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Saving a Single Human Life

May 28, 2013

Sermon – Woodford Liberal Synagogue, Saturday 25th May 2013

Over the past four days, I have learned a little of one sura – one of the 114 chapters – of the Qur’an, which was first quoted as part of the Twitter conversation with which I interacted on Wednesday night. I only picked up news of the terrible and brutal murder of Drummer Lee Rigby when I left the synagogue after 9pm. The story is shocking and I am sure everyone here has been sickened by what you have seen and heard of the attack and murder.

The sura to which I am referring is Sura 5:32, which tells Muslims in a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel from Genesis: “We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or to spread mischief in the land – it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind.”

The way of Islam is a way of relating to the world based on teachings drawn substantially from our Jewish heritage. We have much more in common with both other Abrahamic faiths than divides us. Islam no more commands its adherents to act in the way the two men did on Wednesday than Judaism commands its adherents to assassinate Yitzchak Rabin or to kill peaceful Palestinian farmers in the occupied West Bank. Sadly all belief systems, whether religious or scientific or social or secular, can breed fundamentalists who take them to an extreme. We Jews have suffered in our history from such warped fundamentalism, most recently and most horribly from the actions of the Nazi regime led by Adolf Hitler.

Hidden away in the media this week is a story of a visit by an international group of eleven imams, sheikhs and Muslim religious teachers to Poland, including Auschwitz. One of the group, Mohamed Magid, the president of the Islamic Society of North America, said: “You may read every book about the Holocaust but it’s nothing like when you see this place where people were burned. This is the building, the bricks. If they were to speak to you and I, they would tell you how many cries and screams they have heard.”

Another, Barakat Hasan, a Palestinian imam and director of the Center for Studies and Islamic Media in Jerusalem, said he “didn’t know many details about the Holocaust” before the trip. “I felt my heart bleeding when I was looking at all this. I was fighting back tears,” he said through an interpreter. “As a Palestinian living under occupation, I feel sympathy for the pain and injustice that was inflicted on the Jews,” he added.

As he walked along the railway line and unloading ramp at Birkenau – where the trains hauling cattle cars crammed with Jews arrived – Ahmet Muharrem Atlig, a Turkish imam and secretary general of the Journalists and Writers Foundation in Istanbul, said he wept when he saw a photograph that showed children looking scared as they got off a train.

“Unfortunately the Muslim communities and congregation don’t know much about the Holocaust,” he said. “Yes, we’ve heard something. But we have to come and see what happened here. It’s not just about Jews, or Christians, this is all about human beings because the human race suffered here.”

These religious leaders have learned the same lessons that we must all learn and teach in our communities this week. By communities, I do not just mean religious congregations, I means our work communities, our school communities, our social communities. Since Wednesday afternoon, there has been huge increase in anti-Islamic attacks in this country, including attacks on at least nine mosques in England and Wales. An average of 4-6 incidents reported a day has risen to over 160 since Wednesday. Analysis by Matthew Goodwin, Associate Professor at Nottingham University has found that the number of Facebook followers of the English Defence League is up from 20,000 to 108,000 since the attack in Woolwich. The BNP is planning a demonstration in Woolwich next Saturday and their poster proclaims that our choice is between “Freedom and Peace” and “Islam and Terror”.

What is going on is very, very dangerous and I feel it is my duty to preach in a way I do not normally preach because of how worrying this situation is. When Anders Breivik, self-styled member of an “international Christian military order”, massacred 77 innocent Norwegians, most them children, in July 2011, there was not s spate of revenge attacks on churches. Christianity was not blamed. Here, in multicultural London, Islam is being blamed for the actions of self-radicalised extremists, and the forces of hate are being whipped up in an obscene fashion.

Even more sadly, and I commented on this as early as Wednesday night, what happened on Wednesday afternoon was NOT a terrorist act, but a brutal and obscene crime of the worst sort. The two men are under arrest for criminal charges, not terror charges. Both politicians and media have given these two extremists exactly what they wanted, and have fuelled the extremist reactions as well. As Simon Jenkins reminded us in The Guardian: “The first question in any war – terrorism is allegedly a war – is to ask what the enemy most wants you to do. The Woolwich killers wanted publicity for their crime, available nowadays at the click of a mobile phone. They got it in buckets.” The response of the politicians and media on Wednesday night was ill-judged and downright wrong, and they have all contributed to unleashing a monster. As Jenkins continues: “we do have the option to exercise self-restraint in the aftermath, to control the impulse to hyperbole. We can deny the terrorist the megaphone of exaggeration and hysteria. When Cameron yesterday said we should defy terror by going about our normal business, he was right. Why did he not do so?”

COBRA did not need to meet and should not have met, but the politicians had to show they were “in control”. They heaped the petrol of hyperbole onto the fire of a particularly nasty murder.

All this brings me back to Sura 5:32, which continues to warn Muslims against exceeding the limits set by Allah, which has been interpreted as meaning that Muslims should not be excessively aggressive in the pursuit of Islamic law. Here, the parallels to our Torah portion are also clear. Deuteronomy 6:18 tells us to do “that which is right and good in the sight of the Eternal One, so that it will go well with you…”

It is not enough to follow and apply the law, say the rabbinic commentators on that verse. We must do what is just and what is good. As the prophet Micah reminds us, “You have been told what is good, and what the Eternal One your God requires of you, only to do justly, act kindly, and walk humbly with your God.”

In a Twitter message I sent yesterday evening, I wished people Shabbat Shalom and also that we should continue to love our neighbours. Our duty, our Jewish duty, is to act to save a single human life and thereby save the whole world. Alongside Sura 5:32, it’s in Mishnah Sanhedrin chapter 4, verse 5, dating from the second century. We need to get out there, and speak and act to drown the voices of hate and fear in a flood of love and hope.

Muslim Leaders’ Trip to Auschwitz: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-22644206

Simon Jenkins’ article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/23/woolwich-attack-echo-chamber-mass-hysteria/print 

Rabbi Richard Jacobi

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