Shabbat Atzma’ut – Rabbi Miriam Berger

Following a recent recommendation, last week we visited the historic dockyards of Portsmouth. We went on board the awesome HMS Warrior. As the signage told us, “When she was launched in 1860 she was the fastest, largest and most powerful warship in the world. Such was her reputation that enemy fleets were intimidated by her obvious supremacy and deterred from attacking Britain at sea – yet, we are reassured she never fired a shot in anger.” As Ben, aged 6, climbed over the cannons and admired the rows of swords, rifles and pistols it was hard not to see a certain majesty in war even if we all decided it would have been rather unpleasant living conditions unless we were the captain.

Just across the dock, there was an exhibit that showed the 36 hours of the 1916 Battle of Jutland and this definitely portrayed the vulnerability of our military. It showed what it was like to be on the front line and even though it was celebrating a victory showed life after life being snuffed out, the lives of brothers, sons and fathers being almost disposable for the greater good. While Ben and Jonni were in simulations of the trenches firing at planes as they went over head I stood there thinking how lucky we are that the idea of war is something so remote, historic or far afield we can play at it, praying never to be the mother of a son who chooses to put himself in that position though having the utmost respect and gratitude for those that are.

Thanks to a member who’s made it his personal mission to get me watching all the best BAFTA nominated films, our day of military appreciation was bookended by consecutive nights of very, very different power and war related films: the satirical “Death of Stalin” portrays the days following the Russian leader’s stroke in 1953 as his core team of ministers tussle for control; and “The Darkest Hour” where we are given an account of Winston Churchill in his early days as Prime Minister, as Nazi Germany swept across Western Europe, threatening to defeat the United Kingdom during World War II. It leads to friction at the highest levels of government between those who would make a peace treaty with Hitler and Churchill, and who refused.

What do all three elements have in common? The fragility of war and peace, the fine line between life and death on the scale of entire populations all riding on decisions made by the powerful few. The films laid out so starkly how the world is governed by decisions made by personalities who have so many factors swaying their decisions. When leaders lock horns or make alliances it doesn’t take much to unpack the very personal reasons, their individual character traits that determine their judgement and how frighteningly far from rational and utilitarian the process so often is.

When those films and the historic war memorabilia become my backdrop to watching the way things are escalating with Syria and seeing the relationship between May and Trump and commentators scratching beneath the surface to unpack the personal desires of each leader in the stance they take on Syria, it’s easy to see how little really changes over the decades without the benefit of hindsight with which we see historic figures.

As Simon Jenkins wrote in the Guardian “I have not heard a single expert on Syria explain how dropping missiles on that country will advance the cause of peace or lead its dictator, Bashar al-Assad, to back down. It will merely destroy buildings and probably kill people. It is pure populism, reflected in the hot-and-cold rhetoric of Trump’s increasingly whimsical tweets. Heaven forbid that British policy should now, as it appears, be hanging on their every word.”

Why should today’s leaders be any different from those of yesteryears? Why should we think politics has moved further from the quirky or downright eccentric domain of the individuals who find themselves at the top and any closer to being about what naive religious leaders would hope political decisions are based on – idealistically what is best for the world and all of its populations.

Jenkins continues, “We can accept that the chemical attack on a Damascus suburb was probably by war-hardened Syrian airmen, though rebels do kill their own to win sympathy. But Britain too has killed civilians in this theatre. No, we don’t poison our own people, but we somehow claim the right to blow other country’s civilians to bits. Theresa May says that the chemical attack “cannot go unchallenged”, but that is a politician’s love of intransitive verbs. Who is to be the agency and under what authority? The time to punish the Syrian leadership is when the war is over. Outside intervention will make no difference to the conflict, except to postpone its end. That is doubly cruel.”

It’s hard when we see personalities and un-strategically formed alliances, playground style friendships leading to skewed and swayed decisions and even more frightening when we have museums and movies plotting the historical journeys towards war and yet the hope of being the celebrated, Oscar winning leader of our history books can make us ruthless with lives today. Perhaps there was some benefit to the age when war had to be fought staring into the eyes of your enemies and not by threatening tweets and the pushing of buttons.

None of this anxiety around how political leaders make decisions about war and the influence or lack of influence of those people around them was made any easier by returning to London on Erev Yom Hashoah in time to light the beautifully poignant yellow candle. The new initiative which has swept across British Jewry of each household having a single candle to light with a particular name of someone who would otherwise be nameless and forgotten particularly children who were wiped out together with their whole family, is a beautiful and new ritual to encourage the commemoration of this day with a different generation to that which we see turn up to our events. The photos of the candles uploaded to social media remind me of the Chanukah tradition of lighting the Chanukiah in the window to make the act more public. Social media are our new windows on the world and by uploading the photos we are surely crying out loudly and clearly, this is what senseless hatred leads to. Most definitely it’s where anti-Semitism has taken us in the past but if we learn properly from history we don’t simply make this about us; instead we use our yellow candles to cry out that when populations are manipulated, baited, filled with senseless blame and fear of groups within society and when political leaders take us to war it leaves scars for generations, museums that feel unfathomable to the next generation who ask was war really the only answer.

Is there a way to help Syria but not add to its destruction?
Is there a way to help its people without it getting caught up in the egos of political leaders?
Is there a way to bring peace without winners and losers, death and destruction?