Snowflakes Sticking Together

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 8 March 2018

I don’t often do film reviews from the Bimah but the film “Darkest Hour”, charting a month, May to June 1940, in the life of Winston Churchill when the Second World War might have been lost for Britain, is fantastic.   Watching it you know as a Jew that the most unspeakable crimes against yours and other peoples were going on in Nazi Germany and if the decisions that were made then in  had gone the other way – peace terms with Hitler and Nazi Germany – we would not be alive today.


A lot has changed in Britain since the year that the Second World War finally ended, 1945 – with fifty million people having been killed, with the first Atomic Bombs having wreaked their  havoc, with the public display of the horror of the Nazi Holocaust – 1945 was inevitably a year in which great changes would begin to take place.

In Britain the welfare state was on its way to being born with all the idealism of its early years – and born in a country that had yet to achieve its multicultural society of today.  There was a substantial minority population in Britain but at the time it was nowhere near as diverse as the Britain that we live in now.

There were, four hundred and fifty thousand Jews living in Britain in 1945.  Many had made their way here during or just before the War and were to disperse around the world in succeeding years. But these Jews – of course including many people who are here today – were by far the largest religious minority in the country.  All of the Hindus, Moslems, Sikhs and Buddhists in England added up together did not amount to anything like 450,000.  The Jews in 1945 were clearly a substantial people in Britain and worthy of courting politically.

On 15 May 1945 Winston Churchill himself answered a parliamentary question from Austin Hopkinson MP asking whether arrangements could be made for the immediate repatriation of all Jewish refugees. Churchill’s reply was unambiguous: ‘No, Sir. Quite apart from other considerations there would be very considerable practical difficulties in carrying out this suggestion’

The Jewish Labour MP Sydney Silverman interjected that ‘it would be difficult to conceive of a more cruel procedure than to take people who have lost everything they have – their homes, their relatives, their children, all the things that made life decent and possible – and compel them against their will to go back to the scene of those crimes.’ This drew a crisp prime ministerial one-liner: ‘I agree with that.’ That spelt the end of any plans for compulsory repatriation – and the Jewish population of Britain remained for a while at this historically high level.

By the time of the 2001 census, the first to ask Britons to state their religion, the situation and balance of religious minorities had vastly changed.  In 1945 there were more than 450,000 Jews in Britain.  Now there are just fewer than 300,000.  However there are 160,000 Buddishts in Britain today and over 400,000 Sikhs.  Due to a successful attempt to take the mickey out of the religious question in the census we know that in 2001 390,000 in Britain considered their religion to be that of Jedi Knight – more than the Jews but fewer than the Sikhs!   By the 2011 census the numbers of Jedi had almost halved with only 176,000 people answering in the census that they are Jedi.  Of course what had happened is that it was a good joke once, but twice was a bit silly.

How many Hindus in Britain? 620,000 – twice as many as there are Jews.  How many Muslims – now the largest non-Christian religious group and just like the Jews were in 1945 the group whose numbers are greater than all of the others put together – 1.7million Muslims now live in Britain.


So suppose you are leader of a major political party, would you worry over much about causing offence to Jews?   In the raw light of political expediency – not a lot.


Now suppose that you are Michelangelo di Ludovico di Lionardo di Buonarroti Simoni in the early years of the 16th Century and you have been commissioned to add a Statue of Moses to the Tomb of Pope Julius 2nd in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome.  Your bible which is the Latin Vulgate bible based on the work of St Jerome translates the piece in our Torah portion where we heard that Moses came down Mount Sinai with beams of light (Karan) coming forward from his face (necessitating his wearing of a veil into the future) to, in the Latin “Quod Cornuta Esset” – Moses had horns In Hebrew Keren.  So of course you make your statue with very noticeable horns.  Here is a picture of the familiar Michelangelo Moses statue.


When Michaelangelo sculpted his Moses in 1513 he was not innovating in portraying Moses as a man with horns.  The same image of Moses can be found in Illuminated manuscripts dating back to the 11th Century and in stained glass in Chatres and other cathedrals preserved from earlier than the 16th Century.


I remember very clearly a sermon that I heard when I was 10 or 11 years of age given by Rabbi Sidney Brichto at the then Wembley Liberal Synagogue in which he spoke about a Jewish man and woman, brother and sister who were evacuated in the Second World War – at the time when Jews remember were pretty much the only sizeable ethnic minority in Britain.  When they arrived at the family that was to foster them in rural East Anglia they suffered the indignity, the trauma which stayed with them for decades after, of having their hair searched for the horns that their hosts assumed all Jews must have.  Subsequently of course I have heard that the belief in Jews having horns has been quite common throughout the world, common enough for the new wave klezmer band the klezmatics to call its CD “Jews with Horns” – referring not to their heads but to their tuba, trumpet and trombone.


But does this mean that we need to consider Michelangelo to be a source of anti-Semitism – who if he could be exhumed should apologise to Jews for the offence that he has caused?  Or if not after 500 years how about insisting that Joseph Kiselevski who sculpted Moses At Syracuse University near New York with horns visible through his veil in 1965 apologises for the offence that he caused.


The “Jews have horns” idea was given an especially offensive twist by the equation of the horns on Moses with a passage from the Christian gospel of John (8:44) which has Jesus speaking to a group of Jews and telling them that their father is the devil – also normally portrayed with horns – Moses with horns / devil with horns/ Jews father is devil/ all Jews with horns – you can see the twisted logic.


Was the Vulgate which gives Moses the horns – working from a conflation of these texts – quite possibly not.  It may have been quite innocent of any intended slur against Moses in giving him horns.  In the ancient world the horn was often used as the symbol of power, strength and glory in the depiction of human beings – many representations of Alexander the Great show him with horns – so too do many of Attila the Hun – then there are the Viking horned helmets and even the mitre on the head of the Jewish priest. In Jewish liturgy even the word Keren- is used in conjunction with King David to suggest his power and glory – where it is hoped that the Keren David – will arise to signal the coming of the Jewish messiah.  It is only the deliberate conflation of the Keren – horn idea with the devil image that makes the image of Moses with horns anti-Jewish rather than pro-Jewish.


So what should Jews do when they feel that they have been offended?  It seems to me that there it is always necessary for us to investigate whether the offence is deliberate before we make a perceived feeling of offence run and run and become part of our relationship with the world.  Jews are not asked by our sources to be especially humble people.  Indeed our Rabbis (Yoma 22b) condemned King Saul for doing nothing when he was insulted by a number of people at his coronation – and suggesting that it laid him open to attack in the future.  We are commanded not to take revenge or to bear grudges, not to engage in tit for tat – but we are not asked to do nothing if we are insulted or offended.  Rather we are entitled to seek reconciliation with those who hurt us – but if that reconciliation happens then we are to accept their apology and move on.


When in 2005 the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingston – used a Nazi metaphor to insult a Jewish reporter, asking if he was an accomplice to a concentration camp guard,  Jews were entitled to seek apology for the offence that was done to all of us .  Just as trying to link Jews with the devil – the most despised character in the pre modern Christian world was offensive in the extreme in the past – so that horns meant more – so too is any attempt to use the Nazi accusation to insult a Jew or the State of Israel an offence not to be forgotten or ignored.


Our numbers may be much lower than other groups in this country, but that does not make us fair game.    The standards of a decent and tolerant society, that Britain together has worked so hard to build since the end of the Second World War, demand that people who carelessly cause offence to any group will be held to account.   You could say in being offended by careless Antisemitism were are being snowflakes – but this week, as I said last night, has again proven that if enough snowflakes stick together they can bring about big changes.