Herzog or Orwell?

June 7, 2011 by

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When Theodore Herzl saw the mobs outside a Paris courtroom screaming, “Death to Dreyfus, death to the Jews”, he knew that there was no future for the Jews in Europe. The visceral hatred that he witnessed was enough to persuade him that profound anti semitism prevailed in the hearts of his French kinsmen. Herzl dreamed of a homeland where Jews could live normal lives free from persecution and so modern Zionism was born. All who came to these shores in the face of anti-Semitism and persecution have reason to be grateful to him.

I was educated in the cradles of religious Zionism which promised so much more than than a refuge for the hunted Jews of the world and the normalization of the Jewish people. Idealistic rabbis offered a thrilling vision of our return to our ancestral homeland in which we would once again live out our Jewish values, building the most just and ethical society. The State of Israel would give us the space, the population and the governmental apparatus to build a truly outstanding society. This would culminate in the Messianic state in which justice and loving kindness would rule supreme.

Their message had no overtones of racism, on the contrary, we were taught that God had chosen Abraham because he was a man of justice and loving kindness (Genesis 18:19). We learned the most oft repeated Biblical law is to love and care for the stranger. These attitudes were cemented in our study of the works of the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, Isaac Herzog, who ruled that Christians and Moslems were entitled to full civil rights in the Jewish State. Even our eschatology made room for people of different beliefs based on King Solomon’s declaration at the dedication of the Temple that it would be a place of prayer for all nations. (1 Kings 8)

What then are we to make of what happened on Yom Yerusahalyim this year? How should we understand the horrifying scenes of hundreds of religious Zionist youths standing in front of a mosque in East Jerusalem waving the Israeli flag and taunting the residents with chants of “Mohammed is dead” How should we react to the same mob marching through the streets of East Jerusalem screaming, “Burn down your villages, slaughter the Arabs”?

In George Orwell’s 1984, the animals of the farm lead a revolution against their tyrannical farmer and his cohorts. The revolution is forged by the pigs who speak eloquently about how the animals will act differently to the murderous men. Cruelty will be a thing of the past and society will be ruled by the principles of justice for all. It is an exciting vision and all of the birds and animals throw in their lot with their idealistic leadership. But gradually, the pigs begin adopting the same methods as the humans. The book ends with the other animals peering through the windows as the pigs and humans negotiate a truce, “The creatures outside looked from pig to man and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which”.

Religious Zionism originally stood for the highest standards of ethics, and justice. Chief Rabbi Herzog and the other leaders of the movement understood that the Jewish State faced implacable enemies and that it must stand strong and defend itself. Nevertheless, they guided our nation in the ways of ethics and loving kindness.

The vile, racist ideologies which some of our young people are imbibing is an anathema to these values. The time has come for our rabbis, educators, political leaders and law enforcement agencies to speak up and root out this evil from our midst. That way, we can return to the wondrous vision of the State of Israel not only as a refuge for Jews, but as a democratic Jewish State guided by ethics of loving kindness and justice for all its citizens.


Gideon Sylvester is rabbi of the United Synagogue’s Tribe Israel, and directs the Beit Midrash for Human Rights at Hillel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Sponsored by the Hillel Foundation and Rabbis for Human Rights)



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