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Challenging our National Narrative: Isolation or Cooperation?

Jonathan Safran Foer writes in Everything is Illuminated:

Jews have six senses – touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing … memory. –-  While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks – when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather’s fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather’s damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain – that the Jew is able to know why it hurts. When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?

Right now, we are in the midst of the other High Holy Days.  The High Holy Days with two Yizkors. The High Holy Days of Israel’s civil religion. We remember the Shoah, as we did this past week, hearing Dr. Frank Sommers tell his story of survival as a child in Hungary during the Holocaust.

And in quick succession come the other two: next Wednesday night our community joins with Jewish communities around the world as we remember those that have died both as victims of terror and in the wars to create and defend Medinat Yisrael. And then we make the sharp transition from mourning to celebration as we mark Israel’s Independence Day.  Rabbi Splansky, Lindi Rivers and the others on the congregational trip will feel the ascendance from grief to joy as it takes place in Israel.  Yet all of us join together in celebrating that our people has a state which we have struggled many years for – a state which we constantly have to work with to help it meet all of its aspirations.

This season’s transitions are in many ways a mirror of the Passover Haggadah which many of us so recently held in our hands  A journey from sadness to joy, from slavery to freedom, from degradation to jubilation.

The narrative of Jewish history as laid out in the Israeli construction of these holy days is clear. What is the degradation? European and Arab Jewry’s end in the Farhood and the Shoah.  And what is the Jubilation?  The founding of Medinat Yisrael.

A Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins.

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book future tense presents one view of this narrative:

“Jews have been persecuted throughout the ages. They were in Christian Europe from the eleventh to the twentieth century.  They are now in the predominantly Muslim Middle East.  To be a Jew is to be hated and to defy that hate. As on twentieth-century Jewish theologian, Emil Fackenheim, put it: Jews are commanded to stay Jewish in order to deny Hitler a posthumous victory. Jews are, in the biblical phrase, ‘the people that dwells alone.’”

Does this narrative sound familiar to you?

A narrative of hate. Persecution. It begins its remembering in Europe with persecution and ends alone, in the Land of Israel, surrounded, isolated, yet strong.

It is in this narrative about which Rabbi Marmur wrote this week, reflecting on a program Fredia participated in, where Israel’s top military commanders met with survivors:

“The message underlying the enterprise was stressed by Prime Minister Netanyahu a day or so later and which most Jews in Israel and elsewhere heartily endorse: as long as Israel is there and its army to defend it, what happened in the Holocaust won’t recur. Israel is the most potent evidence of the veracity of the pledge, ‘Never again!’”

In a learning session run by the Lola Stein and Shalom Hartman Institutes that Rabbi Satz and I attended earlier this week, a senior educator in our community, a graduate of one of our Zionist Jewish Day Schools said, “The Holocaust ended with the founding of the State of Israel – the dream of all of the European Jews – isn’t this just factual?  It is what I learned in school.”

This is the narrative portrayed by the March of the Living which many of our congregation’s teenagers go on – a trip that this year had around 10,000 participants, among them 150 survivors who return to Eastern Europe to make pilgrimage to the camps before finding their way from Europe of weakness – Europe of death to Israel so full of beaches , shopping malls, sky scrapers and strong-looking Jews with guns.  Israel of life.

The itinerary has changed over the years, and now, among the three death camps, two ghettos and shtetl that appear on the teen itinerary, there are two token short visits to quit critics – one to see how Jews lived and were part of society in Krakow, just before visiting its ghetto, and the other to visit a few living Jews in Poland today.

In this year’s Globe and Mail article on the march, it gave this narrative.

Then, the other survivor Anneliese Nossbaum, who was in a wheelchair, caught sight of the railroad tracks — her first sight of them since she was an inmate there.

“Why didn’t they bomb those tracks? Why didn’t the outside world help? The world failed us,” she said.

Interjected a woman from the United States. “That’s why there is Israel now,”

A Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins.

But which other pins do we remember?

When we hear Europe, is it only the pin of pain of impotence, of weakness – or is it also the tingle of pins when our grandfather’s fingers fell asleep from stroking our great-grandfather’s damp forehead.  The painful yet persistent efforts of our people to live side-by-side with our neighbors outside of Israel.  The prick of the realization that sometimes life is better for Jews and the Jewish people, too, in England.  In France.  In Canada.  That pin which slips past the thimble into the hand of the artist who is stitching new Torah covers for the Progressive Jewish congregations in Madrid, in Poland, or in the Former Soviet Union.

A few short weeks ago, I was at the EUPJ conference with our members Les Rothschild and Carole Sterling.  We heard from the rabbis in France and in Brussels.  We heard how there are some that are leaving for Israel, but how the majority are committed to Jewish life in Europe.  We heard how supportive after the terror attacks in France the French people have been.

Make no mistake. We felt the weight and burden of the Holocaust at nearly every moment. The EUPJ – celebrating its 90th year of internationally organized Reform and Liberal Judaism, marked the Holocaust.   We learned how Rabbi Leo Baeck stayed the elected president of worldwide progressive Judaism for years during the Shoah from Theresienstadt.  We minutes of meetings with Reform congregations in German- discussing the same issues as Reform congregations around the world face today – attracting young professionals and the like, with full knowledge of what was to come in the years to follow to those congregations.

And yet, we heard Baroness Rabbi Neuberger detail the start of the anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party.  But then she showed a narrative of coalition building based on the Jewish narrative.  In caged and measured remarks she informed those assembled that it would be better for the Jewish community if the Jewish candidate for Mayor of the City of London – a candidate whose divisive tactics can remind us of a certain US politician’s approach to minorities, were to be defeated.  And he was. And by whom? The now incoming first Muslim Mayor of London, Sadik Kahn, who has repeatedly said – “Leading London means bringing our communities together, it means uniting our city. You don’t do that by running a campaign based on division.”  Unlike Goldsmith who built a campaign on division like that of a certain American politician, Sadik Kahn specifically reaches out to include the Jewish community.

And Baroness Neuberger mentioned the efforts to bring in Syrian Refugees to England.  Where one of the most praiseworthy rabbis I know, Rabbi Harry Jacobi was brought as an example many times by fellow child refugees and members of the Kindertransport  – one of whom sits in the House of Lords – to build a coalition to guarantee that the UK would take in children.  Finally, based on their pressure, the Government has agreed.

This is a different narrative of Europe.  This is a different memory.  One not based in isolation, working alone, but based on working with.  One that doesn’t pretend that every Jew at every moment longs to make Aliyah, but one that acknowledges that the world needs our story – a story of survival.  A story of hope – to help move from the minor to the augmented major – the reality of now   towards a dream.

What does the anti-Semitism in the British Labour party remember like?  Anti-Israel sentiment on campus? The rise of the right in Europe against immigration?  What does it remember like? Isolation, or Coalition?

It is important how we collate and teach our people’s memory. How we tell our story. How we create a narrative, like the Hagaddah, which shapes our remembering.

Rabbi Sacks writes.

“This book  [Future Tense] is a challenge to that narrative [of emphasizing Jewish isolation].  The facts may be true but the narrative is wrong.” 

He gives a list of reasons why this narrative of living in a world of Jew hatred and obsession with being isolated and alone – is dangerous:

  1. It isn’t’ the Jewish story.
  2. It risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy – Believing ourselves to be alone, Jews will find ourselves alone.
  3. It leads to a set of attitudes utterly inconsistent with classical Jewish self-understanding.  It turns Jews into victims. It renders us passive –aggressive.  It makes us distrust the world, which can lead to hatred of others or self-hatred.
  4. Fourth it generates policies that are self-destructive.
  5. It demoralizes at the very time when the Jewish people needs strength
  6. It will lead Jews to leave Judaism
  7. It deprives Jews and humanity of the very thing that constitutes the Jewish message to humanity: The Jewish story, told and lived, whose theme is the audacity of hope.

Later on he writes:

“The definition of Jews as the people that dwells alone does great harm to Jewish peoplehood.  Essentially it defines Jews as victims. It says that Jews are the people who, historically, have been subject to persecution, isolation, and alienation.  In the 19th and 20th centuries they tried to integrate, assimilate, become like everyone else, but it failed. Inescapably, Jews are different. So, though they share nothing else, they have in common a history of suffering. The music of Jewish life is in the minor key.  Jewish literature is an extended book of lamentations. Jews share a fate.

This is the wrong way to think about Jewish peoplehood. Jews are a people of faith, not fate alone.  Jews are choosers, not victims; co-authors of their destiny, not swept by the winds of circumstance.  Without a positive vision, Jews will indeed cease to be a people.”

So let’s think about how we teach Europe.  How we teach the Shoah.  How we shape memory.  How we remember.

Rabbi Marmur writes of another way of remembering through his family’s experience at one of our partner reform synagogues in Israel. He writes:

But there’s also a different way to commemorate. On the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, Kol Haneshama, our congregation, sponsored an evening that included a presentation by three generations of Marmurs. Those present heard none of the rhetoric and the bravado to which the Israeli public is usually treated. Instead, we gave evidence of our attempts, each of us in our own small way, to bring people together – Jews with Germans, Poles and many others – not in order to forget or pretend to forgive but as a way to try to make sure that what happened then won’t happen again.  

Working for peaceful cooperation and mutual understanding, even with descendants of enemies, is our way of saying “Never again!” We’d like to think that it’s the authentic Jewish way.

Refugees children in Europe.  What does this remember like?   How do Jews respond? Do we continue in isolation or build coalitions?

A populist demagogue as presumptive nominee.  What does this remember like?  How do Jews respond? Do we continue in isolation, or build coalitions?

Germany’s Angela Merkel said these words to the Knesset in 2008:

“It would be just as fatal to ignore the question of how to keep the memory of the Shoah alive when all those who experienced it firsthand have passed away. It is true that places of remembrance are important, places such as the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin or Yad Vashem. They keep memories alive. But it is also true that places alone are not enough once memories become part of the past. Memories must constantly be recalled. Thoughts must become words, and words deeds.”

Shabbat Shalom.

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