Sermon: Nitzavim Vayelech – Can a Labrador be Anti-Semitic?

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 20 September 2017

Pretty much every Shabbat at Alyth we offer two choices of Shabbat service.   This choral service in which you are participating and another parallel service multiplying the congregation by ensuring that other ways of worship are welcomed and built.  This week upstairs in our Youth Hall it is the turn of the Big Bang, a family service where you get to accompany your singing with percussion and where the music is led by a guitar, violin and drum band.

Last Shabbat was no exception and again two services were available, a choral service here in the Synagogue and a new kind of service that we had never done before.   This was our Shabbat in Nature service, not here in the Synagogue but out on the Hampstead Heath Extension.  It was led by Mica Borthwick, from Alyth’s Jewish Mindfulness Mediation group and me.   It wasn’t large – twelve of us chose to enjoy Shabbat outside in the sunshine – but it was lovely and when it gets hot again in May we plan to do it again.

We set ourselves up on a quiet but inevitably public part of the heath, a circle of benches, with a rug in the middle under a tree for shade.   Some of us wore Tallit and Cippah, some not.  Our service, compiled especially for the morning, emphasised our connection to nature as expressed in our prayers and shared the meaning of our Torah portion of the week in which an Israelite celebrates their harvest.   Then we shared food that all had brought and our remaining Challah bread.  I say remaining Challah because about five minutes into the service there was an incident that has never happened here at the Synagogue which meant that one of our Challot disappeared.


A Labrador, off its lead, charged into the middle of our group, pulled the cover off the basket which contained our Challot and stole the best of them.  He ran off and devoured the entire challah in about ten seconds.   The Labrador’s owners were sheepishly apologetic but, as if this helped, explained that their dog loves Challah and bagels – but just had never smelt them on the heath before!   As we all fell about laughing we concluded that for this reason we could not report the dog to the Community Security Trust for an anti-Semitic incident if Challah was a staple food for him, presumably a Jewish dog.

As the service came to an end we shared a thought that was very powerful.  Wasn’t it special that we a group of Jews, being so identifiably Jewish, doing something in prayer that was so obviously Jewish, felt so comfortable doing so outside in a public space, with no fear at all.    We are privileged to live at such a time and place.

This week the Institute of Jewish Policy Research published a report which explains why.   It is called “Antisemitism in contemporary Great Britain – a study of attitudes towards Jews and Israel” and can be downloaded free of charge from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research Website. It is a report compiled with all of the expertise of the IJPR, with a sample of nearly 5,500 observations throughout the country, with carefully phrased questions and expert analysis.  I say this because it is also quite possible to create reports around anti-Semitism with self-selecting and skewed samples, loaded questions and analysis with an aim in mind.  The IJPR does not do this.


What this report says is that 2.4% of Britons today hold a substantial series of anti-Semitic views, 3% hold a number of anti-Semitic views, 15% hold two anti-Semitic views as categorised by the research, and 15% one anti-Semitic view, though both of these latter categories will also hold a number of positive views towards Jews.


What does the report define as anti-Semitic views?   Respondents were asked if they held views such as “Jews think they are better than other people”, “Jews have too much power in Britain”, “The Holocaust has been exaggerated” and “Jews get rich at the expense of others”.   Nasty stuff and it is sad that up to a third of Britons hold one of these views or others.   It means, according to the report, that a Jew in Britain has a one in three chance of encountering a person whose view of them as a group is uncomfortable or insulting.

But what this also means is that 70% of Britons hold only favourable attitudes towards Jews, which is why Britain is a really good country to be a Jew.    The report compares levels of anti-Semitic views with levels of anti-Islamic and anti-Hindu views.  What it discovers (p16) is that levels of unfavourable views towards Jews are the same as levels of unfavourable views towards Hindus, but that levels of unfavourable views towards Muslims are nearly three times times higher.   Islamophobia is much more prevalent in Britain then anti-Semitism.

There is also a clustering of anti-Semitic views – held far more by people who describe their politics as fairly or very right wing than by any other group – including those on the far left.    These are not large groups in the population but they are vocal.

Meanwhile among religious groups Christian and Hindu views about Jews are the same as the general population but Muslims do turn out to be more than twice as likely to hold one or more anti-Semitic view than the general population – especially religious Muslims.


What about anti-Israel views?  These are much more prevalent than anti-Semitic views with 12% Britons today holding a substantial series of anti-Israel views, 21% holding a number of anti-Israel views, and 56% holding at least one anti-Israel view.

Respondents were asked if they held views such as “Israel is an apartheid state”, “Israel is the cause of all the troubles in the middle east”, “Israel has too much control over global affairs”.   But again, we should not exaggerate anti-Israelism – in the survey 62% of Britons agreed with the statement “The State of Israel has every right to exist” and 43% to “The State of Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people”.

What about correlating anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attitudes?  Do they go together?  The report finds that the greater the level of antipathy towards Israel, the more likely a person is to hold anti-Semitic views.   It’s not a surprise to me to find this though this is only a correlation – as the report finds it is entirely possible to be anti–Israel without being anti-Semitic and anti-Semitic without being anti-Israel, but the evidence shows a clear overlap and co-existence between these attitudes.

The Israeli politician and former refusenik Natan Sharansky makes it clear when the two do link together to an unacceptable extent in his 2004 essay on Antisemitism.  He wrote: “When the Jewish state is being demonised; when Israel’s actions are blown out of all sensible proportion; when comparisons are made between Israelis and Nazis and between Palestinian refugee camps and Auschwitz – this is antisemitism, not legitimate criticism of Israel …When criticism of Israel is applied selectively; when Israel is singled out by the United Nations for human rights abuses while the behaviour of known and major abusers, such as China, Iran, Cuba, and Syria, is ignored … this is antisemitism… when Israel’s fundamental right to exist is denied – alone among all peoples in the world – this too is antisemitism.” (3-D test of Anti-Semitism: Demonization, Double Standards, Deligitimization in Jewish Political Studies Review 16:3-4  q on p13)


There is a huge amount of work to do to help the British public see Israel favourably as a country.   This report suggests that this work is not going well.   However, there is no great threat of anti-Semitism here in Britain, certainly not one which should encourage us to pare back our activities as a Jewish community, nor to hide our Jewishness.   As we heard in our Torah portion today, wherever a Jew can we should choose life – choose to enable our values to live and to contribute to the societies around us.


A perception that there is a danger here in Britain led to the odd findings of the much less rigorously researched Campaign Against Anti Semitism’s 2017 report which suggested that 1/3 of British Jews have considered leaving the UK and that 37% of British Jews conceal their Judaism in public.    These findings conflate fears with reality and they hamper our efforts to make Judaism thrive in this overwhelmingly hospitable country.


On Rosh Hashanah here at Alyth, or rather at the Sternberg Centre, towards the end of the morning, we will be able to choose the opportunity to hear from the Barnet Borough Commander for the Metropolitan Police, Simon Rose and Inspector Jason Moseley, the Met’s Jewish Community Liaison Officer on fears and realities here in London in the year ahead.   Do they feel that we should see ourselves as a community in danger, or is our risk no greater than anyone else, and how great is that risk anyway?


At Alyth we take anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism seriously but we will never let fear of these things stop us from building Jewish life, nor from reaching out to our neighbours, Christian, Muslim, of all faiths and none, to help educate about who we really are.

Ours is an open Judaism and a Judaism full of welcome to all.  May it always be so – that is what choosing life means.