I’m a rabbi who has a world view of the goodness of most people – they just want to live in peace and security, with food on the table and a roof over their heads. I will work in every way to bring a shared society here in the UK and to tackle hatred and bigotry in all its forms. I am also thankful that the response to antisemitic incidents here has been led from the highest levels of leadership of the country. But here’s the thing – I’m not naïve and I have a small understanding of history and human psychology – beliefs in goodness are not always matched by action – anyone who has been on the outside looking in knows it. I want to believe that the rise in antisemitism is just a bunch of scary headlines – but can I afford to sit back and wait to see if there is a fundamental shift in attitude and behaviour or it’s just a blip?
So this piece has been brewing for a few days – I want to write about life here, the UK, not Israel. We need to do more to centre the voices of Israelis and Palestinians not the commentariat for whom the issues are not of existential importance. I have little to add to the voices which have already been raised up over recent days. And wow have there been a lot of opinions shared – by some qualified to comment and some, well need I say more…And I’m mindful of my good friend and wise colleague who wrote of his experience living in Israel and the fear of being misunderstood or deliberately misinterpreted – but the obligation to write nonetheless.
First though, thank God for a ceasefire – though a ceasefire, is not peace, remember. My friends, family and colleagues who live in Israel, are crest-fallen and heartbroken by the escalation of violence in Israeli society, the rise of Jewish-Arab violence which could take years to repair – spurred on by extremists on both sides. People I know and love find themselves once again caught up in the need to defend themselves and Israel against the onslaught of rockets from Gaza by violent groups who would like nothing more than to not only wipe Israel off the map but Jews off the globe too.
My friends, family and colleagues who see and hear about the death and injury of people who are struggling to live life in the tiny sliver of land bordering on the Mediterranean that they call home – Medinat Yisrael (the State of Israel). My friends, family and colleagues who work and speak about these issues nearly every day – in spite of sheltering in strong rooms and bomb shelters repeatedly over the last few days. Who stand alongside fellow citizens on streets and at demonstrations, Jews and Arabs together, to demonstrate their commitment to hope and a shared future.
And those same friends, colleagues and family who live in Israel and work tirelessly for the universal expression of human rights for all in the region, the realisation of the value of all human life, who yearn for an end of any control over the destiny of the Palestinian people, including the West Bank and Gaza, for Palestinian self-determination. Yes, there are plenty of people (Israelis in Israel) against the occupation who don’t feel the need to cosy up to Hamas and who have to bear the consequences of those who arrogantly present simple solutions from the comfort of homes away from the violence.
I don’t want to speak about Israel now because in spite of all this and speaking a bit of Hebrew – I cannot profess to having a simple solution that could be posted on a tiktok or Instagram or twitter. I have read countless articles by journalists, academics, politicians, rabbis, negotiators, former officers, NGO workers, Palestinians and Jews. And I am in pain because the bottom line is, when you take away the extremists, ultranationalists, what is wanted, including my friends, family and colleagues, is peace and life.
And many of the people I love would be willing to sacrifice a lot more than you or I could imagine even considering…if it meant a certain end to the loss of life – and that includes Israelis and Palestinians, including the innocent lives in Gaza. And you know what else, most of those people don’t need to be patronised by me sitting in my comfortable home in the home counties pontificating on a subject I don’t know enough about (yes you heard that right – all the social media influencers and comedians – we don’t know enough), offering soundbite solutions and saying things that have already been said. Because the space between ‘certain end to the loss of life’ and extermination is full of danger and impossible to measure.
Could my voice usefully add to the clamour of international voices – that’s what I’ve been struggling with and I have decided that I can say something about being Jewish here in the UK in May 2021.
My extended family – the one that has made a full contribution to society in every country it has found itself – is also one that has experienced the expulsion and attempted annihilation of the Jewish people from every part of the world in which they lived in the 19th and 20th centuries. Whether it was leaving the Pale of Settlement to make a life here in London at the turn of the 20th century. Fleeing Germany in the 1930s and hearing of the plight of many family members who were murdered in camps and ghettos and a small number who survived in mainland Europe in hiding. Praying for a family’s safe escape from Iraq or flight from Egypt with young children in arms, many of whom arrived in Israel because it was the one place of certain refuge – also part of the ‘disappearance’ of Jews in Arab lands. Go back even further and the Spanish Inquisition looms large, along with European anti-Jewish medieval laws…life as a minority spanning Christian and Muslim lands. I believe in Israel and the idea of self-determination not just because she is a refuge for my people. But I also recognise that Chaim Weizman’s words in 1936, “the world seemed to be divided into two parts – those places where the Jews could not live and those where they could not enter” is a legacy that the international community can never fully live down in the psyche of the Jewish people.
Indeed, the constant portrayal of the Jew as a powerless victim saved by the West, at things like Holocaust Memorial Day on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the allies, is a convenient image to grasp on to because it belies the fantasy of many in the world. We’re a wonderful curiosity with our funny religious ways and the commemoration of near annihilation. Last week, my grandmother told me she started the school year in 1933 in Munich being forced to sit next to a girl in a brownshirt with a swastika sown to her sleeve. Yes, in living memory, just, at the age of 98, I can hear testimony of confronting the early rumblings of the genocidal death machine. My people’s story is not all doom, death and devastation, but we carry the grief in our hearts and it is passed on generation to generation like a scar that is never quite allowed to heal – because the hatred morphs from generation to generation.
So, you want to know why…
- A police officer shouting ‘Free Palestine’ makes us anxious, even after copious justifications of context and rationalisations because we know what happens when the powers of the state are manipulated in overtly partial ways.
- Hearing someone with a loudspeaker say that antisemitism would stop, if only the occupation ended, makes us wonder if anyone with a megaphone has ever learnt that antisemitism did not begin with Israel or even Zionism.
- Made up history of how good it was to be a Jew living in the Ottoman Empire (clue, it was a not such a walk in the park) viewed on social media millions of times makes us wonder if anyone cares about the truth.
- A former MP warning against the infiltration of Zionist teachers (yes, that’s apparently a thing some people worry about) makes us think of purging Jews from professions in the 1930s like my great-grandfather the judge in Munich.
- Someone driving down a main street where many Jews live shouting abuse and threatening to rape Jewish women and girls leads to terrified posts on social media forums by Jewish parents.
- A Labour party indicted for unlawful discrimination and harassment in relation to antisemitism makes us obsess about what might have happened if the Labour party under its former leader had won the election on his watch.
- We’ve checked our passports are valid and had serious conversations about whether we feel safe to show we’re Jewish in public.
- The attempts by a Tory MP (lest you think it’s a Labour party issue only) at blocking Desert Island Discs with a comedian whose opinions some Jews may find disagreeable make us anxious that the Tory party would exploit our anxieties for their own agenda and drop us when no longer useful.
- A far right extremist trying to hijack a demo in support of Israel makes us feel there are attempts to make us pawns between a radical left and extremist right hoping to exploit our vulnerability (and Jews gullible enough to fall for it).
- Security (mainly by volunteers) has increased at communal buildings all over the country and why my Jewish mother sends me a text message telling me how worried she is for the safety of her children and grandchildren (and noting in particular our roles as Jewish professionals).
- I could go on…and these examples are just recently and only in the UK and not even touching on the Social Media Pogrom.
I’ll tell you.
It’s because we’ve got a really good reason for it. We know what it’s like to believe in our integration and acceptance in society, only to be exploited, to have nowhere else to go and to witness pogroms, groups whipped up by religious clerics and politicians to hate us, murder and execute Jews for political ends. And that’s just in living memory…
Deadly antisemitic attacks have happened all over the world in my lifetime – Israel, France, Argentina, Turkey, India, USA, Italy and more and they’re just some of the attacks at synagogues and communal buildings. Jews have been targeted consistently under the guise of Palestinian liberation and we’ve been the target of the ever-changing disease of anti-Judaism for 2000 years. There have been bombings of communal organisations here in London too and so it’s no wonder that threats to march on synagogues, graffiti on walls, a radical Islamic cleric preaching war against Jews to drive them from Israel, and alleged religiously aggravated assaults on rabbis make the Jewish community nervous. There is a reason we’re defensive against the malign intentions of those really out to get us whose suggestions are frequently picked up with what often seems a naivete of others; suggestions which include: ‘if we just did x, there would be no more war or violence against Israel or indeed antisemitism’. And we point out the apparent obsession by international organisations like the UN on making resolutions about Israel – because, well, you don’t have to do much thinking to understand why the Jewish community has little faith. After all, the UN Human Rights Council has China and Russia as its current members – those countries known for not engaging in genocide against Muslims or flagrant acts of terror on foreign soil, bombing Syrians, and attempted assassination or incarceration of political opponents (sarcasm alert).
To be Jewish in the UK is often to be regarded as a safe remnant of a people in need of salvation. And to be powerless is one side of the same coin of antisemitism. On the reverse, the antisemites think we wield conspiratorial power at every level – we’re mega-powerful (because control of the media and global politics seems to be going so well for us). The fantasy of all the power, whilst demanding we don’t exert any power – preferring that we didn’t demonstrate against antisemitism in the Labour party, didn’t have defence systems against indiscriminate rocket fire, didn’t raise our voices and just believed in the goodness of human civilisation.
I’m not prepared to live in fear here and I definitely don’t ask the state of Israel and the Jewish and non-Jewish citizens there to sit back and wait until Palestine is Free from the river to the sea – because that is a calling card of genocide – not of Palestinian self-determination. Yes, I’m gratified that many politicians, leaders and religious figures have stood up and called out antisemitism. But, I’m also not prepared for my people to be quiet, to be powerless – in the diaspora or in Israel. In writing this I’m aware that some would say it’s not as bad as others think, and there are others who genuinely feel this is a boiling frog moment saying “you may not have noticed but if we don’t speak up now it will be too late.” So, I continue to give my all to Jewish life and to making our world better for everyone who shares this planet wherever and however I can. And amazingly, my colleagues, co-religionists and I will keep working in interfaith and multicultural activities to further the cause of civil society, friendship, anti-racism, co-existence, shared society in the UK. And I will keep working to share the beauty of Judaism with non-Jews so they can appreciate who we are better. But to be Jewish today and reading the news, hearing personal accounts of antisemitism, makes me wonder – will the world watch and wait until the Jewish question is solved by us ‘leaving’ (like we have somewhere to go), assimilating or dying…or perhaps civic life includes us after all…