Sermon: Anti-Semitism and the new Mayor of London

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 7 May 2016

“To London belongs the melancholy glory of having, in recent years, been the centre of a particularly noisy and noisome school of witch doctors… who with one voice declare the Jews to have ever been the breeders of revolution in the modern world, as well as the authors of all the ills that the present day is heir to”

So wrote the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogues, Joseph Hertz – him of the Hertz chumash – in a sermon given at Central Synagogue on the first day of Sukkot, 1922.  He condemned the ‘wild beast’ of anti-Semitism “roaming and roaring,” “driven by hallucinations of hatred against Israel”.

Hertz, of course, meant by this ‘people Israel’, rather than ‘the state Israel’ – an ambiguity that remains in the challenges of modern discourse, and to which I will return.  Elsewhere in his sermon it is clear that for him anti-Semitism was mainly a feature of what we might loosely call the right – the witch doctors he describes are journalists and aristocrats.

And yet, despite the social changes, his words still resonate almost 100 years on.  They challenge us, as Jewish Londoners, to think about this city, and our place in it.  With a little tweaking, his sermon could have been written to speak about the recent furore over anti-Semitism in the Labour party, which had at its heart the former mayor of this diverse and sometimes difficult city.  It can be hard not to feel that the experience Hertz described is an inevitable part of the cycle of history.

Of course, no short sermon can fully address this complex question.  I would highly recommend Anthony Julius’ excellent book on the history of Anti-Semitism in England, Trials of the Diaspora, which while a few years old, now, places some of our modern experience in a broader historical context.  But, while I am wary of dealing with the issue in a superficial way, and think, on one level that the 21 pages of this week’s JC dedicated to the issue is probably enough for anyone; despite this, I would just like to share my own recent experience, which gives cause, I think, for both optimism and pessimism about this question.

First the optimism:
A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of welcoming the now mayor of London to one of Alyth’s adult education programmes.  He, and his team, and our member of the GLA, Andrew Dismore, came to a Teaching Seder, part of our introductory “Judaism – the Essentials” class, to learn about Pesach.  And in part, of course, to get a couple of photographs for the pre-Pesach, Jewish press.

It was an experience which left me with a strong sense of optimism.  Here is a second generation immigrant, a practicing Muslim, who, it seemed to me genuinely wants to be a mayor for all Londoners, not merely driven by the politician’s quest for votes.  A genuine partner against intolerance, a partner in creating an environment of diversity and dialogue.  As a rabbi, as someone who is passionate about good religion – I was particularly struck by his understanding of ritual and his willingness to engage with the ritual lives of others, who he felt shared his values.  I may be wrong, of course, but he seemed in our brief interaction to understand religion and minority identity, and to have a passion for dialogue, pluralism and tolerance.

I was reinforced in this view when, earlier this week, I received a call from his office asking whether, if he won, I would join them for his swearing-in, which they wanted to have a strong inter-faith element, so that this value would be there, expressed at the very beginning of his term.  The invitation came with deep apologies that it should take place on Shabbat morning, when it would be potentially difficult and compromising to attend, but that they were bound by constitutional requirements.  Though Jasmine trumps Sadiq – the swearing-in is happening as we speak – I’m delighted that my rabbinic partner, Mark, is currently representing Alyth and the Jewish community, at Southwark Cathedral.

My optimism, though, is balanced by something else that happened on that evening before Pesach.  Because within a few hours of Mr Khan tweeting about his evening, it was clear that not everyone was impressed that he had come to synagogue.  Among the vast majority of responses, likes and retweets, three more negative responses stood out.  There was one questioning whether this was an example of Jewish Labour increasing its control of the party; another had simply the letters BDS – the initials of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, implying that association with synagogues should also be sanctioned; and the most distressing was a picture purporting to be of dead Palestinian children, with a comment asking Sadiq Khan whether he’d “asked them” – i.e. me – about this.

It was, for me, an interesting lesson in the reality of social media – something which I remain slow to adopt – and certainly this experience was no incentive.  It was also just a small personal taste of the anti-Semitism of a subsection of the left which would blow up over the following weeks.  Because, for me there is no doubt that these responses were not merely simplistic, though simplistic they were, but these tweets also had racism – perhaps inadvertent, but racism nonetheless – at their heart.

Those tweets I received reflect two common features of the modern low-level anti-Semitism of today. The tweet about the power of Jewish Labour fitted very clearly into what Julius refers to as the ‘conspiracy libel’ – the claim, as he puts it, that “Jews act as one, in pursuit of goals inimical to the interests of non-Jews”.

The tweet with the picture was the more distressing to me, and not just because of the imagery.  There is a more prevalent prejudice in the use of Jew and Israel – Hertz’s Israel and the state of Israel – as interchangeable, and the idea that as a Jew I must necessarily have a particular opinion.

The assumption that underlies the question “did you ask them about this Sadiq?” is not a good one.  It is not the thought that because I am a Jew I might feel an especial pain at the complexity of the Israel-Palestine conflict; not that because I am a Jew I might struggle with the ethics of defence and occupation; not that because I am a Jew I can feel love for Israel, bear the Jewish responsibility of “Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh l’Zeh – all Jews are responsible for one another”, and at the same time despair of some of the actions of politicians and electorates, wherever they may be.
That is not what that question meant.
The underlying message is that because I am a Jew , as if by virtue of being a Jew I am personally responsible for the actions of one actor in a complex political situation 100 years in the making, and 2000 miles from my home,  And worse, that in relation with that situation, there is malice in my heart.
The caption with the picture did not mean, “Sadiq, when you were at Alyth did you also have a conversation about Israel-Palestine with an ethical religious community who ask serious questions in a thoughtful way?” Underlying it was an assumption that had Sadiq asked about Israel I would have lied, or worse, said “Good, it serves them right”; that I would have denied that there are innocent victims of violence in Middle East.  And that is racism.

I don’t believe I am projecting too much into those few words.  Indeed, this is exactly the racism that we are cautioned, and work so hard not to inflict upon those in the Muslim community – not to attach communal blame, not to assume support for extremism and fundamentalism.  As Jonathan Freedland wrote early last year:  “The finger wagging demand that Muslims condemn acts of terror committed by jihadist cultists is odious:  it tacitly assumes that Muslims support such horror unless they explicitly say otherwise”.  He added “Jews have some experience of this feeling” – and now, so do I.

So what do I make of these contradictory experiences?
Which prevails, the optimism or the pessimism?
Are we, once again, experiencing Hertz’s wild beast abroad, roaming and roaring?

We cannot be naïve enough to say that anti-Semitism is not real.  Naïve enough to say that it doesn’t exist.  The conspiracy libel and an assumption of malice in just two tweets.  When seen alongside a willingness to play loose with the Shoah, and the refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist, there should be no surprise that some in our communities feel threatened and pained.  Maybe not 21 pages of JC pained, but the feeling is real.

And yet, this morning, with a new mayor being sworn in as I speak, I do feel optimistic.
We should not take lightly the fact that the mayor of London – a politician who has the second largest direct mandate of any politician in Europe – is a member of one ethnic minority reaching out to the members of another.  It is a wonderful new reality that in modern London, we as Jews can exist, do exist, at the mainstream of British Society – and not only as Jews who have integrated, left behind their Jewishness, but as Jews living as Jews.  That we are invited, as Jews, to be at the heart of London life.  We do not live in a time of Hertz’s ‘melancholy glory’ of London.  But one, potentially, of genuine glory for an extraordinary city.