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Wednesday, June 19, 2013,
11 Tammuz 5773.
|Remembrance Day Nov 2011|
When Sandra and I
recently spent three days in
In the same way
that Shalit’s incarceration was a small
window, a porthole, into one aspect of war, so too Anne Frank’s Diary is a
window, a small window into some of the initial horrors and humiliation, heaped upon Jews in
So where is the window through which we can look to grasp some understanding of the enormity of the Second World War, some understanding, awareness, of its gruesome brutality but also its physical bravery and nobility of spirit – a brutality and nobility seen in all theatres of war- land, sea, and air and on all continents on which the war was fought – Europe, Africa and Asia, a war which involved the servicemen and women of another two continents N America and Australasia, a war that accounted for the lives of 50 million people of all creeds and colours. The answer of course is that this war which historian Max Hastings has described as “the most terrible event in history” was so comprehensive in terms of the hundreds of millions involved, so vast in its geographical spread that its horror cannot be adequately conveyed through only one window or one person’s story alone.
I believe that for those born in this country in the first few years following the war, our window into the world was through frosted glass, or at least a film camera lens. Up to my early teens and BBC’s wonderful “The World at War” series my knowledge of the war was acquired through the world of cinema. A raft of British films depicted war in simple terms – good against bad and the good guys always won. According to the world of cinema in these early years there was no mention of collateral damage – civilian loss and suffering or those who perished in friendly fire – killed inadvertently by their own colleagues. The heroes in those early films – Richard Attenborough, Richard Todd, John Gregson nearly, always portrayed members of the Royal Air Force. Why? I would suggest that the reason is that audiences were spared, anaesthetized, against the true horror of war. The camera shows bombs usually falling on target with no suggestion of mistakes and civilian loss. In those early war films we, the audience, were spared the grim reality of war. War was never fought hand to hand, always from 5000 feet in the sky and there were rarely dead bodies – destroyed homes, rarely blood and tears.
But of course no
film, no book, can ever fully convey or explain the tragedy and reality of
war. I recently completed the finest
book, and I have read many, on the human cost of the Second World War – Max
Hastings’ All Hell Let Loose ; the World at War 1939-1945.
How can we begin to understand, to imagine? The rabbis of the Mishna warn us “Do not judge others until you have been in their position”. How can we understand, imagine the fear of an RAF pilot sitting in his noisy uncomfortable claustrophobic spitfire attacked from both the air and the ground in the pitch black of the night – or the sailors of a battleship waiting helplessly, fearfully for an anticipated torpedo strike, or the soldier landing on a Normandy beach wet to the bone and seasick, with lead heavy laden backpack and suddenly thrust into an ear bursting battle for his life, for civilization such as we know and enjoy today. Surely this rabbinical warning applies with special force to those who speak about but have never personally experienced the brutality and tragedy of war.
The purpose of Remembrance Shabbat and indeed Remembrance Sunday is to pay full and fulsome tribute to those who engaged in war service for this country, to those who saw, suffered and survived the brutality of war and to the many, too many, who paid the ultimate self sacrifice and never returned home to their loved ones.
As Jews we owe a
special gratitude to all those who fought in His Majesty’s Armed Services In
the Second world War but as citizens of today’s United Kingdom we acknowledge
and appreciate the bravery of those currently in war service of this country in
To my mind the greatest, most deadly threat to civilisation today is that our world as a whole has not embraced this profound Judeo Christian value that we attach to the sanctity of human life, as the rabbis of the Talmud put it in words immortalized in the credits to the film Schindler’s List – “To save one life is to save the world, do destroy a life is to destroy the world.”
Two examples one political, one military that offer proof that our world is divided tragically into 2 halves – one valuing and sanctifying life, the other desecrating, indeed destroying life.
This division of the world into two halves is shockingly contemptibly and reprehensibly reinforced by some Palestinian leaders – for example Hezbollah’s Hassan Nassrala who said “We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are most vulnerable. The Jews love life, so will take that from them. We are going to win, because they love life and we love death.”
Until each nationality, each religion, each sect, each individual on earth values each human life as created “b’tzelem Elokim” in the image of God, the world will continue to be besmirched by random acts of murder, organized terrorism, genocide or cold calculated war with all its tragic consequences. As Jews we have to hope pray and believe that we will see and enjoy Isaiah’s vision of a Messianic world in which one will beat swords into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks, a world in which nation shall not lift up sword against nation, a world in which one will not learn how to wage war.
For the time being this Messianic world is a prayer, a vision, a dream; paradoxically the Second World War, in spite of its shocking loss of life was a justified means of trying to transform this prayer, this vision, this dream into the reality of everyday life and it was therefore a milchemet mitzvah, a morally obligatory war.
For now in conclusion let the message ring out from this service that the world owes an enormous debt of gratitude to all those who with their lives, have defended the peoples, values and shores of this country and so have nurtured, kept alive the Messianic dream. Also let the massage ring out that any infringement of human rights, any incitement of racial hatred, any arousal of anti-Semitism or existentialist challenge to Israel, if condoned in silence and unchallenged can wreak vengeance on the whole of humanity and exact a frightful price from us all – victim, onlooker and perpetrator. If a Jew or any other minority is not safe – no one is safe. Presidents and prime ministers, kings and queens must wipe out the scourge of prejudice before it wipes us out in global nemesis. These leaders must speak out in a way that makes us all believe that Isaiah’s vision can become reality and that a better tomorrow will soon become our today.
May this be our goal, may this be our achievement and may it be God’s will.
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