"The Big Issue"Sermon delivered by Rabbi John D. Rayner at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue on the First Day of Pesach, 8th April 2001.
In conformity with the new policy favouring geriatrics, explained by David Goldberg in his Purim article, I have been asked to preach here this morning. I do so with some hesitation because after fifty years of exploring the message of Pesach from every possible angle, it is hard to think of anything fresh to say. But then, the more geriatric I get, the more I become convinced that there is one BIG ISSUE, related to this festival, which, above all other issues, needs to be confronted by us at this time. Therefore, though I have touched on it before, I hope I may be allowed to do so again. At least I shall approach it in a novel way.
Preachers generally take their text from a chapter or verse of the Bible, or even a single word. I shall take mine from a single syllable - or, more precisely, one-and-a-half. You all know that Pesach is known in our tradition as zeman cherutenu, "The Season of our Freedom". Well, it is the first person plural suffix - the enu part of cherutenu - which I would like to take as my text.
Yes, Pesach is the season of our freedom. It celebrates our liberation from Egyptian slavery. It marks the beginning of our self-consciousness as a people and of our unique journey through history. And therefore our focus during this festival is rightly on our liberation from Egyptian bondage.
But the Exodus from Egypt has also served as a liberation paradigm for other peoples. Almost every national liberation movement in Europe, America and Africa has invoked the Exodus, drawn inspiration from it, and used its slogans as in the spiritual "Let My people go". As Heinrich Heine famously said, "Since the Exodus, Freedom has always spoken with a Hebrew accent" (J.L. Baron, A Treasury of Jewish Quotations, 311.27)
We naturally feel complimented when other liberation movements draw on our experience and borrow our language. Sometimes we have even given them a helping hand. Rabbi David Einhorn preached against slavery and had to flee for his life from Baltimore to Philadelphia. Helen Suzman helped to pave the way for the ending of apartheid in South Africa. And Jewish leaders, not least rabbis, accompanied Martin Luther King on his civil rights marches.
And that is as it should be. For if freedom is so precious, then we must surely desire it for others as well as ourselves. Then it is not enough to celebrate cherutenu, our freedom: we must seek, and actively promote, cherutam, their freedom as well.
But if that applies to other peoples generally, does it not have a special, application to the Palestinians, whose modern history has been so intertwined with ours, and who are still awaiting their national liberation? Some people would say "no" to that and argue as follows.
The land of Palestine, they say, doesn't actually belong to the Palestinians. They just happen to live there, and they don't need to, since there are plenty of other Arab countries for them to go to. The land belongs to us, the Jewish people. Nevertheless, in our generosity, we have always been willing to share it with them. The trouble is that they have not been willing to share it with us. From the beginning of the modern Zionist immigration, they resented our coming, although we had nothing but goodwill towards them, and paid their absentee landlords handsomely for every dunum of land we purchased. Admittedly, we rejected the idea of a bi-national state in which Jews and Arabs might have enjoyed equal rights, but then so did they. And when the United Nations voted for the only possible alternative, partition, which we accepted, they rejected that as well.
From that rejection, so the narrative continues, all their troubles have stemmed. Because of it, Israel was born in war, and in that war hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled the country. But they fled of their own accord, or at the prompting of the commanders of the invading Arab armies. We didn't drive them out. On the contrary we begged them to stay.
In the ensuing years they occasionally raided us from across the borders, and we had no choice but to hit back hard because force is the only language they understand. Then came the Six Day War, which left us in control of all of Palestine and gave us the unenviable task of ruling a huge Palestinian-Arab population. We did our best to treat them decently, but they resented us more than ever, and waged an intermittent guerrilla war against us. They even shelled our Galilean settlements from inside Lebanon, so that in 1982 we were reluctantly compelled to invade that country to root them out.
Five years later they started their intifada, which only ended when we magnanimously decided to hand over to them the administration of the Gaza Strip and parts of Judea and Samaria. And then came the Oslo peace process, in which we participated in good faith. But it soon became apparent that they didn't really want peace, they only wanted to drive us into the sea. And when Arik Sharon took his perfectly innocent walk on the Temple Mount, they used it as a pretext to launch their long-planned second intifada.
In short, the Palestinians have brought their tragedy on their own heads. We are not responsible for it. We have done nothing wrong. Our hands are clean. So runs the narrative, and I am sure we all recognise it. It is the version which the Jewish Establishment has continually disseminated and which, in the past, many of us have gone along with. But there are two things wrong with it.
In the first place, there is nothing religious about it. It is purely political. It is the sort of thing any nation in conflict with another might say in self-righteous self-justification. It is simply partisanship, untouched by any universal ethic.
In the second place, it is untrue. Well, not completely, but largely. By any natural justice, the Palestinians' claim to the land is, for different reasons, as valid as ours, and their resentment of our taking it over readily understandable. During the War of Independence, except for one isolated exception, we did not beg them to stay. On the contrary, we encouraged them to leave.
Nor can it be truthfully maintained that the way in which those who stayed by successive Israeli governments was always benign. There have been innumerable confiscations of their land and property; demolitions of houses and collective punishments - all in plain violation of Jewish ethics, and, in defiance of the United Nations and world opinion, the creation of more and more settlements in the occupied territories. Indeed, many of the actions of successive Israeli governments must surely look to any independent observer like stages of a grand strategy to implement the "Greater Israel" dream, which would leave the Palestinians totally dispossessed.
Similarly, there is no truth in the story that Northern Israel was subjected to constant PLO shelling from Lebanon in 1982. Apart from one minor incident, there was no such shelling but, on the contrary, an operative cease-fire. The Lebanon War as Menachem Begin admitted, was not a war of self-defense but of "choice", which is a euphemism for a war of aggression. It was devised, as part of his Greater Israel ideology; by Arik Sharon; and his recent walk-about on the Temple Mount was anything but innocent.
As for slogans such as "force is the only language they understand" and "they only want to drive us into the sea", we Jews, of all people, should know how wrong it is to stereotype and demonise a whole nation in that way. If we have not learnt that from our history, we have learnt nothing at all.
The truth, then, is that in the Jewish-Arab conflict over Palestine many mistakes have been made, and many wrongs done, by both sides. The refusal to face that truth, and the denial of it, which has been called "the myth of Jewish innocence" is, I believe, the besetting collective sin of our people. It is a consuming spiritual sickness which will destroy us if we do nothing about it.
We are not innocent. Our hands are not clean. We do have a share of responsibility for the fact that the Palestinians have not attained their liberation, that to their ears freedom speaks with anything but a Hebrew tongue.
And that is what I referred to at the beginning as the BIG ISSUE. I believe that our relationship with the Palestinians is the greatest moral test we Jews have faced in modern times, and, to put it mildly, we have not acquitted ourselves well. What can and should be done about it at this late stage is indeed another question, which the politicians will have to sort out. But of one thing we can be sure: that as long as each side only protests its own righteousness, and refuses to listen to the other, so a just solution will not be found or, if found, the will to implement it will be lacking.
What then can we do to help? Not very much at all except for one thing. We can at least build bridges of mutual understanding, sympathy and friendship between Jews and Palestinians living her, for instance, by attending last week's Deir Yassin remembrance, as some of us did.
Incidentally, I can now report to you that the meeting was a great success. The Peacock theatre where it was held, which seats a thousand people, was packed, mainly with young Palestinians, who were impeccably behaved. The whole atmosphere was a model of dignity, courtesy and restraint. There was no acrimony or recrimination, not even criticism except for a poem by the Jewish poet Michael Rosen which is so relevant to my theme that I must mention it. The point it made was that while Anatoly Shransky was a prisoner of conscience in the Soviet Union he became internationally famous for his courageous and eloquent advocacy of freedom. But when he became a member of the Israeli government he said to the Palestinians: "Sorry, chaps, but there's not enough freedom to go round for everybody!"
In South Africa Nelson Mandela set us a "Truth and reconciliation Commission". The title is exactly right. If there is to be reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians, then both must face the truth about themselves, acknowledge their past mistakes, take on board each other's grievances and aspirations, and enjoy cherut, freedom, and live together in the land which they both love so passionately, in dignity, friendship and peace.
That is my message to you this Pesach, and if you think I have got it all wrong, just put it down to my geriatric decrepitude.
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Deir Yassin Remembered 2001: In The News