THE JEWISH SPRING.
Dan Diker is the Secretary-General of the World Jewish Congress. He was invited to address the Netanya Supporters of Laniado Hospital at the Young Israel Synagogue, on December 4, 2011.
Here is his speech;
It is fitting that we are meeting in this synagogue in celebration of the soul of Laniado Hospital. Laniado is the only hospital in Israel whose creation is the result of the vision of one of the great rabbinic scholars of the 20th century. Rabbi Halberstam spent days and nights in shuls like this. He is the soul and spirit of Laniado Hospital. An Arab patient choked back tears as he described how wonderfully the doctors and nurses treated him, as they treat every other patient in the hospital. Dr. Abdul al-Yechieh, a doctor in the Laniado emergency room, also spoke about “being part of the family.” In that sense the hospital is unique. However, in a broader sense, this is what Israel is at its best. Saving lives is so much a function of what Reb Halberstadt was in his life and how he turned the tragedy of the loss of his eleven children and his wife to the murderous machinery of the Nazis into one of the most beautiful life protecting and life giving institutions in Israel.
Though it is unique, on any given day it is what Israel and the Jewish people are at their very best. There is a larger story here because the “neshama”, the soul of the rabbi, and the” neshama” of the community he created reflects something about Israel that I would call “The Jewish Spring.”
You know a lot about the Arab Spring. You’ve read about it in the newspapers. What about the Jewish Spring? What is the Jewish Spring?
The Jewish Spring is the affirmation of the particular narrative of the Jewish people. It is the affirmation and reassertion of our memory, our rights, where we are today, what our destiny is, our claims, and the universal sense that the Jewish Spring is the essence of human rights and civil rights. The language of human rights that is used against us, against the Jewish people, against the State of Israel – is our language. It is the essence of what the Jewish Spring really is.
A year and a half ago, when hundreds of Israelis landed in Haiti to save the lives of thousands of people who were caught in a horrendous earthquake, they saved over a thousand lives by digging in the dirt. Seeing Dr. Avi Yizchak, an Ethiopian-Israeli doctor, leading that group of holy people – that is the Jewish Spring. That is Israel at its best. And we remember the tears of the CNN, Fox and even BBC journalists, when reporting about the “messirat nefesh” of the Jews, of the Israelis.
The Jewish Spring is about Israel absorbing 8,000 Sudanese refugees – Arab Muslim refugees fleeing genocide at the hands of other Arab Muslims by walking hundreds of kilometers to come to the only state in the region that they knew would save them – the Jewish state.
You need to see the report that came from Tel Aviv, from William Stephens, a South Sudan refugee and the head of the Sudanese community in Tel Aviv, who danced with the Israeli flag in his left hand, and the new flag of South Sudan in his right hand, when South Sudan announced as the 193rd member of the United Nations. What he said in Tel Aviv that night was that his prayer was that South Sudan would be as free, democratic, and open, as the State of Israel that had been his home for five years. That’s the Jewish Spring.
The Jewish Spring is when the State of Israel flies over a hundred thousand Ethiopians from certain death in a civil war to a new life and to a new hope in Israel. No country in the free world can take credit for that. In fact, we know what happens when Western countries go to Africa, which is not to liberate people from that continent. That is what makes the Jewish Spring uniquely special and unique to us.
I must share with you that in meetings with Arab officials they told me privately about their astonishment at the sight of three or four hundred thousand Israelis standing in Rabin Square protesting for a better economic life, for better housing prices, for the possibility of moving forward, without the threat of arrest, without violence, without bloodshed. Those Arab diplomats and officials told me how they watch their own TV and see a totally different reality on their streets. “How is it possible that nothing happens in your country when people demonstrate and protest?” they ask. “What is the trick?” Another diplomat turned to me and said, “That is what a free country is.” A free country is one that allows the people to sound off, to let some steam out, and to be able to do it without fear of reprisal. Even when ten thousand Jews were torn away from their homes in Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip, they went without raising a hand against the army and security forces of Israel, despite the enormous pain of those people who, for three generations, had lived there. It was an example to the world of a nation that accepts upon itself to be a free and democratic country.
Our Arab neighbours, who I have met, are noticing their own troubles. Even the media is calling the situation in Arab countries a cold spring, a winter, and even colder than that. Someone suggested it should be called “the winter of the Muslim discontent.” Clearly the Arab world is very anxious as the hope of an Arab Spring that it would be rooted in the same democracy that we see rooted in Netanya, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, and throughout this great country, has not come to the region.
In fact, the opposite is happening. Sixty percent of the votes in the first round of elections in Egypt went to radical Islamic parties. The Muslim Brotherhood took 40% and the Salafists, affiliated with Al-Qaida, have 20%. The analysts are saying it is just the beginning, that when they get to the higher houses in Egypt, and to the next two rounds of elections, we can expect that it will not be a liberal or a secular government in that country. The Muslim Brotherhood has not only strengthened its hand in Egypt. The Brotherhood and the Islamist parties are emerging in places we never imagined they would appear. Never mind Syria. Never mind Lebanon. Never mind Hamas, as the first Muslim Brotherhood de-facto state in the region. What about Morocco and Tunisia, which Western thinkers are calling “moderate Muslim Brotherhood” actors? This is the perception that the Muslim Brotherhood has always tried to create, that through elections, what they call “political Islam”, they will emerge victorious.
Those of us who are lucky enough to know what democracy really is, are aware that elections are clearly the last step in a multi-step process in building a free society from the ground up. That is not what is happening in our region, where is Iran in complete control of Lebanon as a proxy state, and of Hamas, despite Hamas being Sunni and Iran Shia. You may have read that the head of the Al-Quds Revolutionary Guard in Iran, the one who sent the force to break into the British Embassy in Tehran, said that if the United States and Israel and the rest of the West did not understand, there is not one Iran in the region. There are twelve Irans throughout the Middle East.
The Arab world looks at Israel as a stable, free, democratic, noisy, defiant, and great example to them. In fact, some years ago I held discussions at the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs with the deputy ambassador of Egypt, Dr. Ihab el-Sharif. He was an extraordinary man. He was the chargé d’affaires, educated at the Sorbonne, and a student of the West. He used to say “Why don’t you Israelis tell us of your history? Tell us about your narrative. What was the Temple about? Teach us your history. Teach us, the Arab world. Don’t remain silent. In the face of silence come volumes of our hateful propaganda.”
This is not to say that, if we did tell them of our history, the propaganda would stop but, nonetheless, there would be a strong counterweight against it. Dr. el-Sharif, a real friend of Israel, paid for that friendship with his life when he became the Egyptian Ambassador to Iraq. He was kidnapped by Al-Qaida and murdered. He paid for his friendship very dearly.
We can learn from the Arab upheaval. Look at the political will and determination of the people in the Arab street. I learned from a Palestinian friend, who was one of the senior members of the Palestinian Authority in charge of security forces. At that time, there was an attempt to create a Jordanian-Palestinian federation, which would be a preferable solution to the notion of forcing several hundred thousand Jews out of Judea and Samaria. My Palestinian colleague, with whom I went to Washington, would pray five times a day. His timing was curious because within ten minutes of every important meeting he would pray, and we were constantly late for these meetings. I said to him, “Could you pray just a few minutes earlier?” Not wanting to be late, I tried to prevail upon him to pray a little bit earlier so that we could get to these meetings on time. He said, “Nothing is more important than prayer. The White House is not more important. The President is not more important. The Vice-President is not more important.” I just had to be a bit more patient, and I was.When we returned to Israel there was a follow-up meeting in Ramallah. I went there as I had many times before. When I would go to Ramallah I would not wear my kippa. I would take it off and put it in my back pocket as we would be picked up by Palestinian Authority security and driven at about 190km an hour in a 30km zone and arrive in Ramallah. These meetings were held with the founding generation of the PLO, its Fatah faction. It was about 16:45 in the afternoon in the winter and time for Mincha prayers. I had a choice to make. Would I put on the kippa in the headquarters of the Fatah commander and his PLO buddies and risk my life, or would I not pray and simply let it go. The reality show personality in me took the decision to pray. I thought that if I lived through this experience I could then tell about it to a group of friends like you. So, I took this little prayer book, put on my kippa, and asked the PLO staff which way was al-Quds. One said one way, the other said another way. They started to argue. The sun was going down before they decided on the general direction. They sent me into the dining room, next to the running machine, and I started to pray towards Jerusalem, to the west, because Ramallah is to the north east of Jerusalem. I prayed – fast. They kept quiet, and I returned to the meeting, leaving the kippa on my head. My Palestinian friend asked, “Have you finished praying?”, and I said yes. And he asked, “Can we continue our meeting?”, and I said yes. From that incident I understood something that I had not understood before. When he prayed in Washington, he never had trouble with the notion of taking off his keffiya, never had trouble with the notion of being late for a meeting, and never had trouble with my praying in his hometown either. When we talk about the Jewish Spring, it is important to be assertive, self-confident, and proud. That was the moment that I will always remember – the respect, or in Arab terms, the honour, he accorded me as a believer in my own history, faith, and destiny.
Our Jewish Spring is not new, as we all know. It began with a revolution three thousand years ago. In fact, with all the human rights’ talk by our opponents, and by others who do not wish us well, we are the custodians of human rights and civil rights, which are but two aspects of the Jewish Spring. Three thousand years ago it was a reluctant prophet named Moshe who approached a cruel Egyptian tyrant, Pharoah, and demanded freedom for his people under law and liberty. It was the first time in history that anyone was successful in demanding a dictator to grant independence, freedom, sovereignty, liberty, and justice under law. It was that defining moment between Moshe and Pharoah that would become the paradigm for all the liberation movements for freedom and independence in the world as we know it today. What an inheritance!
It was that unlikely moment that we celebrate every spring – the Jewish Spring – at Pesach. It forms the underpinning to the French Revolution, the American Revolution, and other movements for freedom. It is important for us to talk about human rights and the Jewish custodianship over human rights. Human rights and civil rights are gifts that Jews have given the world. It was a Jew who denounced the word “genocide” and came up with the original language of the UN Genocide Convention of 1948. The Rome Statute on Universal Jurisdiction was also drafted by a Jew. Human rights and civil rights are Jewish gifts to the world, part of the Jewish Spring.
Why is it so important to talk about the Jewish Spring? Because our human rights, including our rights as people to sovereignty, our self-definition, is under threat. It is under threat by the Arab Spring with the anti-Semitic – not anti-Israel per se – comments and invective coming out of Tahrir Square. Five thousand people in Egypt, just the other day, called for killing the Jews.
Even more than that, we face a bigger problem.
We face a fundamental assault against our very right to our own nation state. The enemy is not just Hamas. The leaders of the political, diplomatic, legal, economic, and cultural wholesale assault against the Jewish people, are based in Ramallah. They are the leaders of the Palestinian Authority. They are not sending terrorists to blow themselves up in this city any more, but they are trying to terrorise us by using other means. The first thing they do is deny any existence of the Jewish people. Did you hear Mahmoud Abbas at the UN? He sent his regards from Palestine, the land of the Prophet (not ours) and of Jesus, he said. Salam Fayyad, the moderate, used the same language in UN talks. While they ignored any Jewish connection to the Jewish homeland, no major demonstrations outside the UN followed. In his letter to Ban Ki Moon about the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, Abbas did not mention the 1967 lines. Instead, he mentioned UN Resolution 181, which refers to the 1947 lines. This is the continuation of the fundamental diplomatic assault against Israel and the Jewish people. The Palestinians’ UN unilateral declaration of independence, and their attempts to secure international affirmation of that declaration, is a fundamental violation of international law, a fundamental assault against the international system. It was the UN itself, together with the EU, Russia, the USA, Norway and Egypt, who witnessed an interim peace agreement in 1995 in which it was absolutely crystal clear that the only possibility to move toward a conflict resolution was through direct negotiations. The Palestinians, with malice aforethought, have broken that agreement. No major demonstration in the UN followed. In fact, in the Security Council, Israel barely escaped the approval of an 8 to 7 vote in our favour.
These are very trying times for our legitimacy due to the actions of the PA. UNESCO’s acceptance of the renaming of the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron as a mosque, and the renaming and acceptance of the renaming of the Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem as a mosque, accepted by the international community, is a fundamental eraser, a trampling not only of our rights, but also the rights of the Christians and their understanding of what they call the Old Testament and those holy sites which are, to them, holy as well.
This is only the beginning for the Palestinians. They are going to approach every single UN agency unilaterally and ask for membership. They are going to continue to attempt to rewrite and revise history through UNESCO itself, through its schoolbooks around the world that teach about the history of the land of Israel, which they intend to turn into the sovereign land of Palestine. They portray Israel as an invader, making a complete reversal of history, a perversion, a distortion, that is highly dangerous. It is dangerous because the West is not standing up against it. That is why we, as part of the Jewish Spring, must stand up for the truth. We stood up for truth and defeated the Babylonians, we stood up for truth and defeated the Romans, we paid a price of two thousand years but, ultimately, we were victorious. We overcame the pogroms and the Nazis, and we will also overcome this challenge. If we have any doubt, let us remember that we are moving towards the festival of Chanukah, the festival of light. The mitzvah of Chanukah is the miracle. We are the people of the miracle. We survived as a miracle, but with pain and suffering along the way. We will continue to do so.
Let me leave you with this short story. Three years ago in Rome I attended a conference. I was there with Natan Sharansky, the dissident who survived seven years of solitary confinement in Siberia for being a Jew, and the former Deputy Prime Minister of Israel. It was the last night of Chanukah and we were in a hotel near the Pantheon. There were Italians, Americans, and Israelis; all of us Jews. We all huddled into Natan’s room to light the final candle. A debate broke out in the room. Should we light it in the room, or on the windowsill? There was a long discussion over what we should do in that situation. Natan Sharansky said, “I suffered years of sitting alone, so put it in the windowsill.” The room was on the second floor and there was a stream of people passing by outside. Not Jews – Romans. He lit the candles where everyone could see and we all went downstairs to watch the menorah in its light and glory. Natan said, “That’s freedom!” That is what the Jewish Spring is all about, our freedom.
What we have overcome in the past we shall overcome in the future with our “neshama” of the Rebbe and the great work that his vision created at Laniado Hospital. Laniado Hospital, the Jewish people, and the nation state of the Jewish people, have one “neshama.” Let’s all put that chanukiah, that menorah, on the windowsill and think of the freedom that we have all fought to defend.