Let’s play a quick game of Jewish ‘Sliding Doors’

There are so many historical moments when different choice would have changed the world

May 18, 2023 12:12

As the counting of the Omer reaches a climax and Pesach recedes from the memory, did we really mean it when we merrily sang Dayeinu and asserted that whatever God had done, “it would have been enough for us”? What if key moments had taken a different course? What might we have felt about the outcome? Dayeinu or oy gevalt? Let’s take an alternative route through Jewish history.

What if Abraham had not broken away from the contemporary culture of idols, crossed the Euphrates and set up this new faith? Obviously there’d have been no Jews, presumably no Christians either, and there may well have been no Muslims, with Islam being partially rooted in Judaism. Would we all be Buddhists now?

What if Pharoah had not enslaved the Israelites, but continued to tolerate the immigrant population he inherited? There is a good chance that they would have integrated more and more into Egyptian life, intermarried, assimilated and disappeared into the Egyptian population at large. By enslaving us out of fear that we would rebel or leave, Pharoah made the wrong call. As so often has been the case in Jewish history, persecution maintained our identity and strengthened it.

What if the Assyrians — when they conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE — had just ruled over the country, and had not done a population transfer of the Israelites into other parts of their empire, leading to the ten tribes becoming lost and only the two tribes of the Southern Kingdom remaining? Today we would not be just two-twelfths of our size — a massive decrease — but considerably bigger. Instead of there only being 15 million Jews in the world, we might be over a hundred million.

What if when the Babylonians had conquered the Southern Kingdom of Israel and transported them away too, but had not returned them after 70 years? The memory of a suppressed faith and its traditions can last two generations, but if the Babylonian exile had been much longer then Jewish identity and knowledge might not have survived, and we might no longer exist.

What if Pontius Pilate had not washed his hands over the decision as to whether to kill Jesus or not, and had instead crucified Barabbas (thought to be a bandit and a much more likely candidate for execution than an itinerant preacher)?

Jesus would not have died, nor been resurrected according to his followers, nor become founder of a new faith. At a time when Roman idols and Greek gods were fast losing their influence, Judaism could have become the dominant world religion.

What if Edward I had not expelled the Jews from England in 1290 and we had been a continuous presence here since then? Might British Jewry have grown in size, with the result that we would not be just 300,000 today, but several million and the largest non-Christian faith, not much smaller than Muslims, Hindus or Sikhs?

What if the democratic parties had united in a combined alliance against the Nazis in the 1933 German election? That would have made them the largest party — the Nazis got only 40 per cent of the vote — and Hitler would not have formed the government. The six million would not have died; but also, in the global shock (and sense of guilt) that followed, might the State of Israel never have been established by the United Nations?

What if Israel had lost the Six Day War in 1967 and been overrun by Arab nations? The world would have expressed sympathy, but there is less certainty as to whether any concrete action would have been taken. A mass flight of Israelis might have occurred to escape Arab rule, and instead of having some 12,000 Israelis here in the UK, we might have more than 200,000 Israelis, if not more, and a different type of British Jewry.

What if Labour had won the 2019 election and Jeremy Corbyn was Prime Minister? There may not have been any anti-Jewish legislation, but there may have been political, economic and cultural measures against Israel. There would also have been a sense among many Jews that they were indirectly being targeted and they would no longer feel as at home in Britain as before. This could have led to a significant level of emigration, be it to other parts of Europe, the US or Israel.

Jewish Sliding Doors is an endless game that can never produce certain answers, but it forces us to think of feasible alternatives to the story we take for granted. It highlights how astonishing is the survival of the Jewish people, and yet also how we might have been so much larger on the world stage. Dayeinu or oy gevalt?

Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue and author of ‘The Naked Rabbi’

May 18, 2023 12:12

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