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Sermon by Rabbi Dr Andrea Zanardo: 17 October

This sermon was given by Rabbi Dr Andrea Zanardo at Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue.

During recent times we receive almost on daily basis bad news from Israel; and I have now learnt two or three things about that.

First: you never know when it’s over. And this is also true with this wave of violence. We don’t know when it will be over. Second: you’ll always find someone who blames Israel and the Jews for what is going on. For certain journalists and columnists it is almost an article of faith: Israel can do no good, and everything that Israel does is a crime. Israel defending itself. Is that a crime? Israel should be moderated and restrained.

Does Israel offer to negotiate? For the record this is exactly what Prime Minister Nehatyahu has offered to the Palestinians not less than three weeks ago, at the UN. But of course this is also bad, because Israel does everything in bad faith and the Palestinians refuse to negotiate because of the settlements, because of what happens in Jerusalem, because … whatever. So, Israel can do no good, and that is the average wisdom in the British media. That is the second thing I have learnt.
And then there is a third thing: that is, you always find some Jew who truly believes in the nonsensical Palestinian propaganda, and look at the news through Palestinian eyes. They really believe Zionism is a colonialist movement, and Jews who live in Israel are foreigners, and descendants of foreigners, and ultimately the only real way to end the troubles is to send these foreigners back to Western Europe or to the USA, (somehow they forget that the majority of the Israelis are grandchildren of North African and Eastern European Jews).

That kind of know-it-all is a sort of permanent character in many conversations about the Middle East. He, or she, has basically only one thing to say or to write or to type, or to send on social media. That is that Israel can do no good, because Israel is bad. And the whole idea of a Jewish State is tragically mistaken as bad. And Zionism, which we think is the movement for Jewish self-determination, is rather the source of every possible evil, last but not least Islamophobia in this country. If only we would give up with this idea of being a nation, and a people, and we manage to get rid of this fixation of having a Jewish State, then peace will blossom in the Holy Land, and from there all over the world. If only we Jews would manage to overcome our defensiveness, our nationalism, our particularism, then not only would we live far better, but the world itself will be free from war.

Attractive isn’t it? There is even a recipe to get there. It’s called the bi-national State. These people, who now call themselves post-Zionist, would like the Jews to first become a minority in the Land of Israel, for example granting to all the self-proclaimed Palestinians refugees, and sons of refugees, and children of sons of refugees, and why not cousins of cousins of self proclaimed Palestinians, the “right of return” in Israel, in big numbers, so that Jews will become a minority. And then, via democratic elections of course, the Zionist project will come to an end, Jews will be forced to leave if they do not want to live in this new wonderful State (with Arab majority), which will be an oasis of peace and progress much like the neighbouring Arab States. Syria for example. What’s not to like?

This delusion, which is called bi-nationalism, is nowadays cultivated by militants, and activists; is somehow encouraged by the one-sided representation of the current Middle Eastern events by the BBC or the Guardian.

But this is nothing new.

Throughout its history Zionism has met with opposition.

Take for example the Italian -and Fascist- Ettore Ovazza, a wealthy banker who truly believed that Italian Jews were first and foremost Italian, and as such should oppose Zionism, and went to an extent to found a Fascist Jewish Committee, “La Nostra Bandiera”, “Our Flag”, and ended up killed by the Nazis in 1943: let’s say they were not impressed by his loyalty to Italy, inspired by anti-Zionism.

Take for example the First World War hero Basil Henriques, a philanthropist who did amazing work for the deprived Jewish boys in the East End from the 20s up until 1950. His memoirs are remarkable, because he recalls the adamant opposition to Zionism of his entourage, the wealthiest Jewish families of England. “We all feel we are first British, then Jewish”. But despite that, Mr Henriques is full of admiration for Israel, which he visits in the aftermath of the Suez war, and quietly acknowledges how wrong he had been. If only a Jewish State had been established in the thirties, when all the countries of the world were shutting their doors to the Jewish refugees, how many men, and women, would have been saved.

I am not sure that those militants who want us to share their faith in the delusional “bi-national State” are familiar with the writings of Basil Henriques (they should be, by the way). What I do know is that that sort of delusion is nothing new, because in the course of Jewish history periodically some individuals fall for this dream, to erase the Jewish particularity, to replace the “too particular” Jewish belonging with some other kind of belonging, something more “universal”, more acceptable.

I think that this week’s Torah portion is a very serious warning against this kind of delusion. It takes its title from the story of Noah, but it includes also the story of the Tower of Babel.

We tend to see the destruction of the tower of Babel as a catastrophe, but a close reading of the text shows that it’s not. After all, no one dies when God intervenes. And the text says that before the episode, all of humanity was of one language and one speech”. After the failure of the construction, different languages arose, different speeches, different thoughts and different identities.

The world before Babel was a world without differences. It was indeed very similar to a totalitarian society: look how quickly everyone rushed into this enterprise of construction, without opposition, without debate, without discussion… yes, the Jews were not yet around.

God truly did us a great favour: destroying the Tower of Babel. God prevented totalitarianism and allowed different languages and different civilisations to flourish. Among them, the Jewish civilisation, our own. Getting back to the world before Babel, to totalitarianism disguised under the banner of “internationalism” which does not help with peace, it is certainly dangerous, and, as the story shows, it is just plainly impossible.

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