I’m not going to be preaching about Antisemitism on Rosh Hashanah. I will only be giving one sermon and, amongst the rabbinic team, I understand the subject may be approached by colleagues. How could it not be since it has dominated the news headlines for a sizeable chunk of the year. And even prior to this year there have been occasions when it (antisemitism and particularly antisemitism on the left – even whilst I know it exists on the right) has risen its ugly head.
In addition to the campaigning, which I have not been such a big part of, there are recurring thoughts that swirl around my head. So this blog post is as much to clear my head for the sermon I do want to write for Rosh Hashanah as anything else. There are a few points I want to make, but I should also be clear that I have never felt compelled to put my name to every petition, letter and campaign. So whilst you will find my comments in sermons on various subjects, I will not be drawn into a specious whataboutery.
Passports out of here and fear
There has been much written about this in the news in the last few days. So let me be really clear as a not-quite-public figure but with a voice in the public conversation. I recently had a holiday in Israel and stayed with family. There was an element of jest at times, but tinged with a deadly seriousness, that if we ever needed a place to stay having had to run with just our passports and a bag, they would have us stay with them. Just think about that.
I don’t feel the pressing need to flee Britain. I still have some confidence that the loudest voices on social media are not the majority of British citizens. I’ve got friends who I think would drop anything for me and my family if they thought we were in danger. In fact, I’ve got friends and family who have served to protect the democracy, freedom of safety of this country – in other words they have already protected me.
But just think about the conversation, had in quiet voices late at night, out of ear shot from the children. If you need someone to go, we’re here. My children’s family tells lots of the Jewish story of the 20th century. They have family who fled and were expelled from Egypt and Iraq. They have family who escaped the clutches of Nazism (and many who didn’t). They have family who migrated from the antisemitism of Eastern Europe in search of a better life in England. This is not a history lesson. The trauma is in living memory. It does not go away. And the fact that it’s a trauma in living memory does not mean that the fears now are fanciful or psychological delusions.
And I want to add something to this fear. There is a good reason why some of the figures more involved in activism against antisemitism are doing it anonymously. There was more than one occasion when I considered retweeting or commenting on an article and thought twice about it. When I started a job in a synagogue in the heart of London a close family member said to me, ‘Please be careful’. The building is a target, but so was I. And events across the world against Jews, including in Europe, have reinforced the lived reality for the Jewish community about our security. So I was cautious about pushing my views because I might make the target bigger and the Jewish people are important to me, but so is my family’s safety.
Think about that. I was reticent about entering a public debate because of a fear for my own safety. Balancing my public and vocational duty with my family dutues. Imagine what other Jews are feeling at the moment.
Loyalties, Political affiliations or alignments
I want to touch on the question of loyalties. And I’m going to address it like this. If someone drinks the conspiracy theory koolaid they are one of the biggest dangers. Because first of all, there will always be an explanation that fits with their crackpot theories. The ideas of subterfuge, of Israeli government meddling, or American/Zionist political leverage influencing this debate are better in a Hollywood film. When they accuse Jews of being a fifth column or of only raising our voices because we want to see the downfall of some left wing agenda they create a reality that makes members of the Jewish community feel even more threatened. We are reminded then that no-matter how much we try to be a part of society, to contribute to the greater good of Britain’s shared destiny, to be one of ‘you’, it will never work. There will always be something that they have over us. And you know what that reminds us of, Germany. German Jews were some of the most assimilated and acculturated Jews in Europe. They did not believe that the Holocaust could be perpetrated against them – the good Germans of the Jewish faith. And you guessed it, we haven’t forgotten that betrayal. That’s one of the reasons why when I am asked the question about ethnicity on the forms at the dentist or GP I put ‘White other’. Because sure, I could blend in, disappear as a white guy. But deep in memory is an overwhelming sense that I might never really be accepted.
Think about that. The culture here in Britain creates an environment in which I feel like I might never be fully accepted. I’m in and I’m not in – maybe that’s why Jews are so threatening. In the antisemites’ fantasy world I could be living amongst them, manipulating global power and finance and they’d never know!
But this question of loyalty goes further. I want you to image if someone made an allegation of any other kind of discrimination – whether the person receiving the allegation would first ask for the person’s political allegiances. That’s what is happening to Jews – sure some might think there’s a hidden network of Jews with power at work at Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council and the Jewish press (because we are that coordinated in our network that is building the conspiracy – a fallacy, as anyone who has worked in the Jewish community could tell you). But let’s suppose you take the media, the lay leadership and the rabbinic leadership out of the equation. Confronted by someone making an allegation of antisemitism that they have experienced, is the default to first question their allegiances or nationality? Because if it is then individuals like that have no place being on the receiving end of the allegations for investigation – they are part of the problem.
So when my friends and colleagues tell me that they have encountered more antisemitism this year than ever before in their lives, what will be the first response – to question their motives or to question whether there is something systemically wrong with how the allegations are being heard? I should not have to show my left wing credentials or working class roots to point out antisemitism when I see it in the left. And neither should I have to demonstrate how much I have campaigned for the rights of Palestinians before I’m allowed to raise the spectre of antisemitism.
I want to say something about Israel. But it warrants a much longer blog post. However, let me be clear. The State of Israel was not a post-Holocaust colonial gift for the betrayal of Europe to the plight of the Jews. It wasn’t even a British dying-gasps-of-Empire-colonialist-racist-endeavour. First of all, if anyone thinks that there is some kind of compensation for the deaths of 6 million Jews (by the way we are only just over double that in the world today, and a mere 250-300,000 in the UK) they are particularly twisted. But as a political entity, the State of Israel represents the possibility for the Jewish people to not be at the mercy of European political powers but to decide their own fate. And it is more than about Jewish power (power that is out in the open not part of the delusions of antisemitic conspiracy theorists). Though political power does seem to still be a bit of a hang-up for some.
The State of Israel reflects a spiritual yearning for home, a cultural renewal and a millenia old connection to the land. Those who think it’s a colonialist racist endeavour are denying the Jewish people who define themselves as Zionists a core sense of their identity as Jews. Now of course, not every Jew is a Zionist. But then expecting Jews to conform to certain norms before they make allegations about antisemitism sounds rather antisemitic and I refer you to the last paragraph of my last section.
One other thing about Israel. I hold views that, I think, are within the majority range of Jewish views on Zionism and the State of Israel and the Palestinian people’s future. I have colleagues, friends and members who have different opinions to me. I have friends, family and colleagues who live the reality of life in Israel and work for the future. We differ in our opinions too. That’s the nature of politics and the challenge of trying to figure out a resolution to a conflict that seems intractable at the moment. But again, I should not have to answer questions about Netanyahu, the two-state solution or politics and legislation in Israel in order to have to have a legitimate claim to antisemitism.
The failure of politics
The rise of populism and what seems to me to be a perception that politics fails to deliver for ‘jo-public’ I think is part of what is behind many of the shifting political sands across the world. This failure is pushing people towards a right wing and left wing populism and a rabid desire to see simple solutions deliver better lives. It’s almost as if the resurgence of a 21st century purist ideology has left no space for airing the nuance and complexity that most of us live with. And as someone whose party political allegiances have always remained private, I don’t hear anyone talking about how we sensibly deliver equality, safety and security, work and purpose, health and peace. Because what I hear is an overconfidence that some kind of old ideological system will deliver again and yet the experience of history seems to be that it isn’t ideology that works.
And a perceived failure of politics and of economics across the globe, along with a loss of love with globalisation, rings alarm bells for the Jewish community. We are always the target for a global conspiracy in politics and finance because we live all around the world and antisemitic tropes have loved to portray us as manipulating the global future on a bed of the downtrodden indigenous/working class/oppressed (you pick).
The public debate and challenge
There’s something that worries me about the public to-and-fro of the debate around antisemitism in the Labour party. First of all there’s the rock and a hard place that it has put the Jewish community leadership in – speak up and be criticised, don’t speak up and fail the ‘Jew in the pew’. Attending a demonstration on Parliament Square became a crie de Coeur for those accusing us of manufacturing a smear. So I ask, what should we have done as a community concerned for our safety and wellbeing when the usual channels did not seem to be working?
Secondly I worry what those not in the heart of the debate are thinking. Internal Jewish communal politics are hard enough to understand but as an outsider they must be doubly baffling. And that has been capitalised upon by the groups who say they represent Jews but have hardly any (or no) figures from a Jewish communal organisation in their leadership. When the leadership of the community says that denying the right of the State of Israel to exist is antisemitic it’s not that those Jews who disagree are not Jewish or have no place in our community (even when they might feel that way). It’s that those Jews who disagree are in the minority and that’s an internal challenge to the Jewish community to ensure that no Jew is excluded from our community.
Thirdly, this debate seems to have been in the news every day over the summer. Did you know we’re about 0.5% of the population. It’s not in the news because of a conspiracy. It’s in the news because a minority part of British society feels worried about their future and safety. But what does my non-Jewish neighbour make of it, or my non-Jewish friends. When Brexit looms as the most important political process in our lifetimes (which no politician seems capable of managing), the Labour party has fully managed to let the serious debates in public life go off the front page. What a mess. And it’s not the Jewish people’s fault. We didn’t ask to feel insecure when the leader of the Labour party seems more comfortable meeting with people who would like to see us dead than meeting Jews here in the UK to listen to our concerns. Our world needs bold and wise leadership to navigate through this turbulent second decade of the 21st century. And we need to feel able to contribute to the solutions of its problems not ostracised.
What of the future
I want to finish with a question that has (at least) two sides to it. First of all, as a communal leader I’m worried about what impact this is having on Jews. The incompetence or wilful avoidance of dealing with the problem of antisemitism is having a major effect on Jews, wherever they position themselves on the debate. I have met a number of people who are worried, which alone is bad enough, it is all many Jews have spoken about for months and I have met lots of people who now cannot find a way to integrate a full sense of their Jewishness into the self at work, university or in public. When the only time Jews are mentioned it is in the context of Israel or antisemitism, it becomes hard to identify as Jewish without having to respond to questions about those subjects. We’re not all experts, advocates, communal leaders, or interested in discussing our politics and religion. It must be damaging our community’s future. And BBC documentaries (however lovely) will not adequately counterbalance this public discourse. And what happens now to the Jews who no longer feel they have a political party that expresses (most) of their political leanings?
Finally, what of the future more generally for us all. How do we move on from here and build a shared future? We need real leadership for that and you know what depresses me most, I’m not sure we have it now or in the wings waiting. But I hope I’m proved wrong.