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Rabbi Sacks on the connection between Judaism and Israel

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How can Anti-Zionism be the new antisemitism? Surely there’s no connection between them. Antisemitism is hatred of Jews as a people, a race, an ethnic group. Anti-Zionism is objection to a country, a nation, a state. What’s the connection between them?

Antisemitism is a virus that mutates, so that new antisemites can deny they are antisemites at all, because their hate is different from the old. In the Middle Ages Jews were hated for their religion. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century they were hated for their race. Today they are hated for their nation state, Israel.

What then is the connection between Jews as a people, Judaism as a religion, and Israel as a state? The connection between the Jewish people and Israel goes back long before the birth of either Christianity or Islam. Jews created a society there in the days of Joshua, a kingdom in the days of Saul, and a nation with Jerusalem as its capital in the days of King David: all this more than 3,000 years ago.

Jews are the only people who ever created a nation state there. At all other times in the past 3,000 years it was merely an administrative district in an empire whose centre was elsewhere: the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Alexandrian, Roman and Byzantine empires, the Crusaders of the Holy Roman Empire, the various Muslim empires such as the Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids, Mamluks and Ottomans, and finally the British. Jews are the only people who have maintained a continuous presence in the land. They are its indigenous, original inhabitants.

The November 1947 United Nations vote to bring Israel into existence was a momentous reversal of imperialism. It gave back to the Jewish people the home taken from them by empire after empire. Israel was the only non-artificial creation in the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The rest ­– among them Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Yemen – were artificial creations that hadn’t been states before, which is why most of them still exist in a condition of ethnic, religious and tribal strife. Only Israel had previously existed as a nation state.

That’s the unbreakable connection between Israel and the Jewish people. The connection between Israel and Judaism is equally ancient and fundamental. It is more than just as Robert Frost said, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Read the Hebrew Bible and you’ll see immediately that it isn’t about the salvation of the soul. It’s about creating in the holy land a society based on the biblical ideas of justice, welfare, the sanctity of life – and caring for the stranger “because you know what it feels like to be a stranger.”

Judaism began with two journeys to the land, one by Abraham and Sarah, the other by the Israelites in the days of Moses. At least half of the 613 commandments of the Bible are only applicable to the land of Israel. And though in the centuries of exile and dispersion Jews lived in almost every land under the sun, Israel has remained a focus of their prayers and the only place where they have been able to do what every other nation takes for granted, construct their own society in the light of their own ideals.

Judaism differs from the other Abrahamic monotheisms, Christianity and Islam, in that it is the only one of the three that never created or sought to create an empire. It was the imperialism of the Roman emperor Hadrian that led him in the 2nd century to change the country’s name to Palestine, one of the first, but certainly not the last, deliberate falsifications of history by those who seek to deny the Jewish people’s right to their land.

There are 56 Islamic nations, and 159 in which Christians form the majority. There is and only ever has been one Jewish state, tiny and vulnerable though it is and always was. That is why Anti-Zionism, denying Jews the right to their one and only collective home by misrepresenting Judaism, is the new antisemitism, every bit as virulent and dangerous as the old.