Good morning, everyone. I’m delighted to be here today. When I was at school, one of my favourite subjects was History. Then I had the opportunity to do Sociology A-level and I was soon hooked. It was so exciting to learn about society here and now and how it works. And then, when I went to the London School of Economics in 1974 to study for a BSc. in Sociology, I found myself immersed in the 19th-century, studying the thinkers whose ideas had shaped the sociological enterprise – in particular, Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. I discovered that sociology had a history, but more important, I learnt that to understand society today, we need to understand the way society had been in the past, and the role of the past in shaping the present.
In preparation for coming here today, I thought I might find out about the beginnings of Brighton College. The most important thing about this school is that it is a centre of educational excellence, preparing its pupils – all of you – for your future lives. To understand how Brighton College has come to have this well-deserved reputation, it’s interesting to know that, founded in 1845 by William Aldwin Soames, it was the first Victorian Public School to be established in Sussex. Apparently, Soames had wanted the school to be based at Brighton Pavilion, but after Queen Victoria refused, built it here on Eastern Road in Kemp Town. Can you imagine going to school at Brighton Pavilion – now, that would have been very cool!
Life is so demanding – not least when you’re at school, and have to learn at a terrific pace, and deal with all the exams. It’s easy to be so consumed by the daily routine that thinking about the past – except in the form of the subject of ‘History’ on the timetable – doesn’t feel very relevant. But of course, it is. Let me give you an example. In Britain today, lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender people are accorded equal treatment in law: the age of consent is the same for all, regardless of sexuality; lesbian and gay couples can get married; people who are transgender can have their birth certificates changed to reflect their chosen gender. That doesn’t mean to say that LGBT people – including young people – don’t get bullied any more, but now schools and other institutions have adopted anti-bullying policies, and homophobic and transphobic bullying is no longer acceptable.
How did it get to be like this? This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act that decriminalised sex between two consenting males over the age of 21, in private. Before then, sexual activity between men of any age was illegal, and men were prosecuted, imprisoned, and subjected to degrading and inhumane treatment. The huge legal changes that have taken place in Britain since 1967, resulting in equality and inclusion, only happened because LGBT people – including me – engaged in a struggle for acknowledgement of our full human rights. Of course, we can’t be complacent. There are countries in the world today, where LGBT people are still imprisoned, and in some places, put to death. The struggle for LGBT human rights continues – and will not end until equality is achieved in every place.
So, you can see why it is relevant to learn about LGBT history. I am now going to turn to another contemporary topic with a back-story, which is less uplifting and inspiring. On this day – 29 November – seventy years ago in 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition the disputed land on the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean into two states: a Jewish state and an Arab state. Yes, this goal, representing a compromise between the aspirations of two small peoples for self-determination, the Jews and the Palestinians, has not yet been achieved.
The historical backdrop is complicated, and there is no time to go into all the details now. But there is an important aspect of the history that we need to remember because it is embedded in the scourge of colonialism and imperialism – that is, in the imposition of the rule of Imperial powers on other nations. For almost 500 years, the Ottoman Empire, centred in Turkey, ruled over the Middle East. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of World War One, two other colonial powers, Britain and France, stepped in. The map of the Middle East reflects decisions taken then: Lebanon and Syria, under the authority of the French, Palestine and what was called Transjordan, under the authority of the British. The Arab inhabitants of Palestine, mostly tenant farmers, had never known freedom and independence. Meanwhile, in Europe, in response to a new racist form of anti-Semitism that overtook anti-Judaism in its virulence and menace, a new movement arose: political Zionism. The longing to return to Zion on the part of Jews around the world goes back to the crushing of the Jewish revolt against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. Political Zionism was developed by those who felt that the only solution to anti-Semitism was for Jews to join the remnant Jewish population living in our ancestral homeland, and have our own independent Jewish state.
The first Zionist Congress was held in Basel in 1897. And then, 20 years later, juggling the aspirations of Jews and Arabs, the British government offered support for – and I quote: ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people… It being clearly understood that nothing shall be done that may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.’ These are the words used in a short letter from Lord Balfour to Lord Rothschild, on 2 November 1917.
For the next 20 years, Jews escaping persecution continued to immigrate to Palestine, there were two major Arab uprisings in 1929 and 1936, and successive attempts on the part of the British government to find a settlement to the dispute. In the end, it was Hitler’s war against the Jews, which resulted in the murder of one third of the world Jewish population that precipitated the formulation of UN resolution Number 181, calling for the territory of Palestine to be divided into two states. At the UN General Assembly on 29 November 1947, 33 states voted in favour of the resolution and 13 against. 10 states abstained, including Britain. The partition plan was rejected by the Arabs and accepted, reluctantly, by the Zionists. It failed.
On 14 May 1948, on the eve of the end of the British mandate in Palestine, the Jewish community in the land declared independence and established the State of Israel. The new state was attacked immediately by the surrounding Arab nations, and conflict has been continuous since. In June 1967, in what became known as the Six Day War, another wholesale attack on Israel resulted in an Israeli victory, including, the occupation of the West Bank of the River Jordan beyond the Green line – the ceasefire line – that had been agreed at the end of the 1948 to 1949 war.
That occupation has been the main issue in the continuing conflict. There have been peace initiatives. Israel made peace with Egypt in 1979 (on 26 March), and returned the Sinai to Egypt. On 13 September 1993, the peace process resulted in a now famous handshake between then Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, later assassinated on 4 November 1995 by a Jewish extremist, and Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. In 1994 (on 26 October), Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan. But after Rabin’s assassination, the peace process stalled. Today, on the 70th anniversary of the UN vote on partition, the hope of a two-state solution is almost lost.
When we look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we can see clearly how the weight of history doesn’t just determine present reality, it can squeeze out all signs of life. So, what’s the answer? There is no escaping the past; all we can do is try to understand how and why the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians arose, recognise the complexity of the issues involved, and acknowledge how many external parties, including Britain, bear responsibility for driving a wedge between these two small peoples.
On second thoughts, there is something we can do. We can continue to be hopeful that the deadlock will be broken; our hope fuelled by other transformations that we have witnessed – not least, the progress that has been made in the liberation of LGBT people, which at the time of that UN resolution in 1947, could never have even been conceived. 20 years ago, I adopted the Hebrew word for hope, Tikvah, as my middle name at a time when I had experienced some very painful setbacks in the struggle for LGBT equality. I’m very glad that refusing to despair, I managed to summon up the great resource of hope. There is a Jewish teaching recorded in the collection of wise sayings of the first generation of rabbis, edited around the year 200 CE, which continues to be relevant in the context of the seemingly intractable problems we face today (Pirkei Avot, 2:21): ‘It is not for you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.’ That is what it means to be human. We have no option but to continue working to challenge injustice and foster peace, even when the work involved seems endless. May each one of us find our own ways of contributing our energies, skills and creativity to the work of repairing our broken world for the sake of the future. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
Brighton College Assembly
29 November 2017
- All the different sources on the UN resolution are presented from partisan perspectives, either pro-Israel, or pro-Palestine, so here’s the Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Partition_Plan_for_Palestine ↑
- Again, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balfour_Declaration ↑
- See Note 1. ↑