My friend Donniel Hartman refers to this time on the calendar as the contemporary High Holy Days.
Yom HaShoah has a profound impact on contemporary Israel, the psyche of the Jewish people and certainly its politics.
In a few days the Jewish world will celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, and this celebration remains very grand. It is an independence day celebrating the fruition of two thousand years of yearning for return. Homelessness, statelessness and, in many ways, powerlessness, have come to an end.
Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut are contemporary Jewish High Holy Days. If you’ve been to Israel on these days you know the profound grasp these days have on the entire population. In certain ways we can say that Israel was licensed by the nations of the world to be born. If not guilt for the acquiescence in the Shoah, certainly, ongoing uncertainty as to what to do with the thousands and thousands of displaced Jews, gave the nations of the world reason and impetus, through the United Nations, to vote for a sovereign state of Israel on that fateful day of our rebirth.
Zionists and critical historians know that the origin of modern Israel was the Zionist movement which was NOT a function of the Holocaust, but rather a 19th century movement established by Jews in the Russian Empire calling for the establishment of a territorial possession after centuries of enduring persecution. In 1896 journalist Theodore Herzl published an influential political pamphlet entitled “The Jewish State” which made the claim, after the Dreyfus trial, that an autonomous State was the only way to protect Jews from antisemitism. Herzl became the leader, convening the first Zionist Congress in Basil, Switzerland in 1897. Palestine, then under Ottoman control and the original home of the Jewish people, was chosen as the most desirous place to establish the “Jewish State” after almost deciding on Uganda. A little history…..After the failed Russian Revolution of 1905, growing numbers of Eastern European and Russian Jews began to immigrate to Palestine, joining the few thousand Jews who had arrived earlier. The Jewish settlers insisted on the use of Hebrew as their spoken language. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, Britain took over Palestine. In 1917, Britain issued the “Balfour Declaration,” which declared its intent to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Although protested by the Arab states, the Balfour Declaration was included in the British mandate over Palestine, which was authorized by the League of Nations in 1922. Because of Arab opposition to the establishment of any Jewish state in Palestine, British rule continued throughout the 1920s and ’30s.
In May 14, 1948, in Tel Aviv, Jewish Agency Chairman David Ben-Gurion proclaims the State of Israel, establishing the first Jewish state in 2,000 years. In an afternoon ceremony at the Tel Aviv Art Museum, Ben-Gurion pronounced the words:
“We hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine, to be called Israel,” prompting applause and tears from the crowd gathered at the museum and…… around the world. Ben-Gurion became Israel’s first premier. I’m sure there are many f you here who remember that speech!
In the distance, the rumble of guns could be heard from fighting that broke out between Jews and Arabs immediately following the British army withdrawal earlier that day. Egypt launched an air assault against Israel that evening. Despite a blackout in Tel Aviv–and the expected Arab invasion–Jews joyously celebrated the birth of their new nation, especially after word was received that the United States had recognized the Jewish state. At midnight, the State of Israel officially came into being upon termination of the British mandate in Palestine.
At the end of World War II, in 1945, the United States took up the Zionist cause. Britain, unable to find a practical solution, referred the problem to the United Nations, which in November 1947 voted to partition Palestine.
The Jews were to possess more than half of Palestine, although they made up less than half of Palestine’s population. The Palestinian Arabs, aided by volunteers from other countries, fought the Zionist forces, but by May 14, 1948, the Jews had secured full control of their U.N.-allocated share of Palestine and also some Arab territory. On May 14, Britain withdrew with the expiration of its mandate, and the State of Israel was proclaimed. The next day, forces from Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq invaded.
The Israelis, though less well equipped, managed to fight off the Arabs and then seize key territory, such as Galilee, the Palestinian coast, and a strip of territory connecting the coastal region to the western section of Jerusalem. In 1949, U.N.-brokered cease-fires left the State of Israel in permanent control of this conquered territory. The departure, many through their own will and the instructions of Arab leaders, and many by force of the Israeli conqueror, of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs from Israel during the war left the country with a substantial Jewish majority.
The military victory was an incredible, perhaps might we say, miraculous victory. What has followed, in terms of Israel’s capacity to fight off its enemies, and much more, is its building of the State that has become not only a paragon of development in technology and every intellectual arena, but also its capacity to absorb millions of Jewish immigrants and create a homeland for the Jewish people. Yes, there are very serious challenges that remain with both the indigenous Arab populations, the Palestinians and within areas of civil rights and religious freedom, EVEN RELIGIOUS FREEDOM FOR JEWS. AND I DON’T SHORT CHANGE THESE ISSUES. They literally are now existential threats as great, or even greater, than the threats from Israel’s neighbors. But a State, the third commonwealth of the Jewish people, exists, is strong and serves as a symbolic feature of Jewish survival. It has been given mythical and Divine meaning by many….often to its advantage and also, very often, to its disadvantage. In the shadow of near destruction, the loss of 6,000,000 Jews, 1.5 million children and the great centers of Jewish life, culture and learning, the phoenix has risen out of the ashes. Is there any wonder why Hartman would call Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut the contemporary High Holy Days of Israel or the Jewish people?
Like everything Jewish there is also complexity.
This morning I’d like to point out that something is missing in this conversation. And I want to reclaim it here, for us. And I want us all to think about it.
Because, although we support Israel, travel to Israel, study in Israel, and love Israel, we are not in Israel.
We are part of the diaspora and we are part of one of the most significant diaspora communities in the world and in all of Jewish history.
I know we had a very meaningful Yom HaShoah experience here last week. We will also have a very festive and wonderful celebration for Yom Ha’atzmaut tomorrow. But there is something we are not tending to. And that is what fuels the diaspora. How do we celebrate it? Is it merely reflective of the incomplete success of kibbutz galuyot, the ingathering of exiles, or is this a failure of Zionism? If you are like me, often we have felt that to live a full and wholly Jewish life, we should be in Israel. At times I have felt that my religious life is compromised by virtue of being here, in America, in the galut….exile. But other times I say “no” and I understand the reality of Jewish life and Jewish history. Great communities have been built and created in the diaspora. Judaism, as we know it, is a product of the diaspora. And I am not in “Exile”, not “galut”. Rather, I am in the “t’futzot” and it is a choice that I make and it is a critical pole in Jewish life. So the cynic says….just wait. Look at your history. It is a history of oppression, exile and destruction. You may rise in this country or that country as you did in Syria and Iraq and Spain and Germany and Russia and Poland……but it is only a matter of time before “THEY” will oppress you and exile you.
Did you know that even from England we were exiled twice? But we can ask what happened to the first commonwealth of the Jewish people and what happened to the second commonwealth of the Jewish people.
Israel has been destroyed twice before. Are there any guarantees now?
Are you safer as a Jew in the streets of Boca Raton than in the streets of Jerusalem?
And I will point to the richness of the contributions to Judaism and to the larger culture of humanity that were created by the Jews of Alexandria, Aleppo and Babylonia. They will tell you about the culture we created in Italy and in Spain and in England. I want to share about the incredible contributions of German Jewry and yes, Russian literature and yes, 800 years of Polish Jewish contribution. Are there any guarantees? Over 2500 years ago, after Cyrus and the Persians gained control of Babylonia, the exiled Jewish community was able to return to Eretz Yisrael and how many went back? Historians estimate maybe 10-15 % of the Jewish population returned. With the birth of the modern State, how many Jews have chosen Aliyah? Well almost all olim come from countries where they were either exiled or oppressed and had no place to go. The number of Jews who made Aliyah from America is quite small. Israel’s Jewish population, with small exceptions (from the early Zionists or orthodox ideologues), is almost completely inhabited by the Jews who had to leave where they came from or had no other place to go. And we can thank God, or thank the brave men and women of Medinat Yisrael. So what is the question I raise? We agree on how important Israel is to Jewish survival and the Jewish experience. I raise this as someone who loves Israel, loves to be in Israel, loves Hebrew, loves the food, loves the people, loves the land, and loves the food…. But I am, love it or hate it, comfortable with it or uncomfortable with it, as are you….a diaspora Jew.
So, I am wondering if it is time for us to be able to affirm the diaspora, not in opposition to Zionism, but as a second column of the Jewish people and an important, critical component of the Jewish people as we have always been. I accept those who believe the idea that “LAND” is a central component of Jewish identity. I believe there must be a Jewish homeland. The Land of Israel, the Torah of Israel and the people of Israel are three critical components of our being. But history has witnessed something else and that is alternative community, going all the way back to the Torah when two and one half tribes did not want to cross the Jordan and were given permission to reside outside of the borders. And…..we do not determine that to be a part of the Jewish people. You have to belong here or there, dress like this or that, eat this or that, or…live here or there! We have always had a community outside of the borders. That is simply a fact.
I don’t live here, like many, who fear or claim waiting for the next pogrom or anti-Semitic incident. Frankly, I am one who believes America is different for a whole host of reasons.
And I know that as we face threats, Jews in Israel do too….and most people in the world face threats…All minorities do…Life is dangerous.
We are one of many people who are different. We’re not the most obvious minority. We are white privileged people and we have done extremely well in this country. We are on the top of every institution of power. I don’t have to go into this. We contribute mightily to society’s economics, scientific and bio medical research, politics …..everything.
AND we have great institutions of Jewish learning. We have incredible centers of Jewish life and Jewish scholarship. We have great training grounds for rabbis in New York, Cincinnati and Los Angeles; even Yiddish is thriving on college campuses.
Here in the diaspora we have created organizations that serve humanity. We are a powerful voice of advocacy for Israel. A case could be made that American Jews have been as important as any other factor in Israel’s defense. The American literary tradition and academia are filled with Jews and Jewish creativity and influence.
Yet, the ongoing reality of antisemitism and our history make us feel insecure.
We were strengthened by Israel and given new confidence, yet now many in the diaspora fear that we are also wounded by Israel.
Israel has given us great pride and yet, at times, in this recent period it has also created conflict.
So, although we like to simplify….the truth is this, it is a complex topic.
A number of years ago a leading Israeli thinker and poet, A.B. Yehoshua said to the highest level of governance of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America….something like; it’s not legitimate to stay in the diaspora, you can only be fulfilled fully as a Jew in Israel.
Many people think that.
This leads me to another issue that I think about. This has to do with intermarriage and assimilation and the capacity to retain both a Jewish identity and a connection to the Jewish people and to Israel in the diaspora. How do we keep this alive here?
I am raising a lot of questions. I am sure there are no simple answers….. But here is what I think….
The diaspora and Jewish life have always been powerful forces for Judaism, Jews and the world.
We have something incredible to offer in terms of thought and behavior and a sense of human responsibility.
We live in a great nation where the struggle for human rights and pluralism is mutually shared with many here.
We live in a great nation where minorities do receive protecting by law.
We have created and will continue to create centers for Jewish life for families, children and the elderly which are and will be woven into the fabric of a larger culture.
We must give careful consideration to how we portend ourselves and interact with the non-Jewish world. We must be very careful not to isolate ourselves; rather learn to walk the balance between being a Jew and being a Jew in America….being a Jewish American amongst so many others.
It is my belief that a retreat into ghettos and CLOSING OURSELVES OFF TO OUR LARGER COMMUNITIES are BAD STRATEGIES FOR SUCCESS AND FOR SAFETY. It’s been very painful to have a history of forced ghettoization. We must be careful. I firmly believe that we must stress the importance of Hebrew and ritual and living by a Jewish calendar, Jewish responsibility and Jewish learning….not to mention worship.
So, here’s how I want to sum this up.
The definition of what is a Jew or who is a Jew is complex. Our identity is connected to a people, to a land, to a book, to a God; to a system of values and behaviors…..it is a covenant…
It is social and political. It’s religious and national and it’s no one of those to the inclusion of all of these.
And so….we continue to look at this and to find ourselves in it.
As Jews of the diaspora, we have a lot to be proud of, to uncover and to pursue…..
As Jews in the diaspora, we have a responsibility towards Israel as Israel does towards us.
There will be times when they will carry us and there have been and will be times when we will carry them.
We need Yom HaShaoh as diaspora Jews as much as Israelis do.
And we need Yom Ha’atzmaut to reengage in the work of celebration and appreciation for Israel….…..but perhaps we can say that we also need a day when we celebrate the contributions and the meaning of a Jewish life well lived in the diaspora.