On Saturday, Jews across the world celebrated the high holiday of Yom Kippur. Known in English as the Day of Atonement, Jews fast and pray on Yom Kippur as an atonement — or penance — for the previous year’s sins and misdeeds.
Football fans among you may have noticed that West Ham’s Jewish manager, Avram Grant, was absent from the game on Saturday. Yom Kippur is too holy, even for football.
For historians, the words Yom Kippur are forever associated with the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1973, and taking advantage of Israel’s observance of Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. The conflict lasted less than a month, but by threatening to suck the United States and the Soviet Union into the fray, it focussed international attention on finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. That was in 1973.
I am loathe to associate war with Yom Kippur as it perpetuates the notion that Judaism — and indeed, Islam — are hopelessly wedded to conflict and suffering. This is certainly not the case, Judaism being a religion that has sacralised joy and rejoicing. Nevertheless, with Israel and the Palestinians currently engaged in a new round of talks, it is worth seeing if we can learn anything from this seemingly intractable conflict.
I lived for a time in Israel in 2004. It was at the back end of the last Palestinian uprising or intifada and tensions were high. A bomb went off at a bus stop during my stay and the cafeteria at the university at which I was studying had been bombed just two years earlier. One morning, my street was evacuated as a remote-controlled robot was sent to inspect a suspicious bag. Such is life in Israel. Even McDonalds has a metal detector at the door.
It is easy to see the grievances on both side. Israelis want to live without fear of their children being blown up at Pizza Hut and without rockets landing on their playgrounds. Palestinians want an end to the Israeli occupation and a state of their own. The solution — compromise — seems obvious but depressingly elusive.
In a bid to prevent suicide bombers from entering into Israel, the Israeli government has constructed a massive 8m-high security wall around its border with the Palestinian West Bank. The Israeli rationale is obvious: keep out suicide bombers. The Palestinian response is equally obvious: Israel has made us prisoners in our own country. In the face of such an intractable problem, it is easy to become weary and apathetic. After all, how are we to bring about peace in the Middle East?
One example from Israel shows how we do have the power to bring about change. A group of Israeli grandmothers were concerned about the treatment of some Palestinians as they queued to cross the border through the wall into Israel. They knew they could not do anything about the wall itself, but inspired by a passage in the Bible, they saw no reason why Palestinians should be mistreated. The verses are from Leviticus (19: 33-34): “The alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were alien in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” The grandmothers decided they would simply go to the checkpoints and watch, their presence encouraging the young Israeli soldiers to act kindly. Where they have been active, and drawing upon Jewish respect for one’s elders, it has had some success.
At Yom Kippur we remember our sins. Let us not commit the sin of believing that we do not have the power to make peace in our own small worlds.
A Jewish prayer (from Isaiah 2:3-4):
Come let us go up the mountain of
the Lord, that we may walk the
paths of the Most High.
And we shall beat our swords into ploughshares,
and our spears into pruning hooks.
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation–
neither shall they learn war any more.
And none shall be afraid, for the mouth of the
Lord of Hosts has spoken.
An assembly given at Loughborough Grammar School, 21.ix.10.