Follow by Email

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Howard Jacobson Thinks I’m Mad

In the light of the recent events in France, according to one of our ‘leading’ Anglo-Jewish novelists Howard Jacobson, “any Jew who is not frightened is mad...”  Well, the events of recent weeks - first in Paris, then the various reactions to them in the Jewish community here in the UK - have provoked in me various emotions from outrage and compassion to confusion and cynicism; but I haven’t felt frightened.  I have felt though an anxious concern about what the current swirl of Jewish paranoia- verging-on-hysteria will do to our sense of ourselves as a community in the months, and maybe years, ahead.

So, I’m not feeling personally frightened. (Or not more so than my normal ongoing fears about everything from what ageing might mean for my health, to what the crude pan-European scapegoating of immigrants might mean for their health and well-being, to the environmental catastrophe that threatens everyone’s well-being in the decades ahead). So does this lack of fear mean that I am indeed, as Jacobson insists, ‘mad’? Mad not to feel frightened by the nihilistic grudge-bearing murderousness of pockets of Islamist publicity-seeking martyrs-in-waiting? Mad not to fear some inevitable outrage in the UK, in spite of all the sterling work the police and intelligence services are obviously doing to track these disaffected youths caught up in these Islamist death cults?
It’s not that I think it is delusional to think an attack could happen – it could, of course – but does that mean I have to avoid taking public transport, or walking around the streets of North London, or avoid recognisable Jewish buildings or shops? or only do so in a state of perpetual fear? I feel sorry for those who are feeling afraid –  I can sympathise with such fearfulness, but I don’t find I have very much, if any, empathy for it: empathy in the sense of sharing the feelings being expressed.  I find myself thinking of Nachman of Bratzlav’s wisdom: ‘The whole world is a very narrow bridge – but the essential thing is not to be afraid, at all’. A tall order, that ‘at all’, but a salutary one.
That 'very narrow bridge' speaks to the fact that life is inherently uncertain, it's immersed in unpredictability. Tragedies can – and do – strike us without warning and in spite of all the precautions and insurances we take out in our vain attempts to feel in control. Am I ‘mad’ in our current climate to refuse to be dominated by fear, ruled by fear, held emotional hostage to fantasies of aggression directed towards me from unknown assailants? That way does madness lie, I would suggest, rather than it being ‘mad’ not to feel it.   
Am I mad to think that – in President Roosevelt’s resonant phrase at his 1933 Inauguration - ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’? Am I mad not to take seriously some spurious survey that suggests that 45% of British Jews believe Jews may not have a long term future in the UK? Jacobson says that after the killings in Paris his feeling was of ‘cold fingers at your heart...dread’. (Cold fingers at your heart, Howard ? Mixed metaphor, surely, – but maybe that’s what fear does, it scrambles your thinking).
An inner chill is what I do feel when I read the Jewish Chronicle whipping up the anxiety levels in our community, because I dread our becoming a community that acts as if we are under siege, and I loathe the mentality of ‘they are all out to get us’, and I dread the contagious nature of fear when it is stirred up by communal institutions or the Community Security Trust (who are having a field day). The visible extra security on display – this ratcheting up of overt ‘protection’ – is actually stimulating the fear it is meant to allay.
And I feel some of those cold fingers reaching out to grip me when I see our Home Secretary Theresa May, and our Secretary of State for Communities Eric Pickles, solemnly holding up placards saying ‘Je Suis Juif’. The cynic in me says there’s an element here of pre-election courting of Jewish votes – it’s good politics to put on a show of concern about our concern. But there is something fundamentally askew – though maybe absurd would be a better word - about those placards. ‘No, you’re not’, I want to say, ‘and I don’t want you to be’. I wonder if the placards they held had said ‘I am a Jew’, would more Jews have seen through it? Or at least questioned what was going on?
The issue we face within the UK is about working with differences between peoples and faiths, about finding ways to live together: native born and immigrant, Muslim and Jew and Christian, many cultures, many faiths, many ethnicities, all the complex multiplicity of identities that citizens inhabit. It’s not about merging differences, pretending we are all the same. That ‘Je Suis Juif’ act of pseudo-identification may seem well-meant – but it is conceptually flawed. I found that acted-out show of solidarity rather nauseating. Maddening. But then after all, according to Jacobson, I am just ‘mad’ anyway.  

Thursday, 15 January 2015

"All is Forgiven"?

I felt a degree of concern when I heard that this week’s edition of Charlie Hebdo would once again feature a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed. Was this to be a further provocation, a gesture of angry defiance, another barb aimed at the heart of Muslim sensibilities?  See it for yourself:

I have spent the last week reflecting on the almost impossible balance that needs to be maintained between our hard-fought  freedoms for literary and artistic self-expression – which includes the freedom to subvert conventional pieties (religious or secular), the freedom to dissent against majority opinions or those of the powerful (secular or religious) through polemic, satire, drama, whatever non-violent weapons are at hand – and the desirability on a human level of avoiding unnecessary distress to those one is opposing.  

Empathy towards another person’s (or group’s) sensitivities is a noble quality. Seeing the world through the eyes of others is meant to help us towards a larger vision of the human, a more refined  understanding of our shared (but multifarious) humanity. But if you believe the other’s  world-view is detrimental to your well-being, how best to convey one’s hurt, or one’s outrage, without provoking their hurt, or outrage, in response? Is it possible to profoundly challenge another’s view of the world while maintaining an attitude of respect for the integrity of the other’s view? What if the other is a believer in slavery? Or an anti-Semite? Or a misogynist? Or a dyed-in-the-wool racist? This dilemma is complex enough when we are talking about individual relationships – me and you. But when we are talking about group sensibilities the difficulties multiply exponentially.  

All of these thoughts have been in play as I have pondered on the events of this tumultuous week. ‘Group think’ has been everywhere: it was in the massed crowds showing solidarity with the victims of the tragedies in Paris; and it was in the well-meaning and I am sure heartfelt ‘not in my name – this is not Islam’ responses of the majority of Western Muslims to their co-religionists’ outrages. But was I alone in feeling uncomfortable at the role played this week by the Prime Minister of the State of Israel in the events in Paris? Solidarity with French Jews, OK. But playing so prominently the ‘You can always come to Israel’ card to a shocked and grieving diaspora community – as if they didn’t know this? - seemed insensitive rather than supportive: a piece of political rhetoric compounded by the strange nationalistic  appropriation of those who died in the supermarket.
Why were their funerals – and not the two Jews who died in the Charlie Hebdo attack - in Jerusalem? Were the supermarket victims all ex-pat Israelis? I don’t think they were.  I don’t think any of them were - but what they shared was that they died in a ‘Jewish’ supermarket. So Israel claimed them. (It was left to Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin – not for the first time in recent months - to provide, en passant, the necessary rebuke to Netanyahu: Jews should come to Israel , he said, not out of fear, but ‘We want you to chose Israel because of a love for Israel’). 

If the four  who died in the supermarket weren’t Israelis, then what we saw so prominently exhibited to the world was a problematic elision by Netanyahu of the distinction between Jew and Israeli. We rightly complain when diaspora Jews are attacked or abused because of the actions of the State of Israel – but these funerals  fed right in to the more-common-than-we-like-to-think non-Jewish failure to distinguish between diasporic Jewry and the Israeli state. It played straight into the homogenising group think that says all Jews, wherever they live in the world, are the same. A mirror image of the unthinking anti-Muslim polemic that pontificates that  ‘all Muslims’ are deluded fanatics – or terrorists in waiting.    

Back to the cartoon. One of the dominant motifs over this last week has been the much voiced Muslim response that the hallmark of Mohammed was his empathy, his patience, his tolerance, his gentleness – his capacity to forgive:  We should, through our actions and deeds, display the sublime character of the Prophet (peace be upon him). The Prophet faced many great challenges but he exhibited impeccable beauty of character in his actions. He did not react inhumanely or violently. He was attacked verbally and physically in Taif but he forgave the people. His uncle and companions were murdered but he reacted peacefully and in a humane manner. And there are many such examples from the life of the Prophet (peace be upon him) we must display (see the statement by leading imams at  

So I found it rather moving – and exhibiting a touch of inspiration – for the figure on the cover to be tearful, empathising with the victims, and to appear below the headline ‘Everything is Forgiven’. It is a response both profoundly religious and profoundly humanistic: it fuses religiosity and secularism in a powerful vision of shared human values. Rénald Luzier – ‘Luz’ – has created a timeless image that both subverts the stale boundaries between what is ‘religious’ and what is ‘secular’ – and belies the proud, self-confessed atheistic stance of the journal’s editorial board. The image offers us a reflection on the role of compassion and forgiveness in the face of fear and terror and death.  

Yes, it does this through an image of a bearded man in a turban – and no doubt many will project the notion of the Prophet Mohammed onto this picture. But it is no more a representation of the reality of the Prophet whom Muslims reverence than are those analogous imaginative gestures towards a shared cultural reference point found in the dozens of images of ‘God’ drawn by cartoonists for the New Yorker  over the last several decades. It is a sort of category error to confuse the image with what it points towards.  
Cartoons are not icons: eastern Orthodoxy created devotional objects for Christian meditation – spending time reflecting on the image of Christ could lead to a greater sense of piety, of the need to mirror the attributes of the Christ figure in one’s daily life.  And western art is of course unthinkable without its religious imagery – though representations of God are rare. It is strange perhaps that Islam has borrowed the Judaeo-Christian tradition of not representing God and extended it to the Prophet – this extension of the prohibition about image making is like the Judaic ‘fence around the Torah’, an additional circle of protectiveness lest one stray too near what the core prohibition is: idolatry. The problem always comes when a religious tradition makes an idol out of the law designed to keep one from making idols. And we are not to make idols out of divinity/God in any monotheistic tradition because, as it is said, Allah Hu-akbar – ‘God’ is greater/bigger/more incomprehensible than any image can ever capture.
But one of the things I have learnt this week has been that there was a longstanding tradition of Islamic artistic representation of the Prophet. One 16th century example, of Mohammed on Mt Hira, with a veiled face and halo, can be seen in the link below (scroll down, right hand side image) :

A fuller discussion can be found at 

This tradition of figurative representation of Mohammed may have fallen out of fashion – and be unknown to adherents of Islam. But ignorance of one’s own multi-dimensional  faith tradition is not of course restricted to Islam. And of course cartoons are not usually devotional material.  

But Luz’s front cover does allow us to contemplate some of the core values of Islam, Judaism and Christianity as well as humanism: our capacity for regret, empathy, forgiveness, compassion. It leaves open the question who is doing the forgiving, and who is being forgiven. If the cover is an act of defiance – though I’m not so sure it is – then it is the defiance of the sorrowful:  not an act of aggression but an act of humility, of hurt, of vulnerability, of solidarity with those who suffer. And which of us does not suffer in these days of turmoil and fear?


Thursday, 8 January 2015

"Je Suis Charlie"

In 1821 the English poet Shelley wrote a critical essay, ‘In Defence of Poetry’, in which he argued that the value of poetry was that it acts on us in a way that "awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought".  This is what the written word – and satirical cartoons - can do for us. And to us. His essay ends with the well-known Romantic thought that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Religious texts too can ‘awaken and enlarge the mind’ – and when read in a certain spirit they do, be they Jewish, Muslim or Christian texts  - but they can also deaden and shrink the mind. The problem is not (usually) the texts themselves – the problem resides in those who read them.

Today’s murders in Paris are an attack on the freedom of all writers, all artists, to express themselves in ways that might offend others. I share the general sense of outrage, shock and horrified condemnation: it is an attack that goes to the heart of what we think of as ‘civilized’ values. But when what we hold sacred is attacked, or mocked, what can we do? This is not straightforward. When Der Stürmer published its articles and cartoons attacking Jews and Judaism in Germany in the 1930s, Jews did not take up arms to kill the offenders. But should they have done? Would we have wanted them to?

The offices of Charlie Hebdo were firebombed in 2011 – anti-Muslim polemic has been part of their repertoire for a decade: they republished the Danish cartoons in 2006 that had caused much upset in the Muslim community. They are provocatively anti-authoritarian and anti-religious. Possibly some of the magazine’s content would not have been permissible in the UK, where we have the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, Section 4A of which states: (1) A person is guilty of an offence if, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress, he— (a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour...or (b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress. In 2012, following a vigorous campaign, this Act was amended and the word “insulting” was removed.

However this legislation needs to be read in conjunction with the UK’s  Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006  which makes it a crime to stir up religious hatred - but protects freedom of speech by stating that the act does not ‘prohibit or restrict discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents...’

The idea is prevalent that I can or should protect you from feeling ‘offended’ – but this, along with the notion that I should be protected (by the law, if necessary)  from feeling offended – makes no sense. I feel offended by the government’s callous sado-monetarist austerity programmes; I feel offended by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of large parts of the press; I feel offended by many, many things I encounter every day – too many to list, but if you are sensate you will have your own list – but I also recognise that it is my own responsibility to channel these feelings, as best as possible, in ways that aren’t lethal to others. This too is not straightforward, psychologically, spiritually. But it is close to the heart of what it means to be a moral being. Yet it is a task, and not a given.

This latest outrage brings to mind the murderous response to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) – Ayatollah Khomenei’s fatwa called for his assassination; his Japanese translator was murdered, his Italian translator seriously stabbed, his Norwegian translator shot, the offices of his Indian publishers were threatened, and the fatwa remains in force even though Rushdie has come out of hiding.  

This is what happens when religious texts and religious traditions are related to literally as absolute vehicles for higher truth – rather than as vehicles for the human spirit’s poetic sensibility. When they become idols, rather than imaginative containers for a ‘thousand unapprehended combinations of thought’. 

The debate about what the limits of free speech might be in our contemporary world will go on. Meanwhile we mourn those who have lost their lives so senselessly in (and outside) the offices of a Parisian magazine that wished to provoke but could not imagine the power of hatred their texts could unleash.