We mark, in the coming week, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Hatzmaut, respectively a day of memory of those who have fallen defending Israel’s existence and a day of celebration of the birth of the modern State of Israel some 66 years ago. The following week we mark the 50th Year of New London Synagogue, our first service took place in May 1964.
I’m struck how the twin issues that drove the creation of this special community are key to my contemporary relationship with Israel, a country in which I have spent over three years of my life.
The twin issues need little rehearsing for those who know this community well.
The first issue is philosophical and theological, Rabbi Jacobs made the claim that Judaism has both earthly and heavenly components. He was and we are ‘both and’ merchants, rather than dualists purveyors of ‘either or’ methodologies.
The second issue is personal. The driving passion of the earliest years of New London had little to do with philosophy or theology, but rather the connection the founding members felt to a ‘mentsch’ a man of decency and integrity who had been treated poorly.
It’s a source of deep sadness for me that the most basic ‘both and’ claim of a contemporary Jewish relationship with Israel remains contentious. For me to be pro a strong State of Israel means that I must be pro a strong Palestinian State, as uncomfortable as that statement may feel. I may wish to believe that the State’s borders should be expansive and its character purely Jewish and its ideal perfectly democratic – but that simply ignores realities of demography, history and even a sense of justice.
In many ways the issue maps the debates and rows over the question of who wrote the Torah. It is indeed simpler and more comforting to believe that God’s hands are the only ones on our holiest scriptures, but it is simply untrue. And those who turn away from this provocative uncomfortable truth maintain their reverie in a dangerous state of wilful ignorance. That’s the relationship between the first issue that drove the creation of this Synagogue and my relationship with the State of Israel.
The second issue has an even more important implication for my relationship with Israel. A core driving force behind the creation of New London Synagogue was personal. Emmanuel Levinas, the great Jewish writer of the last century claims interpersonal relationships drive ethical behaviours. When we truly see another, or when we are truly seen, we are changed and forced to confront the possible impacts of our own decisions on those we live alongside. That’s what happened in the early days of New London. But that is not what is happening in Israel. One side is not seeing the other, at least not nearly enough. There is political point-scoring aplenty but not enough effort is being put into understanding the dreams and honestly held fears of the ‘other.’ Jews and Palestinians in Israel alike are simply not experiencing moments of encountering the other in the context of a true meeting of two human beings. And without that there will, of course, be intransigence.
On the one hand New London was formed because of a singular theological claim and a particular set of circumstances. But the implications of the twin driving forces behind the formation of this special community go far beyond the boundaries of our Abbey Road plot. In shul this Shabbat I will be sharing some of the implications of, what I call, a New London way of engaging with Israel in the assisted by an extraordinary teaching of Emmanuel Levinas. I hope you will be able to join us.
Happy Birthday Israel,
Happy Birthday New London,
May we both go from strength to strength,