Beyond Images - Speeches and Articles   Perspectives on the Arab-Israeli Conflict 


By British Chief Rabbi Professor Jonathan Sacks

Sermon delivered at a sabbath service in a Central London synagogue, 13 April 2002, corresponding to the Jewish New Moon of Iyar 5762

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Source Information from Beyond Images.
This speech was circulated on the Internet in April 2002 and is reproduced verbatim by Beyond Images. We have provided explanations in italics for certain of the Hebrew expressions used.

"Who has ever heard of such a thing?
Who has seen anything like it?
Can a country be born in a day?
Or a nation be brought forth in a moment?
Yet Zion laboured and gave birth to her children immediately.
Shall I bring to labour and not give delivery? says God.
Shall I bring to birth and then close the womb? Says your God . . .
As a mother comforts her son,
So will I comfort you,
and in Jerusalem you will find comfort."
(Isaiah 66: 8-9, 13)

Isaiah's words, which we read this morning as the haftorah [additional biblical reading] for Shabbat Rosh Chodesh [the Jewish New Moon], are more than a simple vision. They tell us what it is to be a prophet.

No one was more severe in his criticisms of Israel than Isaiah. The first chapter of the book that bears his name is one of the greatest acts of social criticism in the religious history of mankind. To this day we read it on the Shabbat before Tisha b'Av [the fast day of the ninth of Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem.].

Yet when Israel was in crisis, Isaiah didn't say, 'I told you so.' He didn't say, 'You are to blame.' He brought his people comfort. He gave them strength. More than strength, he gave them hope.

False prophets are with their people when times are good, and desert their people when things are bad. True prophets are the exact opposite. When times are good, they argue against complacency in the name of high ideals. But when things are bad, they lift the spirits of their people, by being with them in their distress, and giving them the courage to fight on.

Isaiah foresaw that the return to Zion would be difficult. Israel would face enemies from without and divisions from within. And at that moment Isaiah turns to his people and gives them comfort.

'Can a country be born in a day? Or a nation be brought forth in a moment?' The return to Zion, he says, will be like no other event in history. It will seem as if almost overnight a nation was reborn: something that never happened before or since. A people would return from exile; from slavery they would rediscover freedom and come back to their ancient home.

And then the prophet says the crucial words. 'Shall I bring to labour and not give delivery? Shall I bring to birth and then close the womb?' Rashi [the leading commentator on the Bible] explains: Having begun the process of redemption, I will not stop halfway. Whatever difficulties you face, whatever battles you have to fight, do not despair. For G-d has not brought you back to the land only to desert you, G-d forbid. Just as He was with you at the beginning, so He will be with you on the way. And in words that, to this day, we still say to give strength to the bereaved, the prophet adds, "As a mother comforts her son, So will I comfort you, and in Jerusalem you will find comfort." Just as G-d has brought His people back to Jerusalem, so He will give them the comfort and courage to survive their terrible losses and afflictions.

Those words, thousands of years old, might have been written for today.

We stand between two days of the Jewish year, Yom Hashoa [Holocaust Memorial day] last Tuesday, Yom Ha'Atzmaut [Israel's Independence Day] this coming Wednesday, the days on which we remember the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel. Between them, they remind us why Israel exists: not just because of the murder of one third of our people; not just because, had Hitler succeeded, we would not be here today; but because, when the nations of the world gathered in Evian, France, in 1938, in full knowledge of the danger Jews in Europe faced, one country after another said: we have no room for the Jews. On this whole vast planet, there was not an inch Jews could call home.

The return to Zion didn't begin in 1938. It is as old as the words of Isaiah. Jews did not voluntarily leave Israel. They were driven out by other powers: first Babylon, then Rome, then by the Crusaders. Whenever they could, they returned, even in the dangerous days of the Middle Ages, as did Judah Halevi, as did Nachmanides, as did the family of Maimonides until they were forced to leave for Egypt. Jews never renounced their right to the land, and never once, in all the centuries, stopped praying for the day they would return. Long before the Holocaust, the Balfour Declaration in 1917 gave expression to that right. And yet there can be no doubt that what led the United Nations, in 1947, to vote for a Jewish state, was the knowledge that after the greatest crime of man against mankind, Jews needed a home in the sense defined by the poet Robert Frost as the place where, 'when you have to go there, they have to let you in.'

It was a simple acknowledgement, tragically overdue, that Jews, too, have rights, among them the most basic right of all: to live, to exist, to be able to walk the streets, go on a bus, have a meal in a restaurant, go into a shop, without the fear that someone will attack you, injure you, murder you, because you are what and who you are. No people was denied that right for longer than the Jewish people. And without that right, there are no others. And after the Holocaust, the nations of the world finally recognised that this meant that the Jewish people needed a home, a place where they could defend themselves, and not rely on the goodwill of others; because when they needed it, in 1938, it was not there.

Today the state and people of Israel is fighting for its life in the most elemental sense. The right to life presupposes the right to self-defence, and what applies to individuals applies also to nations. That is why nations were created in the first place, to secure the safety of their citizens. That, according to every political philosophy, religious or secular, is the very basis of the social contract, without which, said Hobbes, life is 'nasty, brutish and short.' Deny a nation the right to defend itself against violence and terror and you deny its very right to exist. And yet that is what Israel's enemies and critics are doing and saying today, a mere 54 years after its birth, a mere 57 years after the Holocaust.

For the past 18 months, and increasingly over the past few weeks, a war has been waged against Israel on two fronts: the first on the streets and shops and buses of Jerusalem and Haifa and Tel Aviv, a war of terror pure and simple, directed against the innocent, against young and old, men, women and children, terror blind in its hate and suicidal in its effects.

It would be hard to find, in the entire annals of human bloodshed, a more perverse campaign than this. Those who have committed it, or condoned it, or encouraged it, have claimed to be fighting a jihad, a holy war. Never has there been a more unholy war, a desecration of everything genuinely holy. To turn human beings into bombs, to turn the murder of innocent citizens into an act of martyrdom, to try and destroy the very people with whom you claim to share an ancestry - this is not holy war. It is a blasphemy against the very Creator of life who taught us to cherish and sanctify life.

And yet there is no protest: not from the spiritual leaders of Islam; not even from the spiritual leaders of Christianity; and certainly not from the United Nations. Was this holy - to organise a suicide bombing of innocent people in Netanya as they gathered on one of the holiest nights of the year, [the Passover] seder night, to tell the sacred story of freedom? The Nazis planned the extermination of the Warsaw ghetto to take place on Pesach [Passover], because they wanted to show, G-d forbid, that there is no G-d. Until now, we never thought that there could be a greater evil than this. But there is. To do the same thing, and then claim that there is a G-d who condones such things - this is a new low in the story of mankind.

Israel is a courageous people. It had to be, in order to survive. And yet over Pesach, for the first time in history, ordinary Israelis were traumatised by fear, not knowing whether a trip to the local supermarket would turn into a tragedy, not knowing whether their children would come back alive from a simple night out drinking coffee with friends. No nation can live like this. No nation should be expected to live like this. Not all the attacks are reported in the news; only the most serious. So most people have no idea that Israel, in the space of twelve months, has suffered 7,732 acts of terror - more than 20 a day, almost one every hour of every day for 365 days. If terror is to be defeated anywhere, it must be defeated in Israel, because Israel has suffered more, this past year, than any other of the nations of the world. How can the West claim, as it does, the right to fight terror and then deny that right to Israel? How can it bomb the Taleban in Afghanistan and then protest when Israel, with far greater care, attempts to root out the suicide bombers who threaten its own citizens, not once or twice but daily? Such double standards cannot exist if humanity is to survive.

But that is only the first front of the war being waged against Israel. The second is more dangerous still. There is physical evil; but there is also moral evil, and no one defined it better than the prophet Isaiah himself. "Woe," he said, "to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness" (Isaiah 5: 20).

For the past eighteen months a vicious campaign has been mounted against Israel in the press, the television, international forums and public opinion. It consists in redefining acts of terror as legitimate expressions of anger; and redefining Israel's self-defence as an act of terror. As if Israel wanted any of this to happen. As if it sought bloodshed, when it hates it. As if it wanted war, when it has spent seven years pursuing peace. What madness is it when Israel is branded the aggressor, having offered the Palestinians, at Camp David and Taba, a state of their own, with East Jerusalem as its capital, in the whole of Gaza and 97 per cent of the West bank, with a further 3 per cent of land from within Israel itself? If terror is legitimate and self-defence is not, then crime is legitimate and the rule of law is not. If the search for peace is called aggression, and the breaking by Yasser Arafat of every undertaking he has ever given is called leadership, then we have reached the stage where evil is called good, and darkness hailed as light.

What then must we do? We must do what the prophet Isaiah taught us to do - to bring comfort to a troubled people, and hope at the brink of despair. We must remember that a mere week in the Jewish calendar, a mere three years in history, separate Yom Hashoa from Yom Ha-Atzmaut. A people who had come face to face with the angel of death, within three years was reborn as a free and sovereign people in the land of our beginnings. In Isaiah's words: "Who has ever heard of such a thing? Who has seen anything like it? Can a country be born in a day? Or a nation be brought forth in a moment?"

Not only did Israel become a city of refuge for Jews facing persecution throughout the world. But more than any other country of its age and size, it has sought to be a blessing to others, giving medical aid, technological aid, agricultural advice, and humanitarian relief to any and every country that turned to it for help. If there were any justice in the world, Israel today, far from being condemned, should be hailed as a model for every new country, every developing region, in how to sustain democracy, create economic growth, revive an ancient language, rebuild ancient ruins, and provide a home for refugees. Israel is a living tutorial in hope; and if it is not allowed to defend itself, then the world is condemning hope itself.

But there is something more. At the very heart of Judaism is the word "emunah". Emunah is often translated as faith, but that is not what it means. It means faithfulness, loyalty, being there for someone else when they need you and not walking away when times are hard. That is what Israel needs of us, the Jews of the Diaspora, at this time. It does not ask us to support this government, that Prime Minister, this party, that policy. About these things we are entitled to disagree. What Israel needs of us right now is loyalty. That is what Isaiah taught us in today's haftorah [additional reading]. Yes, there are times when we can be critics, as Isaiah himself was. But not when Israel is in distress. Then we must show support. "As a mother comforts her son, so will I comfort you and in Jerusalem you will find comfort."

There are many ways to bring comfort: by defending Israel's case, by writing to the press or to the local MP, by phoning friends and relatives in Israel to let them know we are with them, or simply by prayer, our oldest and greatest source of strength. There will be Yom Ha-atzmaut services throughout the country on Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning, and a solidarity rally in Wembley Conference Centre on Wednesday. Let us show the people of Israel that they are not alone; that we are with them. And let us remember Isaiah's faith that G-d, who brought His people home, would one day give them peace. No people need it more. No people have earned it more. "Hashem oz le-amo yiten", May G-d give strength to His people in this hour of trial. "Hashem yevarech et amo vashalom". And may He give them the one blessing they cherished more than any other. Peace, speedily in our days, Amen.

Chief Rabbi Professor Jonathan Sacks, London


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