The “Merneptah Stela”– also known as the “Israel Stela”– was erected in 1209 BCE in Pharaoh Merneptah’s funerary temple at Thebes. This victory ode of the Egyptians over the inhabitants of Canaan, provides the earliest reference to ancient Israel outside of the Hebrew Bible. For us, the important part of the victory ode reads: “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not; Hurru became a widow because of Egypt.” The symbol for “Israel” in the stela text is one of a “people” not a “city.”
The people of Israel are at least 3,200 years old. Old Pharaoh Merneptah is embalmed and entombed. But we are about to celebrate year 5784 in the Hebrew calendar with joy – but with tears for those murdered by terrorists. So much for Israel being “laid waste.”
When I think of this premature monument to victory, I think of our people’s long history, in Israel and in the Diaspora. What has struck me recently is a story by highly-regarded Hebrew writer Haim Hazaz, born in Ukraine who later escaped pogroms, settling first in what is now Istanbul, heading to Paris and Berlin, and finally immigrating to Eretz Yisrael in 1931. The story is titled “The Sermon (in Hebrew Haderasha)” and it was published in 1942.
And it is built on a lie. That lie reflects the Zionism from which Hazaz emerged. And in my opinion although necessary for the time in which he lived (1898-1973), the rant of his mouthpiece, Yudka, is self-destructive. Hazaz presents Yudka in a heroic light, a quiet and strong kibbutznik who dares to protest his fellow workers. In fact, the writer presents Yudka’s rant as the stand-in for a rabbinic sermon on a Friday night but in a decidedly secular milieu. And this “sermon” is a classic of Israel’s literature.
I wish I could repeat every word of this bitter story. It is filled with contempt for Judaism, the Talmud, Jewish History, and the Diaspora – and all Jews–“Klal Yisrael.” Let me start at the beginning. Yudka protests “You’ve already heard that I’m opposed to Jewish history… I want to explain why. Just be patient for a little while… First, I will begin with the fact that we have no history at all. That’s a fact.”
Then a bit later he goes on, not about our vital and rich history but about his fixation on “no history” – “I don’t recognize it, it doesn’t exist for me! What’s more, I don’t respect it, although ‘respect’ is not the word, still I don’t respect it... I don’t respect it all! But the main thing is, I’m opposed to it. What I mean is, I don’t accept it... ”
“I don’t accept it!” he repeated, writes Hazaz, with the stubborn insistence of one who has come to a final, fixed opinion. “Not a single point. Not a line, not a dot. Nothing… nothing at all.” He tells his fellow kibbutzniks “Jewish history is dull, uninteresting.” And Yudka coaches the boys’ soccer team. He goes on “I would just say to them: “Boys, from the days we were driven out of our land we’ve been a people without a history. Class dismissed. Go out and play football… ”
Do Israelis agree with Yudka?
I WILL not go on with Yudka’s words of hate, which get worse. I just wonder how many Israelis today agree with Yudka. It is pathetic. It does not bode well for the future.
The brilliant Jewish historian Salo Baron, writing 20 years after Hazaz wrote Haderasha, living in America, opposed the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history,” protesting the thesis of great 19th-century Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz who focused on the main elements of Jewish experience throughout history: to be suffering and spiritual scholarship.
Unlike Yudka, Graetz and Baron must have found it worthwhile to write many volumes on the complexities of Jewish history, especially in the Diaspora. Whether you love or hate the Diaspora today, whether you think the Diaspora will end in assimilation and Israel will survive and thrive as a Jewish State and democracy, whether you will never make aliyah or you believe every Jew should “come home” to Israel, the notion of the pre-modern Diaspora as a “black hole” of suffering and persecution and exile – presented by Hazaz in The Sermon – is, at best, ignorant and, at worst, self-hating.
Yes, European Jewry ended in Nazi genocide and Jews from Arab and Islamic lands were eventually forced to be refugees. And true, Jews suffered much persecution and exile in pagan, but mostly in Christian and Muslim lands. Autonomy was not ideal and the Jews in the Exile knew it.
They would not give up on sovereignty. The return to Zion was a part of a Jew’s life every day, if not in the Grace after Meals, than in prayer three times a day. That events in the modern period ended a system of self-government that was usually successful, Jews held on to the old rabbinic oaths of not rebelling against non-Jewish authority and not creating Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael without a messiah – and by listening to their rabbis to stay in Europe, they paid a horrific price.
For those Reform Jews who never wanted to be accused of dual loyalty, in the end it did not matter to the Germans who vandalized their synagogues and eventually murdered them. But that is the last act in this drama.
A reviewer and an audience should take into account the whole production. All roads did not lead to Auschwitz.
Yudka is an extremist, as much a threat to Israel as Edah Haredit. I will tell you of Golden Ages and Silver Ages from ancient Alexandria and Babylonia to medieval Muslim and Christian Spain, to 300 years of Jewish international merchants in the Rhineland, to the Jewish cultural and intellectual figures of the Italian Renaissance, to the self-governing Council of the Four Lands in early modern Poland, to Jews’ successes in the Sultan’s court of the Ottoman Empire. Yes, Jews were institutionally humiliated wherever they went. And the Golden Ages and Silver Ages could end very badly with forced conversion or death (1096 in the Rhineland, 1141 in Muslim Spain) or forced conversion or exile (in Christian Spain 1492). But Yudka is a relic of a Zionist past that embraced revolution and assumption of a new non-Exilic identity. He does not serve us well in Israel or the Diaspora. To Haim Hazaz: Let us raise a generation proud of its history. We must know our past to have a future.
The writer is a rabbi, essayist, and lecturer living in West Palm Beach, Florida.