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

About Bob Dylan

Dbobdylan-edit-006uring the time of the Soviet Union, there was a story about the Internationalist Orchestra, established by Comrade Stalin, to encourage brotherhood among all the peoples of the Soviet Union. Because such a brotherhood was obviously a reality in the Soviet Union, the Internationalist Orchestra used to tour the most important theatres of the world. And at the end of every performance, the Soviet ambassador used to introduce each member of the Internationalist Orchestra to the audience.
“Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Igor Kuzekov, the Russian member of our Internationalist Orchestra.” “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Anton Malenko, the Ukrainian member of our Internationalist Orchestra.” “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Georgy Sarayan, the Armenian member of our Internationalist Orchestra” And of course: “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Isaac Rabinovitch, the violinist of our Internationalist Orchestra.”
In those days, anti-Semites used to express their hate through denial. In the Soviet Union Jews could be classified by the legislation as members of a religion: but the practice of every religion was forbidden. Or we could be classified as an ethnic minority, which was equally not easy, because in a totalitarian regime, such as Soviet Communism, members of minorities were generally suspected of double loyalty. So Jews, plainly and simply, did not exist.
This joke, and the gloomy cultural atmosphere of those days, came to my mind over the last couple of days, after I learnt that another Nobel Prize went to a Jew. It is a sort of a tradition; we are one of the smallest minorities in the world, by the receivers of the largest number of Nobel Prizes in the world. I am of course talking about Robert Allen Zimmerman, also known as Bob Dylan, winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for literature.
Now, Bob Dylan is Jewish, and this is a fact that no one can deny. His Jewish name (see Wikipedia) is Shabtai Zisl ben Avraham. Both of his parents were children of immigrants from Eastern Europe. He grew up in the close knit Jewish community of a small rural centre in Minnesota. As a teenager he spent the school holidays at a Zionist Summer camp named after Theodor Herzl.
True, in the 70s Bob Dylan went a bit off the derech and schmoozed with the movement of the “born again”, Evangelical Christians, which by the way are good supporters of Israel. Here in Brighton, most of the members of Sussex Friends of Israel are indeed born Evangelicals of that kind: I would call them “Jewish friendly” kind of Christians. But then in the 80s Dylan had his son bar mitzvaed with a ceremony, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, nonetheless: only the crazy nutters at the UNESCO can deny the connection between that site and the Jewish people.
There is certainly a strong Jewish influence in Bob Dylan’s protest songs, with all these references to the prophetic ideals of social justice. Loyalty to the Jewish tradition motivated the participation of Bob Dylan to the Civil Rights movement, together with many, many other American Jews of his generation. Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize in consideration of his contribution to the great tradition of American song, and that literary tradition, the re-discovery of American folk songs and ballades is one of the great contributions of the Jewish community to the American culture.
Nonetheless, the fact that Bob Dylan is Jewish went more or less unmentioned in the British media when the news of the Nobel Prize was announced.
That is strange, right? I mean, our media, the Guardian, the BBC, the Independent, always remind their readers that Israel is a Jewish State, especially when it behaves badly for their standards, that means: always. They never fail to remind us of the connection to the Jewish community of this or that magnate (especially when they go bankrupt, or do something questionable), not to mention of those politicians who dare to oppose the leadership of the Labour party.
Think about it. For our media, an Unitarian tax dodger is a tax dodger, while a Jewish tax dodger is generally “a prominent member of the Jewish community”. But then, when they have to mention the highest achievement of the career of a Jewish artist, whose talent is universally acknowledged and praised, those same media who are always so keen of cultural diversity, they forget that the artist is Jewish, even when his life and his art are deeply influenced by his Jewish education, his Jewish origin. What a strange, strange phenomenon. As in the joke of the Soviet era: Isaac Rabinovitz is not Jewish. He’s a violinist
And so it has happened with Bob Dylan. He is a great American songwriter, but not a Jewish songwriter. I have been told that Radio Teheran has informed its listeners of the Nobel Prize awarded to Bob Dylan and they even played some of his songs from the 60s. Which is priceless: these guys are getting for war against Israel, and they play an anti-militarist song written by a Jew. Maybe, really times are a-changing (sorry, could not resist).
But anyway, Radio Teheran is no different from the BBC: they both accurately avoid informing their audience that the winner of the Nobel Prize is Jewish. God forbid, their audience may start thinking that Jews give some positive contribution to cultural life.
It certainly does not help that Bob Dylan is, how shall I put it, the wrong kind of Jew. Dylan is, as I have said, a staunch Zionist, and has expressed his support for Israel a number of times. And he’s not the kind of a Jew who is used to blame Israel when things go wrong in the Middle East. Neither he is the kind of the Jew who feels compelled to mentions “peace with Palestine” every time he mentions “Israel”. And I don’t think that for Bob Dylan is really such a terrible problem being embarrassed during cocktail parties because of Israel and, you know, the Occupation.
Bob Dylan is the kind of Jew who has problem in taking Israel’s side, exactly for the same reason because he took side with the Afro American community in the 60s. Because of justice. Because opposing the right of the Jewish people to self determination is, plainly and simply, wrong. Just like denying the right to vote to an Afro American
I’d like to remember a song: Neighborhood Bully.

Neighborhood Bully – Bob Dylan from Noehed on Vimeo.

“The neighborhood bully he just lives to survive / He’s criticized and condemned for being alive / He’s not supposed to fight back; he’s supposed to have thick skin / He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in /The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land / He’s wandered the earth an exiled man / Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn / He’s always on trial for just being born / Well, he’s surrounded by pacifists who all want peace / They pray for it nightly that the bloodshed must cease /Now, they wouldn’t hurt a fly / To hurt one they would weep / They lay and they wait for this bully to fall asleep He’s the neighborhood bully”

These are only a few verses, the song is really powerful. It is probably the most Zionist song ever written in American history. I highly recommend you listen to it, and also have a look at the lyrics.
Then think for a moment: Bob Dylan wrote these lyrics in 1983. But things haven’t changed that much. Still Israel is criticised and condemned for being alive; still we are supposed not to fight back; still we are always on trial for just being born; and yes, still we are surrounded by self called pacifists who merely want the Jewish State to disappear and the Jewish people return in exile.
Yet, it is very difficult to express things openly as they are, even if you are a Nobel Prize. Which, of course, is not a reason to stay silent, or -as Bob Dylan would undoubtedly say – to keep shtum.
Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue, 15 October 2016

Between Ken Livingstone and the Mishnah

One would love to deliver a sermon on anything else other than the last extravaganza by Ken Livingstone.
But what can I do, it just jumps out of the page, as the Satmar Rebbe used to say when his congregants criticised him for preaching only about Zionism. What can I do, the whole Torah is about Zionism, every Torah portion is about Zionism, and I have to preach about the Torah portion, don’t I?
So, I cannot help it, this week’s Torah portion makes me think to the last boutades by Ken Livingstone. It just jumps out of the page.
Because, in case you have missed it, the former Mayor of London had come back to the scene with his favourite piece of historical fantasy: that is the alleged cooperation between the German Nazis and the Zionist movement. Ken Livingstone is persuaded that in the 1930s there was a “working relationship” between Hitler and the Zionist groups. He had repeated this grotesque falsehood during an interview broadcasted few days ago.
It is of course a plain lie. There has never been any working relationship, let alone cooperation, between the Nazi Regime and the Zionist movement.
The often quoted Haavara Agreement is nothing comparable to cooperation. The Haavara Agreement in 1933 allowed the German Jews to recover, in then Palestine, part of the goods they were forced to leave in Germany when they were expelled. It has been nothing close to ‘cooperation’, unless you consider “cooperation” to similar situations, such as rape. Yes, the woman who is raped “cooperates” with the rapist rather than been killed.
There has never been any cooperation, or working relationship of any kind, between Nazis and Zionists. To suggest otherwise is simply outrageous and distorted.
Fine, you may say, everybody agrees with that. But what does this have to do with the Torah portion? How does this week’s Torah portion make us think of the boutades by Ken Livingstone?
You see, the Torah portion of this week is called “Shofetim”, Judges. It deals mainly with matters of justice. Here are there the elements for a constitution, and for the judicial system. Here we find the job description, if you like, of judges, kings, priests, and prophets. We have the rules regarding witnesses, justice in time of war, and unsolved murder victims. This is particularly interesting. The rules are that if the body of a murder victim is found lying in the open, and despite many investigations, it is impossible to determine the killer, then the elders of the nearest town had to perform an enigmatic ritual: the sacrifice of a heifer. Just before the sacrifice, the eldest of the town, the public authorities, had to state aloud “Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it” [Deut 21:7] They were innocent; and yet they had to confess they have been guilty, because they had not been able to prevent the murder, they had to ask God to be merciful.
In Biblical times, in the Land of Israel, an unsolved murder was so shocking that the whole community had to take responsibility.
The Mishnah, a text written several centuries after the Torah, explains that such a ritual lapsed “when the number of murders increased” [Sotah 9:9]. That is particularly interesting. This ritual is meaningful in a society in which murder is an exceptional recurrence. In the current society it is hypocritical to pretend that every citizen must feel the responsibility for an unsolved murder. Only when murder is an abnormal occurrence, there are reasons to expiate if we are not able to punish the murderer.
You may ask what this discussion about an ancient ritual has to do with the grotesque historical boutades of the former Mayor of London. And I invite you to compare the tales by radical demagogues like Ken Livingstone to the wisdom of the ancient Rabbis.
On one side we have someone who plays with symbols. Radical demagogues do not deal with real people. Real people, real individuals, are complicated. Ken Livingstone and his followers believe that Nazism is evil, that Zionism is equally evil. Therefore, so the ideology dictates, there should be some kind of working relationship between the two evils.
It does not cross their minds that Zionism, namely emigrating to then Palestine, was the only way for hundreds of thousands of Jews to remain alive. Radicals don’t deal with real life situations, with real life tragedies: they want to affirm principles. So they turn people, individuals, and human beings, into symbols of some ideology.
Is Ken Livingstone trying to put himself in the shoes of any of the 1930s German Jews? Of course not. In his world there is no such a thing as a German Jew, as a human being. In his world there is Zionism, which is evil like Nazism (with which they must have, indeed, some kind of working relationship). He takes into consideration the individuals, real people, only as symbols of ideologies.
How different is Judaism, how much more profound is the wisdom of the ancient Rabbis. Because they dealt with real people, they acknowledged that a ritual, which was instituted by God nonetheless, was not to be observed anymore.
On one side you have a crazy demagogue who turns human beings into symbols: a man who thinks ideology always comes first. On the other side you have religious leaders who know the reality of human life, which is tragic and complicated. Even if they are religious leaders, they boldly ignore God’s expectations, because they know that, in the world we live in, the Divine expectations are too extreme, impossible to match for the human beings of their generation.
Now, that is Judaism. Learning how to deal with the complexities of human nature. Trying to put noble and high moral values into practice, in this society, which like every human society, is a complicated society. And acknowledging that is difficult, sometimes very difficult, and maybe impossible.
It is well known that we Jews are not popular among radicals and demagogues. Because they like to say that things are simple, that everywhere there is black and white, good versus evil (Judaism and Zionism needless to say, are on the evil side).
While we Jews know very well, and our Tradition teaches that, things are very, very complicated.

Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue
10 September 2016 / 7 Elul 5776

Pinchas. I cannot, because I am Jewish.

If only things were simple. This is my reaction when I think to the horrendous carnage in Nice, less than ten days ago.
If only things were that simple. This is, too, my reaction to the other episode of Islamic motivated violence, on a train in Germany, last week.
If only things were that simple.
Because we are told that radicalisation happens in isolation. We read that these two murderers were alienated, frustrated, and that they did not regularly attend any mosque. We are informed that they were not pious Muslim: actually, the Franco-Tunisian mass murderer seems to have led a very promiscuous life. Then, so it seems, he decided that making war was better than making love.
This is not the real Islam, because Islam is a religion of peace, they say. Therefore someone, some pervert, some criminal, must have twisted the teachings of such a religion of peace. Therefore these Muslim men must have been brainwashed by some evil mind, some terrorist leader, aiming to exploit their feelings of alienation. And therefore we have to work hard against this feeling of alienation.
We must build an inclusive society, so that the Muslim newcomers to Europe will benefit from inclusion, so that they will feel part of the same society we are part of. And they will not listen to the twisted teachings of the extremists, radical Islamists: Wahabite, Salafites or whatever.
To which I reply: if only things were that simple.
The more we know about the background of Islamic terrorists and murderers, the more we see that this sociological explanation does not hold water. It is probably not the case of these last; but let’s not forget that many, many of the Muslim extremists who have joined the ISIS came from very posh background. They were deejays, personal trainers, doctors, engineers. Certainly not alienated or marginalised young men.
And there is another explanation that we hear nowadays, every time news of Islamic extremism reach us: we are lectured about the horrors of colonialism, to which Islamism is a reaction, we are told that it is always a reaction. A reaction to the Gulf Wars, a reaction to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, a reaction -guess what – to the occupation of Palestine etc… Muslim people are peaceful; Islam is a religion of peace.
Radical, terroristic Islam is allegedly  a reaction to the perpetual violence that we, the guilty Westerners, infer to the Arab population since the War in Iraq, or maybe the First World War (you know: the Balfour Declaration…), or who knows, the end of the Ottoman Empire, or even the Crusades.
Islam is not guilty. Muslims are only reacting. We are the ones to blame, because a young man axes passengers on a train in Germany; and/or because a Tunisian born man massacred eighty four French citizens, and injures several more, on the anniversary of the French Revolution.
And, here, too, my answer is: if only things were that simple.
Because, you know what? I would really like to live in the world where these people, where these commentators, are living. Religious violence come to surface here in Europe, in the Western World. Centuries ago, we had the religion wars: hundreds of people were killed, here, in England too, because they refused to believe, or refused to give up the belief in, obscure details of the New Testament: the virginity of Mary, the Primate of Peter… That was centuries ago. We thought it was over, but we have, once again, people killing other people because of religious beliefs. That is tragic, that is pure horror.
I would love to trust those commentators and academics who lecture about need for inclusion, and colonial guilt, and Muslims who are all peaceful, and Islam which is a religion of peace, and if only we would become more inclusive, and if only we would give up the war, and of course, if only we Jews left Palestine (or accept to become second class citizens, under some form of Islamic rule) then Muslim terrorism will disappear and we will all live in safety and peace in Europe and in the United Kingdom.
I would really love to share the faith in this belief. But I cannot.
I cannot because I am Jewish. I cannot because in my tradition there is the story of Pinchas, which we have read last week.
Pinchas: the Israelite man who killed another Israelite man and a Moabite woman, “because of their immorality”. The commentators say, this is a clean way of saying that they were having sex.You see: our tradition, Jewish tradition, is familiar with religious violence. The Torah, the Bible is full of religious violence. But Judaism does not approve of it at all.
And we see it clearly in the story of Pinchas. That episode, the killing, happened actually in last week’s Torah portion. This week we are dealing with the aftermath. Now the Rabbis wonder why the narrative is broken at that point, so that we have to wait one week before reading its outcome.
And the answer is striking for its depth: because we should never rush to reward extremism. We are to wait, even in the Torah itself, until later events clarify the real intentions of actions religiously motivated.
In the Torah scroll itself the letter yud in Pinchas’s name in the second verse, v. 11, is written smaller than the other letters. This happens also in printed editions of the Torah. See for example the Hertz Humash, pag 686, v. 11, the first word, “Pinchas”, you may notice that the yud is smaller. That is because when we commit violence, even if justifiable, the yud in us diminishes.
The yud: the first letter of the Name of God, and the first letter of the word Yehudi, Jew. Even if religiously motivated, even if driven by justice, violence makes us less human, less Jewish, and less connected to God.
This is the teaching of Jewish tradition. This is where we come from. For this reason I feel I cannot accept the justifications of Muslim fundamentalist violence, as much as they look attractive, fashioned as they are in sociological or historical jargon.
Our tradition is familiar with religious violence, but it does not approve of religious violence. We expect everybody, including our fellow Muslim citizens, to do the same.

Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue, 23rd July 2016, 17 Tammuz 5776

We must remember Elie Wiesel

We must honour the memory of Elie Wiesel, the man who suddenly became an adult at 15 years, when he was put on the cattle train, to Auschwitz. His mother and younger sister were taken to the gas chambers. He was sent to be a slave labourer. He witnessed hangings, endured hunger, beatings and torture. And later he wrote “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed….Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
We must honour the memory of Elie Wiesel, the Shoah survivor, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as “a messenger to mankind” and “a human being dedicated to humanity”. We must honour the memory of Elie Wiesel, the DP (displaced person), the orphan child, who in 1945 tried to immigrate to then Palestine and like many other Jewish children, orphan children, was forbidden to do so. We must remember that the same Allies who defeated the Nazis, then turned into friends of the Arab nationalists and once again betrayed the Jews, after having promised to them, to us, the right to a State.
We must honour the memory of Elie Wiesel, the Zionist militant, who in 1948 joined the Irgun, yes: the bad guys, the Revisionists, the nationalists, those who understood that the Arab societies were not ready for peace. We must remember that the young Elie Wiesel was a radical Zionist, and nurtured no illusion on the Arab societies. Elie Wiesel, the survivor, knew too well how whole populations can be brainwashed, can be taught to hate the Jews, and rather than accepting compromises and peace, they chose to move an unending, suicidal war. Yesterday against the Jews. Today against the Jewish State.
That was the political belief of Elie Wiesel; that was his place in the Zionist spectrum. Few people want to remember it, now. But we must.
We must honour the memory of Elie Wiesel, the author of “The Jews of Silence”. The book was published in 1966; it was a report on the sufferings of the Russian Jews, three million people at the time. They were forced to be silent. They were living in fear of the KGB, facing the risk of being deported for performing a bris, they were put under arrest for celebrating Simchat Torah, they were tortured if discovered speaking Yiddish… It is impossible to underestimate the impact of that slim book on a whole generation of Jews. American and European Jewish lay leaders, a few months after the publication of that book, started the mass movement advocating for the rights of the Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel.
“What torments me most is not the Jews of silence I met in Russia, but the silence of the Jews I live among today”, wrote Wiesel. And let’s be honest, not everybody was enthusiastic about such a movement. The most influential Jew in America, Henry Kissinger, was busy engaging diplomatically with the Soviet Union, the main goal was to limit its nuclear weapons (sounds familiar?) and he famously commented: “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” Not the most inspiring page of American Jewish history. But we must remember Elie Wiesel, who had the courage to stand up for the Russian Jews.
Then the gates opened, and the mass migration to Israel begun, and what a successful aliyah it had been: nowadays one in every seven Israelis is from a Soviet Union background. But yet, and we must remember that, more than an eyebrow was raised when they started to settle in. They were reputed to be too nationalist, too Zionist, and their very own existence, perhaps in the so called Occupied Territories, was portrayed as a threat to peace. Russian immigrants were caricatured: not by Elie Wiesel, who had witnessed their anguish under the Stalinist rule.
We must honour the memory of Elie Wiesel, who in the 1970s put all his energies in the struggle against the South African apartheid regime. We must honour the memory of Elie Wiesel, who delivered food to the starving population in Cambodia in 1980. And we must honour the memory of Elie Wiesel, the Zionist. Especially nowadays, when sadly we hear, once again, the call for boycott of Jewish activities.
It had been a constant motif of anti-Semite propaganda, in Nazi Germany, in pro-Soviet Arab Countries, in Communist Europe. Elie Wiesel never tired himself to warn the world about the real goal of those who call for boycott, who talk of bi-national State, of overcoming Zionism, of “co-existence” between Jews and Palestinians. Nice words. But under the nice words lays the ambition of getting rid of Jewish self determination, of pushing back the clock of history to 1948, or even before. Nowadays anti-Semites talk about peace with the Palestinians. The real goal is to weaken Israel and the Jewish people, all of us, to deprive us of a place to call home, of a shelter in time of persecutions.
It is too easy to think of Elie Wiesel merely as a witness of the most horrendous episode of human history. A personality who derives his moral authority by the mere fact of having managed to survive the Shoah. To make a monument of him and pretending he has nothing to say regarding anything else.
The most obtuse and stupid self-appointed Jewish Voices for Peace have already twitted, or should I say quacked, about the alleged indifference of Elie Wiesel toward the suffering of the Palestinians. Which is of course is rubbish, because Elie Wiesel, like the absolute majority of the Jews and the Israelis, had been in favour of the establishment of a Palestinian State, ever since the Oslo accords, and he never stopped supporting such a vision in public. But at the same time Elie Wiesel never stopped to denounce the real obstacles to peace: the Arab regimes willing to keep the Palestinians as refugees, and cheap workforce for terrorist enterprises. And, first and foremost, the toxic anti-Semitic propaganda which still poisons the minds in the Arab world and unfortunately in Europe too.
That was always denounced clearly by Elie Wiesel, zichrono livracha. And this is the reason why we must continue to honour his memory.
Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue, 3rd Tamuz 5776 – 9 July 2016

Remembering the Farhud

Ask anyone what the Holocaust was, and everyone will reply: it’s the massacre of six million Jews during the Second World War, by the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. Ask any Jew what the Shoah was, and every Jew will give more or less the same answer. We know what the Holocaust was; we know what the Shoah was. But ask anyone, Jew or not Jew, what the Farhud had been. Most likely you will not get an answer. Very few people, Jews or Gentiles, are familiar with that tragic page of Jewish history.
On 1st June, 1941, after the failure of a plot against the pro-British monarchy, Iraqi fascists, (many of them soldiers, or members of the police), decided to exterminate the Jewish population of Iraq. They were easy to find, because it was Shavuot and all the synagogues were packed. Fascists, criminals, (and the various overlapping of the two categories), killed adults and children, raped girls, decapitated babies, burned houses, looted synagogues for two days, until finally the regular forces acted to restore order. That was the Farhud: the beginning of the end of the Iraqi Jewish history, much like the Kristallnacht has been the beginning of the end of the most glorious page of German Jewish history. And as much as the German Jewish history had been glorious, so had the Iraqi Jewish history been great: the Talmud, for example was written in Iraq.
But, just as Kristallnacht, the Farhud was only the beginning. From 1947 the Jews have been forced to “donate” to Palestinian Arabs. From 1948 Jews were deprived of the right to testify in court. Zionism was outlawed. And because every Jew was considered potentially a Zionist, houses were continuously searched by the police, properties confiscated. Charged of cooperation with Israel, the leaders of the Jewish community were hanged, their bodies left exposed for hours, while the crowd was celebrating. The Jewish employees in the State administration and offices, thousands of them, were all fired in one night. The once prosperous Jewish community was now reduced to starving, Rabbis were abused in the streets, laypeople were harassed, and of course the Jewish businesses were boycotted.
That was the end, as I have said, of the most prosperous and established Jewish community in the Middle East, the one that had produced the Talmud. There is only one difference from the Kristallnacht. For the Jews living in Germany it was very difficult to find a place to take refuge from the advancing fury. At least the Iraqi Jews had a place to go, which was Israel. They went to an incredible length in order to welcome, and feed, the Iraqi refugees along with many others who, in the 50s, were flooding into the Country from the whole of the Middle East. Nonetheless, the Farhud is a tragedy of monumental dimensions and has become the symbol of the persecution of the Mizrahim, the North African and Middle Eastern Jews, who had been subjected to pogroms, massacres and dispossessions by the hands of Arab nationalists, from the 1920s up until the Six Day War. But official commemorations are quite recent. Only a few years ago the anniversary of the Farhud has been inscribed into the Israeli official calendar as a day of remembrance and mourning: June 1st-2nd, two days ago.
There are various reasons as to why it had not been commemorated in the same way the Kristallnacht had been. Most of the survivors were eager to integrate themselves into the new State, to become Israelis and not to cultivate their Iraqi Jewish identity, somehow separated from the rest of the society. During the Cold War, Leftist academics followed the USSR diktats, according to which the Farhud and similar antisemitic massacres were part of the heroic fight against colonialism: even nowadays, for those people every Jew is a coloniser or a “settler”.
But the main problem was something else: too many people deluded themselves with the myth of the Golden Age, the legend of a peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews, (or rather: the comfortable existence of the Jews under the Arab rule). According to such a narrative, Muslims and Jews got along together easily and in harmony, until one sad day in 1948, an evil, Westernised form of nationalism, Zionism, came onto the scene to shatter that idyll of coexistence and peace. Things are obviously different.
But if you listen carefully to the voices of the anti-imperialist Left, those who blame Israel and Zionism for everything, you can hear echoes of that legend. After all, they ask, why do the Jews need a State, when their life was so peaceful and prosperous under the Muslim rule? The Farhud happened in 1941, well before the establishment of the State on Israel. It was the outcome of the fascination for the Nazis, by Iraqi nationalists, who were extremely receptive to the anti-Semitic propaganda aired by Radio Berlin, in Arabic, since 1933. The Gestapo had an office in Baghdad. Iraqi nationalists and German Nazis exchanged visits and marched together, two anti-Semitic youth movements, carrying on (literally) the same torch in lugubrious parades. Just like in Germany, three decades earlier, the Iraqi society had not been able to halt the growth of that Anti-Semitic movement. Rather, anti-Semitism became part of the official ideology of the Iraqi regime, once the Country gained independence.
To this day, anti-Semitism is still well spread in the Arab world, in the Arab societies. And commemorating the Farhud is tremendously unpopular, especially for those who delude themselves, imagining a rosy coexistence between Arabs and Jews, and blame Zionism and Israel for its failure. Nonetheless it is our duty to remember that tragic page of Jewish history and to pay honour to the victims of that massacre.
It is our duty, as Jews and as human beings, to remember the public opinion in the UK, and in the whole world, the hundreds of thousands of Jews, from Northern Africa and from the whole Middle East. They have been victims of anti-Semitic hatred. They still wait for justice and reparations. Their voices deserve to be heard.
Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue, 4 June 2015

Shabbat Atzmaut. Time to apologise?

I have to apologise. On behalf of Reform, Liberal… in short: on behalf of Rabbis and educators. We failed. We have spent time in interfaith work, we have met with members of the Muslim community, we have dipped the bread of friendship into the same plate of hummus, we were proud to build bridges. And maybe, just maybe, we were also eager to see ourselves on the first page of next day’s newspaper, hand in hand with some Muslim leader, both of us smiling.
How many wonderful things we could build together. Just don’t mention Israel.
That sounded reasonable: after all, why should we allow international politics to interfere in this wonderful community building we are engaged in together? And so we have conceded to their narrative, which is the same narrative peddled by the Guardian, by the BBC, by the mainstream media. A narrative according to which Israel is the root cause of all the problems between Muslims and Jews: had it not be for Zionism, for our emotional and irrational attachment to that piece of Middle Eastern land, what a wonderful place the world may be. How beautiful and easy it would have been to coexist here, in multicultural England, Jews and Muslims together.
The mainstream British media blame Israel for, well, everything; and at the same time relevant Jewish personalities, educators, Rabbis, lay leaders revelled in the Jewish media, hand in hand with members of communities, where the most horrendous antisemitic legends are believed. It is common sense in certain Muslim circles to assume that the State of Israel has been conceived in sin; that Zionism is a racist, supremacist movement; that Israel is an apartheid State; and so on, and so on. And we have allowed such a narrative to be told.
Some went to the point of waving the Israeli flag together with the Palestinian flag. As if the flag of a democratic State was morally equivalent to the flag of a political entity, whose constitution mentions Sharia as the main source of legislation. Yes, this is the allegedly secular “Palestinian Authority”, that of Abu Mazen: they have a constitution based on Sharia. Not so different from the explicitly antisemitic chapter of Hamas. But we have enjoyed the company of supporters of Hamas, and we have called it “interfaith dialogue” “social justice” “community building”.
And now, thanks to the interactions of politics and communication, now the extent of antisemitism is there for anyone to see. A whole generation of activists has found a political home in the Labour Party. There, some relics of the Cold War are willing to enforce with Marxist jargon peaceful messages such as: “The Jewish race is doing in Gaza the same thing that Hitler did in WW2”; “The Jewish race made a lot of money thanks to the slave trade and used their money to acquire power”; “The Land of Israel has been given to the Jews illegally, because of the money of the Rothschilds”; “Israeli Jews should be deported to the USA and the Middle East will find peace at last” and of course “Hitler was a friend and a cooperator of the Zionist”. This last one may not come from a member of the Muslim community; but it certainly comes from one who is friendlier to them than to the historical truth. And it is a lie widely believed in the Muslim world.
These are not odd statements that for some reason have ended up in the timeline of the social media of some naive local councillor. These are not legitimate truths expressed in ill-chosen language. This is, unfortunately, common sense for some part of the public opinion in this Country, among the most religious as well among the secularised. Survey after survey, research after research… we have been informed at length about anti-Semitism in the Muslim community. How can we claim to be surprised when we read that a councillor or an MP believes that “the Jews rule the world” (which always makes me laugh: I don’t even rule my home, as my wife can testify!).
Instead of teaching the pride of being Jewish, instead of educating the young Jewish generations to be proud to be part of the Zionist project, if not doing alya, at least supporting Israel in the Diaspora, we have been sharing the scene with enemies of Israel and antisemites of that sort. In name of “inclusion” we have granted credibility to leaders whose goal is to turn Israel into “a State for all citizens”, which will exclude the Jews, us.
In the Progressive world “Israeli education” has become a codeword for teaching about the alleged failures of Israel; instead of educating our youth to tell the truth aloud when Zionism, and Judaism, are defamed and slandered. We should have been teaching the right of the Jewish people to self-determination: instead we teach to focus on the Israel’s alleged shortcomings in including the Arab population.
Even now, when the link between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism is clear and exposed, even now, there are those whose main fear is not the accuracy of the inquiry on the antisemitism in the Labour party. And we should be careful about that, since apparently some member of such a commission has already decided that there is no antisemitism in the Labour party at all. No, those delicate souls are rather concerned that their right to criticise Israel may be threatened. You know, it is so difficult to criticise the Israeli government, nowadays. No one really does it, do they? And if we focus too much on the antisemitism in the Labour Party we may lose our right to criticise the “Anti-Palestinian” policies of the Israeli government. What a tragedy it would be.
As I said, we failed. We have to apologise. I may not personally be guilty of that sin, but I have not been able to stop the trend. I, together with the many committed Zionists in the Reform world, and believe me there are plenty of them, have not been able to make our voices heard. Criticism to the Israeli policy has led to criticism of the Israeli government, and because Israel is a democracy we have been blaming the Israeli voters, rather than sharing admiration for the miraculous existence of a democracy in the Middle East. A democracy that manages to remain a democracy, despite being in state of continuous war since its foundation. Where else in the world you have that?
We have disassociated ourselves from the Israelis. Not so long ago a proposal circulated: to force all the English Jewish institutions to draw maps of Israel only according to the Palestinian narrative, transforming the Green Line (which is still subject to negotiation) into an international border. And then what? Forbid any participant on an organised trip to Israel, such as the Shnat, the gap year in Israel, to cross that line? And forbid them also to meet and socialise with the “settlers”, those Jews who are “not kosher” because they live in Judea and Samaria and East Jerusalem? The proposal was voted down. But you see, this is how this thing works. First we want to build connections with the Muslim community. Then we concede to the Palestinian narrative. And then we allow anti-Zionism to creep in our midst. And we disassociate from Israel: we care more about the Palestinian rights than the Israeli lives.
Now look at the Labour Party. That is anti-Zionism. That is where “criticism of Israeli policies” ultimately leads. “The creation of the State of Israel was fundamentally wrong, because there had been a Palestinian community there for 2,000 years”: this is Ken Livingstone, two days ago. “The post-World War II Jewish refugees should have been absorbed in Britain and America”: this is Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad. But it’s also Ken Livingstone, two days ago (same interview at Al Jazeera).
Now the question is: can this trend be reversed? Can we learn to teach a positive message about Zionism? Can we regain pride of being associated with Israel? Can we eventually learn that, in every dialogue, and even in interfaith work, there are red lines that must not be crossed? And Israel, the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish State, must not be questioned anymore? I believe the answer must be: yes! Together with the fabulous team of teachers in our Cheder, we have been teaching exactly this to our students.
Our young adults met yesterday night for the music service, under these Israeli flags. Some enlightened mind in the peace camp would like that flag to change: it excludes the Arabs, you know. When will we learn to reply that we, British Jews, don’t feel excluded because in the Union Jack there are not one, but two crosses?
We will conclude the service today with HaTikvah. The same enlightened minds would like to change these words also. Because they don’t include the Arab population. Indeed: how terrible must be for an Arab citizen of Israel to live in a Country whose national anthem mentions the nefesh yehudi, the Jewish soul! When will we learn to reply that an atheist community flourishes in the UK, despite that its anthem mentions God?
For a strange reason, the noble souls among us do not want to change the Union Jack, neither the words of the English national anthem…. They care only about Israel. And among the many Israeli minorities there (Haredi, Russians, Mizrahim, Druze…) they care only about the Arabs’s sensitivities. When will we learn that this hypocrisy has nothing to do with the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam and it is, rather, conscious undermining of the Zionist project?
Let me state it clearly. In this synagogue we wave the Israeli flag, we are proud to be part of the Zionist project. And we celebrate Israel on Shabbat Atzmaut, today, and on Yom haAtzmaut, too. And later in the year, on Yom Yerushalaiim, we will celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people.
It’s not a secret that I have been shamed for what happens here. I was told publicly that I am a “divisive Rabbi” and a “Fascist”: me, grandson of Italian partisans. Why? Because all this Zionism -I have been told- would alienate the Muslim community. They will find difficult to accept that we are Zionists and therefore they will reject any dialogue with us.
To which my answer is: this must be their problem. Not ours. We do not need any “dialogue” with anti-Semites or anti-Zionists, who are unpopular even in their own Party – thanks God. Whoever wants a dialogue with the Jewish community must accept Israel, must learn to respect Zionism, and must not try to divide us from our brothers and sisters who are blessed of living in the Land of Israel. It’s time for the Progressive Jewry to say it clearly and to say it aloud.
Am Israel Chai.
Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue, Shabbat Atzmaut 5775