“We are building Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.” These are the words that came to mind as I read Jonathan Boyd’s article (JC May 12) celebrating the rejuvenation of Anglo-Jewry. This, he explains, is what halted his thoughts of aliyah, keeping him and his friends in Britain.
If he had ended his argument there, we would have little to quarrel about. I share his admiration for the upsurge of activity initiated by Lord Sacks and Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy, continued by Chief Rabbi Mirvis. I adored my time as rabbi of Radlett United Synagogue and I would love to export some of the caring, tolerant values of that synagogue movement to Israel.
But, while I understand that aliyah is not always for everyone, Boyd further justifies his decision to stay put by stating that: “Nothing earth-shattering happened in Israel,” and with this I take issue.
True, recently there haven’t been any miraculous military victories and the influx of Jews fleeing France lacks the romance of the Ethiopian aliyah. Add to that Natan Sharansky’s definition of Jews as “the people who believe it’s obligatory to criticise their own government” and one can appreciate why some are not currently exhilarated by the Jewish state.
But I think they miss the point.
In Yehuda Amichai’s striking poem The Tourists, he describes the holidaymakers who visit Israel each year to see the sites and enjoy the sunshine. As they cluster around an ancient ruin, Amichai cries out to them: “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”
Amichai is celebrating the miracles of the mundane. For those tourists, there’s little enchantment in the sight of Israelis cracking open their sunflower seeds, and packing their pita bread with hummus and falafel. But they miss out on the magic. Whether it’s an Ethiopian who trekked across the desert, a Russian who risked persecution to come here, or the sabras who saw their best friends killed in battle, everyone here has a story. Each person is part of the renewal of the Jewish state and every one in their own way is a hero.
Each time I return from the death camps in Poland to see the revival of our people in a pulsating city, I am overwhelmed by the fulfilment of the vision that: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.” (Zechariah 8: 4-5).
But it can’t just be about Jewish survival. If it was, Jewish life would be equally fulfilled in every country where we enjoy the protection of tolerant, democratic values. There is more.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin called the Israeli ballot papers “sacred slips of paper”. After two thousand years clinging to the fringes of history, Jews have a sovereign state. With every move, Israelis are forging the moral path which determines the Jewish future.
Judaism carries an inspiring vision for the world and we are charged with making it reality. Naturally, it’s a long process, slowed by our mistakes and the need to navigate daily threats from implacable enemies. But Israel is the stage for which our faith was scripted.
A fellow former Londoner once told me that, on his daily walk home from synagogue, he always pauses to identify something new for which to thank God. It could be a fresh bud on the rose bushes, a tree in blossom; anything that shows growth and beauty in the Promised Land.
The man carrying home his bag of vegetables, elderly people on benches, brides and grooms dancing in Jerusalem and children at play are all part of that growth. Each is cause for celebration.
At the bottom of the manuscript of his poem Jerusalem, William Blake inscribed the words of Moses; “If only all God’s people were prophets.” (Numbers 11: 29). As we build Jerusalem here in Israel’s green and pleasant land, every citizen plays a part in the great prophetic narrative; the story of the Jewish people. That is indeed earth-shattering, which is why I chose to make my home in Jerusalem.
Gideon Sylvester is the United Synagogue’s Israel rabbi