Listening, with leaders of all faiths, at Grenfell Tower

I was invited to speak at a gathering of faith leaders close to Grenfell Tower yesterday. I went, mainly to listen. We were Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Bahais; we were just people, but people together.

On walls and railings all around are pictures of the missing, children, young couples, all ages: ‘Have you seen…?’ ‘Marco and Gloria, Italy is praying for you’. In the streets, people talk in small groups, residents, school children, police, helpers, chaplains.

There were powerful calls for justice; for all questions to be answered in all aspects; for those responsible to be made accountable. Yet the spirit was solidarity, not anger; togetherness, not division.

Pain knows no age, no colour, no gender, no religion, said the local Sikh leader; humanity is one. He told me these were the words of a colleague who was volunteering among the dispossessed in Syria and Lebanon. London, too, has its dispossessed.

‘We’re here for the long haul’, said the Bishop of Kensington, Bishop Graham, speaking for the local clergy, who’ve been remarkable. ‘We believe in community; we believe in a God who gives hope’.

‘I’m nobody’, said a local young man, ‘But I’m somebody.’ He grew up nearby; as a child he’d played next to, in and beneath the Tower: ‘I’ve friends who didn’t get out’. We’re all responsible for our communities, he said; if only we’d realised earlier; if only we’d done more.

On the walls, among the pictures of the missing, are small hand-written posters:

Broken but United with My Neighbours (in many colours)
Life does go on. But now it has to change
Listen. We are still here…

I spoke about listening; ‘Shema; Listen!’ is the first word of Judaism’s most important meditation. I told the story of the man whose friend assures him that he loves him. ‘If you love me’, he replies, ‘tell me where I hurt?’ ‘How should I know?’ the man remonstrates, ‘I’ve no idea where you hurt!’ ‘Then you aren’t truly my friend,’ says the man.

We must not become a city so separated into sub-communities divided by ethnicity, religion, income, prospects and such different daily realities that we’ve no idea where others hurt. We must not remain a society in which, when one group cries out ‘I don’t feel safe’, the rest don’t hear, perhaps don’t even care.

We all have the power to turn a nobody into a somebody, by listening and caring. We can also make a somebody feel a nobody, by closing our heart. It happens all the time and we are all responsible.

Before the gathering, I met Father Alan Everett, who’s coordinated much of the support. We talked about resources for the long-term… As for lessons, he said: Be organised and prepared. Know each other; know your local communities, councillors, faith leaders, police, fire services, teachers. Meet, discuss, plan for eventualities. Have up-to-date contact lists; keep them up-to-date.

Above us all is the tower, charred and silent; full of stifled voices which will cry out in the hearts of parents, children, friends, neighbours, firemen, rescuers, forever. I think of Rachel Bluwstein’s words, written soon before she died:

Will you hear my silence, -
You who did not hear my words?

 

Muslim Welfare House mosque, Finsbury Park

We stand together in solidarity with our Muslim fellow-citizens after the terror attack on worshippers leaving the Muslim Welfare House Mosque last night in Finsbury Park. This is a shocking and despicable hate crime.

The victims were leaving the mosque after a day of fasting and prayer on one of the holiest nights of the month of Ramadan. Our thoughts are with them and with their families and their community.

This appalling act is a desecration of the name of God and a crime against all the citizens of London who seek to live together, celebrating our differences and creating a just, vibrant and compassionate society for us all.

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

In tribute to Jo Cox MP

The London and Manchester terror attacks, the horrifying fire, – they make us think about the frailty of life, but also about its value. No one can ever assess the worth of any human life, but the criteria which speak to me most are simple:

What impact have we had on the lives, hearts, minds and souls of others? Have we alleviated suffering? Have we shared joy and appreciation? Have we brought companionship and love?

Jo Cox was murdered exactly a year ago, on 16 June 2016, just before her 42nd birthday. Labour MP for Batley and Spen, she was killed because of her open, inclusive and deeply compassionate values. As Sarah Brown said in tribute: ‘Jo reserved a special place in her heart for the most vulnerable and the poorest citizens of the world. She was fearless, she was endlessly upbeat…’

Before entering Parliament, she worked for 10 years at Oxfam, becoming the head of advocacy and policy. As then Prime Minister David Cameron said, she ‘epitomised the fact that politics is about serving others’.

The very day his wife was murdered, Brendon Cox issued an extraordinarily courageous statement:

Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people. She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her.’

At Brendon’s request, this weekend of 16 – 18 June is dedicated to The Great Get-Together, to motivate us to create in Jo’s memory a societywhere we know our neighbours, invest in our communities, and are able to keep an eye out for each other’s children…Jo was ambitious for what could be done…’

This is the plain meaning of the quotation from the Torah inscribed next to the Ark on the eastern wall of our synagogue: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. When Jews gained civic equality in Germany (for all too short a time) Samson Raphael Hirsch interpreted these words to mean that we must seek for every member of our society, irrespective of their faith or ethnicity, the very same rights and opportunities we want for ourselves. We could add that we should also try to provide for others the same security, reassurance and loving kindness we hope will surround us during our journey through life. For life can be cruel, lonely and wretched.

Brendon Cox could not have known that this weekend would come at such a painful and fragile time in the life of the country. In the last two weeks, we have seen the horrors of both physical fire and the fire of hatred.

But we are also witnesses to the great outpouring of kindness, generosity and solidarity which has characterised the huge public response, including people of all faiths and none, and across all sections of society from the Queen to the homeless.

This is a moment when the heart of humanity is open and we are called upon to be part of it.

To those who will now be governing our country

I hope and pray that whoever runs the country following the complex results of the election will show strong leadership in the protection of everyone’s safety, the respect for dignity and equality, the promotion of justice and compassion, and in unyielding commitment to the defence of the environment, the future of life itself.

Four issues concern me deeply, and have been especially poignant in the last week.

The first is safety. Like all of us, I’ve looked many times at the pictures of the people murdered by Islamist terrorists near London Bridge. ‘She died in his arms’: the utter cruelty of destroying the life, love, hope and joy of others with such evil and wanton intent is beyond comprehension. I went to Potters Fields, joined the minute of silence, and listened to the defiant and compassionate words of the Mayor of London, Sadiq Kahn. The headlines will pass, but not the pain of those whose lives have been transformed by injury, trauma and grief. Our hearts go out to them.

I joined Muslim, Jewish, Christian and police leaders at a press conference expressing sorrow for the victims and condemning terror, all terror, everywhere. I was not alone in saying how sorry I feel for the vast numbers of Muslims whose faith, so dear to them, is being hijacked by terrorists, but that, at the same time, there are challenging questions to be asked, and urgently pursued, as to why Islam is repeatedly used as cover for such wicked abuse.

I am full of admiration for the courage and professionalism shown by the police and emergency services, and the selfless bravery of so many local people and passers-by.

The second issue is the fate of refugees and the homeless. We currently have a charming lady staying with us who’s been a refugee in the UK for twelve years. She told us that when she has nowhere else to go she sleeps on the night buses. In the last months, I’ve travelled a lot; I’ve seen people sleeping on the streets and in the porticos of London, Berlin, Paris, Geneva. It’s almost impossible for a person without an address to get a job. If one has no work, how does one reconstruct a sense of one’s own life and worth? I was asked to speak at an OECD conference about what faith communities can do for refugees: the phrases I heard again and again were ‘the opportunity to learn the language’; ‘apprenticeships and jobs’; and, very importantly, ‘we need to think not just about the refugees but also the unemployed and poor in the communities where they arrive’.

The third concern is the vulnerable. Time and again when I speak with doctors, social workers, therapists, I hear of doors closing because of cuts in funding, excessive bureaucracy and resultant poor morale. (Yet I also frequently witness the heart-felt dedication of nurses, physicians, OT’s, volunteers…) Where are people to go now, who need care or counselling, or simply a compassionate ear in a compassionate environment? It makes me all the more determined to increase the resources and resilience of our, and other, faith communities. If we shut our doors to the needs of body and soul, what open doors will there be left?

Last but not least, is the matter which embraces all humankind and life on earth itself. I co-wrote and co-signed a letter to The Times (published yesterday) from leaders of all religions:

Our respective faiths unite us in the affirmation that all human life is of infinite value and that caring for our planet is a sacred responsibility. We are answerable to God, each other and our children’s children for the wellbeing of this earth. Life is too precious, the earth too wonderful and the demand to act for environmental justice too strong for us to remain silent.

I hope these basic Jewish, and universal, values will be central in the hearts of those governing our country and the world.

 

Our hearts are with the families of the victims

Our hearts go out to all the families who have been devastated by the evil killings in the Manchester Arena. It’s been heart-rending to think of parents looking for their children, calling on their mobile phones, waiting in the desperate hope of news. The pictures of the faces of the children and young people killed fill us with pain and pity. The young have every right to hope for security, love, joy, excitement and music. Had the attack been at the concert scheduled in London, young people from our community may well have been there.

Our prayers are with the wounded, the bereaved and all who care for them. Our thoughts and appreciation are also with the emergency services, the police and all who strive to keep us safe.

Next week is Shavuot, Zeman Mattan Toratenu, the Time of the Giving of our Torah. One simple, over-riding teaching has been in my mind all week. The Torah is Torah Chayyim, the Torah of Life. We shall read the Ten Commandments on Wednesday. Our rabbis emphasise the close correlation between the first and the second five. ‘I am the Lord your God’ is thus parallel with ‘You shall not murder’. It is, or should be, as plain as daylight: since the sacred presence of God is in all life, we may not hurt or harm, let alone wilfully and wickedly take away, another person’s life. This is the foundation of all morality and all religion; there is no place for relativism or retraction.

I spent the last two days engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue at the Kirchentag in Berlin, a huge gathering of the Protestant Church. The motto of this year’s conference is a verse from the story of Hagar, when she says to God ‘You see me’. The issue for us is not just whether God sees us, but whether we see one another: do we see in each other human beings, equally deserving of life? Do we see and respect each other across the differences of faith, history, nationality, gender, age? If we don’t, or won’t, those who pay the price will include, over and again, the most innocent among us.

At the Kirchentag Amos Oz was awarded the Abraham Geiger prize in recognition of his life’s achievement as foremost among the greatest living authors. His acceptance speech was magnificent, brilliant, courageous and sharply to this point. He spoke of the Jewish gene and genius, – not a biological, but an intellectual and emotional gene, and not, he added, just Jewish either, – for debate, argument, exploration, disagreement. I love my country and my faith, he said, because of my right to disagree with them. This is by no means a privilege to be taken for granted across the world.

He focused on the importance of curiosity; it’s what makes him a writer. A person has to ask, ‘What if I were him or her?’ not in order to become him or her, but to enlarge one’s understanding of others by considering what the world looks like to them. Such curiosity makes one intellectually, emotionally and morally a better person. It also, he argued, makes one a better driver, because you think ‘What’s that idiot going to do next?’

The Manchester killer did not see others. The doctrine which filled, and killed, his heart and mind, prevented him from seeing them, – young people who merited incomparably better of life. He, and above all those who brain-washed and destroyed him, are eternally responsible for the pain following their terrible deaths.

We can’t bring the murdered back. Maybe the awareness of our solidarity will diminish by some tiny amount the loneliness of those whose lives have suddenly been flooded with inexplicable suffering.

But we can resolve to see one another, as the God of all life, and the Torah of Life, require us to do. And we can aspire to find the courage and compassion to act accordingly.

Humanity’s Heart

Yesterday evening I was at Humanity’s Heart (www.humanitysheart.com).

Yesterday and today that heart bleeds, looking at pictures of missing children, – children like our own children who just wanted to enjoy the excitement and beauty of music – thinking of their parents and loved ones searching for them, ever more desperate, not wanting to give up, preserving hope. May God be with them. May God ‘bring back the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents’. May they find one another alive; may they have healing.

But we know that not all will receive the news they long to hear. There is no comfort which can remove that pain. Maybe our solidarity can make their grief hurt a little bit less. May they find ways for their pain to be a source less of anger and more of love. May God bring comfort.

Humanity’s Heart is a film about refugees; it’s about people who devote themselves to caring for the homeless and sometimes hopeless. It’s about people who give of themselves just because they care, because they know that to help those who’ve lost almost everything is what it means to be human, to have a heart. They do it from love, from the determination to bring hope, joy, future, music, safety, education, opportunity back to broken lives, because every child and every person deserves no less.

We can’t undo the shocking, vile, evil crime committed in Manchester Arena on Monday night, or stop the tears it has and will bring. But we can determine to be a part of humanity’s heart, more deeply than before.

Creating communities of ‘we’

Changing the story people tell, altering the narrative of a nation, can feel like trying to turn an aircraft carrier around by engaging a group of swimmers to push it in a different direction.

I spent yesterday at a conference arranged by the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations. The subject was promoting inclusion and countering anti-migrant narratives. This meant narratives of xenophobia, racism, including anti-Semitism, and hate for refugees.

The room was full of inspiring people; the world full of disturbing realities. Moving examples of generosity, welcome and integration were shared. But it was felt the world was headed in a different direction, driven by narrowing identity slogans of ‘Me’: Russia for the Russians; America for the Americans. How do we tell a more complex story of identity? How do we create a community of ‘We’?

I thought of this Shabbat’s Torah reading, with its (almost) concluding verse: ‘You shall have one and the same system of justice; it shall be the same for the citizen and the stranger’ (Leviticus 24:22). It’s the first piece of Torah I ever learnt. The great 11th century Bible commentator Rashi makes the stirring comment: ‘I am the God of you all; just as I make my unique name known over you, so do I make known over the stranger’.

‘Tell success stories about refugees; talk about the great contributions they make’, one delegate stressed, ‘That’s how to change public opinion about refugees’.

Others demurred. Refugees from persecution have a claim on our humanity not because they will become a success, though they may, but because of our shared humanity. That is what connects us: our shared hopes for safety, food, a home, a future; our shared fears of violence, homelessness, hunger, being unable to look after our children. How does one persuade people to open their heart to these truths?

I was struck by the contribution of a storyteller who works with children. You don’t change attitudes by going on about human rights, he said. People just think, ‘these lefties and their slogans’. But when someone’s child comes home from school and talks about the new friend in the class, that’s different.

I spoke about how members of our community invite refugees to cook together, share music, and tell their stories. Food, music, family, stories: that’s who we are and how we learn who others are. It’s when we are accepted for who we are that we feel at home. I often think about how Isca, my mother, first felt at home in Britain when she studied at Birmingham University, at the Quaker College of Woodbrooke and was invited to play the cello.

The most challenging conversations concerned how to respond to groups which promulgate racism.

They need to be challenged. I was impressed by Stop Funding Hate, which persuades big brands not to advertise in newspapers which incite xenophobia.

But they also need to be understood. We live in a world of renewed fear, for jobs, housing, national security. It’s not helpful, someone said, to think in terms of; ‘refugee’ and ‘local’; ‘outsider and insider’. Instead, we need to think of a more embracing ‘us’.

We have three objectives, the UN Commission told us: Protecting the human rights of everyone; listening to people’s stories; and create communities of ‘we’.

‘Creating communities of we’ seems to me like an ancient, contemporary, honourable, essential, deeply human and deeply Jewish endeavour.

Letters from the dead

About a month ago, in a café in Emek Refaim, my one and only cousin Michal handed me a small plastic bag, the sort you wrap gifts in. ‘I found some more letters’, she said, ‘I wanted you to have them as soon as possible’.

I began to look at them there and then. I took out the first couple of pages, the writing turned blue-black with time, the paper thin as tissue, still strangely strong, though no doubt fragile. I looked at the dates, 1938, 1940, 1941. There were photographs too, mostly of Arnold, my father’s cousin, as a baby, as a little boy in a sailor suit. His young life would end in Treblinka. I put the pictures away.

Only now, in these days of Passover, of liberation, have I had time to study most of those letters. They do not add new chapters to the account I wrote in My Dear Ones, my book about the fate of my father’s family during the Holocaust. But they fill in gaps, confirm surmises, add painful details.

There are the last letters sent from Berlin in December 1938 by my great-grandmother and her eldest daughter Sophie who was helping her pack away her things and send them ahead to Palestine, before taking her across the border to her own seemingly safe home in Czechoslovakia. Sophie wrote:

Hopefully everything will go smoothly with the passport, the Unbedenklichkeitsschein (required to prove that one had no debts to the Nazi state), the documents, and – that’ll be the most difficult thing – if dear Mama still has no English visa for here.

Sophie wrote ‘here’, but she meant Palestine. Perhaps at that critical moment she imagined herself there too in the Promised Land, with her brother and sisters who had already made the journey to Jerusalem. She visited them in ’38. ‘We couldn’t persuade her to stay’, my father recalled with sorrow.

Almost exactly a year later the two of them wrote again, from Czechoslovakia. To their immense relief they had just heard from Trude, Sophie’s younger sister, another of my great-aunts. Trude had been living in Poznan, which was occupied by the Wehrmacht only 10 days after they invaded Poland. Within weeks Trude and her family were deported, together with thousands of other Jews:

Trude and her family travelled for 48 hours and then had to walk for 12 hours. They overcame all this in good health. Their suitcases (can’t read the word, but think it means ‘robbed’)

They included her new address, in the small Polish town of Ostrow Lubelski, where thousands of Jews were dumped when the Nazis cleared the Warthe region in the west of Poland of racially undesirables to make way for ethnic Germans. Had I had that address when I went there with David Cesarani and Mossy, I might have known which of the small wooden houses had been Trude’s temporary home for almost three meagre years, until they were all taken to Treblinka.

It’s strangely moving to be back with these letters, with their breath, I do not want to say from the dead, but from the living, – the living, who had such hope and so much love for one another.

A new question has been puzzling me, one of which I somehow failed to think before. My cousin found these letters in a previously unopened cupboard. A cupboard, an old suitcase, a trunk: what part of the memory do they represent? What does it mean to live with such a history in a dusty drawer or unopened compartment in the travelling bag of one’s consciousness? Does one put the contents aside, out of mind, in order to build a new life? Do the dramatis personae of that half-buried past nevertheless inhabit, bodiless, the new landscape of one’s existence? Do they step out at night and enter one’s dreams, or nightmares? Do they say, ‘Remember my fate’? Do they say, ‘I bless your new lands, new lives, and the new work of your hands’?

Or is it we, the now living, who shape the meaning of the words of our dead, our histories?

The most basic freedom – life

There is something more basic even than freedom, – life itself.

I have in front of me a picture of the graves in Khan Seihkun, where more than seventy people including many children died a horrible death, probably from the nerve agent sarin. Assad’s regime is almost certainly responsible, protected by lies from Moscow.

The rough concrete stones in the sandy ground remind me of the cemetery I saw on Lesbos, where lay so many anonymous dead, among them babies, drowned during the crossing from Turkey.

The most basic freedom of all is the freedom to live.

Judaism is categorically on the side of life. From the first moment of human existence, from when God breathes the first divine breath into the first human being, life is sacred. The barest, simplest High Holyday prayer is Zochrenu le’chayyim, Remember us for life. Love of life underlies the Jewish determination to survive in times of persecution, bring healing in times of illness, and celebrate in times of joy. Where life becomes unbearably painful, when life comes to a natural end, it is a matter of sorrow, humility and, if we can manage it, acceptance.

Perhaps the most radical rabbinic re-interpretation of the Torah was to render inapplicable all references to the death penalty. Any death demands accountability. Any killing, except in a just war, demands specific, thorough and impartial investigation, whoever the victim. Any breech in this fundamental law is an offence against humanity and God. God’s image has been destroyed in a unique individual; there is less God in the world.

Life is not just under threat from direct physical violence but from the rhetoric of hatred and contempt. We live in a time of rising xenophobia and incitement, against women, foreigners, Jews, Muslims… One must never say ‘It’s only words’, especially when it comes from public figures. Religious, media and political leaders carry responsibility not only for what they say, but for how it leads others to act. One person’s words legitimise another person’s deeds. That is why the brazen speech of President Trump and the shameless distortions of truth by Ken Livingstone* are so dangerous.

The speech of ISIS and its like is terrifying. The greatest blasphemy is when God’s name is evoked to justify hatred and violence. Where regimes, whatever their professed ideology, instigate policies of calumny, contempt, degradation, and collective deportation the road for some will end in death.

The border between respect for life and the acceptance of killing is a boundary humanity cannot afford to cross. Any civilisation, regime, cult or individual which legitimates and glorifies killing, terror and murder thereby renders itself an enemy of humanity itself and of all living being.

As we celebrate freedom on Passover, we celebrate life: its variety, creativity and potential; its need for liberty, opportunity, compassion and nurture; its beauty; its capacity for wonder, generosity, tenderness, love and joy.

Where we honour life, we honour freedom; where we love life, we love liberty too.

*For a superb analysis of his appalling conduct see this piece in Ha’artz by Colin Schindler

Standing up for truth

One short sentence sticks in my mind out of everything I’ve read this week. It comes from Timothy Snyder’s short book On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the Twentieth Century:

‘Post-truth is pre-fascism.’

The book was published in 2017, under Donald Trump’s presidency. It is a sharp warning to those who believe in civil liberties, equality, freedom, truth and justice to wake up. But it is not just relevant to the USA. It applies wherever fascist groups are on the rise, and where they already dominate, in much of Africa, in Putin’s Russia, in many Arab lands.

Snyder is a professor of history at Yale. His major field is Holocaust Studies; he wrote the much acclaimed Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. He doesn’t suggest we’re living in the 1940’s, or even the late 1930’s. But he does say we’re nearer than we like to think to that terrible cliff-edge towards which Weimar Germany tottered, slowly and ever more feebly, and over which it fell in 1933.

I’ve heard similar from my mother, and others, who remember from their childhood those frightening years in which democracy allowed itself to become weakened, fatally.

Snyder’s concise, punchy book is no lament. It’s a call to action. Pursue truth, he argues, bringing evidence of the dangers of lying from Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. Refuse to be misled; reject collective prejudice. Avoid the Facebook bubble; seek out facts; read proper print. Engage in civil society; meet others who’re doing the same. Don’t be silent. Don’t do the easy thing; don’t hide behind the convenient vestige of conformity. If you do, you’ll find yourself conforming to actions you truly ought to loathe.

His argument is familiar from ancient Jewish sources. ‘Acquire truth and do not sell it’ is a saying of King Solomon (Proverbs 23;23). But is truth saleable? Isn’t it really ourselves we sell when we abandon truth, handing over our souls to the marketplace of lies and prejudice?

This week’s Torah reading is a discourse about sacrifices. One of them is an atonement offering for failing to be truthful, for swearing falsely, lying, and perjury.

The rabbis of the Mishnah were aware that life can seem simpler if one doesn’t get involved. ‘Should you say: “Why should I get caught up in all this bother?” you’ve been told [in the Torah] “If you are a witness, if you see or know, but fail to tell…”

Post-truth makes aiders and abetters of those who fail to stand up for honesty. Passivity is the ally of oppression. The failure to fight for human dignity, justice and compassion turns us into accomplices of prejudice and tyranny.

I write so strongly because I am afraid, of Isis and Islamism; of Putin’s Russia; of the rise of the far right in Europe; of Trump’s way of doing politics, his apparent contempt for the environment, human and natural; and, yes of the possible consequences of leaving an EU which has kept its member states from war for seventy years.

Truth, integrity, freedom and human dignity are inter-dependent. We’re on the threshold of Passover, The Season of our Freedom: if we believe in freedom across the face of the earth, we must stand up for it.

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