Sermon: Vayikra: Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 7 April 2013

In Summer 1994 the building of the Israel – Argentina Mutual Aid Society of the Jewish community of Argentina in Buenos Aires, a kind of combination Jewish Care and UJIA was bombed.  80 people were killed and 300 injured in this organisation serving the needs of the quarter million strong Argentine Jewish community.  Though nobody has ever been convicted of the murders most of the investigations conclude that the bombers were Middle Eastern guerrillas operating under Iranian sponsorship.   The case is still open.  In 2005, Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who this week became Pope Francis, was the first public personality in Argentina to sign a petition for justice in the AMIA bombing case. He was one of the signatories on a document called “85 victims, 85 signatures” as part of the bombing’s 11th anniversary.


When the bombing happened I was spending the summer studying in Jerusalem.  I was sharing a flat with an Israeli friend who had made Aliyah from England ten years before.  Among the shock of the event, which obviously hit hard in Israel, was for me shock of my flat mate’s reaction – I remember her saying “Doesn’t this just show how much the Anti-Semites hate us?”


Even in the days immediately after the attack it was obvious that the bombers had destroyed the building and killed its occupants as a strike against a Zionist organisation rather than as an attack against Judaism and Jews per se.  But when there is suffering on this scale in the Jewish community it can be difficult to draw a distinction.  At the time, 1994, to suggest that this bombing was a manifestation of anti-Semitism rather than an equally reprehensible political act against Israel struck me as verging on paranoia – but then as it has been said “you’d be paranoid too if every one  was out to get you”!


The Community Security trust released statistics a few weeks ago showing that 640 antisemitic incidents were recorded by CST in 2012, a 5 per cent increase from the 608 antisemitic incidents recorded in 2011 and the third-highest annual total ever recorded by CST. The highest ever annual total recorded by CST was in 2009, when 929 antisemitic incidents were recorded.  These incidents range from verbal abuse, hate mail and graffiti to violent attacks of which there were about 70.


This is why Alyth needs to ensure that the security of our Synagogue remains good and vigilant.  We have always done this by ensuring that there is a caring and well trained presence of security volunteers here at our Synagogue at services and major communal events.  Right now our Synagogue Security Officer Arieh Miller is seeking new volunteers to join the team of Duty Officers who help to organise security here, to take care of us all and also to provide a welcome to all who come to visit our building for so many worthwhile purposes whilst also ensuring that those who wish us ill are deterred from entering.


Then there is my colleague Rabbi David Goldberg Emeritus Rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue who went into print in the Guardian and on Television on the Westminster Hour and then in his book “The Divided Self”, to counsel that indeed the suggestion of increased anti-Semitism in recent years is more a reflection of Jewish oversensitivity based in our history than a reality.  He opines – that to be a Jew in this country has been and remains a far easier ride than being black, especially a young Muslim in say Blackburn, or an asylum seeker.  Those people Rabbi Goldberg says are the real victims of racism.


What are we to make of this?  Rabbis are not I think very good judges of anti-Semitism.  Our workplaces are in the most part staffed by Jews.  Even when we step out of the Jewish community for say school visits we are going somewhere that the teacher has prepared the children to be kind to us.  Our non-Jewish friends and contacts are those who have no inherent difficulty with Jews.  Almost all of the people that we meet are positive about Jews and Judaism – or they would not trouble themselves to meet a Rabbi.


Yet we hear things, and we are perhaps unwittingly surrounded by an apparatus designed to frustrate those who wish us ill.  As Jeremy Oppenheimer, former Chief Executive of Jewish Care said at a meeting I recently attended:  “we have grown so used to having security around our Synagogues and communal buildings and wherever there is a meeting of Jews that we rarely ask ourselves the question of what message we Jews are being given by the society around us by the need to protect ourselves.  Why should we feel unsafe in our home country?’  And even in our Altyh community there have been real instances of anti –Semitism in recent times, for example I know of a child who has had to move schools because he was being cruelly bullied by children who accused her of oppressing Arab children through the actions of the Israeli army – not an isolated case – this happened to two other children I know in recent years.


What has happened, it seems to me is that a new front for Anti-Semitism  opened up. Israel is often inevitably involved in messy distressing conflicts. Her government prosecutes the conflict in a way that sits very uncomfortably with those who expect an exemplary standard of moral behaviour from the Jewish state.  Indeed some churchmen join Palestinian groups in calling for a boycott on Israeli goods or investing in Israel.


A while ago  I arranged for a group from three of the largest church finance groups in the UK to see the wholeness of Israel, on a visit that might have otherwise only heard Palestinian points of view.  They met with a plurality of Jewish groups, the Israeli investment community which also invests in the Palestinian economy, and the spectrum of Israeli opinion so that they can understand why such a step would be counterproductive to the very Palestinians they aim to help.  I know that that visit staved off precipitate anti-Israel action for a while and that that church body remains an investor in Israel.


Those who wish Israel ill are comparing her policies to those of Apartheid era South Africa.  The language of opposition to Israel and her actions has rarely if ever been more condemnatory and the breadth of the categories of people who are using it has rarely if ever been greater.  This anti-Israel feeling is then being transferred into anti-Semitism as old pernicious stereotypes are linked to the current crisis – the conspiracy falsehood, the finance falsehood, the rubbish behind the Protocols of the Elders of Zion forgery.  So very sadly Lord Ahmed, who was thought to be a friend of Jewish –Muslim dialogue used such language in an interview with Pakistan television suggesting that his driving offence prosecution was , following pressure on the courts by “Jewish friends who own newspapers and TV channels”, because of his support for Palestinians in Gaza.  He has not got away with this and has been condemned by the Labour Leader Ed Milliband for this racist accusation.


There are age old facts of Jewish life.  And one of those is that to be a Jew is always to be subject to a challenge.  It is a challenge which asks you not to meld into the society around you and deny your distinctive values and your heritage, to lose what Isaiah calls “God’s spirit upon your offspring, God’s blessing on your posterity”.


What a Jewish adult has got to do is to deny the power of anti-Semitism to mould their lives.  In the Talmud we are told that Pikuach Nefesh doheh et ha shabbat – the saving of life suspends all other Jewish laws even the Sabbath, except for three severe exceptions – but this principle is not operative at times of persecution.  We are not in a time of persecution for Jews, but the principle remains operative.  Now is not a time to give up key Jewish values – among them a relationship to the Land of Israel and the Jewish dream of there being a place on earth where we can create a society based on Judaism and where Judaism can thrive and where Jews can live in safety whatever their circumstances in the lands of the Diaspora..


One way to cut the current trend for some to oppose Jews because of Zionism and its effects might be to deny Israel, to say that Jews and Israel are two completely separate things.  Judaism is only a religion and Israel is just a country.   But to do so denies thousands of years of our history, the dream of two thousand years, as the Hatikvah puts it. It denies the tremendous potential of Israel to act as a cultural and religious wellspring for the Jewish people throughout the world. It denies the promise of the promised land.  No, as we  develop our Jewish identity we should rather assert that getting Israel right is essential to today’s Judaism, it is not a dispensable concept.


Just as engagement in Jewish worship requires us to be active Synagogue go-ers, just as engagement in Jewish study requires us to keep learning our Judaism throughout our adult lives, just as engagement in Jewish social action requires us to try to right the wrongs and make good the deficits in the society in which we live, so our relationship with Israel will require us to act for Israel’s welfare, supporting those causes in Israel that you can believe in, visiting and defending at least with words, Israel’s right to exist in peace.


The trend of today’s anti-Semitism, where it exists is to demand that Jews feel a sense of guilt for Israel’s very existence, not just for the actions of one particular government.  We cannot give in to this.  Just as Jews once gave offering to the Temple in Jerusalem in a voluntary spirit simply to celebrate their own well being so we each need to make a contribution to develop Israel into a country that we can be proud of .