Yom Ha’atzmaut 5758: Israel 50

Service at St John’s Wood Synagogue, London

April 29, 1998
The Prince of Wales, centre, wearing a kippa (skull cap), with the Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks, left, and the Israeli Ambassador to the UK Dror Zeigerman, right, at the United Synagogue in St Johns Wood, London tonight. The Prince attended a service to mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel. PA Photo/pool/WPA.   (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

Speech by Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks at a special service for Israel's Fiftieth Anniversary, in the presence of HRH The Prince of Wales.


Let me begin, Your Royal Highness, by saying how much we are honoured by your historic visit tonight, and how moved we are that you have chosen to identify with this moment of celebration in the life of the Jewish people.

Your presence symbolises the warm relationship that has existed between Britain and the Jewish community over the past three centuries and more. The Jews who came here were often fleeing from persecution. They sought a haven and they found a home. We have received much from Britain and we have tried to give much back in return, to its arts and sciences, its business and industry, its law and medicine, its politics and civil life. We are a small community. Indeed, as an American writer once said, the entire world population of Jewry is smaller than the statistical error in the Chinese census. And yet our contribution has been greater than our numbers, because in the words of that great Victorian Jew Sir Moses Montefiore, we believe that we are worth what we are willing to share with others. Britain gave us the chance to give and to belong.

More than that. Britain never asked of us or our ancestors that we compromise our faith. She knew as we knew that we are Britons not despite but because we are Jews. When my grandparents came to this country a century ago they found a culture that valued our traditions, knowing that they gave us strength and spiritual energy and high moral ideals. And that is why we so value your intention, signalled not least by your presence here tonight, to be Defender, not just of your own faith, but of faith itself and the many faith communities in Britain. We believe that it is precisely by being faithful to our Jewish heritage, religious heritage that we make our greatest contribution to the life of this country, because it is only by being true to what we uniquely are that we can give what only we can give. That is why we have embarked on so many projects in recent years to strengthen Jewish identity in Britain, knowing that it is confidence in your own faith that allows you to be respectful of others.

And so, Your Royal Highness, in this year in which you and I share with the State of Israel our fiftieth birthday, we wish you blessing and success, and may the Divine spirit be with you in all you do.

Tonight we celebrate the birth of the State of Israel. But in truth, the story we remember goes back, not fifty years, but almost four thousand years, to the first recorded words of the history of our people, God?s command to Abraham and Sarah to travel to the land which He showed them and promised to their children. And in a real sense that has been the Jewish journey ever since; surely the longest journey in the history of mankind; undertaken by the Israelites in the days of Moses; again in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah; and for a third time in our time.

And whenever Jews were exiled, they never lost faith that one day they would return. Already in Babylon, six centuries before the birth of Christianity, more than a thousand years before the birth of Islam, Jews sat and wept when they remembered Zion, and vowed never to ?forget thee, O Jerusalem?. And they never did. Wherever they were, they prayed towards Jerusalem. At every Jewish wedding they broke a glass in its memory. On the Ninth of Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the two Temples, they mourned the loss of the city as if it happened yesterday. The French author Chateaubriand, visiting the land at the end of the eighteenth century, wrote that the Jewish people ?has seen Jerusalem destroyed seventeen times, yet there exists nothing in this world which can discourage it, or prevent it from raising its eyes to Zion.? As long as there has been as people of Israel, we have been part of the land and the land has been part of us. The State of Israel is the realisation of an ancient dream.

But it is also the product of a modern nightmare. In 1879 a terrible word entered the human vocabulary, coined by the German journalist Wilhelm Marr. The word was ?anti-semitism?. Within two years pogroms had broken out in more than a hundred towns in Russia, sending millions of Jews into flight. In 1894 the Dreyfus Affair in France had exposed a seam of anti-Jewish sentiment in the very home of the nation-state. And by the time of the first Zionist Congress in 1897 many Jews had become convinced that the world was no longer safe for them. How right they were. Within fifty years, by the time of the United nations Resolution which paved the way for the State of Israel, two-thirds of Europe?s Jews had been murdered. In 1939, when Jews turned to the nations of the world for refuge, with few exceptions they found the doors closed. It was then that the Jews realised that there was no place on earth that they could yet call home, 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 in.

And so after the Holocaust the State of Israel became the declaration on the part of the nations of the world that the Jewish people must have a home. And on the part of the Jewish people it became an immense affirmation of life in the face of death.

Two and a half thousand years ago one of the prophets of Israel, who had gone into exile in Babylon, had a haunting vision. His name was Ezekiel, and in his vision he saw a valley of bones and heard the voice of God asking, ?Shall these bones live.? And then, as he watched, he saw the bones come together and take on flesh and then skin; and they began to live again. And God said, ?Son of man, these bones are the house of Israel. They say, our bones are dried up, our hope is lost; we are cut off. Therefore prophesy and say to them, thus says God, O My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.?

Can there be any more compelling metaphor for what has happened to the Jewis h people in our time? Which Jew in 1945 could have been blamed for saying, ?Our hope is lost. We are cut off.? But out of the valley of despair, the State of Israel arose. A ravaged people came together in the land of our ancestors, and there built one of the great states of the modern world. Out of a barren landscape they created farms and forests. Escaping tyranny they built one of the world?s liveliest democracies. They made the Hebrew language, the language of the Bible, live again. They made the citadels of Jewish learning flourish again. Because of Israel, Jews have been rescued from every country where they have faced persecution. Because of Israel Jews around the world breathe a freer air. Israel is our transition from the shadow of death to the land of life.

Perform this experiment in your mind. Think for a moment of the famous photograph taken in the Warsaw ghetto, of a young Jewish child, his arms upraised, terror in his eyes, as he is being herded to a concentration camp.

And now let another image come into your mind, of Jerusalem on a Sabbath afternoon, the stillness broken only by the sound of children playing in the streets, unafraid and free. Those two images tell the story of what has changed in Jewish life in our time.

Today we remember the vision and courage of those early pioneers who settled the land and built the foundations of the State. And we remember the difficulties they faced. On the very day of Israel?s birth it was plunged into war on all its borders by all neighbours; and it has lived with the threat of war and terror ever since. Earlier today, on Israel?s Remembrance Day, we recalled with sadness the twenty thousand men and women who died defending their country so that Israel should exist. A few days ago, on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Day, we remembered the millions who died because Israel did not yet exist. But above all, we stand in amazement at this old-new people in the old-new land who refused to despair in the face of unparalleled tragedy. And I believe that, in this respect, Israel carries a message not for Jews alone but for all of humanity, the message that hope is not in vain; and that faith gives us the strength to rebuild the ruins and begin again.

But tonight our joy is not yet complete. One challenge still remains: the search for peace. I wonder if anyone who has not known the depths of Jewish suffering through the ages can understand how deeply the desire for peace is etched in the heart of almost every Jew. I remember walking through Jerusalem a few days before the Gulf War, when Israelis already knew that missile attacks would be launched against them, and did not yet know whether they would contain chemical weapons. And I came across a group of Holocaust survivors, carrying placards saying: ?We came to Israel to escape the threat of death and now we face it again.? Perhaps nowhere more than the State of Israel is the elemental human drama played out and the fundamental questions raised: can different faiths co-exist? Can different peoples live together? Can enemies ever become friends? Can peace prevail over the forces that make for war?

In just a few days? time, on May 4th, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Yassir Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian authority, will meet here in London for talks with the American Secretary of State, Madelaine Albright. And now surely is the time to break the deadlock in negotiations and to move forward, if necessary a step at a time, on the long road to coexistence.

Israel has shown great courage in war. It must now show no less courage in the search for peace. At the heart of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians are two peoples uniquely capable of understanding one another?s pain. Let those shared tears unite us as we search for a way out of the maze of human conflict. Let us be zealots in pursuit of peace. And to the Palestinians we say, let your peace mean peace, not a continuation of war by other means, not a mere temporary suspension of hostilities. And yet there is hope. The very existence of the State of Israel after nearly two thousand years of dispersion testifies to the power of hope sustained by prayer. And no less than we prayed for the return to Zion, we prayed for peace. And if one prayer was answered, so will the other - and it cannot be too soon.

So tonight we give thanks to God for the land and the State of Israel which brought our people from darkness to light, from slavery to freedom, from death to new life. And we pray, Oseh shalom bimromav - may He who makes peace in His high places make peace for us and all Israel.