By Daniel Taub, Israel’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom.
There is a sound, a unique Jewish sound, which we hear at this time of year.
It is the sound of the shofar.
It is a sound which gives expression to Jewish history in all its tragedy and triumph, all its pain and all its joy.
It recalls the anguished binding of Isaac, the momentous revelation of Mount Sinai; it sounded victory at the battle of Jericho and freedom for slaves in the Jubilee year.
Even in our days, key moments in the history of the State of Israel – the recapture of the Western Wall, the sirens of the Gulf War, the arrival of the Ethiopian aliyah – are all evoked by that haunting, wordless voice of the Jewish experience.
If you were in Israel this summer and turned on the radio, you would have heard Israeli music, talk shows, sports commentary – the energetic, optimistic normality of Israeli life.
But over these broadcasts at regular intervals you would hear announcements: azaka b’ashkelon, azaka b’veersheva – siren in Ashkelon, siren in Beersheba, warnings of incoming missiles, telling people to rush to the shelters.
This dissonance, the multi-layered complexity of our life in our land, is the sound of the shofar.
It’s a sound that reflects what we learned and felt this summer: both the realisation that Iranian missiles could reach as far as Netanya and Hadera, and, at the same time, our own almost-forgotten capacity for unity. At one point during the fighting, I asked my son Aaron, a paratrooper in Gaza, how he was managing for food.
It was the nine days, the mourning period, when traditionally we don’t eat meat or listen to music.
He said the army rabbinate had ruled that the religious soldiers should eat meat and listen to music. For morale? I asked. No, he said. It’s so there shouldn’t be any distinction between the religious and secular guys.
That sound is still with us, as ISIS rampages to our north, as Hizbollah threatens to renew its attacks. And at the same time, amid all this geopolitical upheaval, thousands of Israelis watched Lady Gaga perform this week in Park Hayarkon and entrepreneurs from all over the world attended the Israeli innovation festival in Tel Aviv.
That sound captures these conflicting realities, not only in Israel but here in the UK too. This was the summer when, at the Edinburgh Festival, violent rioters for the first time prevented Israeli productions performing. When supermarkets caved-in to hooliganism by taking Israeli products and even non-Israeli kosher products off their shelves.
But it was also the summer in which more than 1,200 young British Jews visited Israel on UJIA summer programmes.
They came to be inspired by the reality of Israel, but in coming at this time they sent the clearest of messages that for them Israel is not a holiday destination where in times of trouble you keep away, but rather our home from home, so that in times of need, you don’t step back but you draw even closer.
The shofar is the voice which encapsulates the tensions, the highs and the lows, of Jewish experience. But, if it were only an echo of our history, the sound would have died out long ago.
It is also a call to action and a promise that we have the ability to change our destiny. Says one rabbi of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah: It is like a fire alarm. It is important to hear it, but if you only listen to it, disaster will ensue. You have to hear it and act.
Some 30 years ago I visited a group of refuseniks, Jews who were being persecuted in the former Soviet Union. And before I went I was given all sort of Jewish items to give to them, including prayer books, prayer shawls, tefillin.
At the airport I was stopped by the KGB, taken to a room and interrogated. And they went through my case and confiscated all the Jewish items.
Except for one.
Except for a shofar.
Perhaps they had no idea what it was.
But the only thing I was able to give the refuseniks in Moscow, who are today living in Jerusalem, was that shofar; that voice of the Jewish experience, that call to action, and that promise that we too can rise and together write the next page of Jewish history.
*This is an abridged version of the speech the ambassador gave at this week’s annual dinner of UJIA.