Yom Kippur is a complex day. At this point, towards the end of the morning service, we are three quarters the way through the fast that began after sunset yesterday evening. Of course, since like every other Jewish day, Yom Kippur began in the evening, one cannot really talk of ‘yesterday’. And yet, Yom Kippur is not like any other Jewish day. Known by the rabbis, whose teachings are recorded in the Talmud as Yoma, the Aramaic word that means The Day: Yom Kippur is one long day, like a canopy of eternity. We are here today inhabiting this special eternal day for a purpose: to take responsibility for our lives and to acknowledge our responsibility towards others: our loved ones, our community and communities, our people and our world. The tallit, usually worn only for Morning Prayer, worn on Yom Kippur throughout the day, from sunset to sunset, reminds us that this eternal day is indelibly marked by the sacred fringes of responsibility.
So, we are already almost 18 hours into the fast, and yet the day stretches before us: with four further services after Shacharit, the morning service, is completed: Musaf, the additional service; Minchah, the afternoon service; Yizkor, the memorial service, and N’ilah, the closing service unique to Yom Kippur, and so-called because it is defined by the image of the ‘closing’ gates of mercy and forgiveness. And then there is the study session, an innovation inserted into the Yom Kippur liturgy throughout the congregations of Progressive Judaism, which we hold between Minchah and Yizkor.
The complexity of Yom Kippur is not confined to the number of services. As we go on our journeys through the day we are caught up in the complex story of our people, related during Musaf; the glory of our peoples achievement and the sorrow of loss after loss. Then there are the Scriptural readings that address us with an inheritance of teachings that challenge us still: to behave ethically; to love our neighbour and the stranger in our midst; the figure of Jonah in-flight, tossed into the tumultuous waves of his reluctance and avoidance, reminding us that there is no escape from responsibility.
And, of course, there is the liturgy itself: the stream of words we utter; the familiar words of the daily and Shabbat services interjected with scripted expressions of confession and prayers for forgiveness. Somehow, we have to find a way, as individuals, to dive into the stream of words; to dive beneath the beguiling surface of the poetry of it all to the depths – our own depths – and swim there for a while, in the darkness – our own darkness – among the tangle of weeds. After all, we have come here today for many reasons – from force of habit, because of our need for solidarity with our community and our people, driven by a host of, perhaps, unfathomable needs – and also, ultimately, to reflect on our actions and inactions of the past year and confess our failings in our quest for healing and renewal.
Yom Kippur demands so much from us! To navigate all the demands with an empty stomach and recite all those words with parched mouths is a real challenge. And then, there are the sermons. I deliver one in the evening and one in the morning; several of my colleagues deliver three. More words! At least, the congregation can take a rest from the demand of perpetual utterance, and simply listen for a while – but listening isn’t easy either….
Yesterday evening, I spoke about the 60th anniversary of Leo Baeck College, with its roots in the imperative to ensure the revival of Jewish life and learning after the Sho’ah. This morning, I want to remind you of another anniversary: the 50th anniversary of Israel’s Six-Day War, with its hostile Arab neighbours that took place in June 1967 – in the year 5727, according to the Hebrew calendar. But I don’t want to talk about this anniversary in order, simply to remind you of a momentous moment when like those events we recall in the Musaf service, the fate of the Jewish nation hung in the balance. June 1967, is far too recent for us to be content to frame it in within this familiar litany. After all, many of us here actually remember it. I certainly do. Aged 12 at the time, I recall visiting Israeli friends of my parents, Ofra and Henry, and watching the TV news reports with them. I recall my parents and my 16-year-old brother going to Alyth Gardens synagogue in Temple Fortune, north London, to give blood. I recall standing up on a chair in the classroom at school during break time, and exhorting my classmates with passionate rhetoric about the valiant Israelis. I recall wanting to put a poster of Israeli general, Moshe Dayan on my bedroom wall – like my Jewish friends – and my father refusing my request on the grounds that he would not allow a ‘warmonger’ to be glorified in his house.
I’m sure all those who were alive at the time have their memories of the Six-Day War. When my father bellowed his refusal at me about that Moshe Dayan poster, I did not understand what he was talking about. As the years passed, and new ‘Israeli’ milestones have been added to the Jewish litany of remembrance, I understood that my father’s experience of being a Viennese Jew in the 1930s transformed him into an internationalist. Having escaped incarceration in Dachau concentration camp with his father in November 1938, because he’d left Vienna for South Africa in 1936, he then chose to leave South Africa in 1949, after the racist Nationalist government came to power. But he didn’t simply reject racism; he repudiated nationalism of all kinds – including Jewish nationalism – which didn’t stop him, of course, from giving blood in response to Israel’s emergency.
My father understood something in the immediate aftermath of the Six-Day War, that most people at the time didn’t, and which I didn’t understand until much later: that while Israel’s defeat would have been a catastrophe, Israel’s crushing victory over its enemies, engendered a disturbing mood of triumphalism, transforming little ‘David’ Israel into a mighty ‘Goliath.’ This was because Israel’s victory involved conquest of the territory beyond the Green line, the ceasefire line agreed at the end of the 1948 war between Israel and its Arab neighbours that, among other things, divided West Jerusalem from East Jerusalem, and divided the territory of the coastal plain from that of the West Bank of the River Jordan. Of course, it was a joy for Israelis and for Jews the world over to be able to restore the Jewish quarter of the Old City and to have access to the Western Wall of the long-gone Temple once again. However, what is called ‘the reunification of Jerusalem’ involved imposing Israeli rule over Jerusalem’s Palestinian inhabitants, and the conquest of the West Bank became an occupation that continues to this day.
So, why is it important for us to reflect on the events of June 1967, and the aftermath today on Yom Kippur? After all, we are here, living as a community of Jews in Britain and Yom Kippur is the most sacred day of the Jewish year, not a date in Israel’s calendar. Of course, Israel’s calendar is now full of momentous dates, marked each year on its own Yom Ha-Zikaron, ‘Day of Remembrance’ that precedes Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, ‘Independence Day’. And there are so many dates to remember. Here are the dates that have entered the history books: the ‘War of Independence’ that followed the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948; the Suez crisis of 1956; the Six-Day War of 1967; the revenge exacted by Israel’s Arab neighbours on Yom Kippur in 1973 that provoked another war; the peace agreement with Egypt in 1979, that entailed returning to Egypt the Sinai peninsula captured in the Six-Day War; the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 in response to rocket attacks in the North; the eruption of the first Palestinian intifada in Gaza in 1987; the beginnings of the peace process that culminated in an agreement signed by PLO leader, Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in September 1993; the murder of Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist in November 1995; the outbreak of a second intifada, which began in Jerusalem in 2000, provoked by hawkish Prime Minister Ariel Sharon; the project to construct a separation barrier – a wall in some places, a fence in others – to protect Israel from terrorist infiltration from the West Bank, which began in 2002; unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005; the second invasion of Lebanon in 2006 in response to rocket attacks in the North; the first Israeli military incursion into Gaza, in response to rocket attacks in 2008; the second Israeli military incursion into Gaza for similar reasons, in 2014. Meanwhile, Gaza remains under siege, sporadic rocket attacks from Gaza continue, individual attacks by Palestinians against Israelis continue, settlement building continues …
So, is the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War and subsequent occupation going to be just another date in the calendar, another milestone in the litany of conflict? Before I respond to that question, let me respond to the one I posed before I set out the list of all the tragic consequences of the on-going occupation. What has it got to do with us today – with Jews here in Britain?
First of all, it has a lot to do with us here in Britain today because Britain’s special relationship with the land on the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean goes back to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. The division of the region formerly ruled by the Ottoman Empire between France and Britain and, in particular, the formation of the British Mandate in Palestine, which came into operation on September 29, 1923, sealed that special connection. Moreover, whatever the motivation of Lord Balfour, his letter to Lord Rothschild on November 2, 1917, informing him that “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object”, could not have stated more clearly the British government’s support for the Zionist movement. Of course, the part of the Balfour declaration, that is less frequently quoted is the second half of the sentence. Let me read the passage in full: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” So, Britain’s support of a national homeland for the Jewish people, specifically, required that Palestine remained the home of the existing non-Jewish inhabitants on an equal basis.
As the centenary of the Balfour Declaration approaches next year, it is reasonable to argue that Britain bears a particular responsibility for what has transpired since 1917, and, especially, for how it managed the conflict between Jews and Arabs during the Mandate period, and for the war that ensued between the new State of Israel and the surrounding Arab nations after the Mandate ended in May 1948. Indeed, it could be argued that in the 25 years of the Mandate, Britain maintained control by setting Jews and Arabs against one another – the age-old strategy of divide and rule – in direct violation of its commitment expressed in the Balfour declaration to recognise the rights of Jews and non-Jews alike.
And so, there is a very good reason why Jews in Britain, both as Jews, and as British citizens might feel that the continuing conflict between Israel and Palestine is of direct concern to us. Of course, there may be those among us who feel that what goes on in Israel and the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians has nothing to do with them because Zionism has nothing to do with them. There’s nothing new about Jews not identifying with Zionism. At the end of the 19th century, there was fierce debate among Jews concerning the best way to overcome the problem of anti-Semitism in Europe and the Russian Empire, and Jews made different choices. Not all Jews were convinced that creating a Jewish nation would solve the problem of anti-Semitism. Many Jews, in particular in Eastern Europe – saw socialism as the answer, hence the establishment of the Bund – shorthand for the General Jewish Workers’ Union in Lithuania, Poland and Russia. The great majority of Jews fled to the United States and many thousands settled in Britain, mostly in the East End of London – including my mother’s parents, who had taken flight from the pogroms of 1905. A much smaller number, mostly youthful and motivated by the socialist Zionist vision of establishing a new communal way of life, rooted in agricultural labour, chose to go to the land of their ancestors.
Another reason why the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War and the subsequent occupation should concern us today on Yom Kippur is because on Yom Kippur, of all days of the Jewish year, we reconnect ourselves with a source of Jewish life – the Torah. Zionism was a political movement in Europe at the end of the 19th century, which offered a nationalist solution to the rise of a new virulent form of racist anti-Semitism and the persecution of marginal and vulnerable Jewish minorities in other people’s lands. But the origins of the quest for Zion goes right back to the beginnings of our people. Of course, it is anachronistic to use the concept of Zionism retrospectively. Nevertheless, from the perspective of the Torah, from the moment that Abraham and Sarah set off on a journey to a land that the Eternal promised to ‘show’ them, until the time when their descendants completed their journey through the wilderness and camped on the eastern border of the Jordan in readiness to cross over into the land, what we might call existential Zionism frames the narrative. Likewise, in all the various legal codes of the Torah, existential Zionism is at the heart of the Torah’s blueprint for a new society, rooted in Divine teaching. This is nowhere more evident than in parashat K’doshim, known as the Holiness code, in Leviticus chapter 19, sections of which we will read in the Torah service this afternoon. Everything from the imperative to love our neighbours through the imperative to love the strangers in our midst, how we treat the most vulnerable and marginal members of the society and how we conduct the economy, centres on the practice of justice and ethical responsibility in the land beyond the Jordan. From the perspective of the Torah, the teachings and precepts of the Eternal can only be realised in the context of a physical space. How else to accomplish the nuts and bolts of an actual operational society?
However, the Torah also makes it clear that this does not imply that the land belongs to us. We read in parashat B’har, in Leviticus, chapter 25, verse 23:
The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine. You are sojourners and settlers with Me.
Sojourners in the land of Egypt, where our ancestors toiled as slaves, building monuments for Pharaoh, from the perspective of the Torah, we remain sojourners in the land beyond the Jordan, where, servants of the Eternal One, our task is to construct an ethical society. Needless to say, the ongoing occupation, entailing the continuing oppression of the Palestinian people, who are also sojourners in the land, offends against the ethical teachings of the Torah. At the time of the row over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party at the end of April, I wrote an article, entitled, ‘Why anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism – but criticising Israel isn’t.’ As the 50th anniversary of the occupation approaches, in place of the overwhelming predominance of non-constructive anti-Zionist rhetoric and demonisation of Israel, what is needed now is a challenge to the Israeli government; a challenge that acknowledges the needs of both Israel and Palestine for peace and security, and addresses the urgent task of liberating the Palestinian people. That challenge has recently been articulated as a choice: either, the Israeli government must dismantle the occupation, so that an independent State of Palestine can be established, or, incorporate the lands occupied by Israel into Israel and grant equal citizenship rights to the Palestinians. Most Jewish Israelis and most Palestinians would favour self-determination. The time has come for Jewish Israelis and for Jews and non-Jews the world over to acknowledge the right of both peoples to sovereignty. Today, on Yom Kippur, as we reflect on our deeds and misdeeds of the past year, remind ourselves of our responsibility to practice the ethical teachings at the heart of the Torah, and acknowledge our people’s age-old connection with the land beyond the Jordan, let us resolve to add our voices to the call to Israel to end the occupation.
Kein y’hi ratzon – may this be our will. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue
Yom Kippur Shacharit 5777 – 12th October 2016