Whose Hagadah

I want to begin today’s sermon with a very difficult word: polysemic. It comes from two Greek words: poly, meaning many and sema meaning sign, symbol. Polysemic means: which has many meanings. You find the word polysemic in the writings of literary critics and of social sciences. Religious rituals are by definition polysemic. That is because religious rituals have many meanings. Take for example the Seder of Pesach. Its first and most important meaning is the celebration of our journey; the journey of the Jewish people towards freedom and self determination.

There are of course many other journeys towards liberation. One of the most intense experiences in my life had been leading the Seder at Holloway prison, when I was a Rabbinical student, for a small group of Jewish inmates, plus two guards.

When the words “Today we are slaves, tomorrow we will be free” were heard, you could feel a palpable sense of hope around the table, which bound together, not only the prisoners, but also the guards. Prisons are a terrible place to work, and the guards were also hoping to be in another place, and yes there are prison guards who are Jewish. Later I was extremely moved when a lady, before returning to her cell, asked me to pray for her freedom and told me eagerly “I have a trial, tomorrow, Rabbi”. For her these words we say every year “Tomorrow we will be free” were particularly meaningful.

The narrative of Pesach is very powerful. Small wonder that other people have found inspiration in the story of Pesach. When my wife was in hospital to deliver Yair, I heard two of the nurses, both of African background, remarking casually that we must have been Jewish. Why? Because Jewish women deliver quickly, as it is written in the book of Exodus. My immediate reaction was like “Oh gosh, another bloody anti-Semite”.

But I calmed down as I remembered what is written in the first chapter of Exodus. Pharaoh had ordered the midwives to kill all the newborn Israelites but they were not willing to carry out the order. So, to protect the Jews, they said to Pharaoh that the Jewish women deliver too quickly; and that it is impossible to catch their children. For those nurses, the concept of slavery and the idea of a journey towards freedom were not only parts of the Biblical narrative, to which, I suppose, they are exposed to when they are in their church. They were from Afro Caribbean background. The slavery and the journeys to freedom were part of their lives, family memories if not, literally, life experiences.

As Rabbi, I am proud that our narrative provides words to other people, so that they can tell their own journey towards freedom. I am proud that other people find inspiration in our history. When other people learn from the Jewish people, this must be a source of pride for us.

Nonetheless, I was not exactly impressed by the publication of the “Jubilee Haggadah” edited by the New Israeli Fund. Its purpose is to support the national liberation of the Palestinians by encouraging the Diaspora to put the Israeli Government under pressure. So that it will end the Occupation of, and I quote, “West Bank and Gaza”. In the world I live in, the Israeli Army left Gaza in 2004, but these people clearly know more and in their world Gaza is still under Israeli occupation.

What upsets me is not the agenda. The New Israeli Fund has its own and so have the authors of this Haggadah, whose good faith I don’t question. They genuinely believe that peace in the Middle East, peace between Muslims and the rest of the world, peace all over the world, can be achieved by ending “the Occupation” tomorrow, by turning the West Bank and East Jerusalem into another Gaza, completely empty of the Jewish population, (I believe the German expression is Juden-rein).

I of course disagree. And I don’t think that it is up to the Diaspora to pressure the Israeli Government. Israeli voters are – I think – mature enough to decide on their own destiny and to assess by themselves whether this or that policy of their democratically elected government makes their lives more secure, or not. But of course the compilers of the Jubilee Haggadah are entitled to their own opinions.

Neither am I particularly shocked by historical inaccuracies such as stating that Gaza is still under the occupation, or that Jews are now free, (really? In Iran, for example?). Or writing that Palestinians are “in bondage” and all they do is “to yearn for freedom”, as if teaching that the Holocaust never happened can be called “yearning for freedom”.

All of this, and many other passages of this quite creative Haggadah, are inaccurate to say the least and they look more like a collection of badly written propaganda leaflets, rather than a Haggadah. But again, over the last week only, we have heard far worse. A former Mayor of London together with his supporters, (some of them, as you know, Jewish), compares Zionism to Nazism. Stories of the SS training the Haganah. Fantasies about a Zionist Hitler. Compared to the bigotry of Ken Livingstone, the fantasies of these well meaning activists are very minor details.

But, you see, that Jubilee Haggadah is so self-centred and self-righteous. While the Seder is a narrative of liberation. A liberation from internal habit, and from assimilation. On Pesach we resist to assimilate. Our houses are different from the one of our neighbours and we eat different foods. Being assimilated can be comfortable. Assimilation is attractive. But we get rid of even small traces of assimilation, of chametz, leavened food, which is a symbol of luxury and comfort.

Pesach is an internal process: we get rid of comfort and luxury deep inside our houses. We look into ourselves; we cleanse ourselves and our environment from traces of assimilation. But the authors of this Jubilee Haggadah don’t do anything of that kind. They elevate themselves above the rest of the Jewish people, they externalised their contempt against whoever disagrees politically from them: incidentally, that is the majority of the Jewish people and of the Israeli voters.

They take in no consideration of the security needs of the Israeli population, the amount of anti-Semitism which comes from the Muslim world and from the secular Arab nationalists, (including the Palestinian leaders), let alone the deep insecurity in which so many Jews still live in the Diaspora. This is not Pesach. This is exactly the chametz, which we get rid of before Pesach. Chametz, as we know, is a word which reminds us of hamas, a Hebrew word meaning violence and oppression. And this Hagadah is exactly like that. A piece of chametz: arrogant and violent in its self-righteousness.

It seems that after Pesach they will uncover on its web site a map of the world. On such a map, if you are interested, it will be possible to see where in the world a Seder had been held by reading this Haggadah.

I of course at the moment don’t know whether Brighton will be or will be not, a point on such a map of self-righteousness. What I know at the moment, by reading this Haggadah, is that this Seder will have only one theme. Its mood will be heavily influenced by this obsession with the occupation. And you will hear weird moral equivalences between Ancient Egypt and the Jewish State. Between Palestinians who are slaves now and Jews who were slaves in the past and now are… whatever.

This Haggadah makes me think of a very boring Seder. And to be honest, I am not even sure that such a Seder can even be called a religious ritual. Because it is so one sided. And it is certainly not… what’s the word? polysemic.

Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue, Shabbat haGadol 5777

Leviticus and the Soviets

The problem with the Torah is that it is not a book of history, neither is it a book of science, neither is it a book of poetry or a collection of legends. It is all of this, and maybe more.
Consider the diversity of its books. Genesis, the first book, is the story of a family, of the dynamics, of the relationships between parents and children and the sons and daughters, and of the conflicts internal to each generation.
In Exodus we find the beginning of the Israelites history: the escape from slavery, the confrontation with the oppressors, the birth of the Jewish civilisation, with the Giving of the Law on Sinai. It is the story of a people.
The Hebrew name of the book of Exodus is Shemot, “names”. It is the Book of Names; it lists the names of the many Jewish families.
And then we have Leviticus, whose Hebrew name is Vayikrà, “and He (namely God) called”. Where does the name Leviticus come from? It is a Latin word, which means “addressed to the Levites”.
In early Rabbinic times the book was known as Torat Cohanim, Torah for the Cohanim and for the Leviim who worked in the Temple. Hence the name Leviticus, because it was expressly written for them.
The problem is that these instructions are useless for the most of us, those who are not descendants of the Leviim or of the Cohanim. And even nowadays for the Cohanim and Leviim, these instructions are useless. Description and prescriptions for sacrifices compose large parts of every Torah portion of the Leviticus. But these sacrifices are to be performed only in one place, the Temple in Jerusalem, which is no more. So, speculating about the nature or the procedure of these sacrifices was, and still is, a purely theoretical exercise.
It is, let’s face it, quite an embarrassing and difficult topic. It always has been. Nowadays the idea of pleasing God by killing animals is justly looked upon by the majority of Jews as an abomination.
And it is not only a matter of animal rights.
Claude Montefiore, a great scholar, who was also one of the founders of Liberal Judaism, found the Book of Leviticus particularly uninspiring. He envisioned a time when Leviticus would not be read in Synagogue but rather replaced by passages from the prophetic literature, readings which are much more inspiring, according to Montefiore and his circle.
This may seem a very radical idea, but it is not that different from the very respectable academic theory according to which the book of Leviticus had been written in the seventh century BC, during the Kingdom of Judah, while the other book of the Torah came from a different source and is written in a very different style. So it is not weird to assume that Leviticus is somehow out of place in the Torah.
Probably the main problem with Leviticus is that one of its themes is purity, and we don’t like to talk about purity. A whole section of the book teaches the Israelites how to avoid uncleanliness, by observing certain rules on sexual behaviour, family relations, etc. and in this way to be ritually pure and perform sacrifices. It is difficult for us to see anything spiritual or inspiring in these rules about menstruations, and bodily excretions. So probably Montefiore was right, Isaiah and Jeremiah are more inspiring.
But classifying the nature in “pure” and “impure” is a universal human tendency. As I discovered in interfaith events, Islam has a system of classification of the reality very similar to Judaism: certain places are to be avoided, certain parts of the body needs to be ritually purified prior to the prayer, just like we do netillat yadaiim, before touching kosher bread, at least in the major holyday). Our Christian friends looked to us Jews and Muslims with a strange sense of superiority as if our religious practices were just superstitions; but we pointed out that, the categories of pure and impure were present in their culture too, for example they were clearly uneasy in talking about menstruation, while Jewish women and Muslim women usually were much more open, when meeting among themselves and men were not around.
In the last Century, totalitarian ideologies, such as Communism, aimed to replace religions with their ideology and looked at the Jewish concepts of purity and impurity as a superstition, a relic of the past, a source of frustrations and neurosis. But then, look at what happened? They tried to replace the human beings, the real people, the men and women with an abstract new kind of humanity, the homo sovieticus, deprived of religion, loyal only to the Party, (and not anymore to the family or to his people). In the life of the homo sovieticus the only culture was the Soviet culture, and every connection to any other culture (including the yddishkheit) was a sabotage of communism, and a crime against the State.
The homo sovieticus, this new human being created by the Communist system, and to keep the Communist system alive and functioning, was the Communist idea of purity. And every human being who did not conform to such an idea, to such a pattern, to such a model, was impure. Locked away in an asylum or sent to Siberia, in order to be re-educated. That was, as you probably remember, the fate of the Zionists under communism. They dare to feel a connection to Judaism, and therefore they were labeled as “impure” human beings and had to be re-educated.
You see: we cannot get rid of purity and impurity. They are probably categories rooted in the human psyche, as they are universal. We found them even in communism, an ideology whose purpose was to banish and to abolish “superstitions” of that kind.
As Jews we are blessed of having a Book where rules of purity and impurity are exposed. And from this Book we have developed rules, to cope with parts of human experiences that universally are a source of anxiety: births, death, and fertility. In difficult times, the practice of Judaism is an extraordinary source of comfort and support. Do you want proof? There are no homo sovieticus around anymore, while we Jews have endured for 2000 years.

Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue, 5 Nissan 5777

One of the saddest moments in the history of the Jews in Italy had been October 9, 1982.  A commando of Palestinian terrorists assaulted the monumental Great Synagogue in Rome. It was Shemini Atzeret, the day before Simchat Torah, and the Synagogue was packed.  We, in Italy, have a tradition: Shemini Atzeret is the day of the family blessing. So that day the Synagogue was packed with children The Palestinian terrorists opened fire and wounded many Jews and killed Stefano Taché, a child of 2 yrs old, son and grandson of Libyan refugees.

A large part of the Rome Jewish community is composed by refugees, expelled from Lybia in 1969, after the usual wave of pogroms and massacres. Surviving a pogrom in Tripoli, only to see your child slaughtered by Palestinians in Rome must have been horrible.

Israeli so called “peace activists: have developed a habit, recently. They track down some terrorist, for example someone released in exchange for Gilad Shalit, and they interview him.  They may then produce a movie, of course funded by some money from Europe. And so, if you have the stomach, it is possible to see the Palestinian hero in his natural environment: some brick and mortar nice house. While the hero was in prison, the family, you know, was subsidised. He usually is pampered by family and friends, and of course surrounded by children, and obviously shows no regret. Sometimes the peace activist (remember, it is almost a genre, now), pushes the envelope, and dares to ask why, why did you kill those civilians? Why did you murder those children?

Sometimes the question is not even asked. Because the answer is obvious, right? Because of the occupation, Jews must die. Because of the many wrong doings that the Arabs, or the Muslims, have suffered since immemorial times, some Westerner, (for these people even Libyan Jews are Westerners), deserves to die, even children.

I must admit, as an Italian Jew, I have asked myself the why? question many, many times. Thinking of the death of Stefano Taché, and thinking of his 4 year old brother Gavriel carried in a hurry to the hospital by helicopter. And rescued, thank God: hamdulillah, as the Libyan Jews say. I attended scholarly meetings with Prof. Giuseppe Sermoneta z”l, a worldwide expert in Jewish paleography. As a result of being wounded by these terrorists, on that day, he suffered with a limp. And while I was watching him I used to ask myself why.

Contrary to the Israeli well meaning peacenick reporters, I was not given the luxury, the chance, to ask the why? question to the Palestinian terrorists who murdered a 2 years old child, on the stairs of the Great Synagogue in Rome, on Shemini Atzeret. And that is because the terrorist commando managed to run away to safety.

I know it is incredible. How could it happen that a group of terrorists manage to escape the police, in a European capital, with policemen more or less everywhere, defies every imagination: these were the years of red terrorisms, after all.

All sorts of conspiracy theories have been formulated. My favourite is the legend according to which the purpose of the terrorist attack was to put Yasser Arafat, then leader of the PLO, in a bad light. Poor Yasser was ready to sign a peace agreement, but, you know, someone, certainly not a Palestinian, had plotted against him. So the they killed a child: only to harm the reputation of the innocent, dovish little Yasser.  Who are they? Well, we all know Jews kill babies in certain times… That was in the media. Yes, in the mainstream media. And much worse.

Indeed as an Italian Jew, every time I watch footage, or read articles about that barbaric Palestinian attack, I cannot but feel a sense of isolation, of discomfort.  Never in our 2000 years of history have Italian Jews felt more isolated.

That attack was not unannounced. It followed weeks, and months during which the synagogues and the Jewish schools were, literally, under siege. During a rally of the trade union, someone left an empty coffin in front of the Great Synagogue in Rome, the very same place where Stefano Taché would have been murdered a few weeks after. Graffiti were sprayed on the wall of Jewish buildings. Someone had the good taste to prepare a list of Jewish shops to boycott, and to hand it around, in the weeks after the terrorist attack; because these shops were owned by Zionists hence, to boycott them.  Pro Palestinians have a thing for boycott, you know.

Over time, some kind of peace was reached between the Jewish community and the Italian society: the media, the trade unions, the Church, the Left wing parties etc.  But that feeling of being isolated, that lack of support, that perception of being second class citizens…  Catholic churches don’t need security; synagogues do… All of this remained and it has, I am sad to say, become a sort of second nature.

And it is not only an Italian story. In the UK, just like in Italy, we Jews know that feeling of isolation. We are used to reading editorials and columns that link terrorism to the actions of Israel, as if the existence of a Jewish State was a root cause of terrorism. In the UK, just like in Italy, we are used to reading in the mainstream media such as the Guardian, the kind suggestion to stop supporting Israel, so that terrorists will leave us in peace.

How many people delude themselves in such a perverse reasoning?  How many politicians, in the UK, are prepared to leave Israel alone, to meet the terrorists’ agenda? Difficult, difficult questions.

Meanwhile, terrorism is here, in the UK. We are still shaken and shocked because of last week’s attack. The saddest thing is that such an attack was not unexpected. Everybody knew that London was, and still is, under threat. Thank God, this time the police were prepared! Terrorists are a threat to us all: Jews, non Jews and yes, ordinary decent British citizens that happen to be Muslims. It is time for everyone to stand up together against Islamic radicalism and terrorism, rather than falling into the old habit of scapegoating the Jewish citizens, or the Jewish State.

In this difficult time, Israel is a precious ally against terrorism, for freedom and democracy.  May British politicians be able to learn from the Jewish State. And may this nightmare finish soon.

Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue, 25 March 2017

Steve Margolis z”l


S-Margolis-190x300It’s not easy to explain which are the traits of a good Sensei, a good Teacher of Aikido. This is because there is no ideal profile, each student develops his/her own way, helped and encouraged by Sensei. In Aikido, a martial art that knows no competition (someone said it is more a technique for conflicts resolution), the relationship between teacher and student is unique, involving the body but also the mind and the spirituality through e.g. controlling your breath.

I had been lucky enough to meet with a great teacher, with whom I came back to practice Aikido after a break of more than ten years. Movements and techniques were still there, and Sensei Margolis first helped me to uncover them, and then taught me to evolve.

Sensei Steve Margolis was always smiling. He was able to put humor, a lot of humor, irreverent Jewish humor, in the philosophy of Aikido, which is inspired by the Samurai code of honour and sometimes canbe a bit pompous.

Ki Aikido was his life.  From a certain point onwards it also became his profession. Steven Margolis quickly had became an authority in the discipline, practicing with no other than Sensei Ken Williams, the first European to be admitted among the students of Koichi Tohei, a direct student of Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido. In Jewish terms, it is what is called an illustrious “Shalshelet ha-Kabbalah” chain of tradition.

Despite being such an authority in the Ki Federation, Steve, Sensei Margolis did not bother that much with the petti politics of martial arts institutions. He was aware of coming from a too illustrious tradition, literally unrivalled. He did not need any confirmation.

But above all, like the Rabbis of the Mishnah, Sensei Margolis has never been in search of honours, but only of students. So he told me once with a smile and I could see in his eyes the same curious look of that little boy, who had had his Bar Mitzvah with Louis Jacobs.

Judaism, you know, is a strange religion. A religion that does not say much about life after death. There are Jews who do not believe in the hereafter. There are Rabbis who, for having experienced persecution, have lost faith in the Divine Justice. There are even Jews who believe in a kind of Jewish reincarnation, the gilgul ha-nefesh.

But all the currents of Judaism agree on one point: that the best way to honour those who are no longer with us, is to look at their lives as an example, so that the memory of them will become, as we say, a blessing.  For this reason we Jews we add two letters, z”l, the name of a person who is no more with us. They mean zikhrono livrakha “may his memory become a blessing”.

As Jews, we do not know, we cannot know where is now Sensei Margolis. Perhaps he is teaching Ki-Aikido to the angels, between one Jewish joke and the other. And after an hour of lessons, during which they only thought were joking, these angels will feel lighter and more balanced, maybe even safer, just like how we felt after each class. They are very lucky angels. And we envy them a little.

You have been a great Teacher, Sensei Margolis. May your memory become a blessing and an example for those who have known you, and miss you dearly now.

Lost in translation

In the Jewish calendar, the current month, Tevet is pretty dull. Apart from the last days of Chanukah, which are at the beginning, there are no holidays during the month of Tevet. The only noticeable day is the 10th Tevet, which this year is tomorrow, and is a fast.
Now, in case you are panicking already, either because you did not know, (or have forgotten), the fast of the 10th Tevet, or because you don’t know what such a fast commemorates, I will provide some explanation.
First of all, 10th Tevet is a minor fast. People fast from dawn to sunset, which in the winter is not a long time. All the restrictions which are observed on Yom Kippur, such as not wearing leather shoes, are not observed. This fast has been instituted by the Rabbis and it is not in the Torah, therefore few Jews observe the practice of fasting on the 10th Tevet.
Even the reasons for the fast are not clear. The Rabbinic literature mentions the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BCE, but the calculation is wrong. The prophets (Isaiah, Ezekiel, especially Zecharia) mention the 5th Tevet as a day of affliction, because of the loss of Jerusalem.
The search for reasons to fast on the 10th Tevet, includes “something that has happened but we do not know what it was” (so says the Shulchan Aruch). Nowadays some Rabbi suggests commemorating the victims of the Holocaust on such a day, as Yom ha Shoah is on the month of Nissan, when mourning is generally avoided.
One of the reasons why Jews fast, (or should fast), on the 10th Tevet, according to the Rabbinic literature, is really surprising. The translation of the Torah is in Greek, the Septuaginta as it is called, was completed on the 10th Tevet. Therefore we afflict ourselves: which is surprising. Why indeed should we fast, be sad, and afflict ourselves because of the translation of our Torah?
Rather, we should celebrate! There are so many wonderful things and teachings in the Torah, from which the non Jews can certainly learn, much like us. But the Rabbis reply that, because of its Greek translation, the Bible became the founding book for Christianity. And later the Church, on the basis of the Greek translation of the Bible, claimed that the Christians were the real Chosen People, the real Godly people, and that the Jews, that means us, were usurpers at least. That our understanding of the Torah was wrong. Because, so they teach and believe, the Torah, the Pentateuch, is not the law according to which one should live. It is rather “Old Testament”, preparation of the revelation included in the Gospels and in the New Testament.
Here you go, anti-Semitism was born.
Because, so the anti-Semites say, the Jewish people had no positive role in history. We are, they say, useless and our holy Book is just a collection of old stories that we are not even able to understand properly.
And what about Israel or, as they say, the Holy Land? Well, that certainly does not belong to us, because we are not the Chosen People anymore: the Christians are.
You see how the consequences of the translation of the Torah in Greek have been catastrophic for the Jewish people, and that there are good reasons to afflict ourselves and to fast on the anniversary of such a translation.
But. There is, indeed, a but.
None of us reads the Bible in Hebrew only, its original language. We have here the Hertz Humash, which is the English translation of the Torah. It is not my favourite, (I actually quite dislike it), because there are better translations available. But we certainly need a translation, if not in Greek, at least in English! We should celebrate the first translation of the Torah and not afflict ourselves because someone had dared to produce it. Therefore we find it particularly difficult to accept those passages of Rabbinic literature that say otherwise, that mourn for the translation of the Torah and condemn even the idea of reading the Torah in a language other than Hebrew.
But the problem still remains. As much as we can be happy and comfortable, because we have a translation of the Torah in our hands and we can access the text, we cannot deny that the anti-Semitic ideology is sadly strong and vivid around us.
A cornerstone of such an ideology is that we Jews are wrong, and not a people but merely another faith, and a wrong one. Because our holy book is an “Old Testament” has been replaced. And if we can say that the proof of our connection with the Land of Israel is in the Torah, the anti-Semite replies that we Jews are unable to properly understand such a book, which it is merely an introduction to the New Testament; and that the Land of Israel, which they call Palestine, belongs rather to the Christians. Hence the need for the Vatican to “protect the Holy Sites” which in the language of international diplomacy means that Jerusalem should never be Jewish.
A few weeks ago the United Nations had approved a resolution, according to which Jerusalem is “occupied territory”, hence the Jewish presence there is illegitimate. Unfortunately there is a red thread of anti-Semitic hate which connects that vile resolution to the first translation of the Torah.
Whether we fast or not on the 10th Tevet it is a matter of choice, like many of the elements of traditional Judaism that the non Orthodox movements are claiming back. We can decide to do it, we can decide not to do it.
But we should be aware that anti-Semitism, the irrational and furious hate against us, is still around. And that anti-Semites are subtle: they pretend to be secular, enlightened people, who just dream of peace between Arabs and Jews. But they are recycling ancient hateful legends, religious hate sugarcoated in the language of human rights.
Shabbat shalom, and don’t be fooled.

Toledot 5777

Nowadays I don’t see many kefyahs. You know the scarf with fringes, usually black and white, which is a sort of a symbol of Palestinian identity. It used to be a regular feature of the uniform of Mr Arafat, and Israeli haters wear it on a daily basis. But the number of people wearing such a scarf is dwindling nowadays, even in Brighton. Palestinian identity and fashion don’t match anymore.
Be as it may, I noticed the first kefiah of this year only this week. Just one. But it struck me, because it was on November 30th. What’s so special about such a date, you may ask.
Well, in the Israeli calendar November 30th is the Day to Mark the Departure and Expulsion of Jews from the Arab Countries and Iran. The tragic end of those centuries’ old Jewish communities is remembered throughout the country, with official ceremonies of commemoration, at the Knesset and in various public places, such as schools and city halls.
I must admit: I was tempted. There was this lady, wearing that Palestinian scarf, one which I haven’t seen for a long time, on the day devoted to remember and to honour the tragically lost Jewish communities in the Arab Countries.
I was tempted to ask that lady whether she knew the significance of the day in Israel, a State which I suppose she was not so fond of.
I was tempted to ask that lady, who certainly cares very much about the Palestinians, if there was room for other Middle Eastern refugees, other victims, in her bleeding heart. If she knew that in 1948 there were more than 140.000 Jews in Algeria, and now there is none. Whether she know that Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian autocrat, declared all the Jews enemies of the State in 1956, (yes, just like in Nazi Germany, less than 30 years before), and signed the death sentence for the oldest Jewish community of the Mediterranean. Whether she has heard about the pogroms in Libya in 1966, when the mob assaulted, of all places, the Jewish orphanage in Tripoli, and left the teachers beheaded: that is long before the army of the Islamic State decided to revamp that ancient tradition.
Of course I resisted the temptation and did nothing of that kind. But the comparison between the Palestinians and the Mizrahim, or North African Jews, lingered in my mind for a while.
What a stark contrast. The Palestinians are kept in refugee camps, in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, (if they are still there), and the Palestinian Authority: those who at the moment rule the West Bank, (that of Abu Mazen). They cannot work out of these camps, let alone live. They have to live off the benefits provided by the UN. The United Nations has a special agency, a well funded agency, expressly for Palestinian refugees while all the other refugees, of all the other conflicts in the world, are cared by another agency. And the Agency devoted to the Palestinians needs to justify its existence in order to receive funding from the UN. So they constantly review the very definition of “Palestinian refugees” in order to have a larger number of clients to care for.
At the moment if you are a son, or a grandson, or a great grandson, of someone who, prior to 1948, lived in, what is nowadays Israel, for two years in then Palestine, you can call yourself a “Palestinian refugee” and you and your family can receive money from the United Nations, that is from the Western Countries, including England, and of course, oh the irony, Israel.
So you have all these people living in so called refugee camps, that actually are slums of Arab capitals, dreaming of an impossible return, to places that they themselves have never seen and in which only a grandparent had lived, for two years.
On the other hand think to the Mizrahim, the Jewish refugees from North African Countries. Part of them had also lived in refugee camps set up in France, Italy or (mostly) in Israel. But they had left those camps after a few months. There is no such thing as a UN sponsored agency for the Jewish refugees. Mostly, because there is no need. They, their children and their grandchildren have moved on, and do not live in the shadow of the tragedy that happened in the past. They have been able to rebuild their lives and to turn the page.
It helps to put things into perspective, doesn’t it? It is an interesting comparison between Palestinian refugees, and the way they have been treated, one would say even spoon-fed, by the international community. Who did not help the Jewish refugees, that much, as we all know.
And it reminds me of the comparison between Jacob and Esau, which is narrated in our Torah portion. Rebecca pushes Jacob, we are told, to steal the blessing that his father wanted to give to Esau, his brother. That is what we know from the text of the Torah. But think about what happened afterwards. Esau lived for years, for decades, in the shadow of the event, looking forward to the moment of revenge. While Jacob grew up and became a more mature person, through the vicissitudes that the Torah tells us: he met Rachel, fell in love, worked for seven years to marry her, was cheated by Laban, found himself with Lea, whom he did not love, worked hard other seven years and finally could marry.
On one side you have someone, Esau, who became obsessed of being a victim. Who could think of himself only as a victim of his brother’s tricks, which he had to suffer when he was young. While Jacob, on the other side, built a life for himself and became independent, mature; while as a young man, he was so easily manipulated by his mother.
Jacob, as a mature human being, is able to see nuances and to understand complexities. He knows, he has learnt, that things are not always in black and white, that life is more than a confrontation between victims and perpetrators. This is not, as we know, the way the media look at the Middle East. They want us to believe that the situation is in black and white, that the Jewish State is the perpetrator, that the Palestinians are victims, always victims, forever victims, the only victims. And by peddling this representation, they erase or ignore the Jewish victims of the conflict.
Which of course we, children of Jacob have the duty to remember, at least once a year.

Be like Noah

You know, Mashiach came in November 2013.
Or so you may have thought if you follow the news from the Jewish, and Zionist, intellectual world. Because on November 2013 a brilliant Israeli journalist called Ari Shavit, Haaretz columnist, published a book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and the Tragedy of Israel. Such a book rapidly became a sort of a Bible especially in the so called liberal Zionist world.
In his book, by accumulating personal stories, Ari Shavit travels through the chapters of the Zionist enterprise. He begins with his own great-grandfather, who immigrated to the then Palestine from England in 1897. And then Shavit follows the whole genealogical tree down to his generation. And himself. More specifically to his own moral awakening, when as a soldier he witnesses the harsh treatment that the Army of the Jewish State imposes on the Palestinian population.
After having served in the Army, Shavit became a peacenick and -needless to say- an outspoken opponent of the occupation of the West Bank. The media gave him space to air his opinions: Haaretz, New Yorker, New York Times: isn’t it amazing how welcoming all these media are for Israeli left wing dissenters, who claim to be silenced?
Shavit made good use of such a space, unleashing his furore against right-wing Israeli politicians, such as the hawkish Avigdor Lieberman, the Minister of Culture Miri Regev and Ayelet Shaked, the secular Minister of Justice. Again, isn’t it amazing how those same people who advocate for a multicultural, pluralistic Israel, always chastise those of poorer background? Lieberman is a Russian immigrant; Regev is daughter of immigrants from Morocco, Shakhed’s family immigrated from Iraq. Far less prestigious genealogies than Ari Shavit’s!
Anyway, in his book, Ari Shavit, on the ground of his illustrious family history, makes the case for his political positions, which is the same as Liberal Zionists all over the world. Mainly the English speaking world, that is America and the UK (as the book was never translated in Hebrew). Let me quote from an interview.

“It is the moral and political duty of every Israeli prime minister to try to achieve the two-state solution […] We must end the occupation for sure […] We cannot survive another decade with the suicidal ways in which Israel is building more settlements”. [The Guardian, 10 June 2014]

I can go on, and on, quoting directly from the book, or from countless other interviews. Because of course Shavit gave many, many interviews, Guardian, BBC, Independent etc. Liberal Zionists are part of a silenced minority, they say, but, strangely enough, they are always on the media.
Even if I spare you from all these quotes, which frankly speaking are quite repetitive, I think it’s clear why Ari Shavit has been welcomed (at least in certain circles) as a sort of Messianic figure.
Finally there was a voice who made Zionism acceptable for the European and American Left. Ari Shavit lectured about the moral duty to support those Israelis who were working to stop the occupation and to deliver social justice to the Arab population

“and by so doing prove the enlightened possibility of being both Jewish and democratic”,

as per another enthusiastic endorsement, this time from Jewish Chronicle [7 March 2014]. But as you can imagine, there ‘s more, for example in many synagogues’ newsletter, where Ari Shavit is portrayed as a sort of Messiah.
The problem, as it turned out last week, is that Shavit himself was not exactly a very moral person. It turned out indeed that, far from being the flag bearer of noble values, he is more a sort of Silvio Berlusconi or Donald Trump. Over the last week, charges of his sexual misconduct involving groping of women in the workplace have surfaced.
A woman journalist reported to have been sexually assaulted by him. Shavit initially defended himself by admitting that there were “misunderstood elements of courtship” in some conversation with the same journalist. I don’t know how many ladies would like to be on the receiving end of this kind of courtship. Even if it comes from the celebrated author of My Promised Land.
But then other journalists reported having had similar experiences. And it emerged that JStreet, the self styled pro-Israel pro-peace American lobby (an sort of equivalent of British Yachad), purposely avoided inviting Shavit to its conventions. They were aware of his problematic behaviour, but in any case they chose not to denounce publicly. Which is an interesting choice from an organisation whose leaders often challenge other Jewish institutions’ accountability.
So you have someone who publicly preaches peace and social justice and, I’m sure, inclusion, feminism, gender equality. But in private he behaves in a disgusting, morally reprehensible way. He does in private hose very same things he accuses his enemies of doing: abusing those who are weaker than him, female journalists of every age.
What a depressing story!
It made me think to this week’s Torah portion, and more specifically to the personality of Noach. In the Torah Noach is described twice as ish tzadik bedorotav a just man in his generation.
According to the Rabbis Noah was a righteous person, and for this reason he was worthy of surviving the Flood, and God gave him the task to repopulate the earth.
But Noah was not like Abraham, to whom God gave an extraordinary responsibility. Abraham was a spiritual giant, and indeed every time we pray we mention him. Noah was the most righteous person of his generation.
There is a significant difference.
In the Torah Noah does not stand out as someone who always knows how to distinguish good from evil. He does not lecture every audience with his incredibly deep and profoundly moral knowledge. On the contrary. As soon as he knows what God wants from him, he does not question, he does not argue, he merely does what he thinks it ought to be done.
Noah is probably not good at writing columns or signing petitions. He is just a righteous person, which -while the whole world goes crazy- manages to keep a bit of morality and a bit of reason, while the flood is approaching.
In a few days from today the American people will choose their leader, and the leader of the most important superpower of the Western world. Their choice will affect the world, will affect the Jewish people, either in the USA, in Israel or in Europe.
Is this something similar to the Flood? We don’t know.
What we do know is that we should be like Noah, who used to walk humbly with God.
While a monumental change is coming at the horizon we can choose to be like those who preach to the rest of the Jewish people in the name of lofty ideals, noble values. Those who, for the sake of humanity chastise those Jews who fail to embody their ideals of moral perfection. By supporting for example the wrong Israeli party.
Or we can chose to be like Noah, the most righteous human being in his generation. We can chose to live a more committed Jewish life. Instead of pretending to raise above the rest of the Jewish people, and placing ourselves on some higher moral ground, we can chose to stay with our people, the Jewish people, and to defend Israel, the Jewish State, from its detractors and critics.
We can chose to ignore the arrogance of those who pretend to conform the Jewish State to their own standards of morality. Which they not often observe in their own private life. And if Israel is not as they wish it to be, then they wish the Jewish State to be damned.
We can like these people, who call themselves Liberal. But in this generation, those preachers are hardly an example of righteousness.
Let’s ignore them and try to be like Noah.

Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue, 5 November 2016 / 4 Cheshvan 5776