Vital Jewish Memories – Yom Kippur

The great Roman lawyer and political figure Cicero described memory as “the treasury and guardian of all things”(1st century BCE).  No other animal carries in its brain so many memories of such complexity. No other living creature on earth can regularly revisit those memories for happiness, for safety and for the accomplishment of complex tasks. Over the centuries, human beings have invented ways to preserve and manage memory: through language itself, through songs and poems, in writing, printing, dictionaries and encyclopedias, photographs, sound recordings, videos and the latest computers connected to the internet.

With each invention, from the beginning of writing onward, critics warned that our internal powers of memory would be weakened. This concern –positive and, more acutely, negative – has been strongly expressed since the creation of the internet. I, for example, often call the iPhone I carry everywhere my “external brain” or my “external memory.” It gives me access to information I don’t need to keep in my head – but it also sometimes worries me that it’s diminishing my ability to remember.

Memory enables us to remember the past and, based on that experience, to contemplate the future. Memory immortalizes human knowledge. (See Michael S. Malone, The Guardian of All Things. 2017)

Yet, despite so many resources of memory available to us, we are seeing the abandonment of historic memory by vast numbers of people. Because they know nothing about the past’s reality, it is easy to get them to believe stories that have no basis in fact. A clever demagogue can capture these people’s attention and persuade them to treat with contempt complex human institutions like democracy, institutions that have been painstakingly built up by visionaries capable of making the compromises that reality demands.

Historical ignorance – rejection of memory – is not the Jewish way. We are the people of the book. That book is not only the Torah; it is the laws and practices, beliefs and folkways that developed from Torah over the centuries and in many lands. For much of that time, Jewish consciousness did not feature much history as we know it. It focused instead on the birth of the people Israel, the Exodus, the land of Israel, exile, the sufferings in foreign lands and messianic hopes for return.

But in the 19th century, when hatred of Jews began to threaten our very existence, that historical absentmindedness, mentalidad historica absente or distraccion historica, had to be replaced. The philosopher Emil Fackenheim called modern Judaism’s embrace of Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel our “Return to History,” meaning that Jews needed to find a way to be independent, not subject to the whims of others.

However, early opponents of Zionism, both Jews and non-Jews, and some people even today, object to recasting Jewish faith into the frame of political nationalism. In a world without Jew-hatred, we might be willing to consider that argument, but in the light of the Holocaust, the murderous anti-Semitism that preceded it and which now has returned only 70 years later, it is a recipe for Jewish suicide.

The whole idea of the Jewish return to history is very challenging. It deserves serious attention. During my winter residence here this year, my adult education theme will be just that: the “Jewish Return to History,” focusing on Zionism and the creation and existential reality of the modern State of Israel. This is important information for all of us as we see more and more attacks on Israel’s right to exist, attacks which are barely disguised calls for a second Holocaust.

For now, I want to focus our attention on some anniversaries that reinforce memories which modern Jews of faith need to have. Just as tikkun olam – the repair of the world – requires tikkun ha-nefesh – the repair of the soul, so too does each individual Jew – especially on this Day of Atonement – need the people Israel to be complete. Unlike the prayers we read and sing on Shabbat, all of which are expressed as we, most of this day’s prayers are focused on the individual. They say “I” – yo. Yet our prayers on this day also speak to our identity as a group, as ahnu ah-meh-kha – we are Your people – somos Tu gente. Today’s prayers speak for us both as individuals and as members of the historic Jewish people.

Three major anniversaries in the year just passed focus on the creation and security of Israel. They highlight our people’s history in the 20th century: the Balfour Declaration, issued 100 years ago on November 2, 1917, the UN vote for the partition of Palestine (as it was known until 1948) 70 years ago, in November 1947, calling for the creation of a Jewish state and a Arab state; and the Six Day War in June 1967. All these are significant stories of victory for us, yet each one has shadows as well as light.

The Balfour Declaration was the first important recognition of Zionism by a major world power. The declaration came in the third year of World War I. It was in the form of a letter from the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, asking him to transmit a statement to the Zionist Federation. In the statement, the British government committed itself to support “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

Some historians say that the British government issued the declaration for a variety of other less noble reasons. Nevertheless, it galvanized the movement to bring Jews back to the homeland. The League of Nations did indeed give control of Palestine to the British, mandating them to prepare the Jewish residents for self-government, or at least some measure of autonomy, while protecting “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

Over the 26 years of the mandate, as the British came to realize the importance of Arab oil for fueling the fleet (among other reasons), they reduced British support for Jewish immigration into Mandate Palestine and increasingly abetted the Arabs in their often-violent opposition to the Yishuv, the Palestinian Jewish community.

In this shift of policy, the rise of Hitler and his Brown Shirts in Germany was ignored. Despite increasingly desperate attempts by Jews, especially in Germany and Poland, to escape Europe, the British kept lowering the number of Jews allowed to go to Palestine.

Nevertheless, we must not underestimate the enormous impact the Balfour Declaration had on both Jews and Arabs then and now. I remember talking with a woman who was born in the United States just after the Balfour Declaration was issued. She told me that her parents named her Aviva, meaning spring – primavera – because, they said, it was “springtime for the Jewish people – la temporada de primavera para el pueblo judio.

Nearly all the Arab governments opposed the Balfour Declaration. The only and temporary exception was King Abdullah, the ruler of Transjordan, who owed his throne to the British.

In recent years, Arab groups in England have called upon the British Parliament to rescind the Declaration and to apologize to the Palestinians and the other Arabs for what they call a great historic error. So far, the British have resisted the demand, although the hostility of the British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to Zionism – and to Jews – makes us very nervous. Still we are able to mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. It is a major milestone in our people’s vitally necessary return to history.

The second anniversary we need to make sure is planted in our memory came in 1947, seventy one years ago, when the United Nations voted to end the British Mandate for Palestine and partition the land west of the Jordan River in order to create a Jewish state and a Palestinian Arab state. That decision, by a vote of 33 to 13, taken on November 29, 1947, after fierce debate, led to the establishment of the Jewish state on May 15, 1948.

In the debate preceding the vote, the Arab delegates to the UN promised “a veritable blood bath.” And more than 70 years later, they are still announcing that they expect to destroy Israel. Today, Israel’s population is over eight million; in 1947-48, it was 650,000, among whom were many survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. Seventy one years ago, the new Israelis had to scrounge for weapons. Not anymore. Sadly, Israeli preparedness over the decades – which has made them a desirable source of armaments for countries around the world – has been a vital necessity for survival.

Seventy one years have dulled the thrill of 1947-1948. Hillel Halkin, an American-born Israeli novelist and critic (who was Naomi’s youth group advisor when she was in high school), recaptured that excitement when he wrote (in 1997):

A great adventure. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. There’s been nothing like it in human history. A small and ancient people loses its land and forgets how to speak its language; wanders defenselessly for hundreds, thousands, of years throughout the world with its God and its sacred books; meets with contumely, persecution, violence, dispossession, banishment, mass murder; refuses to give up; refuses to surrender its faith; continues to believe that it will one day be restored to the land it lost; manages in the end, by dint of its own efforts, against all odds, to gather itself from the four corners of the earth and return to that land; learns again to speak the language of its old books; learns again to bear arms and defend itself; wrests its new-old home from the people who had replaced it; entrenches itself; builds; fructifies; fortifies; repulses the enemies surrounding it; grows and prospers in the face of all threats. Had it not happened, could it have been imagined? Would anyone have believed it possible? (Letters to an American Jewish Friend,” Mosaic Magazine, 11/13/14, excerpted from Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist Polemic, JPS, 1997)

We must never forget – a miraculous national liberation only three years after the horrors of the Holocaust became known. This is something that vital Jewish memory must never forget!

The third anniversary is that of the Six Day War, 51 years ago in June 1967. Israel was surrounded by hostile Arab neighbors who, intent on carrying out their threats to push Israel into the sea, started mobilizing their armies. President Nasser of Egypt threw the UN peacekeepers out of the Sinai buffer zone. He blockaded the Gulf of Eilat, cutting off Israel’s oil supplies. That blockade was an act of war, internationally recognized as such, but despite US promises to break the blockade, nothing happened. So Israel retaliated. On June 5th, in a matter of hours, the planes of the Israel Defense Forces destroyed the Egyptian air force on the ground and occupied the Sinai Peninsula up to the Suez Canal.

King Hussein of Jordan was tricked by Nasser into entering the war from the West Bank, which Jordan had occupied since 1949. The Israelis had promised not to attack the Jordanian forces if Hussein kept them out of the battle, but he ignored Israeli pleas.

The Syrians, whose mortars had been shelling the Israeli kibbutzim in the northern Galilee from the Golan, thought they could take that part of Israel, which is only five miles wide and 15 miles long (the “finger” of the Galilee) but critically important to the Israelis because it is the source of over half of Israel’s water supply. On the last day of the war, Israeli armored bulldozers and tanks took the Golan. It helped that an extraordinary Israeli spy named Eli Cohen had identified the Golan’s fortifications in advance. (He befriended the Syrian Defense Minister and persuaded him to have trees planted to shade the otherwise-hidden positions from the hot sun!)

The Russians, who had planned the Golan defenses, were embarrassed and found a way to punish the Israelis. Through their very effective propaganda machine, they reversed the narrative that described Israel as the brave David standing up to the giant Arab Goliath. From then on, it became the Goliath Israel beating up on the poor Palestinians. And that narrative, created in 1967, is still incredibly effective. It has been mainstreamed in American colleges, where the name Zionist is now an insult.

I vividly remember the Six Day War. Naomi and I were living at the Marine Corps base in Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, where I was the Jewish chaplain. We didn’t have a television set yet, and the local radio station carried only country music. We huddled in front of a friend’s tiny TV screen. We were so scared; it looked like the end had come for the young Jewish state. But instead, we witnessed a miraculous victory. And Israel was magnanimous in victory. General Moshe Dayan gave control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount to the Muslim religious authority, the Waqf, and offered to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza in return for peace.

Within months, the Arabs refused. They announced the now-infamous, totally obstructionist three “No’s” of the 1967 conference in Khartoum in which they rejected any kind of deal with the Israelis – who had won the Six Day War! – No recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no peace with Israel.

Now, 50+ years later, with no legal border arrangements in place, we have the settlers, with their extremist position that the land of Israel belongs exclusively to the Jews of Israel, not to the Arabs who are Israeli citizens or the Palestinians of what is now the West Bank or the Palestinian Arab grandchildren of those who fled in 1948. They (the only third-generation “refugees” in the world) became Palestinians, paradoxically enough, by benefiting over the years from the Zionist enterprise.

Naomi and I have been going to Israel for many years. We led Confirmation class and adult trips from the 1970s on. There were serious security concerns on every one of our trips. When Naomi was working for the United Jewish Appeal as director of the North American Jewish Forum, a program that matched young Jewish leaders with their Israeli counterparts and as US director of Partnership 2000 that linked American Jewish communities with regions in Israel, she traveled to Israel five or six times a year. Every one of her visits made me conscious of the dangers she might encounter: suicide bombers in restaurants or Scud missiles from Iraq. Naomi had to carry a gas mask on that visit, as did everyone who spent time there.

We went with our children and grandchildren a few years ago to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. This summer, two of our granddaughters were in Israel on camp-sponsored trips. We scoured the news carefully every day. And that was only for five weeks. Try to imagine living in an Israeli kibbutz or town near the Gaza Strip when Hamas crazies fired 70 rockets a day at them, along with balloons and kites and even a few drones carrying incendiary devices – many of which caused devastating fires. Meanwhile, in the Galil, Israeli residents were told to stay near their bomb shelters and safe rooms.

That’s the point: Israelis face danger – existential danger – every day. Yes, Israel has the strongest military forces in the Middle East but neither that nor the separation barrier can stop all the determined suicide bombers or the rockets or the incendiary devices sent aloft by zealots whose primary goal is not Palestinian statehood but the destruction of Israel.

A country must defend itself and protect its citizens. That’s its obligation. Who but the government of Israel will protect the Jews of Israel? Recent polls among young people on the mainland show that they are uncomfortable with the idea of a Jewish state because they have an aversion to “hard group boundaries” altogether. They are more spiritual and less ethnic. But, if boundaries are abolished, who will protect the lives of these starry-eyed idealists? Idealists may scorn nationalism, but so far only the nation-state has the power and the responsibility to protect its citizens. And, as Jews, members of ahm yisrael, the Jewish people, we must not only understand this but defend this conviction vigorously.

This is not the place or time to debate the wisdom of the policies pursued by the current Israeli government. Just as we may disagree with the policies of one or another administration in Washington and still be American patriots, so we can also criticize Israel’s policies. But we must never criticize the Jewish state’s legitimacy, its right to exist.

They are our people! Their nearby enemies, now including a nearly nuclear Iran, threaten them existentially. Dare we not support them? Have we no communal memories from 1967, from 1947-1948, from 1917, from the catastrophic years of Nazi madness? How can we remain silent when Zionism is likened to American white nationalism, when the fiercely and boisterously democratic State of Israel is called an apartheid state and routinely condemned in the halls of the United Nations, when murderous anti-Semitism appears in France, in England, in Belgium, in Charlottesville, and even in the statements of candidates now running for public office in our own country?!!!

How can we truly be religious Jews if we do not grasp that the situation which threatens our people in Israel ultimately threatens us as well?

When Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, welcomes “every drop of Jewish blood spilled in Jerusalem,” how can we not be unnerved? horrified? terrified?

You may ask why I am offering such a dark analysis on this holiest of our days? On a day which calls upon us, as individuals, to search our souls and rid ourselves of our personal failings?

Here is the answer I telegraphed to you in the sermon I gave last night: To fix the world that threatens our people, to do tikkun olam, we must first perform tikkun ha-nefesh. We must prepare ourselves with the sense of pure purpose and confidence that comes from embracing our faith and our people, from knowing our history and internalizing it. Our faith, our Judaism, works best for us when we embrace our people’s memories, learn its lessons and values and make them the innermost core of our souls.

It comes down to a question of loyalty to self, to our people and to God. And on this holiest of days, why? Consider this. When the High Priest prepared to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, he atoned first for himself, then for his family and then for the entire nation. All these were the preconditions for God’s forgiveness. So it is with my case for Israel on this day. It’s a package deal. Individuals as we are, our families and our people, the people Israel – altogether bound together by the bonds history, memory, faith and necessity.

One last thing. The issue I have raised here is Jewish survival. Here in Puerto Rico and on the mainland, perhaps less so, there’s not much of a threat to Jews – at least at this point. But ours is only one part of a larger picture, and if we are committed to Jewish survival we cannot ignore the rest of Jewish reality and we will take this analysis and alert very seriously.

This prescription applies to those of us born as Jews and to those of us who became members of the Covenant community by choice. These Jewish values belong to every one of us here; this Jewish faith is ours – Jews by birth and Jews by choice; these Jewish memories are yours and mine. Together we stand before God as Jews, entered and sealed in the Book of Life – we hope – with strength and courage to face the challenging year ahead. May we be with God and may God be with us always.