In tribute to Chaim Weizman
Sunday we will celebrate Israel’s 65th birthday. Beth Yam will conduct its now annual celebration and we will enjoy the sounds of children and our choir singing Israeli songs. We will pray for the future of the State as we shall respectfully remember her fallen soldiers who gave their lives in the defense of the nation. We shall read letters from the children of our own congregants who currently live in Israel explaining why they love Israel so much. I hope we will all participate.
On this Shabbat it is also a fitting moment to go back in modern Jewish history and remember in honor of Israel’s anniversary an important speech delivered by its first President Chaim Weizman. It was a speech that revealed a great deal about how Israel became a state, about the meaning of Jewish National existence and also about where Israel is today. And for all these reasons please allow me to give us a taste of this speech and engage us in considering whether or not we are contending with the same issues today when it comes to the meaning of Zionism and Jewish identity as Weizman and the generation of Israelis faced some 77 years ago.
It was November 25, 1936 and Chaim Weizman was known at that time as the greatest ambassador and spokesperson on behalf of the Jewish people in Palestine. Israel, then under the control of the British, was a long way off towards becoming a state and who could possibly foresee in the next six years the ravages of Nazism and Fascism’s decimation of European Jewry and the onslaught of World War Two. Still Dr. Weizman came to London to address the Peel Commission set up by the English Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to address the issues of the Arabs and Jews after a series of Arab attacks against Jews. Weizman believed that this commission would open up a new and decisive phase in the diplomatic process for determining political boundaries of the burgeoning Jewish state which was then referred to as Palestine.
Right before the he addressed the Commission his associates new the importance of his testimony and whispered “hashem yatzliach darko” (May God cause his way to be successful). Weizman himself later wrote of the speech. “I felt that I would be speaking for generations long since dead for those who lay buried on Mount Scopus and those whose last resting places were scattered all over the world. I knew that any misstep of mine, any error, however involuntary, would be not mine alone but would redound to the discredit of my people. I was aware of a crushing sense of responsibility.”
In trying to explain the dilemma for Jews in the Diaspora and why they needed their own land Weizman writes, “In all countries we try to do our best, but somehow in many countries we are not entirely accepted as an integral part of the communities with which we belong. This feeling is one of the causes which have prompted Jews throughout the ages, and particularly in the last hundred years, to try to make a contribution towards the solution of the problem and to normalize –to some extent to normalize- the position of the Jews in the world.”
Yet, Weizman goes on to say, “There should be one place in the world, in God’s wide world, where we could live and express ourselves in accordance with our character, and make our contribution towards the civilized world, in our own way and through our own channels.”
And I think this next part of his speech is very telling for Israel today when Weizman finishes the thought by saying, “Perhaps if we had, we would be better understood in ourselves, and our relation to other races and nations would become more normal. We would not have to be always on the defensive or, on the contrary, become too aggressive, as always happened with a minority forced to be constantly on the defensive.”
“What has produced this particular mentality of the Jews which makes me describe the Jewish race as a sort of disembodied ghost-an entity in accordance with the usual standards which are applied to define an entity? I believe the main cause which has produced the particular state of Jewry in the world is its attachment to Palestine. We are a stiff-necked people and a people of long memory. We never forget. Whether it is our misfortune or whether it is our good fortune, we have never forgotten Palestine, and this steadfastness, which has preserved the Jews throughout the ages and throughout a career that is almost one in the long chain of inhuman suffering, is primarily due to some physiological or psychological attachment to Palestine. We have never forgotten it nor given it up.”
The Peel Report recommended partition into separate Arab and Jews states. This was viewed as a drastic solution that was rejected by the Arabs and many Zionist leaders but was eventually accepted by Weizman. It was never implemented by the British government. World War Two eventually came and it was only after the war when the United Nations attempted to revive the idea which Israel again agreed and again the Arabs countries rejected the proposal which then launched the War for Independence.
If we read the Jerusalem Post or other news articles about Israel today we will see that these tensions that Weizman identified seventy five years ago are still present. Israel so dearly wants to belong to the world and be a normal nation in the family of nations. They want to use their talents and make a difference for their own citizens as well for the people of this planet. The truth is that they have done so. They have succeeded at bringing Jews from the most remote parts of the world to Israel. Even the new Miss Israel is Ethiopian Jewish. We cannot begin to list all the technological achievements of the State of Israel. Think about the arts and Israel’s military prowess and the result is that Zionism has been a successful movement.
At the same time Israel still contends with the same pressures that seek to isolate her that Jews faced in the days when Weizman spoke. In that regard the names have changed and the entities have changed but the mysterious resentment and ongoing hatred that Israel’s adversaries have towards her continues. And still Israel must face the indignities of being portrayed not so much as the victim but today as the oppressor. Either way it is about adversaries using multiple narratives and fomenting propaganda that either the Jew is subhuman or a conspirator or a brutal oppressor. Still Israel finds herself struggling alone in the world of public opinion to the point that the President, on his recent trip to Israel, says “Atem lo lavad, You are not alone.” That one reassuring statement captured more truth about Israel’s place in the world than I wanted to think about.
So on this Israel independence day I advise that we not despair or let the continuing political chatter dominate our ability to see the big picture that the overwhelming mission of Zionism to resettle the land and to rebirth a national homeland has been achieved. Like all nations it is an ongoing effort to rebuild a nation that requires each generation to redefine what Zionism means and to reinvent it and to redefine how Judaism fits for a largely secular state that needs to express itself with Judaism as a religious system although not necessarily within the traditional Orthodox ways of practicing Judaism.
Yes, our memories are long and we carry Israel in our hearts wherever we live. And yes Weizman’s lesson to the Peel commission was worth taking note for today. We never forgot Palestine. We never have forgotten and have never given it up.” May I add nor shall we ever again put ourselves in a position to lose it for Israel may stumble may struggle but it shall shine through the darkness and rise above the rivalries and hatred of other nations. Let us not lose our own faith and hope tikvah in Israel’s future as we have kept faith with her past which ultimately is our past as well.
Even our Patriarch Jacob could see the future in the land of Israel and not get sidetracked by short term distractions when according to the Midrash he returned with his large family and flock to Canaan and met up again with his brother Esau. He sold all his flocks and set up the proceeds in piles of gold. He said to Esau, “You own equal shares with me in the area of the Cave of Machpelah (the burial place of the ancestors of Israel near Hebron) which do you prefer—to take these piles of gold or share Machpelah with me?” Esau said to himself: “What do I have to do with this cave? I‘ll take the gold.” (Midrash Tanhuma Parashat Vayishlach) Even then Jacob knew that by keeping faith with the past he would secure the future. So to it is with Israel today.