Thursday, April 19, 2007

Yom Hashoah

Last Sunday evening, Israel marked Yom Hashoah, with a ceremony at Yad Vashem including poems, stories, songs and speeches. Yet outshining the Prime Minister, Acting President and Chief Rabbis was Holocaust survivor and former Shinui head Tommy Lapid, who questioned the mantra of 'never again' by chastising Iran, calling on the world to prevent genocide in Darfur and personally asking the PM to do more to help the thousands of survivors living in poverty in Israel.

One abiding memory I have of Yom Hashoah is that of walking to the coastal road between Netanya and Tel Aviv and watching the scenes as dozens of cars stopped for the siren. Despite Israeli drivers being one of the more negative (and dangerous) parts of our society, it was amazing to see how they left their vehicles and sombrely stood with heads bowed to show their respect for those 6 million who were murdered just for being Jews.

That recognition is a far cry from when survivors first arrived after the war. Seen as representing weak Diaspora Jews who walked like sheep to the slaughter, they were insulted, ignored and even called 'soap'. Until the Eichman trial in the 1961, survivors were viewed as remnants of a bygone age when Jews were powerless and held up as proof of the Zionist axiom that only in Israel could Jews find a safe haven.

However, to our disgrace, the mistreatment of survivors continues today. While Germany provides Shoah victims with free rent, medicine and a generous monthly stipend, Israel presides over 80,000 survivors who live under the poverty line. What has become of our Zionist dream when those that endured the worst crime of the 20th century fill out their days starving and forgotten in a country supposed to care for them? What has the State come to when elderly survivors live better and more comfortably in Berlin than Jerusalem?


Yom Hashoah is always sandwiched between two festivals – Pesach, the time of our Freedom from Slavery and Yom Ha’atzmaut, the time of our Freedom from Exile. On Pesach we celebrate what Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin termed negative liberty - the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. Yom Ha’atzmaut meanwhile reflects our capacity for positive liberty – a platform that gives us the ability to take control of our lives, the idea that after two millennia Jews finally re-entered history to take responsibility for their future.

Yom Hashoah should remind us what happens when we don’t have freedom to determine our own affairs. Yet 60 years on, it would seem that neither the world nor the State of Israel has kept its promise to the survivors. As Africans are slaughtered in Sudan, messianic leaders plot in Teheran and thousands of survivors go to bed hungry in dilapidated Israeli flats, we should collectively be ashamed when we mark one of mankind's darkest hours.


The Haftarah for 7th day Pesach describes a valley filled with lifeless bones as seen by the prophet Ezekiel. God explains that these bones are the whole house of Israel " who cry out that ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off." Yet hope is not lost, explains the Lord; "Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel."

There can be no excuses for the treatment of survivors. Yet one can't but be inspired by the journey of the Jewish people over the last 60 years, how the valley of bones became a country of freedom, hope and pride. How
survivors sang Hatikva at Bergen Belsen. How they left the valley of death to rebuild an ancient homeland, ingathering refugees from over 70 countries, creating a legal system rivaling Western Europe and providing the freest Arab press in the Middle East.

So as Israeli motorists temporarily leave behind their desire to break the ‘how many cars can I overtake in a minute’ record, let’s hope that we can harness the strength of those who lost everything yet had the fortitude to rebuild from scratch. And let’s hope we can utilize both the negative and positive freedoms that history has presented us with, so that the phrase ‘never again’ will no longer ring hollow in the ears of so many people who deserve better.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Pesach Thoughts 5767: Slavery, Freedom and 21st Century Israel

I remember learning about how the Haggadah actually edits out any mention of the land of Israel in the Exodus story. Whereas the Torah explains that the specific reason for bringing the people out of slavery was to bring them into the land of milk and honey, the Haggadah makes no mention of this at all.
The editor probably did this to maintain 'Zman Cherutenu' as a meaningful festival – because if Pesach is about coming into Israel, then how can a 16th Century Polish Jew reading the story in the shadow of a potential pogrom truly celebrate our journey from slavery to liberation without being miserable? Marking our victory of the few against totalitarianism, inspiring; celebrating political independence, depressing.

Yet if the aim of the Exodus was coming to Israel, then why do we sing Dayenu, it would have been enough? If the sole reason was to come to the land, how can we say it would have been enough if we would have stayed in the desert? If we were brought out of Egypt to become an am Chofshi Beartzenu, how can it be enough if the sea wouldn’t have parted?

The answer, in my opinion, goes to the heart of what Zionism is. Because even if the ideal isn’t achieved we should still be prepared to give thanks for the steps along the way. We should still be grateful even if our life, our dreams, the State we want to build are incomplete. Just as the Rabbis of the Talmud were prepared to say Grace after Meals when they weren’t fully satiated, so the Yishuv were prepared to embrace a State even when its borders weren’t fully viable. At its core, Zionism is the ability to be grateful over incompleteness, the ability to give thanks, even when our dreams aren't fully fulfilled.

The Exodus story has always been reinterpreted to be meaningful and as individuals and as a nation, we need to think about things that enslave us (in my case, Avadim Hayinu Le’internet …) and how we can achieve our own personal liberation. In the 20th Century, Jewish Communists celebrated being liberated from Capitalism, Jewish feminists celebrated liberation from patriarchy and early Zionists marked being free from exile and anti Semitism. Even Martin Luther King used Yetziat Mitzrayim as a paradigm for the African American struggle for equal rights.

21st century Israelis meanwhile need to take a minute to think of those in our own society who remain 'enslaved', whether they be eastern European women sold as sex slaves in the Negev, Ghanaian or Chinese workers oppressed by unscrupulous bosses in Tel Aviv or homeless Gush Katif farmers seemingly forgotten by the government. The festival of freedom demands us not to close our eyes to our neighbour, even when they are a different colour, gender, religion or political persuasion to us. And as long as these injustices exist, our Israeli journey isn’t complete.

Yet this morning as I went to burn my pittot in our local park, saw the excitement on the faces of the children in my secular neighbourhood as they threw crumbs into the flames, saw the Chag Kasher VeSameach sign instead of ‘full’ and ‘spaces’ in the North Tel Aviv car park, it reminded me of how far we have come since the days of the fear of pogroms. Where else in the world can Jewish children experience Pesach in true freedom? And in what other generation would retelling a journey that begins in slavery and ends in independence in our own land not make the Haggadah depressing but liberating?

We haven’t reached the end of our own story of creating a truly egalitarian and equal society living in our Bibilical homeland in peace with our neighbours. But we’re on a journey, and I’m grateful enough to say Dayenu.

Chag Kasher VeSameach