality.
Yet those ceremonies in that former death camp filled me with too many associations of what power alone can do for me to want to use a word like ‘redemptive’. Indeed I feel that any expression of power, even the most benign, even our own, in a place where power taunted and slaughtered so many, is open to question. One knows too much about what power can do.
The other scene was quieter. I was sitting outside a hut in downtown Tel Aviv with Nic Schlagman, who was showing me his work with refugees from Eritrea and Somalia who see Israel as their sole hope and haven. ‘My grandmother came on the Kindertransport’, he said, ‘I think she would be proud of me’. I believe there are innumerable others, throughout Israel, and Jewry, and across the world, motivated in a similar manner.
I was at a seminar yesterday led by the outstanding Israeli scholar and diplomat Dr Tal Becker. ‘A nation is as great as its great idea’, he said, and then challenged us: ‘After the creation of the state, what is Israel’s next great idea?’ The answer to my mind is that ancient Jewish response which begins when Abraham refuses to accept that injustice be done even to Sodom, and Moses cannot countenance a slave being taunted. It’s as simple as the words ‘Get involved and make it better’ and requires nothing less than that we commit to this our lives.
That is what remains so inspiring about Israel, despite the wrongs done to it, and despite the wrongs it sometimes does, and despite the urgency of the hour to put an end to both. It is the number of people and organisations motivated by a profound vision of humanity, rooted in the wisdom and compassion of Jewish values, texts and community life at its best, and nurtured also by those particular sensitivities which derive from having been compelled to live for so long at the margins, who then go and put it into practice in innovative ways, whether towards Jews, or Arabs, or both, or in other countries all around the world.
It is to this idea that we must commit ourselves, as human beings, as Jews, and as those who care about Israel.

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