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Jasmine, Israel and Gaza

This sermon was given by Rabbi Mark Goldsmith at Alyth (North Western Reform Synagogue) on Shabbat 19th July 2014.

Exactly 20 years ago, at the end of my third year of training to become a rabbi at Leo Baeck College I spent the summer in Israel learning Hebrew at an ulpan in Jerusalem.  Three months in Israel is enough to make anyone fall in love with the country and it certainly worked for me.

Special times are often remembered with little vignettes – moments among days and weeks which stand out.  Every morning I would take a bus from the flat where I was staying in Talpiot Mizrach, a suburb a few miles out from Jerusalem to the ulpan in the centre of the city.  If I was lucky and timed my bus ride just right something very special would happen on the bus.

An elderly man, a vatik as they call the first generation of the state of Israel, got on as the bus would turn towards the city on the Hebron Road.  The hitherto silent bus would turn to conversation and smiles as he carried out his morning ritual.  He went through the bus giving people a small sprig of Jasmine from, I presume, a bush by his apartment.  He would stay on for a few stops then get off – I will never forget this small but highly effective act of kindness.

Twenty years later there is something new that you can get for free in Israel, undreamed of in 1994.  It’s an app for a smartphone, of which more than 800,000 have been downloaded since its launch on June 29th.  The app’s creator Ari Sprung is distressed at its popularity and wishes that he could take it down because it would no longer be needed.  The app is called Red Alert, Tseva Adom in Hebrew.  The app gives 15 to 90 seconds early warning of a rocket attack into Israel and the location which it is assumed to be targeted at – 15-90 seconds before the sirens go off in that location.  Maybe enough time to get you quicker into a shelter so that the rockets can again, thank God, fail to claim human victims.  Many downloads of this app have happened outside Israel and those who have it see unfolding hour by hour and sometimes minute by minute the extent of the rocket fire that Israelis are having to endure – and just how concentrated it is on towns like Ashdod and Ashkelon.

I don’t know but I suspect that there is nothing similar for the citizens of Gaza to help them to be safe when Israel attacks or defends back.  Very few of our brothers and sisters in Israel have died because the physical and technological shelter system is so effective and highly developed.  So many Gazans have died because they just don’t have a chance when Israel tries to stop another rocket launching installation from sending its deadly intent to the towns of Israel.

These weeks have left us in the Jewish world beyond Israel feeling powerless and even useless to do anything to ease the pain of the people of Israel and Gaza.  Or so it might appear.  But there are two things that I feel we can and should do.  The first is right there in the Torah portion we just heard.  It is to share the pain and reality of what is being suffered.

The Reuben and Gad tribes are soundly criticised by Moses for, what he sees as a profound lack of empathy for the situation of the other ten tribes who are about to go into the Promised Land of Israel – ready it would seem to settle themselves in comfort outside the land (Numbers Chapter 32).  The situation is resolved when they assure Moses that they will join the other tribes in their struggle, even as they leave their families in the hardly ideal situation of living in fortified villages outside Israel.  Moses is satisfied with their promise of empathy, care and participation in the struggle of the other tribes and the issue is resolved.

The lesson from this Torah portion is that we too must have empathy with the people of Israel, and as we learned last week here at Alyth from our visitors, Israeli Arab, Lian Najami and Rabbi Ofek Meir, rockets from Hamas are aimed at both indiscriminately.

How can we put this empathy into action?  Have you contacted any relatives or friends you may have in Israel to show them that you are thinking of them?  You might consider joining tomorrow’s Zionist Federation solidarity rally here in London starting at the Israeli embassy at 2pm.  If you have contacts in Gaza, and members of One Voice here in our Synagogue do, then have you contacted them?  Our empathy cannot be clouded by the merciful fact that few Israelis have died in this awful conflict.  That’s what happens when your country has to be in a state of constant readiness for attack – every building has a shelter and the whole population is ready to help each other to survive.

Every year Judaism has a built in mechanism for us to develop empathy for those under attack.  It has not generally been observed in Reform Judaism because we have felt so remote both physically and spiritually from the events which are commemorated.  But this year I did – and I’ll tell you why.

There are four minor fasts in the Jewish year which commemorate the events surrounding the defeat of  Jerusalem and the destruction of the nation of Judah in the 588-586 BCE. It’s a long time ago and would seem to have little to do with us.  A minor fast means that you don’t eat from dawn to dusk, observed like Muslims today are observing Ramadan.

The first fast day is on the 10th Tevet each year – this coming year on January 1st – it remembers when Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon first laid siege to Jerusalem in the year 588BCE  and the people of Jerusalem were terrified and captive in their own city.  The next fast is on 17th Tammuz – this year it was on 15th July – Tuesday – it commemorates the horror of the Babylonians breaking through the walls of Jerusalem a year and a half later.   Threes week later is the fast of Tisha b Av – this year we will commemorate this on Monday 4th August together with Finchley Reform Synagogue – the destruction of the Temple, when it was clear that Jerusalem was lost.  After all of this tragedy, as Rabbi Ofek Meir reminded us last week, on the third of Tishri, three days after Rosh Hashanah we commemorate the Fast of Gedaliah – when the effects of defeat meant that we Jews turned against ourselves and in 586 the Jewish governor of Judah, Gedaliah, who had managed to bring some stability and hope back the country was assassinated by a fellow Jew – Yishmael ben Netaniah.

Through these fasts we are asked to feel the pain of those under attack.  On Tuesday, together with many others in the UK Jewish community I observed the fast of 17th Tammuz for the first time in my life.  Yachad – the Jewish community’s voice for radical steps towards peace in Israel, organised for Jews to publicly observe this fast together with Muslims who are observing Ramadan – together as an expression of the pain that we feel for Israel and Gaza.

That is the second thing that we can do for Israel and Gaza from afar.  We can create common cause with the majority of Muslims, moderate, world engaged Muslims who like us want to see peace for Israel and the Palestinians.  Muslims who know that living under Hamas is like the experience of hundreds of millions of Muslims in the Arab world – its living under a regime of co-ercion, cronyism and little hope for the future. Just as we know that an Israel which fails to work to make peace with her neighbours, which ignores their needs and aspirations, cannot enable Zionism to succeed.

If you live with strong prejudice against Islam you might be very surprised to find how possible it is to create dialogue.  Here at our Synagogue a week ago Rabbi Maurice Michaels and the Alyth Interfaith Committee hosted Sunni and Shia Muslims together for a breaking of the Ramadan Fast, the Iftar meal (a word incidentally which is etymologically related to the word Hebrew word Haftarah – the parting reading of the Torah service or parting from the days Ramadan fast).  Other Reform and Orthodox Synagogues locally are doing the same – trying to build a new relationship with local Muslims and finding willing partners to do it with.  Even the Israeli Ambassador, Daniel Taub, is hosting an Iftar on Wednesday night, which I will be attending.  Finding partners for dialogue and building a better future.  I pray– that Israel will be able to create a new and better relationship with the Palestinians when this dreadful time is through. Locally I am sure that we can build a better relationship with Muslims. The cycle of violence and mistrust must stop.

I began with the scent of jasmine on the bus from Talpiot Mizrach to Jerusalem and I want to end with the scent of jasmine – in this poem from another Vatikah of Israel – Ada Aharoni, who came to Israel from Egypt as a teenager in 1949 and lives in Haifa today.  Her poem, Gesher Shel Shalom – Bridge of Peace, full of empathy and of dialogue is based on the verse from the Biblical book of Micah:  “They shall sit each of them under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid.” (Micah, 4, 4)

My Arab sister,
Let us build a sturdy bridge
From your olive world to mine,
From my orange world to yours,
Above the boiling pain
Of acid rain prejudice –
And hold human hands high
Full of free stars
Of twinkling peace.
I do not want to be your oppressor
You do not want to be my oppressor,
Or your jailer
Or my jailer,
We do not want to make each other afraid
Under our vines
And under our fig trees
Blossoming on a silvered horizon
Above the bruising and the bleeding
Of Poison gases and scuds.
So, my Arab sister,
Let us build a bridge of
Jasmine understanding
Where each shall sit with her baby
Under her vine and under her fig tree –
And none shall make them afraid
AND NONE SHALL MAKE THEM AFRAID.

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