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Tuesday, 31 March 2009

On Anti-Semitism and Jewish 'Security'

April 1st

I’ve noticed that this ongoing blog of mine is being monitored by the CST - the self-styled ‘Community Security Trust’ (see the anonymous Comment attached to my February 22nd blog). I’ve been wondering over the last few weeks what to make of this, and how to respond. And I’ve also been doing some casual research on who exactly these people are, who claim that this organisation ‘represents British Jewry to Police, Government and media on antisemitism and security’ (see their website www.thecst.org.uk . (Incidentally, I've found that you can tell quite a bit about someone's - or a group's - attitude towards authority from the words they choose to give a capital letter to in their writing).

I’m sure the CST do valuable and necessary work. They enjoy cross communal support and co-operation in their stated aim, to ‘provide physical security, training and advice for the protection of British Jews’. In addition, they assist ‘victims of antisemitism’ and monitor ‘antisemitic activities and incidents’. (By the way, and I’m sorry to be pedantic, it is actually ‘anti-Semitism’ and ‘anti-Semitic’ – I know in these laissez-faire days, of texting and Twitter and email, almost anything goes in regard to language and spelling and grammar, but I happen to be attached to the outmoded view that language reflects the soul, and that imprecision of language reflects imprecision of thinking. And in these shriven times we need as much clarity of thinking as we can muster. And the so-called ‘people of the Book’ (capital letter) have a historic responsibility as guardians of language. But, as usual, I digress).

So the CST are significant players on the national scene. And increasingly so, as they are pleased to report. Their website boasts of an increased number of offices and staff. In other words ‘antisemitism’ [sic] is good for business. And that’s my problem (or one of them) with the CST. The ambiguity at the heart of their enterprise is that it’s security for us - and it’s jobs for the boys. The greater the perceived risks, the more they say they are needed. But who monitors the self-appointed monitors of anti-Semitism? To whom is the CST accountable? I just ask.

For there is a curious absence of such key information on the CST’s website, a slick affair that contains much practical and helpful information but is as revealing in what it doesn’t say as in what it does.

So just who decides – and how? – what constitutes an ‘incident’? Does a child who hears something in a playground and tells her mum, who then complains to the school, become another ‘victim’ of another ‘incident’? And does the fact that there’s a piece of graffiti scrawled on a wooden fence near my home (look away now if you are easily offended) – Gas Jews Cunts – mean that when I pass by it, as I have done nearly every day for the last five years , I too have become witness to another anti-Semitic ‘incident’? Again, I just ask.

The CST is a charitable trust. Established as such in 1994,they have been recording anti-Semitic incidents in the UK since (a nicely Orwellian touch, this) 1984. And anti-Semitism is real. And we can be thankful that there are those who are prepared to take that reality seriously (though I always thought that this is why we have a police force, and counter-terrorism units, and the rest of the privileges, paid for out of our taxes, of living in a security-conscious democracy). We know there are people who dislike Jews. We know there are those who even hate Jews. This isn’t paranoia, it’s just the grim facts of life.

But somehow it just isn’t good enough for my anonymous Comment-poster to add, as his (why do I know it is a ‘his’?) final words: ‘Just because one’s paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get one’. This genteel British variation on the old cliché - I do love that pseudo-refined use of ‘one’ – does rather give the game away. Because the problem with paranoia is that ‘one’ genuinely cannot tell the difference between reality and fantasy, ‘one’ cannot distinguish between real aggression directed at ‘one’ and projected aggression that originates from inside ‘one’s’ psyche - yet feels as if it is coming at ‘one’ from another person or group. Particularly a group, an undifferentiated ‘they’ (as in his quote above). No wonder the ‘ blogosphere’ has to be monitored so scrupulously – who knows how many ‘they’ are?

Let me be clear here. The CST does important work for the Jewish community. They need our support, particularly financially. Do give them this support if you are so minded. (You can donate online). But don’t suspend your independent-mindedness, your critical thinking capacities in the face of the rhetoric of increased levels of ‘threat’.

I take to heart what the CST says on its website: ‘The ethos of the CST is that the Jewish community is responsible for its own security’ . But I happen to think that my security is also served by asking questions, raising concerns, voicing my hesitation before going along uncritically with unexamined notions of ‘threat’. If there are vested interests at stake in the promotion of a lurid picture of rising ‘antisemitism’ [sic] in the UK, then the issue of what threatens us becomes rather more complex than it might seem to the casual observer.

An over-zealous promotion of the notion of threat is bad for our mental health and our emotional well-being. We can get trapped in a hall of mirrors where we don’t know what is real and what is a mere reflection of our own aggression. And in the long run it could prove counter-productive to our physical safety – as our puffed-up self-assertiveness gives rise to real antagonism at our self-justifying stance and victim-mentality language and behaviour.

Friday, 27 March 2009

On Sir Fred and the Blame Game

Is there a frisson of pleasure in hearing that the windows of Sir Fred Goodwin’s house and car have been vandalised ? Well, no, not really.

We have become addicted in recent years to a new sport here in the UK, the ‘blame game’, where after any disaster, or accident, or minor mishap, the first question asked (and you can hear it daily on the news) is ‘And who do you blame?’ And the answer you never hear is ‘Actually, I was responsible for what happened to me’ or even, ‘No, there is no-one to blame. It was an accident’. The acknowledgement that contingency is part of the fabric of life, that life unfolds in ways that we don’t and can’t choose, that misfortune and loss are part of the fluidity of how life is – this doesn’t make for a reassuring narrative of cause and effect, a reliable story with a narrative arc modelled on the fictional world of soaps, where someone else has to be to blame for the bad things that happen. It was her husband, or his mother, or them next door... or the bankers, or the EU, or Thatcher, or Gordon Brown, or the Muslims, or even (last resort for some, first port of call for others), the Jews.

Always someone else. Never us.

Of course this sport isn’t new. It is millennia old: the shifting of blame onto ‘the Other’ – and there is always a nearby group to carry the disowned feelings, the aggression and hatred. In the Biblical myth Adam blames Eve for his inability to follow God’s decree not to eat of the ‘Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad’. And although ‘God’ set him up, Adam’s failure initiates the ‘blame game’; and when Cain kills Abel, the texts illustrate this same propensity, the failure to take personal responsibility for what each one of us does, particularly what we do with our aggressive feelings, our envy and jealousy and hatred, our desires. The Bible’s early stories are a primer on how human beings fail – and then fail to take responsibility for their own failures. (This is why these stories are called ‘Torah’, ‘teaching’ – coz they teach us stuff. Stuff we think we know. Though we don’t. Not really.)

But I digress. (That’s the pleasure of blogs...)

So, whether it is witches to blame in the 16th century or communists in the 20th, human history contains a dismal record of the psychological difficulty of what Jungians call ‘owning the shadow’: accepting the dark, urgent wishes and desires we disown and disavow. We are never greedy – it was the bankers to blame. We never wanted to consume more than we earned – it was the advertisers that tempted us, the credit card companies that seduced us, the mortgage lenders that (as if they were the Mafia) made us offers we couldn’t refuse. Adam’s spurious defence, all over again.

This coming week London will see protests against the gathering of G20 leaders. Many people are angry, many more want someone to blame. We can understand this impulse – it is very human: ‘I feel insecure, I feel frightened, I feel helpless in the face of forces outside my control, I want you to do something to make me feel better, I’m angry that you don’t do anything to make me feel better, I’m going to shout and scream and smash things up until you pay attention TO MY PAIN...’

Incompetence and greed are never far away. But Sir Fred Goodwin has become too easy a scapegoat. We’ve all been addicted, in one way or another. We’ve forgotten the Talmud’s stark reminder: ‘When Death summons us to appear before our Maker, our money (which all of us love), cannot go with us’.

Or as the Yiddish saying puts it, more pithily, ‘Shrouds have no pockets’.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

'Independent Jewish Voices'

Last Sunday I was invited to speak as part of a panel at the ‘Independent Jewish Voices’ (see http://jewishvoices.squarespace.com/ ) day conference on Israel, Zionism, Jewish Identity and Human Rights. My co-panellists and I only had 5-7 minutes to offer some introductory thoughts before it was opened to the floor and to general discussion but the passion and thoughtfulness of my colleagues on the panel (Professors Jacqueline Rose and Gabriel Josipovici, Anthony Lerman and Eyal Weizman, and chaired by Professor Lynne segal) made for a stirring introductory session for the day.

All had contributed to a recently published volume ‘A Time to Speak Out: Independent Jewish Voices on Israel, Zionism And Jewish Identity’ (Verso, 2008), a book of essays written by a broad spectrum of thinkers who share a commitment to a self-reflective and informed public discussion of these themes - a discussion not predetermined by, or held captive by, Jewish institutional or ideological loyalties. My own essay in that volume, entitled ‘Living in Error’ (the phrase is taken from a Yehudah Amichai poem), started life as a sermon at Finchley Reform Synagogue ( www.frsonline.org ) on Rosh Hashanah 2002 then mutated in various stages into its current shape in the book. As the only rabbi of the two dozen or so essayists, I felt it an honour to be included with such illustrious co-writers.

The event last week had originally been scheduled for early February but had been a casualty of the snow that fell that day. We’d been asked to respond to the latest terrible events in Gaza, which in early February were still vividly alive in our minds. What I found extraordinary in the intervening month was the extent to which the sheer rawness of the experience of watching the daily news and the painfulness evoked by the images of bombing and destruction had become so rapidly assimilated by my mind, and my feelings dulled. It was as if it had all happened so long ago – so much more had happened since, so much ‘news’, so many other images and sights and thoughts had crowded in. Operation ‘Cast Lead’ had become just another past event. Life had moved on. New dramas had replaced the old ones.

This semi-amnesia on my part was shocking to experience. Is this how it always is? That so much stuff happens to us, we are so overwhelmed by experiences in the present, that the events of a mere couple of months ago fall away into some distant realm of past time? Of course it’s not always like this, but what stirs and excites or horrifies and repels us so viscerally at any one time can all but disappear as the next drama unfolds. This was sobering and I am still musing on it.

In relation to the IJV event, I decided to add to my remarks a small preamble– about forgetting and remembering - as a prelude to my original text composed for February. A few people have asked me what I said. Here it is.



The historian and essayist Tony Judt suggests that we live in an ‘age of forgetting’ – he was talking of the powerful imaginative appeal of Marxism across Europe in the 20th Century – but as a Jew I see ourselves as a people who treasure memory, for whom forgetting is a diminishment of our humanity.

We keep memory in mind – sometimes we celebrate what we remember, sometimes we mourn – but we are alive to the significance of remembering.
We even have days in the religious calendar symbolically dedicated to it – yesterday was Shabbat Zachor, the ‘Sabbath of memory’ before Purim, the archetypal story of Jews as the objects of hatred; and then at the New Year, we call Rosh Hashanah ‘Yom Ha-Zikkaron’ , ‘the day of remembering’, when we look not at what has been done to us, but at what we do to others: at our own hatreds, failures, inadequacies, individually and collectively - what used to be called our ‘sins’.

So: before the events of December and January fall completely out of mind, let me offer some words on what we have so recently witnessed.

*******

The New York Times described it like this: ‘At sunset the streets were piled high with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror...and the city is now practically deserted...’ 49 were dead, 500 injured, 700 houses destroyed, 2000 families left homeless.

The Easter pogrom in Kishinev in 1903 shocked the so-called civilised world. Haim Nachman Bialik, who would later become the poet laureate (as it were) of the Jewish national renaissance, went to Kishinev to interview survivors. Before leaving he wrote a 4-verse poem, Al Ha-Sh’chitah : ‘On the Slaughter’:

“My heart is numb, my prayer gone,
I’ve lost my strength and hope –
How long? till when? how long? (ad matai; ad ana; ad matai)”

He calls on heaven to exercise immediate justice; but, if not, he calls for the destruction of the world, spurning mere vengeance with the chilling lines: ‘Cursed is the one who says “Revenge” / vengeance for the blood of a small child/ Satan has not yet created...’

In these shriven times I commend the poem to you. As I do another 4-verse poem Bialik composed some decades later, a sentimental ditty ‘For Hanukkah’, written for children and still, I believe, sung during the festival in Israel. The word ‘cute’ might have been coined for lines like these, describing the candles, the foods, the presents...

“Teacher bought a spinning top for me
Solid lead, the finest known
In whose honour, for whose glory?
For Hanukkah alone”

‘Solid lead’, ‘cast lead’ – Operation Oferet Yetzukah, launched on December 27th, during Hanukkah, and named after this children’s verse from Bialik, led to the deaths of 250 children. There are times when words like ‘tragedy’ (and ‘irony’) seem impossibly inadequate, when no language can convey the sadness and horror of it all.

Lead, as we know, is toxic – it poisons, slowly, inexorably. Bialik’s image of the spinning solid lead dreidl will haunt us for years to come. You probably know too that the dreidl has four Hebrew letters inscribed on its sides, each letter standing for a word of a rabbinic phrase that grows increasingly bitter in our mouths: ‘A great miracle happened there’. Over time the spinning dreidl was converted into a light-hearted Hanukkah gambling game, with each letter representing whether you gained or lost.

In Israel’s deadly serious game the stakes are high. Yet each time she acts, why does the dreidl always seem to land on the same side? - the letter nun stands for nichts, nothing. Nothing is gained, nothing tangible in what really counts: justice, peace, the valuing of human lives above ideology.

We have reached a terrible impasse. Let me put it as simply as possible and end here : for Israel there can be no healing of the psychic trauma of the Shoah - the culmination of that historic experience of Jewish victimhood - until there is justice for the Palestinians; but there is no way Israel can create justice for Palestinians because of the Shoah, toxic as lead, still corroding the Israeli soul.

Ad matai; ad ana; ad matai - How long? till when? how long?

*****************

I could have added that ‘nun’ now stands, again, for Netanyahu. And with Avigdor Lieberman chosen as Foreign Minister by Netanyahu, maybe our only hope is the experience that bullies often end up bloodying each other’s noses. Israel has reached a new and shameful nadir in its history.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

On Anti-Semitism and all that stuff ...

March 4th

I have finally caught up with the controversial playlet by Caryl Churchill ‘Seven Jewish Children’ that played recently at the Royal Court.

It is available at www.royalcourttheatre.com/files/downloads/SevenJewishChildren.pdf and it makes painful reading.

Painful not because I think it is anti-Semitic – that accusation is more a kneejerk defensive reaction than a measured response – but painful because it encapsulates in its less-than-ten minutes of dialogue the pain of 20th history for Jews, and the pain any parent or adult might feel when we know how little we can do to protect our children from the pain of the world. What is done to us and what is done by us.

The text offers us seven scenes, each a set of voices in tension. In tension with each other – “Tell her her uncles died/Don’t tell her they were killed/Tell her they were killed/Don’t frighten her” - and voices in tension within themselves, tense with the excruciating dilemma of how not to pass on to one’s children one’s own fears, and guilt, and uncertainties in life, and how to pass on to them an honest account of what has happened, what is happening, what might happen, beyond the confines of their own homes and families.

The scenes trace Jewish history in the 20th century from before the Holocaust, through the birth of the State of Israel, and the wars that followed, up to the latest incursion into Gaza (the play’s subtitle is ‘a play for Gaza’). The text, with its deceptively simple lines and dialectical movement between opposing or contrasting points of view, is poignant and compassionate and provocative. Poignant because there has been so much sorrow in the last century of Jewish history, compassionate because the voices continually return to the protective refrain “Don’t frighten her”, and provocative because the author builds her text towards an indictment of Israel’s actions in Gaza in December and January: “...tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? Tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her. Don’t tell her that..”

There is a psychological honesty here that sears the heart and does make painful reading. But how should our history be written? The history of the emotional dividedness of the embattled Jewish people, and the emotional dividedness inside each Jew sensitive to the conflicting feelings of love and support for ‘our’ people in Israel, and the horror at what is sometimes done in the name of the State we also care about and want to feel such pride in.

The accusations thrown at this play include the accusation that it presents Jews in a historically anti-Semitic stereotypical way as ‘uncaring’, ‘triumphalist’ and ‘brutal’. Some of the feelings on display are indeed uncaring, triumphalist, and brutal (while others are caring, gentle and empathetic) – but these emotions are what fearfulness can generate in any one of us when we feel threatened. And the author shows the pervasive fearfulness about survival that has threaded its way through our history and wrapped itself round our souls. For anti-Semitism has been real, all too real. But this isn’t it.

This is a play alive to the inner conflicts of a persecuted people – “Tell her there were people who hated Jews/Don’t tell her/Tell her it’s over now/Tell her there are people who still hate Jews/Tell her there are people who love Jews...” – and how those unresolved inner conflicts can spill over until the persecuted ones, the victimized ones, still feeling themselves persecuted from within and without, end up victimizing others and hating themselves for it and hating the victims for making them do it, and then hating themselves for feeling that hatred ... and so it goes on, ‘to the third and fourth generations’.

Read the play for yourself. See what you think. I imagine you will be moved, and disturbed, and confused, maybe angry, maybe sorrowful – (and all those feelings are in the text too) – which means that the text has worked. It’s brave and brazen and risks itself being misunderstood. That’s what good texts do, stimulating our imaginations, our indignations, stirring us into response, reminding us of the complexities of the human condition and the sometimes well-nigh unbearable dramas we carry within our hearts and minds.

**************************************************************

And while we are talking about anti-Semitism...here comes Purim, that fleeting wine-drenched festival where we are commanded to drink to excess, to obliterate the difference between ‘Blessed is Mordechai’ and ‘Cursed is Haman’, to annul the distinction between (as it were) ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

How come? How is it that when Jews are so resolute in making a distinction between good and evil, the tradition sanctifies its abandonment on this day? Why is it a day of carnival, a day of disguises, a day of mocking authorities and subverting the status quo we cling to, of toppling the pieties we hold so dear. How can we be so brazen in questioning the clarity of the boundaries between goodness and its opposite? What were the rabbis of old intuiting about these categories? That the boundaries are not as clear as we like to think? A shocking thought – that good and bad might not be clear cut choices, that our hard-won moral positions may be more relative than we thought, more fluid than we dare to know?

We read the Book of Esther, where the name of God does not appear (the only Biblical book where this is so); and as we read this archetypal story of Jew-hatred cast in a diasporic land where God is (apparently) absent, do we not glimpse out of the corner of an eye the way in which good and evil plays out in history at the whim of all-too-human human beings, with their loves and hates, their loyalties, their treacheries and their feelings of betrayal?

The fate of the Jews in the story is in human hands. Not God’s hands. And the story illustrates how all of our fierce commitment to maintain goodness in the face of evil can be undone at the whim of tyrants and dictators. Perhaps no-one is in charge – a frightening thought. Perhaps life comes to us in disguise, asking us to search beneath the surface, to find what lies hidden within the revealed (‘Esther’ means ‘hidden’).

There is a mystery here that we may not want to know too much about – about arbitrariness in life, how life and death can come in the twinkling of an eye, about contingency and randomness, about all that lies beyond our control. About how life involves mixedupness , where yesterday’s heroes can become tomorrow’s villains, how no-one is thoroughly good and no-one is thoroughly evil, how the rejected can become triumphant, and the victims become persecutors. At the end of the Book of Esther the Jews massacre their former persecutors. No wonder we need to be inebriated to read this text. ‘You think you are good? Could never hurt a fly? Just wait – just wait until the boot is on the other foot...’

This story has it all, this festival intuits a truth about the human condition that maybe it’s best we only glimpse once a year. While drunk. And while pretending it’s only just a bit of fun.

************************************************************************

And lastly, on this theme – although there is never an end to this accursed theme – the Jewish Chronicle offered us last week on its front page what for a moment I thought must surely be an early Purim spiel.

‘Wartime Pope’s secret heroism’ – Pope Pius XII, long condemned by Jews as an anti-Semite for his refusal to speak out against the Nazi persecution of Jews during the War, the man branded as ‘Hitler’s Pope’, and used by Jews to exemplify their sense of historic grievance against Christianity as innately anti-Semitic – this is the man who, it is now revealed by new documents found in the Vatican’s archives, secretly ordered convents, monasteries and Catholic churches to hide Jews from the Gestapo. And persuaded Brazil and the Dominican Republic to grant thousands of visas for ‘non-Aryans’.

The villain has become a hero. In the twinkling of an eye.

For this is no Purim jest. It turns out that Pope Pius was almost philosemitic, and pro-Zionist to boot. And another prejudice I hear from time to time – ‘the whole world hates us’ – bites the dust. Except it never does. The Catholic church under Pius may have saved between 700,000 and 850,000 Jews from the Nazis, an extraordinary story. Strange how history works.

So when we are tempted to imagine that the world is against us - and which Jew doesn’t feel that in their hearts at some moments of their lives? – let’s pause and recall how things are not always as they seem, not always as we are told, that life is often more complex and mixed-up than we want to know. And let’s this Purim raise a glass to our new ‘righteous gentile’ and former hate figure, Pope Pius XII, and offer a heartfelt toast ‘L’chaim’ – To Life!

To life in all its wondrous strangeness: ‘L’Chaim’.