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Monday, 21 April 2014

On Ukraine and the Myths, Blessings and Curses of Nationalism

If you’ve been watching the news these last few weeks the scene will have become familiar: around a Soviet-era town hall you see a group of armed men in military fatigues and flak jackets, weapons in hand, cell-phones, walkie-talkies. Smiles for the cameras. And always ready to explain themselves to Western journalists.
The situation in eastern Ukraine seems to change from day to day, and this last ten days has seen an accelerating drama unfold, almost by the hour; but what really caught my attention was a report from one journalist who approached the group surrounding the town hall in Slavyansk, and asked the men who they were.
“We’re Cossacks”, one of the group explained. “It doesn’t matter where we are from.” ‘He declined to give his name’ – the article continues – ‘Instead, he offered a quick history lesson, stretching back a thousand years, to when Slavic tribes banded together to form Kievan Rus – the dynasty that eventually flourished into modern day Ukraine and its big neighbour Russia. “We don’t want Ukraine. Ukraine doesn’t exist for us. There are no people called Ukrainians”, he declared. “there are just Slav people who used to be in Kievan Rus, before Jews like Trotsky divided us. We should all be together again”.[Luke Harding, The Guardian, 15th April 2014]
“We should all be together again” presumably means ‘all of us, except the Jews’. Three hundred and fifty years ago, in the mid 17th century, a Cossack rebellion against Polish and Lithuanian rule in these lands, a rebellion led by the infamous Khmelnitsky, generated some of the worse pogroms against Jews since the medieval Crusades. It’s estimated that 100,000 Jews were massacred in 1648-9 alone, at the height of Khmelnitsky’s revolt.  
Maybe it’s worth remembering, in passing, that in 1919 and 1920, the new Soviet regime killed or deported up to half a million Cossacks from their ancestral lands - that’s out of an ethnic population of 3 million. The multiple ironies here can be noted: those pro-Russian Cossacks who’ve taken over Slavyansk town hall are the descendents of those massacred by the Russians less than a century ago; and in their modern version of an ancient hatred of Jews, there is the imaginative failure to recognise the similarity of both their situations as historically persecuted ethnic minorities. They should be making common cause with the Jews rather than scapegoating them. But that’s rarely how history unfolds.  

As we come to the end of our annual Jewish celebration of ‘national liberation’, I’ve been reflecting on the complexities surrounding this notion of ‘national liberation’ - which always seems to involve a re-writing of  history to suit the new story which is being fabricated to justify one nationalism or another.  We can raise our eyebrows at this Cossack version of history – “Ukraine doesn’t exist for us. There are no people called Ukrainians” – but do we remember Golda Meir’s statement, in an interview in 1969, when she was Prime Minister of Israel, that "There was no such thing as Palestinians. . . They did not exist"?  
Nationalism, whether it is Jewish, Cossack, American, or in India during their current elections – it doesn’t matter which, it’s across the board – always deals in myths, fabrications, distortions, half-truths and outright lies, any of which, if repeated often and vigorously enough, are taken as truths by audiences (no different from us, I guess) always happy to have our innate prejudices pandered to. Cultural forgetting, as well as cultural inventing and selectivity, is always at work when that strange construct we call nationalism is in play. 
Reliable estimates of the numbers of Jews now living in Ukraine are hard to come by. 80,000? 100,000? 200,000? Nobody really knows. This confusion is mirrored in my attempt to get a clear picture of how the recent turmoil is affecting them. After the Ukrainian president Yanukovych fled, back in February, those with seats in the new government included the far rightist anti-semitic group Svoboda, who have claimed in the past that the country’s  been ruled by a ‘Moscow-Jewish mafia’;  and there were reports of pro-Maidan paramilitary forces patrolling the streets of Kiev wearing swastika armbands and mouthing anti-semitic slogans.  

Before the Russian annexation of Crimea, vandals spray-painted swastikas and “death to Jews” on the only Reform synagogue in Crimea's capital, Simferopol. (Their rabbi, Misha Kapustin, a Leo Baeck College graduate, has now relocated to a post in Slovakia with his family). Last month another synagogue in Zaporizhiya was attacked by a mob who threw Molotov cocktails near the synagogue’s entrance.
These kinds of incidents led one of the three Chief Rabbis in Ukraine, Moishe Asman, to tell the Jews of Kiev to flee, there was no future for them in Ukraine; and it was said he himself left for Moscow. Meanwhile Putin cast himself as the defender of the besieged Jews of Ukraine. 

There are, it seems, three ‘Chief Rabbis’ because  the Ukrainian Jewish community is riven with communal politics (so no difference from other countries in that respect) - each so-called Chief Rabbi is seen as illegitimate by other groups. The politics of this is depressingly familiar: alongside Asman, there is an American-born Hasidic rabbi, Bleich, since 1992 often referred to in the foreign press as the Chief Rabbi; but there’s also the Russian-born Azriel Haikin, who was proclaimed chief rabbi in 2003 by the Lubavitch movement in Ukraine. He seems to be keeping his head down in the current unrest. Then there are also other figures, including another LBC graduate, Alex Dukhovny, head rabbi of the Ukrainian Progressive Judaism communities, who signed an open letter to Putin asking him to stop using the protection of Jews as a pretext for invading Ukraine.
So as February turned into March it did seem to me that anti-semitism was again on the rise - but there were also counter-indications. Because it was also clear that young Jews in Kiev had been actively part of the pro-Western Maidan protests, including forming their own combat group against the now-ousted government. And when Jewish leaders asked Kiev’s new authorities for protection for key community buildings they were quick to receive it. And many Jewish communal leaders dismissed the random acts of anti-semitic violence as attacks from pro-Russian provocateurs bent on discrediting the new government in Kiev.

And so it goes on. As Pesach began, there was the worrying news from the newly-declared ‘people’s republic’ in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine of a leaflet that had been distributed – with chilling historical precedents - calling on all Jews over the age of 16 to register as Jews as well as supply a detailed list of all the property they own. Failure to do so would result in their having their citizenship revoked, deportation, and the confiscation of their assets. To add insult to injury, a mandatory registration fee of $50 was also required. (There are 17,000 Jews in Donetsk).  

A copy of these fliers was sent by a local Donetsk Jew to a friend in Israel, where it found its way into the Israeli press and within 24 hours John Kerry was using it during the talks in Geneva last Thursday to condemn what was going in eastern Ukraine.  Certain Jewish groups – always ready and willing to see Jew-hatred as endemic in the ‘non-Jewish’ world - had been convinced it was more evidence of the dangerous levels of anti-semitism in the eastern Ukrainian liberation movements. But it now turns out that these leaflets are almost certainly a hoax, an attempt to smear the separatist anti-Maidan groups in the east. The Donetsk Jewish community themselves have dismissed the leaflets as a ‘provocation’ – something fabricated by people aligned with the new government in Kiev to compromise the pro-Russian groups in the east. Apparently, even the Ukrainian secret service, the SBU, have told the Jewish community not to take seriously the contents of this leaflet.

I hope you are following all this. Because it is enough to make you dizzy with confusion. Jews are both pawns and scapegoats in all this - but they are also players. And as players they are divided about whom they are loyal to, politically, just as in any other country. A significant number have been active in the pro-Maidan movement in Kiev, but there seem to also be a significant number of Jews, particularly  in Crimea, who welcomed the Russian forces. 
I do not offer any political analysis here. But if you are interested in one, the interview with Princeton University’s Professor Stephen Cohen on the link that follows is particularly revealing (my thanks to Tony Rudolph for drawing this to my attention)
In the midst of this, some wise and poignant words from the Liberal Haggadah come to mind. ‘No liberation is easy...As tyranny brings death and evil to its victims, so the struggle to overthrow it claims its casualties. In the upheaval, persecuted and persecutor, innocent and guilty, all will suffer. There is no redemption without pain.’ And there follows on seder night that famous tradition in relation to the Ten Plagues of symbolically diminishing our joy about liberation by spilling one drop of wine for each plague. Which, as the years go by, increasingly strikes me as a fairly meagre response to the devastating, bloody and death-dealing story that lies at the heart of the Jewish people’s  own liberation story, the exodus from Egypt.

This is our foundational myth, this God-driven liberation from bondage, and it has inspired us for millennia, we tell it again and again, referring to it not only at Pesach but at all festivals and every Shabbat:  we are always blessing God and enacting one ritual or another zecher lizyiat mitzrayim – ‘in memory of the coming out of Egypt’. And far beyond the Jewish community, it’s been inspirational for freedom struggles around the world: for American civil rights, for anti-apartheid campaigns in South Africa, for South American liberation theology. Our story has a universal resonance for oppressed people. And while we may take pride in this, it can be easy to ignore the shadow side of the story, the side that the Liberal haggadah acknowledges, that in any struggle for liberation ‘all will suffer’.

Our problem is that nationalism, any nationalism, can be - is - both blessing and curse. It’s always double-sided, whether we think of Israelites fleeing an Egypt devastated by plagues and death, the foundation of the United States through acts of genocide of native populations, or the birth of Israel as a nation-State and the consequences for Palestine’s other natives. What always gets lost in the euphoria of one group’s establishing of a new and supposedly freer collective identity is the face of God in the ‘other’, Judaism’s astonishing claim that the divine spark resides in each human being, regardless of race, or religion, or gender, or tribe or nation. That the enemy you are desperate to be liberated from, the enemy who oppresses you, who may hate you, is a uniquely created reflection of the divine image, just like you – this is the unbearable, paradoxical, radically challenging insight that Judaism provokes us with, defies us to keep in mind.

Judaism sets the bar so high, ethically speaking, spiritually speaking, that we are probably always going to fail in this impossible project of seeing the other as infinitely precious.

Meanwhile what we don’t have to fail at is in supporting the Jews of Ukraine in practical ways during these unsettling times, supporting them for example  through the World Jewish Relief’s Pesach appeal these troubling and confusing times in the Ukraine, WJR are continuing their ongoing programmes of support on the ground for vulnerable individuals in the country, mainly Jews but not exclusively so. If you don’t know what to think about what’s happening there, that’s OK, we are all a bit lost with it. But you can still do something of value. Go online, donate, or make a call, donate: isn’t that what credit cards are for?  It’s like spilling the wine, having a bit less for ourselves – in recognition of the humanity and suffering of others, Jew and non-Jew alike.


[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, on the middle Shabbat of Pesach, April 19th, 2104]


Thursday, 10 April 2014

Some Thoughts for Seder Night

As we sit down to our Seders – with family, with friends, or in community – we in the UK in 2014 intuit that as Jews we are living, historically speaking, lives of immense privilege. While we speak of oppression in Egypt and celebrate the journey our people made from slavery to freedom, we acknowledge the freedoms we now enjoy, unprecedented in Jewish history: freedom to assemble as we want, free to celebrate without persecution, free to speak our minds without fear of a knock on the door, free to express our Jewish selves in whatever style we may choose.

But the challenge of Seder night is not just to remember the past, not just to recall the extraordinary longevity of our story with its roots in servitude and its mythos of ourselves as a people liberated into a different kind of servitude – servitude to a vision of how things could be, how freedoms of many kinds could be the inheritance of all peoples;  as Rabbi John Rayner z”l expressed it: ‘freedom from oppression, freedom from want, freedom from hunger, freedom from hatred, freedom from fear; freedom to think, freedom to speak, freedom to learn, freedom to love, freedom to hope, freedom to rejoice - soon, in our days’. The Seder night is, of course, all of that. But it is more than that.
For how can we celebrate these freedoms we have - and those we wish for - with integrity, wholeheartedly, when we live in an as-yet-unredeemed world?  A world of homelessness on our doorsteps and food banks around the corner; a world where women are sold into sexual slavery, and wage slavery in China, India and Pakistan underpins the technology we use, the clothes we wear, sometimes the food we eat; a  world where polio has broken out in Syrian refugee camps, where West Bank settlers uproot Palestinian olive groves, where militias are on genocidal marches in Africa, a world where the richest 85 people on the planet control as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population put together...dayyeinu.
Yes, dayyeinu, we sing, in thankfulness of all we have. ‘It would have been enough’. ‘It should be enough’. Dayyeinu. But the bitter herbs remind us of all we have not done, and all that remains to be done, as long as  bitterness remains the daily life of others created, like us, in the image of the Divine One, our Redeemer - who waits for us to continue the work of redemption, with our own ‘strong hands and outstretched arms’.
The challenge of the Seder night is its call to action. To take that Biblical image – the metaphor of power-filled hands and arms  - culled from Exodus and Deuteronomy, the image of a redeeming energy transforming the fate of a whole people, to take this part of the mythic narrative and incarnate it in our own lives. What a challenge! What an expectation! What a destiny! Dare we embrace the challenge, the expectation? Dare we live in alignment with our task, our destiny as the people of God?