Sermon: Lech Lecha

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 6 November 2022

Hardly a big surprise that a current event might  trigger a flashback to something that happened long ago. So it was that Itamar ben Gvir becoming a coalition partner in Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government this week did just that. Ben Gvir’s party is called Otzmah Yehudit, “Jewish power,” which maybe says it all. In 2009, for example, he was convicted of racist incitement against Arabs and has often called for the expulsion of Arab citizens deemed not to be loyal to Israel.

I can’t even remember when that “something that happened long ago” was but it must have been around the mid-late 1980s. I was in Jerusalem for a conference. My teacher, Rabbi Dow Marmur z”l, was also there, and one evening we went out for a stroll and happened on a small building marked ‘Museum of the Potential Holocaust.’ We had no idea what it was but, intrigued, we went in and found that we were in the Jerusalem HQ of Meir Kahane, who was in fact giving a talk that evening. Kahane was a very right-wing American Jew who founded the so-called ‘Jewish Defence League’ which aimed to combat antisemitism but often did so using the same violent means employed by the antisemites they were combating. That evening in Jerusalem, I remember Kahane was talking about the need for the repatriation – ideally voluntary, but forced, if voluntary didn’t work – of the Arab population of Israel. You can see why Itamar ben Gvir’s involvement in the new government might have triggered that flashback. Kahane’s defining moment was the Shoah and his key phrase was “Never Again!” Kahane was assassinated a few years later, not sure by whom?: it could have been an Arab or a Jew.

I don’t recollect a packed hall that evening, a dozen or so in the audience, all of them, from their dress and accent, young American College students. Kahane was a good, compelling speaker and – or but – like all demagogues, he presented what he was saying as obvious, self-evident and incontrovertible. If you disagreed with him, then there was something wrong with your thinking, not his. I remember him banging on the table, using the phrase “Never Again” several times.

This coming week brings together – as it does every year – perhaps the two defining “Never Again” events of the last century. Both have enormous symbolic value and still influence the way we think and look at things. Kahane was, alas, a perverse product of one of those “Never Again” events. But as the subsequent 40 or 50 years since then have shown, he was by no means a one-off. Not that many years later, Baruch Goldstein went into a Hebron mosque on Purim and let loose with a machine gun. It’s said that he had a photo of Kahane on his bookshelf.

One of those “Never Again” events is Armistice Day, November 11th now 104 years ago since the end of the “war to end all wars.” 20 years later, the other event, almost to the day, on November 9th 1938, was Krystalnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. Hundreds of synagogues all over Germany were burned; Jewish shop windows were smashed; Jewish homes ransacked and thousands of Jews arrested and sent to concentration camps; some 40 Jews were murdered. In the light of what happened in the Shoah, 40 is nothing significant. But in 1938 it sent shock waves throughout the world.

So if 1918 symbolises the dawning of a new age, the rebirth of civilisation after the horrors of WWI, 1938 was the symbolic opposite – the sign that civilisation had come to an end in some way. For German Jewry it was the death knell. While it was impossible to foresee the physical extermination of the Jewish People, it was clear that 1500 years of Jewish life in Germany was at an end.

Both November 9 and November 11 evoke images of mass slaughter and destruction: 1918 of the slaughter of a whole generation of young men; 1938 the slaughter of a whole people. The myth developed, based on a verse in Isaiah, that Jews went meekly to their death like lambs to the slaughter.

“Never Again” became a slogan in the early years of the State of Israel. Maybe it confirmed the stereotype of the diaspora Jew by contrast with the new Israeli being created in the fledgling state.

Of course Jews went meekly to the slaughter – most people, of course, not just Jews had little option. Anyway, the whole Nazi system was organised to ensure a smooth, trouble-free operation, with no resistance from the victims. What we now know is just how much resistance of all sorts there was.

But the fact is that both November 9th and November 11th gave rise to the same slogan.

But “Never Again” can mean different things. For Kahane “Never Again” meant something like, “you can’t trust anybody who’s not Jewish. The whole world is out to get you. The only good non-Jew – particularly the only good Arab – is a dead one. Failing that we’ll have to deport them.” “Never Again” then meant “we’ll do them in more quickly and effectively than they can do us in.” I can still hear Kahane’s message all these years later.

For that understanding of “Never Again” means losing all sense of distinction between people and ideas. You are either for me or against me – there is no middle way. If you feel like that, you will, indeed, feel embattled and desperate. Given that, anything becomes permitted to ensure your security. But you then risk using the same methods as the people you claim are out to get you. Ostensibly to preserve freedom, Kahane’s “Never Again” ends up destroying it. For extremist groups like that – whatever their religious and political complexion – everyone who’s not for them is the ‘enemy.’

Armistice Day suggests another way of understanding “Never Again.” After the war was over, there was a lot of discussion about what to call it. One diarist suggested calling it the First World War – even though the Second World War was still 20 years off – and he was roundly criticised for being so cynical. In 1918 it was, indeed, seen as “the war to end all wars.” They couldn’t imagine war as a solution to anything ever again being contemplated – it had been too horrific.

Primo Levi wrote that before it happened, the Shoah seemed inconceivable. Once it had happened, though, it became all too credible. Once you open Pandora’s Box, you can seldom get back in it what came out.

Kahane’s “Never Again” affirmed death and negativity; the “Never Again” of Armistice Day affirms life, growth, new possibility. One automatically implies a moral position; the other cynically displays a lack of interest in any moral stance. Survival has little time for morality. If everybody is out to get you, such a drastic situation not only demands – but also permits – drastic responses.

But there is, of course, a reality to “Never Again.” Whenever I took a synagogue group anywhere in continental Europe, and we saw Shoah memorials in every place we visited, learned about what had happened there, I had a sort of anxiety, subconscious because seldom expressed, but present all the same, that what they would conclude from what they saw was that it was inevitable that European Jewish history would end in the gas chambers. If you see history in that way, then willingly or not, you end up making a judgement that the enormous Jewish contribution to European civilisation must be seen as an absolute waste. How can it be otherwise if you see the Shoah as the inevitable end-point?

However, because it ended as it did didn’t mean it had to end like that. And if that is, in fact, your conclusion about diaspora Jewish history, then I can’t see why you aren’t packing your bags and booking a one-way flight to Tel Aviv immediately.

Of course we should be saying “Never Again.” But not as Meir Kahane used it on that evening in Jerusalem or, sadly, as I suspect ben Gvir uses it in our time, as a justification for intolerance, discrimination – or worse.

“Never Again” must be about helping build the sort of society where groups do not get isolated and singled out as the culprits and causes of all of society’s ills and woes; where the vocabulary, for example, is not, as we heard this week, that of an ‘invasion.’ It wasn’t the Jews – or the Roma, or the homosexuals, or the disabled in body or the disabled in mind in the 1930’s who were responsible for the ills of society; nor, today, is it the Albanians or the Moslems or the …… or the …….. or the……