HHD Sermons: Erev Rosh HaShanah
Anniversaries and Looking Forwards
Erev Rosh HaShanah 5777 – 2nd October 2016
4th October 2016 is the eightieth anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, when Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts were confronted by a concerted effort including Irish dockers, Jewish East Enders, Trade Unionists and Communists. Their attitude of ‘They Shall Not Pass’ led to a landmark turning back by the British Union of Fascists. Historic events and stories concerning the relationship between us Jews and the wider population around us are very much in my mind this Rosh Hashanah.
Five hundred years ago, on March 29th 1516, the Government of the Serenissima Republica issued special laws to regulate the large and important Jewish population of Venice. The Republic obliged the Jews to live in an area of the city where the foundries, known in Venetian as “geti”, had been situated in ancient times, to wear a sign of identification and to manage the city’s pawnshops at rates established by the Serenissima. Many other onerous regulations were also included, in exchange for which the Community was granted the freedom to practise its faith and receive protection in the case of war. The ghetto’s gates were closed and locked at night, which some Jews welcomed as providing security and safety from attack, while others feared the restriction and separation. The creation of the ghetto came out of ambivalence – the Jews were both needed as doctors, traders, and money lenders amongst other things, and distrusted for not being Christians.
Into an imagined Venice ghetto of 1527-28 came a Merchant of Venice in need of funds that he could not secure from elsewhere, and thus the storyline of William Shakespeare’s play developed. Incidentally, in the last week of July 2016, as the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and the five hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Venice Ghetto were commemorated, six performances of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ were given inside the Ghetto. Shakespeare’s depiction of the money lender in his late sixteenth century play has been much debated. Was Shakespeare displaying his own prejudice against Jews or was he trying to humanise the Jews to Christian audiences? Either way, the prejudice he depicts was of anti-Judaism, which has been latterly described using the term anti-semitism.
This week, Archbishop Justin Welby published an essay in a Holocaust Education Trust booklet: Lessons Learned: Reflections on antisemitism and the Holocaust. In his essay, Welby acknowledged that “In England, during the late mediaeval period, the Jewish community faced constant persecution: Shylock, the great villain of the Merchant of Venice, was a cliché of his time.” He went on to say: “It is a shameful truth that, through its theological teachings, the church, which should have offered an antidote, compounded the spread of this virus. The fact that anti-semitism has infected the body of the Church is something of which we as Christians must be deeply repentant. We live with the consequences of our history of denial and complicity.”
Writing with a subtle hint at the issues within the Labour Party, he was not to know that Jackie Walker would this week be showing both crass ignorance and obvious prejudice in her comments at a Labour Party national conference event about anti-semitism. Walker, who is rumoured to have been suspended for the second time this year from the Labour Party, was involved in last Monday’s Jewish Labour Movement training session on tackling anti-semitism. Ms Walker criticised Holocaust Memorial Day, claiming it should remember genocides other than the Shoah.
When she was told that the annual memorial did recognise other episodes of mass murder, Ms Walker went on to claim she had not seen a definition of Jew-hate which she could “work with” and she also argued that no additional security is needed at Jewish schools compared to other schools.
This is but the latest example of anti-semitism affecting the Labour Party, which has surprised many, as this kind of prejudice was seen as coming from the far right, such as Mosley’s fascists. Please forgive me if you already know the story of how we got here, but I will spend a couple of minutes explaining it.
For the first fifteen or so years of Israel’s existence, the Labour Party was among its many allies and supporters. Indeed, the kibbutz movement was seen as a superb example of socialist principles being put into practice. However, in the analysis of Professor Colin Shindler, the maturing of the generation of left-wingers who had not lived through the 1930s and 40s, led to a shifting view of the world. The national struggles of African and other post-Empire countries were their main narrative, and Israel was no longer the plucky embattled nation filled with Holocaust survivors. Instead, it was viewed as a post-colonial hangover, preventing the Palestinians from achieving their merited independence. Critically, in what Shindler termed “a retreat from complexity”, the far left reduced a difficult and complex historical and current reality of Israel and its relationship with the Palestinian people to a binary question: Are you pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel?
Bear in mind now that research last year by Professor Steve Miller of City University found that 93% of British Jews identify to some or greater extent with Israel. When the far left pose this question containing a false polarity, they create a situation where any supporter of Israel’s right to exist becomes an enemy of the Palestinian people and, therefore of them too. Jeremy Corbyn’s election and reelection have given a psychological green light to all the pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel forces. When these voices move from opposing the policies of Israel’s government to denying Israel’s right to exist, in Professor Shindler’s analysis, they have moved into the realm of anti-semitism.
This week again, rather than admit that she was wrong to say what she did, Jackie Walker has blamed someone with ‘malicious intent’ for leaking the story and footage of her comments on Monday. We remember Ken Livingstone’s objectionable remarks, but we also remember the episode concerning Naz Shah MP, who is the only Labour Party member to have shown genuine contrition. We also must not forget the very positive start made by Sadiq Khan as the Mayor of London, and that Redbridge remains a very cohesive multifaith and multicultural borough with good relationships fostered through the borough, voluntary groups and the police. Many positive factors help ensure we are secure and safe.
The outcome of Shakespeare’s play saw Shylock defeated and humiliated. After Cable Street, and the show of unity among people of the East End, it was the British Union of Fascists that faded away. The difference is partly explained by external factors, but they are beyond our control and not my concern. Perhaps the critical factors lie within our sphere of influence. Shylock was an embittered and isolated individual, who had no supportive relationships within or beyond the Jewish community to help him. At Cable Street, the Irish dockers rallied to support the anti-Fascist action. Why? Because they remembered how their Jewish tailoring neighbours had looked after about 300 of their children and fed them during the 1912 dock strike.
The national and international climate this Rosh Hashanah strikes me as being in the balance. In this country, anti-immigrant, xenophobic voices have drawn succour from the tone of the campaign and the outcome of the EU referendum. In the United States of America, the far right is feeling liberated and vindicated by the widespread support for Donald Trump’s rhetoric.
Our challenge, therefore, as we usher in the year 5777, is to respond to the issues, and not react to the reactionaries. Our task is to support those calm and constructive voices, such as Archbishop Welby’s. In his words: “All humans are made in the image of God. Antisemitism undermines and distorts this truth: it is the negation of God’s plan for his creation and is therefore a denial of God himself. There is no justification for the debasing and scapegoating of other people.”
We must not debase or scapegoat others, not giving in to the temptation to react by exchanging our prejudices for the antisemitism of others. The best route we have to ensure our continued safety, security and happiness in this area and country is through building relationships. The relationships spanning more than twenty-four years that brought the dockers and the Jewish tailors together at Cable Street in 1936. Justin Welby cited Genesis chapter 1 in his article – all humans are made in the image of God. If we respect this image in ourselves and each other, then we will one relationship at a time, build a peaceful, happy and sweet new year for us all.