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Jewish Nationalism, Antisemitism & Us Part 4 - Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning

09/20/2021 02:24:49 PM


Rabbi Bruce Alpert

November 9, 1938 is known as Kristallnacht - the night of broken glass; a massive pogrom through Germany in which Jewish homes, hospitals, schools, synagogues and businesses were ransacked and destroyed by the Nazi party’s paramilitary force, the SA. Hundreds of Jews were murdered and hundreds more committed suicide in what is now recognized as the prelude to Hitler’s final solution.

The next month, David Ben-Gurion, the Zionist leader who would, a decade later, declare the founding of Israel, offered the following remark:

If I knew it was possible to save all the (Jewish) children of Germany by their transfer to England and only half of them by transferring them to Eretz-Yisrael (the land of Israel), I would choose the latter - because we are faced not only with the accounting of these children but also with the historical accounting of the Jewish people.

It's a breathtaking statement. Jewish tradition teaches that to save a single life is to save an entire world. And here you have one of the great Jewish heroes proclaiming he would put the welfare of a political cause above human life.

But I don’t think Ben-Gurion was really talking about Jewish children in Germany at all. Let’s face it: he was never going to be able to save a single child there, let alone half by sending them to Palestine, or all by sending them to Britain. What he is talking about, when he speaks of the “historical accounting of the Jewish people” is the absolute necessity of a Jewish homeland as the only defense against antisemitism. Only by having a state of their own - where any Jew can seek refuge and where Jewish freedom and safety is not dependent on the good will of others - would Jews be able to defend themselves against world’s oldest hate. In raising the possibility of sacrificing Jewish lives to build a Jewish state, Ben-Gurion was telling the world that that state's creation was going to involve very painful choices. And among those painful choices would be what to do with the approximately one million Arabs who lived there.

I have already spoken on these holidays about these two phenomena; antisemitism last night, and Jewish nationalism on Rosh Hashanah. The two are intimately related as Jewish nationalism, Zionism, would be born of one variant of antisemitism, and give birth to another. The persistence and the deadliness of antisemitism guarantees that Jews will always be faced with the painful choices that go along with national survival.

Those painful choices are what I want to talk about this morning. I will focus on the choices made by Zionism’s leaders as they confronted a rising Arab nationalism in the land they claimed as their own. But they are the same choices that confront Israelis today and, I will argue, the same choices that face us.

But, as is true of everything that goes on in the Middle East, you cannot understand those choices unless you know the history that gave rise to them. So let me begin with the rebirth of Jewish nationalism in the name of its ancient land. As it says above our ark כִּי מִצִּיּוֹן תֵּצֵא תוֹרָה for out of Zion will come Torah. Zionism was born of the Jew-hatred that gripped Europe at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. That hatred added two new words to our vocabulary. From the east we learned the word pogrom for organized riots aimed at terrorizing, murdering and expelling Jews from their homes in the so-called Pale of Settlement - the area encompassing the ever changing Russian-Polish border. From the west, in Germany, was coined the very word antisemitism to describe the racial hatred Germans felt for Jews newly freed from the ghettos. That antisemitism spread throughout Europe and led Theodor Herzl to the conviction that Jews had to get out, and establish a state of their own. And the obvious place for such a state: the place that Jews had longed for since their mass exile by the Romans, and a place they had never completely left in the 19 centuries since.

The Jewish connection to this land is imprinted all over our religion, our culture and our history. I have already referenced the words of the prophet Isaiah inscribed above our ark. Each weekday in our Amidah prayer we ask that God rebuild Jerusalem and gather in its exiles. When we say grace after our meals, we begin with Psalm 137: If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate... if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.” And perhaps most familiarly, on Passover we end our seders with the proclamation “Next Year in Jerusalem.” The hope that is the title of Israel’s national anthem is indeed 2000 years old - older than Christianity and Islam - to be a free people in our land.

Moreover, when Zionist immigration began, our land, though not abandoned, was assuredly languishing. “Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince.” So wrote Mark Twain in his 1867 travelogue The Innocents Abroad. A “hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land,” is how he described it. A popular sentiment in Zionism’s early days was that Palestine was a land without people for a people without land. While technically false, there is, nevertheless, a semblance of truth to that claim. At the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, when the Jews were largely exiled by the Romans, Palestine had an estimated population of 2.5 million. In earlier times, its population was even greater; perhaps as many as six million.

When that first wave of Jewish immigrants arrived in 1881, that population consisted of approximately 400,000 Arabs, 40,000 Christians, and 20,000 Jews. The Arab population was composed of a small number of effendis, rich landholders who tended to live in urban areas, and a large number of fellahin, impoverished and mostly illiterate farmers. The fellahin lived in 700-800 villages ranging in size from less than 100 to as many as 1,000 people. They were beleaguered by marauding Bedouin bands and by protracted land and water disputes between villages and between clans within villages. These issues, writes Israeli historian Benny Morris would “serve as continuous elements of division and weakness in Palestinian Arab society.”

But whatever their weakness, they were there. And they constituted a reality with which the Zionist settlers would have to deal. They did so in the beginning by purchasing land on the coastal plain which, because of its swampiness, was largely uninhabited. The Jezreel and Jordan valleys were also largely empty of people, leading to the conviction in those early years that the land would prove big enough for both its Jewish and Arab populations.

Two things changed all that. One was the decline of the Ottoman Empire which awakened in the Arab populations a sense of pan-Arab nationalism. This hope would be largely fulfilled in the creation of the Arab states of Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. It’s worth noting that, to the extent that Palestinian Arabs saw themselves in nationalistic terms, they did so not as Palestinians but as Syrians. Indeed, a Palestinian conference held in Jerusalem in early 1919 resolved that “We see Palestine as part of Arab Syria (and it should not) be separated from the independent Syrian Arab government.”

The other thing that changed was Jewish immigration. By the early years of the twentieth century the pattern and pace of Jewish land purchases in, and migration to Palestine made it clear to the Arab population that the Jews had national aspirations in the land. As Ben-Gurion put it in 1936 “By our very presence and progress here (we) have nurtured the (Arab) movement.” By 1920 large scale violence between Jews and Arabs was commonplace. By 1936, the Arabs were in open rebellion against both the Jews and British who took over governance in Palestine following the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I.

This awakening of Arab nationalism and the violence that ensued left the Zionists with the painful choice that is my subject this morning: give up Jewish nationalism or find a way of dealing with the threat. By then, the antisemitism that was taking root in the 19th century was in full flower in Hitler’s Germany; there could be no turning back from Zionism now. And as to the second, as Morris puts it, when the Arab revolt reached full force in 1936, “no mainstream (Zionist) leader was able to conceive of future coexistence and peace without a clear physical separation between the two peoples - achievable only by way of transfer or expulsion.”

Transfer - that is to say the physical removal of the Palestinian Arabs to Syria, Iraq or Jordan - seemed like the most moral choice. These newly created Arab states would become more secure if their vast tracts of uninhabited land were settled and developed. Moreover, the lands were similar to one another as were the populations. “This system,” Ben-Gurion commented “embodies an important and humane Zionist idea, to transfer parts of a people to their country and to settle empty lands.”

But if transfer was humane, as Ben-Gurion saw it, it still involved displacing people who had been on their land, in some cases, for hundreds of years. Ze’ev Jaobitinsky, Ben-Gurion’s rival Zionist leader would recognize the dimensions of that choice when he said that the Arab’s “instinctive patriotism is just as pure and noble as our own; it cannot be bought, it can only be curbed ... by force majeur.” “The tragedy,” he would write, “lies in the fact that there is a collision here between two truths…” “But,” he would conclude, “our justice is greater.”

It might seem ironic to some that Jabotinsky, who was more militant in his position toward the Arabs then Ben-Gurion or many of the other Zionist leaders, was, at the same time, more empathetic to their cause. The Palestinian people, he said in 1923

look upon Palestine with the same instinctive love and true fervor that any Aztec looked upon Mexico or any Sioux looked upon the prairie. Palestine will remain for the Palestinians not a borderland but their birthplace, the center and basis of their own national existence.

Despite his empathy for the Palestinian Arabs, Jabotinsky was firm in his belief in the justice of Zionism's cause. He wrote in 1918

This matter is not ... an issue between the Jewish people and the Arab inhabitants of Palestine, but between the Jewish people and the Arab people. The latter, numbering 35 million, has (territory equal to) half of Europe, while the Jewish people, numbering 10 million and wandering the earth, hasn’t got a stone… Will the Arab people stand opposed? Will it resist? (Will it insist) that … they … shall have it all for ever and ever, while he who has nothing shall forever have nothing?

Ben-Gurion too saw the conflict similarly. In 1937 he wrote that “We do not want and do not need to expel Arabs and take their places. Our whole desire is based on the assumption … that there is enough room for us and the Arabs in the country …” But allowing large tracts of land that could absorb tens of thousands of homeless Jews to remain empty because of Arab intransigence was unacceptable. “If we have to use force,” he concluded “then we have the force.”

Ultimately the painful choice men like Jabotinsky and Ben-Gurion were prepared to make would be made for them. Arab rejection of Jewish aspirations in the land were absolute and uncompromising. In 1939 they rejected a British offer for a Palestinian state with ultimate Arab control over Jewish migration, and contingent only on amicable relations between themselves and those Jews who were there. And in 1947, they would reject the UN plan to partition the land and choose to go to war instead. To me, those rejections changed the moral calculus of the conflict forever. But that is a story for another day.

My story for today is one of painful choices.

The founding generations of Zionists faced such choices. Men like Jabotinsky and Ben-Gurion understood the militancy and the defiance of the Arabs. They saw in it a reflection of their own national aspirations, for indeed, both people wanted the same thing. Nevertheless, their choice was clear. Historical ties gave Jews a legitimate claim to the land, and European antisemitism made Jewish nationalism a matter of survival. Painful as it might be, they made the only choice possible.

What was true for Zionism's founders remains true for their descendants. Israelis have no desire to be occupiers of another people. They worry about what this conflict is doing to their souls. They want out of it so they can go about their productive lives without watching enemy rockets ark over their heads, or having to send their children off to yet another defensive and morally draining war. And they are sensitive to how they are viewed by the outside world - particularly by their increasingly distant cousins, we American Jews. But in the end, for all their military, economic, technological and cultural success, they remain a tiny Jewish state surrounded by those who want them gone. That same painful choice - protect Jewish nationalism or fall prey to antisemitism - still confronts them, and they have no alternative but to respond.

We American Jews may not know it, but we face that same choice, which is why I have made that choice the subject of all my sermons this year.

I began by talking about our overwhelming desire to blend our Jewish and American identities into a seamless whole; American as our nationality, Jewish as our religion. But the truth is, Judaism already is a nationality; one with a religion, a history, a language, a culture and, yes, a land. Judaism’s aim is not personal salvation, but the creation of a people who are a light to the other nations.

And this is where antisemitism comes in, threatening to rip open the seams between our American and our Jewish identities. The creation of the State of Israel is the very embodiment of Jewish nationhood. And today, so many otherwise good people - people who have no tolerance for religion or race based hatred - nevertheless believe that Israel is a colonialist, apartheid, war-crime committing entity. When those charges migrate from attacks on the character of the Jewish state to attacks on the character of the Jewish people, they become antisemitism. I believe that migration is already occurring. And I fear it will grow.

Which leads to our choice. The Zionist movement was a choice for Jewish nationalism as the only viable response to the race-based antisemitism that was insinuating itself in Europe at the time. It may seem ironic that a movement created as a response to antisemitism would itself breed a new form of that ancient hate. But as the Zionist ideal to peacefully create a Jewish home in an underpopulated and underdeveloped land gave birth to a rival nationalism bent on destroying that ideal, perhaps the persistence of antisemitism didn’t seem so ironic after all. Perhaps it seemed like the way of a world that both viciously hates and desperately needs a Jewish nation.

And so they made the painful choices to move ahead; to forge such a nation. And so we too may someday face a painful choice: to be part of a nation that needs, or to be part of a nation that is needed.


Wed, April 17 2024 9 Nisan 5784