Doctoral research can often be monotonous, demanding constant self-discipline and good study habits. But occasionally, it leads to the discovery of a real historical gem. A few weeks ago, I was studying a rare collection of halachic letters and rulings by Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, a 20th-century American rabbi, when I came across one of those gems.
Rabbi Henkin passed away in 1973, and his writings are far less well-known today than those of other contemporary rabbinic figures from the period, such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. But, in the first few decades following the Second World War, he was widely recognised as the, “Mara D’athra D’America”, the leading halachic authority of the American Orthodox Jewish community.
One particular letter, written in 1962, has the striking title, On the Diminution in Value of the State of Israel in the Heart of the Nation. In the letter, Rabbi Henkin bemoaned the fact that, despite the extremely precarious position the state of Israel found itself in, surrounded by enemies hell-bent on its destruction, there were still some Jewish people in the diaspora who felt the need to criticise its actions in the public square. Dismayed at the lack of support for the state, Rabbi Henkin exclaimed: “If we ourselves disparage the State and [its] Government, the rest of the world will say that they have no responsibility [towards it] either.”
For Rabbi Henkin, the key issue for diaspora Jews to consider was not whether the actions of the Israeli government of the day were right or wrong. He himself admitted that he was deeply distressed by certain Knesset policies affecting the religious character of the State, for example. Instead, he argued that their focus should be on preserving the vital role diaspora communities have in displaying united and unambiguous support for the beleaguered state of Israel. And he saw the prospect of this role becoming eroded as potentially endangering “millions of Jewish lives”, as he put it. Therefore, he felt a need to speak out.
There is always a danger in applying historical precedent to a contemporary context, particularly in an area as sensitive as this. Yet Rabbi Henkin’s perceptive words certainly deserve a fair hearing and I, for one, believe that this vital role of Jewish communities in the diaspora may be under threat once again today.
It is no secret that there is a plurality of views within the modern British Jewish community regarding the policies of the current Israeli government. People on all sides of the debate speak with passion, stemming from a deep love for Israel and a desire for its peace and stability. They are all people who “seek the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalms 122:6), and it would be unconscionable of me, rabbi or not, to question the sincerity of their motives. I am in awe of all those who maintain such a passionate connection with Israel, sometimes against the odds, and our community is blessed to be full of such people.
But the central message of Rabbi Henkin’s letter is about the voice we choose to sound in the public square, not about the legitimacy or otherwise of a plurality of views within our own community. That public voice, he argued, must always be strongly and unambiguously pro-Israel. That is the role of every Jewish community in the diaspora. Not to be Israel’s “critical friend”, feeling it morally necessary to make their views known in public whenever they disagree with a particular policy. But, instead, to stand up and say that this tiny parcel of land is our national homeland, and we will fight for its survival.
To publicly support the state of Israel does not equate with a full, or even partial, agreement with the policies of the government of the day. It simply means to sound a wholehearted, unambiguous public message of support for Israel. Those who have the privilege of actually living and voting in Israel can (and do) publicly discuss, debate and criticise its government’s policies. But those of us living in the diaspora would do far better to focus on strengthening our united support for the state of Israel’s fundamental right to exist and thrive, rather than criticising the policies of its democratically elected government.
Let us debate, discuss and even criticise in private. But, in public, it is the justifiable expectation of the people of Israel to hear our full and unwavering voice of support at all times.
Rabbi Birnbaum is Rabbi of the Hadley Wood Jewish Community