Thought of the Week: 2 June 2016

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 1 June 2016

The saying has it that if you wait long enough, it all comes around again. Some of us will remember that shameful and notorious UN resolution from November 1975 that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” It was only revoked by the UN in 1991. I’m not one who generally see “reds under the beds” or, in this case, antisemites lurking everywhere. That said, it’s hard not to feel affected by the spate, no, the plague, of overt anti-Semitism that has been revealed lurking in this society.

Synagogue organisations were recently contacted by Shami Chakrabarti’s inquiry into antisemitism in the Labour party giving them barely a fortnight in which to gather and submit evidence from their constituent synagogues of antisemitic incidents and behaviour.

Jewish students are having a tough time at some of our universities with a pretty relentless barrage of anti-Israel stuff, of being identified as 150% Zionists because they are Jewish and the like. The BDS movement is strong.

I invariably groan when the Jewish Chronicle lands on my doormat at the prospect of what banner headline it might have this week detailing anti-Semitic incidents, attacks and what have you. Hard to read it without thinking that there are, indeed, reds under every bed.

It’s a place I viscerally object to occupying. I’m not blaming anyone else – if I am in this place, it’s because I’ve put myself there. All I can say is that external pressures at the moment are very strong.

For the fact is that I don’t believe we are living in some sort of society where anti-Semitism is rife. At the end of the day, while we might need security guards on our public institutions, we are certainly far better off than our sister institutions on the continent which need armed guards.

Nor do I believe what some say that this is how it all began in Germany in the 1920s or ‘30s. It’s bad history to make that comparison: superficially correct at best and totally incorrect at worst. The situation, then and now have little in common – even given the disturbing rise of Far Right ideologies in some parts of Europe. In addition, making that comparison does nothing to help us figure out what’s the best way to respond to what is going on now, because it makes what’s happening now seem like some diabolic precursor of another Shoah..

One of those curious/interesting anomalies of Jewish history is how little Jews in the past seemed to wonder about the anti-Semitism around them. It’s almost as if the more-rooted Jews were in their Judaism and Jewish life, the less were they concerned by anti-semitism. Maybe it was simply seen as part of the scenery – a constant, maybe, certainly a nuisance, something they could happily live without. But the literature of the time doesn’t seem obsessed by an anti-semitism which was in some ways more murderous, physically endangering than the current wave of anti-semitism.

I don’t believe I’m being complacent, not seeing some great wave about to come crashing down on us. And of course anti-semitism should be countered and challenged anywhere and everywhere it manifests itself.

There’s an old ‘joke’ from Nazi Germany about 2 Jews on a bench reading. Moshe has the Juedische Zeitung, a Jewish Chronicle equivalent, while Chaim reads Der Stuermer, a virulently-antisemitic Nazi rag. “Why are you reading that rubbish?” Moshe asks Chaim. “Because,” he replies, “you read the Juedische Zeitung and all you read about are the bad things happening to Jews: new laws which restrict our lives even more, Jews being physically attacked and so on. As for me, I read about how Jews control the world, the media, commerce, the law, banking and so on.”  I prefer to be Chaim than Moshe.

When Amalek, the archetypal anti-Semite, attacked the Israelites after they left Egypt, the Torah relates how he attacked the stragglers in the rear. It’s always easy to pick off the ones lagging behind. Perhaps that might explain why Jews in the past seemed less concerned about anti-Semitism than we do now. They weren’t ‘stragglers in the rear,’ as it were. The response to the anti-semite must be more Jewish life, not less, a stronger, more robust Judaism and Jewish life.