What shall we celebrate
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem. Or rather two. This coming week we have two happy dates, yet complicated.
Sunday is Yom Yerushalaiim. If we were in shul (or if you join online tomorrow morning), there is a special Hallel to say. If we were in Jerusalem, there would have been the parade.
A prayer and a parade, nothing more than that, practically speaking (I love the idea that prayer can be practical, anyway). But there’s more than that.
Yom Yerushalayim was instituted in 1968. It celebrates the reunification of the city and its return to the status of capital of the Jewish people. Plainly speaking, Yom Yerushalayim celebrates our right to live in the city.
Let us remember that before the reunification, Jews were denied access to the Western Wall. That the oldest Jewish cemetery in the world was forbidden to the Jews; the stones were smashed and used as a building material, paving stones or latrines in Arab Legion army camps. In Eastern Jerusalem, Jewish religious sites were turned into chicken coops or animal stalls.
This, to be clear, is the scenario to which the Palestinian leaders (including those of the so-called moderate brand) want to return. Turning Jerusalem into a place forbidden to the Jews. Compare it to today: Jerusalem -under Jewish sovereignty- is the city in Israel with the largest Muslim population, 350,000. There are in the city more than 80 mosques. During the Jordanian rules, 58 synagogues were closed and devastated. Some were hundreds of years old.
Tomorrow reporters from CNN from the BBC will wander around the city looking for Jewish teenagers to make them say idiotic and racist things. This way, the BBC and the CNN will have what they are looking for: the evidence that Israel is now dominated “by the more right-wing Government in its history”. Because to them, every Israeli Government is “the most right-wing government in Israeli history”: including those with Arab ministers, like the current one.
But the problem is that those kids exist. Unfortunately, some of the youth of the Religious Zionist movement are educated to consider the Jews who do not subscribe to their agenda “not completely Jewish”. That includes us, Reform Jews; and the Masorti; and those Orthodox Jews who support the Israeli Government, and the secular Jews; and those who live in the Diaspora; etc.
For this brand of Religious Zionists, Yom Yerushalayim has become the day during which they feel free to behave in a racist, provocative and unacceptable way. To the delight of the pro-Palestinian media (that is the majority of them) and to the concern of the Israeli police.
I personally wish to celebrate on Yom Yerushalayim the peaceful coexistence between religions, but unfortunately for the Western media and (let me stress it again) for a minority of religious Zionists, things are different. They celebrate something else, and in that something, there is no place for Jews who live in the Diaspora, for Reform Jews, for the rest of the Israeli population, in short: for the majority of the Jews.
This brings us a problem: what is to celebrate for us on Yom Yerushalayim? Those who organise the parade, those on the media who have become the holiday’s spokespersons, do not count the Reform Jews in and do their best to upset and provoke us.
And then, after a few days, another problem arises, another potentially problematic date: the Platinum Jubilee. On Thursday in our town, there will be a street party tea organised by the Jewish Representative Council. No question about that. You should join, you should party, you should celebrate. Every community in this country celebrate the Platinum Jubilee, each in its way. We Jews are no exception.
We Jews have some problems with the monarchy. Let’s say it calmly without fear of passing for Americans. The European royal houses, all of them related among themselves one way or another, did not give the best of themselves during the Second World War and in subsequent years.
Queen Elizabeth is an exception; one more reason to celebrate her personally. But in her environment, there was a fascination for the Nazis. It’s a kind of open secret. European nobilities -and part of the British- would have done well had the war ended differently.
Furthermore, kings and rulers who appear in the Biblical story rarely are good people. They are usually portrayed as buffoons, if not evil. If possible, in the Talmud, the non-Jewish kings are even worse.
Judaism is a very irreverent religion towards any authority that considers itself invested by God. As Jews, we have responsibilities and duties only toward the Melekh haMlakhim, the King of Kings, the sovereign of all the worlds, God. Not to kings and queens that are human beings.
Let’s not forget the sovereign’s style: “Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith”.
Let’s say it plainly. The “God” mentioned here, by the grace of which Elizabeth is our sovereign, is not our God. The faith she is “the defender” is not our faith. Let us not forget her role as head of the Church of England.
So here’s the problem. What is there for us to celebrate? As Jews, we do not believe that monarchs reign in the name of God. Plus, indeed, the God mentioned in the British sovereign style is not our God.
All this must not prevent us from enjoying tea and the fantastic sandwiches prepared by the best team of sandwich makers in the world: those of our synagogue. Indeed I invite you to participate in the street tea party. Still, I would like us not to lose sight of the implications of this joyous event.
To sum up. In England, we are invited to join a celebration, which for us has something problematic. And in Israel, we have many reasons to celebrate, but unfortunately, some problematic people have taken the lead in the celebration. What shall we do?
We can follow the ultra-religious approach. We can say that we don’t care about States, either Israel or the United Kingdom. We don’t care who the rulers are. We are glad that the Queen lets us live and prosper in the UK, and we are grateful that the State for Israel has increased the chance for every Jew to be part of a minyan in Jerusalem and other cities in the area. That is one approach.
Or we can go through the road of certain historical personalities of the Liberal Judaism movement. Affirming that we are a faith and not a people. Making clear that we have nothing to do with Zionism and Jewish peoplehood. So let us celebrate the Queen, the Britishness, including the Christian dimension in it. And address Israel with our humanitarian, patronising, colonialist contempt (with the proper British stiff-upper-lip attitude).
Both of these approaches are childish. As mature human beings, we must learn to live together with contradictions. We ought to take the best of where we are. Celebrating -as Jews- the Platinum Jubilee does not mean subscribing to a Christian agenda and denying the limitations of the British monarchy, especially the problems that the ruling class of this country had with the Jews. And still has.
Celebrating Yom Yerushalayim does not mean supporting the racist ideology of some who will march through the Arab neighbourhood of Jerusalem tomorrow, waving the Israeli flag. And by the way, if the Israeli law allows flying the Palestinian flag on Israeli campus, why should it be forbidden to wave the Israeli flag in Jerusalem? Flags are not a problem, the ideologies are.
To those who ask me should I celebrate one of these two holidays, my answer is yes: do celebrate both. Just don’t forget that we have another one in a week, Shavuot, during which we eat cheesecake. And don’t you dare to bring a cheesecake to the barbecue!
Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue, 27 Iyar 5782 /28 May 2022