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||Perspectives on the Arab-Israeli Conflict
CAN A COUNTRY BE BORN IN A DAY?
By British Chief Rabbi Professor Jonathan Sacks
Sermon delivered at a sabbath service in a Central London
synagogue, 13 April 2002, corresponding to the Jewish
New Moon of Iyar 5762
Source Information from
This speech was circulated on the Internet in April 2002
and is reproduced verbatim by Beyond Images. We have provided
explanations in italics for certain of the Hebrew expressions
"Who has ever heard of such a thing?
Who has seen anything like it?
Can a country be born in a day?
Or a nation be brought forth in a moment?
Yet Zion laboured and gave birth to her children immediately.
Shall I bring to labour and not give delivery? says God.
Shall I bring to birth and then close the womb? Says your God
. . .
As a mother comforts her son,
So will I comfort you,
and in Jerusalem you will find comfort."
(Isaiah 66: 8-9, 13)
Isaiah's words, which we read this morning as the haftorah [additional
biblical reading] for Shabbat Rosh Chodesh [the Jewish
New Moon], are more than a simple vision. They tell us
what it is to be a prophet.
No one was more severe in his criticisms of Israel than Isaiah.
The first chapter of the book that bears his name is one of
the greatest acts of social criticism in the religious history
of mankind. To this day we read it on the Shabbat before Tisha
b'Av [the fast day of the ninth of Av, commemorating the
destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem.].
Yet when Israel was in crisis, Isaiah didn't say, 'I told you
so.' He didn't say, 'You are to blame.' He brought his people
comfort. He gave them strength. More than strength, he gave
False prophets are with their people when times are good, and
desert their people when things are bad. True prophets are the
exact opposite. When times are good, they argue against complacency
in the name of high ideals. But when things are bad, they lift
the spirits of their people, by being with them in their distress,
and giving them the courage to fight on.
Isaiah foresaw that the return to Zion would be difficult.
Israel would face enemies from without and divisions from within.
And at that moment Isaiah turns to his people and gives them
'Can a country be born in a day? Or a nation be brought forth
in a moment?' The return to Zion, he says, will be like no other
event in history. It will seem as if almost overnight a nation
was reborn: something that never happened before or since. A
people would return from exile; from slavery they would rediscover
freedom and come back to their ancient home.
And then the prophet says the crucial words. 'Shall I bring
to labour and not give delivery? Shall I bring to birth and
then close the womb?' Rashi [the leading commentator on
the Bible] explains: Having begun the process of redemption,
I will not stop halfway. Whatever difficulties you face, whatever
battles you have to fight, do not despair. For G-d has not brought
you back to the land only to desert you, G-d forbid. Just as
He was with you at the beginning, so He will be with you on
the way. And in words that, to this day, we still say to give
strength to the bereaved, the prophet adds, "As a mother
comforts her son, So will I comfort you, and in Jerusalem you
will find comfort." Just as G-d has brought His people
back to Jerusalem, so He will give them the comfort and courage
to survive their terrible losses and afflictions.
Those words, thousands of years old, might have been written
We stand between two days of the Jewish year, Yom Hashoa [Holocaust
Memorial day] last Tuesday, Yom Ha'Atzmaut [Israel's
Independence Day] this coming Wednesday, the days on which
we remember the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel.
Between them, they remind us why Israel exists: not just because
of the murder of one third of our people; not just because,
had Hitler succeeded, we would not be here today; but because,
when the nations of the world gathered in Evian, France, in
1938, in full knowledge of the danger Jews in Europe faced,
one country after another said: we have no room for the Jews.
On this whole vast planet, there was not an inch Jews could
The return to Zion didn't begin in 1938. It is as old as the
words of Isaiah. Jews did not voluntarily leave Israel. They
were driven out by other powers: first Babylon, then Rome, then
by the Crusaders. Whenever they could, they returned, even in
the dangerous days of the Middle Ages, as did Judah Halevi,
as did Nachmanides, as did the family of Maimonides until they
were forced to leave for Egypt. Jews never renounced their right
to the land, and never once, in all the centuries, stopped praying
for the day they would return. Long before the Holocaust, the
Balfour Declaration in 1917 gave expression to that right. And
yet there can be no doubt that what led the United Nations,
in 1947, to vote for a Jewish state, was the knowledge that
after the greatest crime of man against mankind, Jews needed
a home in the sense defined by the poet Robert Frost as the
place where, 'when you have to go there, they have to let you
It was a simple acknowledgement, tragically overdue, that Jews,
too, have rights, among them the most basic right of all: to
live, to exist, to be able to walk the streets, go on a bus,
have a meal in a restaurant, go into a shop, without the fear
that someone will attack you, injure you, murder you, because
you are what and who you are. No people was denied that right
for longer than the Jewish people. And without that right, there
are no others. And after the Holocaust, the nations of the world
finally recognised that this meant that the Jewish people needed
a home, a place where they could defend themselves, and not
rely on the goodwill of others; because when they needed it,
in 1938, it was not there.
Today the state and people of Israel is fighting for its life
in the most elemental sense. The right to life presupposes the
right to self-defence, and what applies to individuals applies
also to nations. That is why nations were created in the first
place, to secure the safety of their citizens. That, according
to every political philosophy, religious or secular, is the
very basis of the social contract, without which, said Hobbes,
life is 'nasty, brutish and short.' Deny a nation the right
to defend itself against violence and terror and you deny its
very right to exist. And yet that is what Israel's enemies and
critics are doing and saying today, a mere 54 years after its
birth, a mere 57 years after the Holocaust.
For the past 18 months, and increasingly over the past few
weeks, a war has been waged against Israel on two fronts: the
first on the streets and shops and buses of Jerusalem and Haifa
and Tel Aviv, a war of terror pure and simple, directed against
the innocent, against young and old, men, women and children,
terror blind in its hate and suicidal in its effects.
It would be hard to find, in the entire annals of human bloodshed,
a more perverse campaign than this. Those who have committed
it, or condoned it, or encouraged it, have claimed to be fighting
a jihad, a holy war. Never has there been a more unholy war,
a desecration of everything genuinely holy. To turn human beings
into bombs, to turn the murder of innocent citizens into an
act of martyrdom, to try and destroy the very people with whom
you claim to share an ancestry - this is not holy war. It is
a blasphemy against the very Creator of life who taught us to
cherish and sanctify life.
And yet there is no protest: not from the spiritual leaders
of Islam; not even from the spiritual leaders of Christianity;
and certainly not from the United Nations. Was this holy - to
organise a suicide bombing of innocent people in Netanya as
they gathered on one of the holiest nights of the year, [the
Passover] seder night, to tell the sacred story of freedom?
The Nazis planned the extermination of the Warsaw ghetto to
take place on Pesach [Passover], because they wanted to show,
G-d forbid, that there is no G-d. Until now, we never thought
that there could be a greater evil than this. But there is.
To do the same thing, and then claim that there is a G-d who
condones such things - this is a new low in the story of mankind.
Israel is a courageous people. It had to be, in order to survive.
And yet over Pesach, for the first time in history, ordinary
Israelis were traumatised by fear, not knowing whether a trip
to the local supermarket would turn into a tragedy, not knowing
whether their children would come back alive from a simple night
out drinking coffee with friends. No nation can live like this.
No nation should be expected to live like this. Not all the
attacks are reported in the news; only the most serious. So
most people have no idea that Israel, in the space of twelve
months, has suffered 7,732 acts of terror - more than 20 a day,
almost one every hour of every day for 365 days. If terror is
to be defeated anywhere, it must be defeated in Israel, because
Israel has suffered more, this past year, than any other of
the nations of the world. How can the West claim, as it does,
the right to fight terror and then deny that right to Israel?
How can it bomb the Taleban in Afghanistan and then protest
when Israel, with far greater care, attempts to root out the
suicide bombers who threaten its own citizens, not once or twice
but daily? Such double standards cannot exist if humanity is
But that is only the first front of the war being waged against
Israel. The second is more dangerous still. There is physical
evil; but there is also moral evil, and no one defined it better
than the prophet Isaiah himself. "Woe," he said, "to
those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for
light and light for darkness" (Isaiah 5: 20).
For the past eighteen months a vicious campaign has been mounted
against Israel in the press, the television, international forums
and public opinion. It consists in redefining acts of terror
as legitimate expressions of anger; and redefining Israel's
self-defence as an act of terror. As if Israel wanted any of
this to happen. As if it sought bloodshed, when it hates it.
As if it wanted war, when it has spent seven years pursuing
peace. What madness is it when Israel is branded the aggressor,
having offered the Palestinians, at Camp David and Taba, a state
of their own, with East Jerusalem as its capital, in the whole
of Gaza and 97 per cent of the West bank, with a further 3 per
cent of land from within Israel itself? If terror is legitimate
and self-defence is not, then crime is legitimate and the rule
of law is not. If the search for peace is called aggression,
and the breaking by Yasser Arafat of every undertaking he has
ever given is called leadership, then we have reached the stage
where evil is called good, and darkness hailed as light.
What then must we do? We must do what the prophet Isaiah taught
us to do - to bring comfort to a troubled people, and hope at
the brink of despair. We must remember that a mere week in the
Jewish calendar, a mere three years in history, separate Yom
Hashoa from Yom Ha-Atzmaut. A people who had come face to face
with the angel of death, within three years was reborn as a
free and sovereign people in the land of our beginnings. In
Isaiah's words: "Who has ever heard of such a thing? Who
has seen anything like it? Can a country be born in a day? Or
a nation be brought forth in a moment?"
Not only did Israel become a city of refuge for Jews facing
persecution throughout the world. But more than any other country
of its age and size, it has sought to be a blessing to others,
giving medical aid, technological aid, agricultural advice,
and humanitarian relief to any and every country that turned
to it for help. If there were any justice in the world, Israel
today, far from being condemned, should be hailed as a model
for every new country, every developing region, in how to sustain
democracy, create economic growth, revive an ancient language,
rebuild ancient ruins, and provide a home for refugees. Israel
is a living tutorial in hope; and if it is not allowed to defend
itself, then the world is condemning hope itself.
But there is something more. At the very heart of Judaism is
the word "emunah". Emunah is often translated as faith,
but that is not what it means. It means faithfulness, loyalty,
being there for someone else when they need you and not walking
away when times are hard. That is what Israel needs of us, the
Jews of the Diaspora, at this time. It does not ask us to support
this government, that Prime Minister, this party, that policy.
About these things we are entitled to disagree. What Israel
needs of us right now is loyalty. That is what Isaiah taught
us in today's haftorah [additional reading]. Yes, there
are times when we can be critics, as Isaiah himself was. But
not when Israel is in distress. Then we must show support. "As
a mother comforts her son, so will I comfort you and in Jerusalem
you will find comfort."
There are many ways to bring comfort: by defending Israel's
case, by writing to the press or to the local MP, by phoning
friends and relatives in Israel to let them know we are with
them, or simply by prayer, our oldest and greatest source of
strength. There will be Yom Ha-atzmaut services throughout the
country on Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning, and a solidarity
rally in Wembley Conference Centre on Wednesday. Let us show
the people of Israel that they are not alone; that we are with
them. And let us remember Isaiah's faith that G-d, who brought
His people home, would one day give them peace. No people need
it more. No people have earned it more. "Hashem oz le-amo
yiten", May G-d give strength to His people in this hour
of trial. "Hashem yevarech et amo vashalom". And may
He give them the one blessing they cherished more than any other.
Peace, speedily in our days, Amen.
Chief Rabbi Professor Jonathan Sacks, London