I recently attended a wedding where I was seated next to a seemingly mild-mannered older member of the Jewish community who – as the evening wore on – became increasingly keen to convince me that Islam was a dire threat to my existence: that the Qur’an was a hate-filled toxic book, that Islamic texts indoctrinate Muslims to despise Jews, that Muslims in the UK and in Europe will not rest until everyone is living under sharia law. You may find it hard to believe, but I didn’t find this diatribe entirely convincing.
I have learnt long ago that once someone has fixed in their mind a particular prejudice or irrational piece of thinking, rational counter-argument and the deployment of logic cannot dislodge it. And as someone who isn’t interested in ‘argument for argument sake’ I rarely bother to engage in these kind of conversations. Judaism might historically have been rooted in a culture of debate and disagreement, but ad hoc discussions with those whose minds are already made-up are a waste of time: I don’t find them in any way enjoyable or life-enhancing.
I was reminded of this recent encounter after reading about the antics of a certain Rabbi Nachum Shifren, who – according to the Observer newspaper - will be visiting the UK later this month to address the right-wing proto-fascist group, the English Defence League. It seems that the EDL are positioning themselves to take over from the British National Party as the voice of white English protest – with Muslims and Islam as their main focus of hatred. The BNP may well be a spent force – I happened to see Nick Griffin on the tube on a couple of occasions recently, and each time there was certainly a glum, hangdog look about him as he sat there staring vacantly into space, then taking a shifty look around him before returning to whatever passes for introspection in a man who has seen his dreams of power evaporate over this last year.
But the EDL are a growing force and are forging connections with the right-wing American Tea Party organisation - who seem as filled with paranoia and craziness as their Christian fundamentalist counterparts. The EDL’s invitation to Rabbi Shifren comes out of these contacts. (Although he does have a rabbinic title, I note from his scary but illuminatingly titled website surfingrabbi.com that his ordination comes from Kfar Chabad in Israel, a detail omitted from his more recent public website – yes, seriously – rabbiforsenate.com).
His overblown and paranoid rhetorical approach to issues is evident in the Observer article, where he is quoted as saying: ‘The Jewish community is paralysed with fear, exactly what most radical Muslim agitators want. The people of England are in the forefront of this war – and it is a war. One of the purposes of this visit is to put the kibosh on the notion in the Jewish community that they cannot co-operate with the EDL, which is rubbish.’
Well, I for one am not ‘paralysed with fear’ – but I am concerned that Shifren is coming to this country to stir up trouble in a Jewish community that does have (as my wedding companion illustrates) its ambivalences about Islam and its anxieties about Muslims. I cannot honestly believe that Shifren will find much sympathy amongst Jews here for his wish that they seek common cause with the thugs and hooligans of the English Defence League. But he could do a lot of damage to Muslim perceptions of Jews in this country. His blatant Islamophobia is abhorrent and racist – and it won’t perhaps surprise us (though again this isn’t mentioned on his website promoting his run for the US Senate) that he is a member of the West Bank settlement Kfar Tapuach, which has a reputation for extreme anti-government militancy and where Israeli police recently arrested a member for allegedly killing Palestinians.
In a recent article he offered an example of his discerning rabbinic wisdom as follows:
“The rule that we in the West refuse to acknowledge is simply that to the muslim, whoever is perceived as strong, will be feared and will survive; and whoever is seen as weak, irresolute, or wavering, will be despised and will be vanquished... This will be a hard bullet for America to bite, but we are at war with Islam! Those who deny this are quislings or fifth-columnists — and very often, university professors and chancellors... The muslim onslaught is at the gates; they are weary of our self-indulgence and they abhor our eroding social mores and valueless culture. They are sharpening the long knives, knowing that their time will come shortly.”
Ah yes, those long Muslim knives – close kin of the Jewish ones we use to kill Christian children for the blood we need to bake matzot.
And on his website designed for his attempt to gain a seat in the US Senate we find a xenophobic anti-Muslim invective that makes it understandable why the English Defence League will be welcoming him with open arms:
“Here's something to think about the next time you are watching some American institution being obliterated by suicide bombers or some other assault designed to vanquish our nation:
Where were you when
• Taxi drivers in San Diego blocked an entire sidewalk while they rolled out carpets and bowed down to Mecca?
• Dearborne, Michigan is forced to endure the horrific blasts from ubiquitous mosques dotting the city, FIVE TIMES DAILY?
• Harvard University spends public money on foot baths for use before Muslim prayers?”
There is much more in this nauseating vein in his published remarks – and it is hard to believe that all of this is not an incitement to hatred. I normally find myself passionately defending the principle of free speech – even for views which appal me. But in this case I have begun to ask myself the question: if this surfing rabbi is headed in our direction on a tide of noxious effluent that is promoting hatred towards Muslims, shouldn’t the Board of Deputies be petitioning the Home Secretary to ban Rabbi Shifren from entering the UK just as they have petitioned on other occasions for the banning of certain extremist Islamic hate-mongers?
You can’t ban someone for the shame they will bring on the bruised good name of Judaism – but incitement to hatred is something else.