Many people, including marginalised Jews, do not appreciate that central to Jewish life in Britain, and indeed throughout the world, is the concern for the state of Israel and its perception of threats against its existence. For Jews of my generation, the two major events of the last two millennia were the Holocaust and the creation of Jewish sovereignty in its ancient homeland. They were viewed not in a political but in a religious perspective. The Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel described in his autobiographical work Night a public execution in the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz. Someone asked the name of the victim dangling from the noose, and the answer was a bellowing cry from one of the inmates: “God!”
For many Jews, the Holocaust had spelt the end of the Covenant between God and His people. Hitherto, every national disaster was attributed to their own sinfulness. This time, only the absence of God could explain the irredeemable evil the Jews had experienced.
The establishment of a Third Jewish Commonwealth several years later, amid a mighty struggle against five Arab nations, was viewed not only as the rebirth of a people but the rebirth of its God. After the vote in favour of the Partition Plan by two thirds of the UN General Assembly, Jews danced outside their synagogues, just as when, 10 years later after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, they filled the synagogues in numbers that approximated those who attend on the holiest days of the Jewish year. And, of course, for more than 2,000 years, Jews have prayed every day for the ingathering of exiles in the Promised Land; and every year at the conclusion of the Passover meal, they declared: “Next year in Jerusalem”.
In Jewish life, there can be no separation between religion and the sense of identity with a people. They are inextricably intertwined. The Covenant assured the Israelites and the remnant that survived – the Jews – that God would redeem them from their oppressors if they walked in His ways. Everything that happens to the Jewish community is perceived as either an act of God or a sign of His absence. But so ingrained in the Jewish consciousness is a sense of responsibility for one’s own situation, that Jews – particularly those who have not lived under any threat – believe that it is within their power to resolve political conflicts with their neighbours. They resist the idea that the enemy may be implacable. They make demands of their own side that they do not make of the other. Rabbis who go against the mainstream and are highly critical of Israel’s policies are hailed as morally courageous, while rabbis, such as myself, who defend Israel are accused of being political.
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