It seems strange to continue this series while the coronavirus is uppermost in our minds, but with the growing need for self-isolation, it is perhaps all the more important to continue long-standing online conversations.
Last weekend was Purim. It’s an important date in the Jewish year, these days more than ever, perhaps having even greater resonance post-20th Century than before. It celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people from genocide under Haman in the Persia of King Xerxes. The story is told in the biblical book of Esther, one of the most intriguing and fascinating in the Jewish Scriptures. It is renowned for its unique omission of any mention of G-d.
G-d at work, without being mentioned
But it is far from being an atheistic text. I’ve heard a brilliant overview of the book which seeks to follow the book’s lead precisely by also avoiding any mention of divine names.
Which is a pretty unusual tactic for any preacher. But at every twist and turn of the story (and there are many), he simply said, “well isn’t that a coincidence?” And, of course, the result is pretty spectacular. Such an accumulation of multiple coincidences cannot be anything but … the result of a divine hand! This was a brilliant way to convey precisely the point of the book.
What the book does illustrate, however, is the antiquity of anti-semitism. That is just an historical fact. It is not an invitation to pop-psychologize or to offer cod-conspiracy-theories by way of an explanation (I’ve heard a few and they tend to descend into groundless generalizations if not prejudices). For example, the grim history of enforced yellow badges or stars for Jewish people goes back far further than I’d ever imagined (it seems it goes back all the way to the 8th Century, albeit not exclusively for Jews initially). As Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt reminds us, the threat has never really gone away. So, we can surely understand why my friends (in the first post of this series) are nervous. Even in contemporary Britain.
Jonathan Sacks is one of the country’s foremost public intellectuals. He speaks with clarity and hard-won simplicity, and on so many issues, he is a voice of calm wisdom and reason.
It is no wonder, then, that towards the end of his over 20 years as UK Chief Rabbi, he was given a life peerage and seat in the House of Lords in 2009. It was important for his voice to still be heard in our public life. Long may that continue. In his 70s now, he is producing some interesting resources, including these animated shorts which my friends put me onto. They’re all worth checking out.
It’s punchy and direct – but note what he is and isn’t saying. He’s very clear that criticizing Israeli policies is legitimate (as I said in post #2). But that is a very different issue from challenging Israel’s existential legitimacy. The creation of the state in 1948 was an extraordinary moment, and while I do not quite see it as a fulfillment of the prophetic expectations of, say, Isaiah or Ezekiel (for reasons too complicated and irrelevant to get into here), I certainly accept that it makes sense morally, politically, and historically. After all, as he says in one of the other videos, there is only one state with a Jewish identity, in contrast to those with majority Christians and Muslims, not to mention Hinduism or Buddhism.
In some of the videos, he says things that are certainly contentious. Not because of what he says about the Jews and the land, but because of the implications for others (namely, the Palestinians). Which is the nub of the issue to many minds. How is it possible to square this circle, especially when so many groups and organizations explicitly threaten Israel’s very existence?
Sacks doesn’t tackle this issue in these shorts, understandably. He does say in one of them that he supports “the right of Palestinians to a state of their own” and “the right of Palestinian children to a future of dignity and hope”. How that’s possible is quite a different and thorny matter. (A few years ago, we saw J. T. Rogers’ powerful play OSLO, about the background to the Peace Accords there in the 1980s. If on near you, get to it.)
But in yet another short, Sacks is clear that Jewish ethics derived from the Scriptures decrees a society in the land characterized by commitments to
‘justice, welfare, the sanctity of life, and caring for strangers because you know what it is like to be a stranger“.
This is spot on. The Torah was remarkably counter-cultural in insisting on these values 3000+ years ago and it still sounds astonishingly contemporary.
So the legitimate Jewish nation-state, or indeed any nation-state, ought not to claim the right to untrammelled policies, means, or actions. The fatal error in so much geopolitics is our grotesque and opportunistic selectivity in the application of these values.
As I said before, easy in theory; fiendishly difficult in practice.
But where might this leave us? A few initial thoughts, in no particular order…
- Shun the denial of Anti-Semitism. It is a reality. Historically. Currently. And don’t even go down the Holocaust-denial route. Read Deborah Lipstadt, or failing that, watch the film Denial. Just don’t. In fact…
- Shun Xenophobia, full stop.
- Shun Jewish scapegoating. Sacks put this well in one of his videos: when something terrible happens, a group has two options: to evaluate what they’ve done wrong or to ask who else is to blame. This is not to deny the reality of victimhood as a reality. Many of the world’s conflicts (past and present) are simply not symmetrical. But resorting to facile soundbite causes or culprits is a sign of manipulative demagoguery rather than honest truth-seeking. And let’s face it. Even if individual perpetrators in some scheme or conspiracy or whatever do just happen to be Jewish, so what? Surely it’s impossible to infer generalizations about any group (regardless of its race, skin, class, ideology or whatever) from a small number. It is one thing to discern some common cultural characteristics (they do exist – see Thomas Sowell’s fascinating Race and Culture), it is another to totalize that generalization. Everyone reading this will have at least some characteristics that differ from their background group. Not all Muslims are terrorists; not all Brits were imperialists; not all Americans like hamburgers. So in other words…
- Shun ScapeGoating and the Blame-Game, full stop.
- Shun anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. I’ve written quite a bit about this as the manifestation of the dark side of postmodern thinking, par excellence (mainly in A Wilderness of Mirrors). So I won’t go into detail here. But the more I looked into the phenomenon, the less convinced I became by them. Of course, people do conspire and plot; there are dark and unseen machinations at work; so we do have grounds for suspicion. But how long do they remain hidden, really? The truth will out. Sometimes very fast. And some conspiracy theories are themselves actually fabricated conspiracies: like that wretched anti-Semitic hoax, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, The best book on this is David Aaronovitch’s superb Voodoo Histories. The simple fact is that people are not divine; for all their conspiring, they simply do not have such power. Psalm 2 is a case in point. So for that matter, while avoiding gullibility, we should…
- Shun the Conspiracy Theory Mindset, full stop.
- Don’t dismiss people’s fears; be attentive to them. If people feel threatened, it’s not good enough (as well as utterly counter-productive) simply to tell them to stop feeling it (even if the threats are imagined). We must listen and take them seriously, evaluating their grounds and plausibility. We’d expect nothing less if things were the other way around.
- Give special attention to minorities or the disenfrachised. This is not about being ‘woke’ nor the tyranny of the many by the few. It is a matter of respecting common dignity and the fact that the welfare of minority groups is an acid test for a society’s health. A majority will always assume its perspective is normative and tends to be blind to power imbalances. So when my friend pointed out (in the first post) that British Jews account for only 0.5% of the whole UK population, we must sit up and take notice. No wonder there is a sense of vulnerability. Incidentally, it’s the same reason for attentive concern for Israeli Arabs/Palestinians (roughly 21% of Israel, not including the populations of Gaza & the West Bank).
Finally, get to know people who are not like you!