Jeremiah, Here and Now

Israel is full of prophecies of wrath that warn us of the dangers of going against the international community. Today, too, we attack the messengers instead of heeding the message.

The fast of Tisha B’Av is the bastard stepchild of the Israeli calendar. By law, it must be observed through the closure of restaurants, cultural venues and other places of entertainment, but most Israelis do not feel a connection to the fast day. What does mourning the destruction of the holy temples thousands of years ago have to do with us, they want to know − not recognizing that the grief is not only over the destruction of a site of worship but also over the national and human destruction that followed in its wake. Millions of Jews became helpless victims because the Jewish people had no sovereign homeland.

As if that were not enough, it seems that Tisha B’Av has taken on a contemporary political significance as well in recent years. For at the center of the biblical narrative of the destruction of the First Temple is the figure of Jeremiah, the prophet of wrath who did not hesitate to warn his people against rebelling against Babylon, for which he was jailed, though events proved him right.

Today, too, Israel is full of prophecies of wrath that warn us of the dangers of going against the international community. Today, too, we attack the messengers instead of heeding the message. We have progressed over time and no longer throw them in jail, but we do mark them out as “defeatists” who are “anti-Israel.” Moreover, leading the charge against the contemporary followers of Jeremiah are religious Jews, precisely the people who should be most familiar with the story of the prophet.

There are a number of possible reasons for this. The simplest is the fundamental human dislike of criticism and doomsayers of all stripes, a dislike that leads to the tendency to want to kill the messenger rather than heed his message. The second possibility is the feeling, which definitely has a foundation, that it is unfair to demand that we, who have been attacked repeatedly, should be the ones to make concessions in the Israeli-Arab conflict. It should be remembered, however, that the sense of justice behind this also impelled the rebels in Babylon in the days of Nebuchadnezzar and those who rebelled against Rome at the end of the Second Temple era. But it did not help them.

A third possible reason has to do with the message that the destruction of the ‏(Second‏) Temple was caused by sinat hinam, baseless hatred. That message played an important educational role during the exile that followed, which by its nature was meant to separate and disperse the Jewish people. But in the age of renewed sovereignty, that is actually a dangerous message, because it presumes that if we only come together then nothing could overcome us, and that any problems that do occur can be blamed on the “traitors” in our midst who undermine the unity of the people.

Fourth, the Jews’ success in getting through 2,000 years of exile, albeit with many disasters, causes many of us to think that the laws of history ‏(and of international relations‏) do not apply to us. Whatever we do, “we have been promised” that the Third Commonwealth shall stand forever. Herein lies the paradoxical danger: Taking the wrong lesson from Judaism’s achievements during the exile could cause us to lose our sovereignty again. We might be able to survive thousands of years of exile once more, but is that the “achievement” we would wish for succeeding generations?

One last thing. It cannot be denied that the character of today’s prophets of wrath has something to do with the rejection of their prophecies. Unlike Jeremiah, too many of them do not deliver their message of rebuke as a form of tough love. For too many, their message is rooted not in a great love and concern for their people, but in a sense of disdain for and alienation from their “nationalist” brothers, and in a desire for acceptance by “the enlightened world.” History teaches that even if their methods were different, their message would not necessarily be accepted. But it is clear that if their methods don’t change, they will have no chance of being heard.