Editor's Notes: A vital affirmation of our awe-inspiring history

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has compiled a stirring, staggering narrative of the Jewish people's miraculous survival.

(photo credit:)
(photo credit: )
Judaism is twice as old as Christianity, three times as old as Islam. Yet there are 82 Christian nations, 56 Muslim ones, but only one Jewish state. A country smaller than the Kruger National Park, less than one quarter of one percent of the land mass of the Arab world, Israel is the only place on earth where, in 4,000 years of history, Jews have formed a majority. The only place where they've been able to rule themselves and defend themselves. The only place where they have been able to do what almost every people takes for granted: live as a nation shaping its own destiny, and create a society according to its own values. Only in Israel can a Jew speak the Jewish language, see a Jewish landscape, live by the Jewish calendar, walk where our ancestors walked and continue the story they began. Yet still it has to fight for the right to be. These are not my words. They are, rather, those of Britain's Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, and form part of his narration on a double CD he has produced to mark next month's 60th anniversary of the establishment of the modern state of Israel. Sacks continues that narrative with a question that has particular relevance in his own Britain today, so filled with hostility to Israel: "Why, after everything, is it still so hard for the nations of the world to grant the Jewish people a place to live without fear? Israel is the West's oldest nation. Its religion is the West's oldest faith... Why must the people who first taught the world the sanctity of life so often be made to walk through the valley of the shadow of death?" His dramatically intoned recounting of Jewish history constitutes what Sacks may consider to be the minor component of "a fairly unusual project for a chief rabbi to be involved in." The primary focus, and the major proportion of the two compact discs, is the music - an eclectic selection featuring not only the most traditional of Hebrew texts and the most popular of modern Israel's patriotic standards, but also tracks and artists so diverse that few first-time listeners will be familiar with all of the material. Selections range from the "Exodus" theme, "Yedid Nefesh" and compositions by Reb Shlomo Carlebach, via the pulsing "Hasidah" (The Stork), Gad Elbaz's heartfelt "Inshallah" and Matisyahu's Hasidic-rapped "Jerusalem," to the wrenching standouts "Arim Roshi" (I'll Raise my Head, sung by Shai Gabso) and "Ke-she-halev Bocheh" (When the Heart Weeps, sung by Levi Levin). As Sacks acknowledges, "I spent lots of time listening to Israeli music... I didn't know these people." The common theme, the purpose behind the project, he explained to me on a visit to Israel last week, is to retell the unique, extraordinary story of the Jewish people's attachment to its land, and its miraculous return home, "to a whole generation, or two, of Jews who were born after the epic events and take Israel for granted." He had been thinking for several years about how best he could contribute to the 60th festivities, and realized that "the most effective means of communication nowadays is audio." So he spent months - "much longer than I had expected" - delving into appropriate musical material, newly recording some of it (in part because he deferred to Orthodox sensibilities and eschewed female singers), and assembling the discs for distribution throughout the Jewish world. He says he was particularly struck "by the depth of spirituality in Israel's modern music," and that this helped complete a musical tour through Israel's history that he hopes will convey "the sense of awe and drama" of our people's epic saga. "I think my faith is not naive," he muses quietly and simply in our conversation, "but some moments in history have the Almighty's handwriting all over them." The music Sacks has so painstakingly gathered is indeed compelling - a soundtrack to the tragic lows and astounding highs of the Jews' incomparable journey. But it is Sacks's at once sober and passionate summation - his brief readings between the songs - that most engaged me. IRANIAN PRESIDENT Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's oft-repeated depiction of our modern state as Europe's apology to the Jews for the Holocaust, unfairly imposed as an alien colonialist upstart on the blameless Palestinians, is recognized all-too infrequently as the viciously revisionist misrepresentation it is, air-brushing the Jews out of all our millennia of attachment to this place. For that reason, I have long argued that Israel, as it publicly celebrates its modern 60th next month, should also be talking more about a three thousand and 60th anniversary, overtly reconnecting this young nation to its indomitable past, and stressing that far from an injustice, its rebirth marked the catastrophically belated righting of a dire historical wrong. Official Israel is, unfortunately, doing no such thing. But here, in his readings between the songs on these CDs, Sacks has done precisely that. Now he has to galvanize his own community and others to stand up and widely promulgate these truths, not to be cowed into silence or to speak out only when among fellow Jews - as is so often the case, notably in the UK, but elsewhere in the Diaspora too. He begins the first CD by introducing a fragment of David Ben-Gurion's speech on the day of our independence, containing the prime ministerial assertion of the "natural right" of the Jewish people to live like any other nation in its own sovereign land. With independence, Sacks ringingly declares, "The longest exile ever endured by a people was at an end. After almost 2,000 years of homelessness, the Jewish people came home." Then Sacks takes us back in time, to the very origins of Judaism, tracing "a story without parallel in history - the story of the love of a people for a land, the love of Jews for Israel. There, in ancient times, our people was born. And there, in modern times, our people was reborn." And as he trails through the centuries - the periods of brief sovereignty and long, dark exile - Sacks summons all the incandescent legitimizations for Israel that need to be invoked whenever, and it is with increasing frequency these days, cynical critics distort our history to undermine our emphatic, peerless relationship with our homeland. Incandescent legitimizations too often unrecognized and unsaid. "Never did the Jewish people leave Israel voluntarily," he reminds us at one point. "When they could, they returned... For centuries they lived suspended between memory and hope, sustained by the promise that one day God would bring them back." Later in the narrative, he completes that circle when describing the faith-affirming modern ingathering of exiles: "They came from more than 100 countries, speaking more than 80 languages. More than 3,000 years earlier, Moses had prophesied: 'Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back.' And so it was. A dismembered people, torn into 100 fragments and scattered across the world, came together again as a living nation. There's nothing like it in all the annals of history." Indeed not. And the chief rabbi will truly have done Israel and the Jewish people a service if he now ensures it is properly retold and understood. AS HE stresses in our interview, there is a considerable amount of pain on the CDs, which unstintingly relate to the expulsions, forced conversions, the pogroms and, of course, to the Holocaust, as well as to the triumphs. Facing the Nazis and lacking a country of their own, Sacks marvels on the soundtrack in renewed horror, "millions of Jews were in danger and there was nowhere they could go. On all the vast surface of the earth, there was not one inch Jews could call home." There is no shying away, either, from the imperative to share our promised land with its Arab inhabitants. But there is clarity about who is responsible for peace having eluding Israel thus far. "The land, small though it was, had to be divided," Sacks intones. And the Jews "accepted every partition proposal" in the years before our sovereignty was restored. Having then emerged victorious, impossibly, in the 1948 war - 600,000 people holding sway, he notes, over armies drawn from a surrounding Arab population of 45 million - Israel nonetheless stuck to the narrative of peace, stressing its paramount importance in the Declaration of Independence. The conflict is not a zero sum game, he observes. "From violence, both sides lose. From peace, both sides gain. What matters therefore is that we work for peace. A peace that will allow Israel and the Palestinians each to live in dignity without fear. A peace in which each makes space for the other, a peace in which the children of Abraham - Jews, Christians and Muslims - live together as brothers and sisters, part of the same extended family..." Sacks's own connection to Israel, he recounts on the discs, dates to the rabbinical great-grandfather who arrived here from Lithuania in 1871 "and built the first house" in Petah Tikva... "Today, it's the sixth-largest city in Israel." And he is particularly adept in encapsulating the triumphs from those pioneering days to the present, the achievements we ourselves too often take for granted: learning to cultivate desolate lands, reviving an ancient language, integrating new arrivals from around the world, creating the political and economic infrastructure of a nation, prevailing in war after existential war, resolutely maintaining a free and democratic society in a ruthless region alien to such values, and flourishing economically, scientifically, culturally, religiously - in short, as he says, defying "the normal parameters of history." IN ESSENCE, Sacks's text is a fierce championing of Zionism - an articulate recitation of what ought to be utterly familiar to everybody worldwide, but much of which is, dismally, disputed by many, and barely known even to all Jews, in Israel or overseas. In our conversation, Sacks, who has himself appropriately just turned 60, pays tribute to the "immense strength" of the Israeli public, noting with admiration how we came through such potentially wrenching and tearing processes as the Gaza withdrawal. But he says he wonders sometimes "whether Israel has forgotten its own narrative. "I believe that the central thrust of the prophetic narrative is that Israel as a nation survives on the basis of its morale - or to use an abused word, its faith. So the sense of demoralization I found during the Second Lebanon War is deeply worrying," he elaborates. "Everything I read about Israeli problems is about tomorrow or the day after, the ping-pong of diplomacy. I don't read enough about national identity and collective belonging.... People have not succeeded in creating a collective narrative. That's quite serious." He notes, in the interview and on the CD, that the greatest empires in history, throughout history, attacked Israel, and that Israel was tiny and the Jewish people vulnerable and these empires seemed impregnable. The first reference to Israel outside the Bible, he points out with delicious irony, is an ancient obituary notice, on the 13th-century BCE Merneptah Stele. "It says, 'Israel is laid waste, her seed is no more,'" he quotes. And yet, 32 centuries later, all those empires have "been consigned to the dustbins of history while Am Yisrael Chai, the people of Israel lives." But from that same historical perspective, he highlights in our interview that all of Israel's exiles down the ages "came about because of the inability to live peaceably with each other. This divisive tendency is the single most recurring danger in Jewish life. There's only one people capable of destroying the Jewish people, God forbid, and that is the Jewish people." Sacks recalls that at the time of Yitzhak Rabin's peacemaking efforts in the early and mid-1990s, he publicly defended the prime minister, but also wrote him a private letter urging him to engage in greater dialogue among the Jews. He didn't hear back from Rabin right away. Only returning to England from Rabin's funeral, he went to see the Israeli ambassador, who handed him a letter that had just arrived in the diplomatic mail - "possibly one of the last that Rabin wrote." It was, says Sacks, a "beautiful letter," a three-page reply in which Rabin insisted he was engaged in intra-Jewish dialogue and that there was no need to exaggerate the internal differences. Rabin "didn't see the danger coming," says Sacks. And yet even the assassination, he adds soberly, did not set in motion that necessary search for a collective Jewish narrative. The Israeli-Arab conflict, he says, "will continue for a long time." In the meantime, Israel, apart from political and diplomatic processes, "must ask itself: 'What are the long term things we have to do to endure and to hold together?'" SACKS RAISED 125,000 to 150,000 pounds to produce these CDs, from private donors who enthusiastically backed the project. He's made 200,000 copies to send worldwide. (This newspaper expects to be part of the distribution process in the coming weeks.) They are primarily intended, he says, for Diaspora Jews. They may speak to Christians as well, he says. And if they resonate with Israelis, then that would be "great" too. "I've tried to create not only a narrative but to invest it with the kind of emotion it needed," he says. "I just want people to listen to it." He's entitled the CDs, "Israel - Home of Hope." I hope they'll find the audience he seeks. I hope he'll widely publish his accompanying text - in Hebrew, too. But I also hope he won't think his work is done in sending out the discs. He should, rather, utilize them to kickstart a new invigoration of Diaspora Jewish outreach. Diaspora Jews must be challenged not to remain seated, listening passively to his astute sermonizing. He needs to urge them to use his rhetorical ammunition to determinedly fight for Israel, and for their own status, by spreading this honest Israeli narrative in the court of global public opinion. For more empathetically, accurately, movingly and persuasively than most any other attempt, Sacks's self-styled "unusual project for a chief rabbi" captures the profundity of our connection to Israel, the insistent maintenance of our identity through centuries of bleak and bloody exile, and the dizzying "affirmation of life" that enabled us to rebuild our homeland after the unspeakable evil of the Holocaust and through the past six decades. Spread the word, Rabbi Sacks. And may the world finally listen.