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16th November 2023 / 27 Cheshvan, 5784, Parashat Chayei Sarah

Updated: Nov 24, 2023


Every year when Remembrance Sunday approaches, I, a Rabbi, feel extremely uncomfortable. Remembrance Sunday is a day devoted to the memory of those fallen in war. In both world wars. It is not a glorification of war - far from it - but some people use the date to glorify war. Its annual recurrence also has a nationalist undertone, which is not wholly consistent with Jewish values.

Because Judaism is a religion of peace. We pray for shalom, peace, in the Amidah, three times a day. The Halacha, the Jewish law, is an extraordinary source for those seeking conflict resolution. The ancient Rabbis, whose teachings are collected in the Talmud, teach that there are no winners in war: both sides lose, only in different ways.

In Judaism, there is an undercurrent of opposition not only to wars but to nationalism, too. You can find it in Yiddish proverbs such as "What is a language? It is a dialect with an Army". You can find it in jokes, such as the story of the two Jews who want to enrol in the newly-formed Israeli Navy. The recruiting officer asks the usual questions, including whether they can swim. And one says to the other - in Yiddish - "See? They say they have a Navy but they don't even have any ships!"

Nationalism and symbols of nationalism have the potential of making us Jews very uncomfortable. See, for example, the problem of mentioning the name of God when we sing the national anthem. Or the debate about whether to have the flag in American synagogues and how to worship in the presence of a flag; the basic principle being: you do not want to be seen bowing your head in front of a non-Jewish flag.

Also, nationalists are very rarely friends of the Jews. They often regard us Jews with suspicion. The nationalists do not like a minority whose members are citizens of another Country. The nationalist wonders, "Where do these folks stand when my Country engages in war with their Country?" Here's another reason why nationalism is so un-Jewish: it postulates a continuous state of war. While Judaism strives for peace.

Nationalists regard war as a sacred duty. Ancient Rabbis looked at war and saw human sacrifice. To the nationalists, the national flag is something to die for. To the ancient Rabbis, the national flag, like every flag, was an idol. Not different from the crucifix: a symbol of another faith, to whom a Jew is ordered not to pay honour. Nationalists publicly worship their flag and other symbols, on certain calendar days, with religious acts: standing still, keeping silent at a certain moment, ritually bowing, etc. The ancient rabbis thought that these kind of acts were pagan ceremonies.

The thing is that we are a nation in exile.

We have been living for thousands of years exiled from our Motherland after the destruction of the Temple. During centuries of exile, despite persecution, Jewish civilisation blossomed and produced masterpieces. It developed poetry, liturgy, and prayers – through which our exiled condition will be remembered for all time.

In Jewish marriages, in the most joyous moment, we break a glass to remember the Temple's destruction and the beginning of the exile. We are the only faith incorporating a painful moment into our most joyous celebration; our weddings.

Being in exile is one of the foundations of Judaism. And exile is the opposite of nationalism. Jews pride themselves on speaking, writing and thinking in many languages. We are proud of our cosmopolitanism. We admire people who travel and pity those who spend their lives stuck in the same village in their home country.

Those of us who have lived through the 90’s and have seen the fall of the Berlin Wall remember the enthusiasm with which everybody envisioned the end of national boundaries and the rise of a new, supra-national, cosmopolitan identity.

For a couple of decades, it was valuable to be deraciné, cosmopolitan. The benefits seemed obvious. If all humanity feels as if it is in exile and we all feel deraciné, then there will be no nationalism. And no nationalism, we believed, would mean no war. What's not to like?

But in those same years, in a corner of Europe, the Balkans, nationalism raised its ugly face. I don't think I have to go into the details to remember the horrors of the long series of wars which followed the fall of Communist Yugoslavia. All the reasons why the ancient Rabbis despised war were there in full sight.

The murder of civilians - human sacrifices. Rape and ethnic cleansing. Pagan ceremonies: brute drunk barbarians took advantage of the spoils of war and then murdered them. Not to mention how organised crime profited from those wars - and we are talking about slavery, sexual or otherwise. And, as in every nationalist conflict, antisemitism was on full display on every side of that bloody conflict.

So that was the 90’s. On one side, the rise of the European Union, with the promise of making nationalism and wars things of the past, the fulfilment of a Messianic vision. On the other side, on European soil, a bloody, tribal, horrific war, during which nationalism showed its barbaric and idolatrous nature.

And yet. It's true that during the Balkans wars, all sides committed atrocities. It happens in every war. But one should look into more detail - into motivation. If we do this, one can see that on one side, the Albanians in Kosovo had led a non-violent resistance for decades; they had built a network of independent schools and produced books and newspapers. Whilst Serbian nationalism had always had bloody, warlike connotations. Its foundation is the assertion that wherever a Serbian warrior died - during the battle for Kosovo in 1389 - that spot became holy Serbian land. And that land was, guess what, Kosovo.

Serbian nationalists were motivated by the same pan-Slavic ideology that Putin is waging today with the goal of exterminating the Ukrainians: based on an incestuous connection between the State and Church (the Orthodox Church), to assert an ethnic superiority.

Whilst in Kosovo, the Albanians have been trying to build a State where the majority of the population is Muslim, but the State is secular, and all religions and ethnicities are equal in front of the law. A heroic effort - which, by the way, in the end, succeeded. Today, Kosovo is an independent state; its population is Muslim, and it is a secular state. It was a remarkable effort, especially at a time when Islamic fundamentalism was rising throughout Muslim Countries.

All nationalism seems the same: the stuff of barbarians and pagans - if we look at the conflicts in the Balkans from afar, perhaps from a flat in Paris or from some office in Brussels. Not that the European Union showed its best side during those conflicts... But if you look closer at the motivations and the history, you see how different the visions are. No war is a conflict between the God of Absolute Right and the idols of Absolute Evil. But motivation counts.

This brings me to the current war, between Israel and Hamas. There is a stream in Jewish thought that regards Jewish nationalism and Zionism as inauthentic, as not Jewish.

Unsurprisingly, its self-appointed exponents enjoy a lot of media attention: Jews who spend their time searching into Jewish sources to find reasons to condemn war (which is very easy to do). And by ‘war’ they mean the wars which involve the Jewish State. Jews who tomorrow will join the pro-Hamas demonstrations, while the remaining British Jews stand in sober silence remembering their fellow citizens, fallen in battle.

Why do they do it? Because they believe that nationalism is all the same. But a closer look at the reality shows that nationalism is not all the same. Serbian nationalists, Pan Slavic nationalists, like Hamas Islamists, aim to conquer one land and to subjugate all its population. They envision a future where everybody lives and behaves and works in the same way, under the direction of a totalitarian State, with no room for ethnic minorities, religious minorities and - not by chance - sexual minorities.

On the other hand, with all their mistakes, the Croatians, the Kosovans and the Jews in Israel are trying to build a different kind of society, to find a balance between the individual and the collective, between their religious traditions and the need of the current, secular world.

We have just passed Kristallnacht, so let me add a final thought. You may have noticed that pro-Hamas demonstrators refer all the time to the Holocaust. To them, the Israelis are Nazis, the Palestinians are victims of genocide, the Palestinians are the new Jews and blah blah blah.

You may be tempted to engage in a conversation with these people. But there is no point in introducing an element of reality in the midst of delirium. The Palestinian population has tripled since 1948; what a strange genocide...

That is because the Hamas supporters are religious obsessives. There's no way to win an argument with a religious fanatic; he will never take reality into consideration. The reason why they talk so much about Nazis is one: blatant ignorance. Plain and simple, they have not done their history homework. They shout, "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free," and do not even know which river they are shouting about.

The only bit of history they pretend to be familiar with is WWII. About which they know only one thing. That the Nazis were the bad guys. Hence, all bad guys, including the Israelis, are Nazis.

A train of thought remarkably similar to Putin and his followers, in whose eyes the Ukrainians are Nazis now, Nazis yesterday, Nazis tomorrow.

I have no pretension to teach "what Judaism says about the current war", mainly because there is so much in this war that we don't know about. But when I see blatant ignorance, and I hear slogans about Nazism and genocide, I know that I am dealing with fanatics, with obsessed people who cannot see nuances and differences.

It is useless, unhealthy, and even dangerous to waste time with obsessives and fanatics.

Leave them alone and enjoy the company of other reasonable Jews instead.


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