This Shabbat falls in the midst of a Jewish ritual journey from Yom HaShoah to Yom Haatzmaut; from Holocaust to the Israeli State. In historical terms that journey took three years, 1945 – 1948. And now a further 72 years have passed. The State of Israel was never solely predicated on the Holocaust, rather a ‘tikvah shanot alpayim’ – the hope of a people over two millennia (lyrics from the Israel’s national anthem which, themselves, predate the Holocaust). But to the extent that, in Israel’s early years, the Holocaust served as a major driving force of Zionist commitment and support both within and without the inhabitant of the State of Israel, that connection is becoming attenuated as time passes and other genocides prick at the attention of broader society. Israel can no longer assume that a reference to the Holocaust will end any conversation about the triumphs or failings of the Zionist State.
None of that, of course, suggests that the need to stand strong in the face of anti-Semitism has gone away. The CST reports that acts of antisemitic aggression are higher than at any time since they began collecting this information. Israelis and supporters of Israel complain of increasing hostility on campuses, concert halls and elsewhere on a weekly basis. Many of these ‘new’ forms of anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist hostility are ‘justified’ with respect to the political actions of the Israeli Government, but it is an error to accept these ‘justifications’ at face value, made, as they so often are; out of context, out of ignorance or out of an unwillingness to accept that Jews have a right to a safe sovereign state at all. But, for a Zionist like myself, my love and support of Israel is challenged by my discomfort when I see her fall short, as I believe she does, particularly when trying to develop a long-term sustainable future alongside Palestinian neighbours who also feel the need for what Leo Pinsker referred to, in a Jewish context, as auto-emancipation.
In an attempt to reason out the relationship between these swirling currents of pride and discomfort I went back to Herzl’s original Zionist manifesto; The Jewish State (published 1896). The section entitled ‘Causes of Anti-Semitism’ begins by suggesting that ancient Christian theologically driven Jew-Hatred has morphed into a kind of Jew-hatred predicated on our refusal to give up our particularity while emerging from the ghetto not as forelock tugging paupers but as ‘a prodigious rival to the middle class.’ I think there remains a piece of this in contemporary anti-Israel discourse. If only Israel was prepared to be weak, if only Jews were prepared to adopt their accustomed place as powerless grateful subjects of other dominions then, surely, there would be less aggression directed towards us. But this isn’t a new direction I am recommending for our Jewish futures.
Herzl however goes on to say something else – the refusal to assimilate and/or adopt the posture of weak underlings was the underlying cause of Jew-hatred in his age, but there was a different immediate cause. ‘The immediate cause [of Jew-hatred] is our excessive production of mediocre intellectuals.’ It struck me as a most surprising and provocative sentence – and one that has important resonance for our time. I do consider much contemporary intellectual engagement with Israel is ‘mediocre.’ I want to see a more nuanced voice, supporting Israel, emerge more broadly. For me the cut and thrust of most public debate on Israel fails to rise beyond debating-chamber point scoring and I wonder if Herzl is right – that contributes to the current levels of antipathy. These are complex and cloudy waters, but we, in this special community, are uniquely equipped to sail these uneven seas. At our Yom Haatzmaut celebrations on Sunday morning I will be looking to navigate this path more clearly. I do hope you will be able to join me.