The Omer in the time of war
I must have missed something.
Watching the news from the Middle East I see that a tragedy is happening right now, at Yarmouk camp, in Damascus. According to a recent census, Yarmouk was home to more than 110.000 Palestinians until few years ago. But with all probability they are less, now, because Yarmouk has been taken over by the troops of the ISIS, the Muslim fundamentalists.
Palestinians are being killed and Palestinian girls sold into slavery. Men are tested on their knowledge of the Quran and if they fail, they are murdered. Palestinian leaders have been beheaded in front of their own people. Such a bloodbath is happening right now. Even Israeli-Arab MPs have denounced the crime in the Knesset.
But I don’t see people taking to the streets. There are no rallies in the streets, no Palestinian flags, no leaflets, no gruesome images to denounce the massacre. But there must be something! Every time Palestinians suffer because of Israel, lots of things happen rallies, pickets, protests… but at this very moment, I see nothing of this kind. The rights and the lives of the Palestinians matter very much to a lot of good people. Israel’s behaviour and policies are under perennial investigation and scrutiny. But that is not because — silly you! — anyone ever questioned the right of the Jewish State to protect its citizens or the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. Rather, Israel is scrutinised and sometimes slandered, only because of the tragedy of the Palestinians. Such a tragedy is the biggest tragedy of the history of the Middle East, and the root cause of the tension between Islam and the Western world, and the source of the world’s instability. So all this attention on Israel is out of very good faith, only for the good of the Palestinians.
We have been lectured and told on the matter even by some prominent Jewish personalities and intellectuals. They taught us that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians must be solved, of course granting to the Palestinians all they want — Jerusalem as capital, right of return for all the descendants of the refugees. Then peace will blossom in that corner of the world, and from there all over the Middle East and the world as well.
Given all this, and because the Palestinian cause is so important, there must certainly be rallies and demonstrations all around the world, to protest against the slaughtering of Palestinians which is happening right now in Yarmouk, Damascus.
But there are not. No one calls for a solidarity rally, no one hands out leaflets in the streets, no one calls for boycotts or isolation. No one protests in front of the Syrian embassy. No one pickets any of the mosques attended by those young Muslims who then fly to Syria and then end up killed. Mosques such as these are in the UK, as well. How strange. I thought the Palestinian cause was important, the most important in the world. I was taught that the end of the sufferings of the Palestinians was the key for peace and stability in all the Middle East. I have received these sort of lectures by many good, well-meaning, and learned people, some of them Jewish.
So why is no one campaigning now? Why is no one calling for the end of the tragedy in Yarmouk? Could it be that things are not that simple? Could it be that Israel is not the only responsible for the fate of the Palestinians? Could it be that the Palestinians are relevant not because of their suffering, but only because they offer a good pretext to those who want to attack Israel? Could it be that the Palestinian suffering is a source of concern for individuals and people, only because they cannot accept the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, even after the Shoah?
These are only my thoughts. I am not an expert in international policy, I am just a Rabbi. I claim no expertise on the Middle East. I have just some knowledge of Jewish Law. A Law that has been developed beginning from a time when the Jewish people were living in their own land. I know, I must apologise to our fellow supporters of the Palestinian cause for using such a definition. According to such a Law, the days we are living now are the days of the Omer, the beginning of the harvest season.
In these days, offerings of barley, the first fruits, were brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. Once again, fellow pro-Palestinians, I am sorry to tell you, once there was a Temple, in Jerusalem. A Jewish Temple. Jews were not permitted to eat anything from the harvest until the Omer offering had been brought.
Over time, the “harvest season” came to be understood by the Rabbis as the moment when we reap the fruit of our labour, whether in business, farming or otherwise. For other civilisations, it is a time to celebrate abundance and plenty, a time when societal norms relax. For us Jews, it is indeed the time in which we reaffirm our connection to our community. It is a time when we reflect on the connection between freedom, which we experience on Pesach, and responsibility, which is the theme of Shavuot. It is the time of passage from freedom to responsibility. Such a passage is a complex one. It needs time. It requires introspection. For this reason, the weeks of the Omer are not a time for celebrations. Because we devote time to meditate on the purpose of our wealth, as much as our ancestors devoted time to think of the reason and the cause of the harvest.
Ever since the Biblical time, we Jews know that freedom and responsibility go together, that we cannot have the former without the latter, as individuals and as people as well. Because this is the teaching that came from our history. As Jews, we call those who really care for the freedom of the Palestinians, to speak responsibly, and stop blaming the Jewish State for that tragedy. And more than everything, as a people who have endured terrible sufferings in our history, by the hands of fanatics of every kind, we call everyone who is responsible to halt the tragic growth of Islamic terrorism, in the Middle East and in Europe as well.
Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue,
Shabbat Shemini 22 Nisan 5775 / 11 March 2015