Here is something I’m struggling with; I’m not alone in so doing.
I spent the early hours of Monday morning sitting in Ben Gurion Airport (I’m not a fan of airports, but somehow I like being there: all night coffee, the chance to write…) I’m translating letters I just received from my father’s cousin, and one telegram. The letters were sent by my great-uncle Alfred to his brother in New York. Alfred was one of the founders of the Faculty of Law at the Hebrew University. Note the dates:
19 February 1948 You’re no doubt reading about our life and the goings on here in the papers. We’ve become so used to the war and the siege that we’re surprised when we hear no gunfire, especially at night. These horrors too will pass over us. In the meantime we’re already working hard at the preparations for the Jewish state. I’m involved in religious jurisprudence, and family and inheritance law. There are many difficult issues which could be resolved if only our rabbis were of the right calibre.
18 March 1948 The streets are as busy as in normal times; the buses run regularly; the shops are open; only what’s for sale gets less and less, especially foodstuffs and fuel. Jerusalem is to all practical purposes already divided into a Jewish and an Arab zone. The borders are carefully guarded… The entire population is divided into its duties. The younger age ranges, from 17 – 35, are properly mobilised, the streets are full of our soldiers; they have handsome uniforms and are well trained. We older people too are back in service, in so far as we are still capable of it. University activity is s sharply curtailed because most of the students have been called up. Sadly many students have fallen in the fighting…
The telegram, dated 16 April 1948, reads simply
‘Alfred fatally wounded burial took place yesterday letter follows’.
He was killed in the Arab attack on the convoy to Mount Scopus, in sight of the British.
Side by side with thoughts engendered by these letters are impressions from my current visit. I always leave Israel inspired by the courage, ideals, values and dedication of the people I encounter: the fight against human trafficking lead by Atzum and Rabbi Levi Lauer, the struggle to help the poor, led by Israel’s food bank Leket Yisrael; the courageous (and fun) educational work with Israeli and Palestinian led by Simon Lichman and CCECH…
But gnawing at my mind is also what I saw the Friday before, when I spent the day with a remarkable Israeli, Ezra, in the South Hebron Hills and the Negev: Bedouin who’ve been attacked by settlers; homes (really shacks) with demolition orders (‘we just don’t know when’); villages, if you can call them that, with no running water and no connection to the national grid, overlooked by settlements with proper houses and trees; grinding poverty and the absence of hope. Worst was the Bedouin village near Beer Sheva, which has papers from the Ottoman, Mandate and Israeli periods, and which was demolished so that Keren Kayyemet could plant a forest. I spent almost an hour with the Sheikh in the remaining encampment around the cemetery, and watched video footage of the bulldozers smashing down the homes and uprooting the trees, the children staring bewildered at the ruins of their possessions. Ezra and the Sheikh talked about justice: ‘I’m ashamed as a Jew’, he said. ‘Help us’, the Sheikh said.
So what is Zionism today? It certainly isn’t what Rabbi Hugo Gryn called ‘Joining the dogs baying at Israel’. It is to assert that Israel is not just a legitimate but a remarkable country, necessary to the Jewish People, precious, and full of extraordinary achievements, and to ally ourselves with its struggles and achievements through our actions. But it is also not to ignore actions by Israel which are morally wrong. It is precisely Judaism and the love of Israel which require us to speak out about them, judiciously, – while at the same time condemning, and distinguishing ourselves from, the chorus of hate.
There are those who believe that force creates reality. Judaism has always taught that outcomes are ultimately founded on values, especially justice and respect for human dignity.