Would Abraham have protested fracking?

I’ve been following the case of the anti-fracking activists, Simon Roscoe Blevins, Richard Roberts and Richard Loizou. Imprisoned for the offence of public nuisance, they were freed yesterday by the high court, which called their sentence ‘manifestly excessive’. Their crime was to ensconce themselves for days on top of trucks bringing drilling equipment.

Had Abraham our Ancestor been alive today, would there have been four men sent to prison?

There’s a good chance.

Abraham wasn’t a person easily deterred by power. He challenged Pharaoh (albeit after making his wife pretend she was his sister). ‘I thought there was no fear of God in this place’, he declared; which amounts to ‘Do you have any moral boundaries here?’

He went to war to rescue his nephew from pirating armies. He ensured the protection of the well supplying his water, defending his most important environmental asset.

‘Yes, but he did it all from self-interest’, it could be claimed. There’s little such motive in his horrified response when God threatens to destroy in entirety the perverse city of Sodom: ‘How can you annihilate the good alongside the evil? Should the judge of all the earth not do justice?’

Among the legends with which the rabbis embellish the biblical account, three stand out. Abraham defies the tyranny of the ‘mighty hunter’ Nimrod, walking with steady defiance through the ‘fiery furnace’ of all the weaponry unrestrained power has at its disposal.

Impressed with Abraham’s leadership qualities, God calls him not just servant, but officer, ambassador, secretary of state: ‘Walk ahead of me’, God instructs him. Shine a light on the dark pathways God’s presence has to penetrate in this world.

Most famous of all these rabbinic parables is the account of how Abraham found God:

He came upon a palace on fire. ‘How come it’s got no owner?’ he wondered. The owner looked at him and called out: ‘This palace belongs to me’.

I’ve puzzled over this picture for years: what’s the owner doing inside a burning building? ‘Get out, God!’ one wants to say, ‘After all, you’re supposed to be able to do anything.’

Maybe that’s the point. Abraham sees a world on fire with violence and brutality. The God he experiences needs humanity to put it out. God’s message to him is: ‘You and your fellow humans are responsible for the world.’

I worry repeatedly about what that responsibility entails. What does moral and spiritual leadership mean?

When Abraham challenges God about Sodom, the point they agree on is that to save the city requires a minimum number of good people. They argue over the figures: fifty, twenty, ten? But, whatever the case, these decent citizens have to be betoch, ‘in the midst of’, involved in their city. They must be ‘out there’, active, pro-active. If all they do is sit at home with their good ideas, they’re useless.

So I imagine Abraham might have climbed onto the cab of one of those lorries and protested, peacefully, with unshaking commitment.

After all, the world is in flames (and in floods). God is inside it, crying out from all nature and all humanity, ‘Put the fires out!’

 

Contempt for the UN climate report?!

‘Look, daddy, deer!’ Mossy, our son, pointed up to the rocky ridge to where the mountain met the grey sky; there they were, stationary, a whole line of red deer, staring down at us in the thin rain.

There are precious moments in the life of every family and friendship. These are some of mine:

When our daughter Libbi, then aged two, held a conversation with a lamb. The lamb said ‘Me’e’eh’. ‘No, you say “Baaa”’, said Libbi.

When our dog Safi first saw snow; refusing to alight from the train onto this unfamiliar substance, he waited until I had descended, then placed his paws carefully on my shoes.

When Nicky, my wife, touched my arm and mouthed ‘stop’, because a badger was staring at us from five yards away.

It’s a marvellous world. I want my children, all children, and their children, to experience its wonder, to love, care for and cherish it, and discover in its beauty the mystery and awe of the hidden presence of God.

I therefore feel great anguish, impassioned concern for this earth. That is coupled with boiling turmoil little short of fury at the political leaders who show contempt for the numerous scientists across the globe who compiled the UN IPCC report published this week. What right do the heads of state of Australia and America, among others, have to ignore, deride and set short term interests before the future of… simply before the future of anyone or anything? Why are endeavours to protect the huge rainforests of South America, Africa and Indonesia so often entrammelled in local corruption? What can be done?

Then the questions turn into: What can we, what can I do? What influence can we bring to bear and how do we best accomplish this?

There is nothing more urgent than establishing and following the political, technological and moral guidance which will lead us back from the threat of disaster towards a sustainable relationship with the planet on which we all depend.

I know too that I am also part of the problem. So I plan to fly less, use fossil-fuels less and waste less. (I can’t add eat far less meat, as I’m vegetarian already, but I’m committed to eating less dairy.) I will continue to be passionate about planting trees and cherishing the wellbeing of earth, water and air. I welcome guidance on what will enable me to look children, God and even the trees and birds around me in the face without having to turn away in shame.

It takes God just five chapters in the book of Genesis to regret making human beings. The angels warned God, our rabbis explain in a typical moment of phantasy:

‘Don’t do it’, the angels say, ‘humans are full of lies. Don’t do it; they’ll spend their whole time fighting’. ‘While you’ve been busy arguing’, God tells them, ‘I’ve gone and made humans anyway’. (Bereshit Rabbah 8:5)

God defies the angels and instead puts immense trust in us, placing the whole world under our stewardship. But stewardship means respectful care, not simply the application of power. We are yet to prove ourselves fitting for this role.

I respect and love this world, its wonder, beauty, balance, and intricate interdependence. I want it to be there for my children to love, and for their children and children’s children too. I want to conduct myself, and for all humanity to conduct itself, accordingly.

Read Rabbi Wittenberg’s article What can we learn from Noah? published in the Jewish Chronicle this week.

What the succah and the Walk for Wildlife have in common

I have the privilege of writing in our lovely Succah, the harvester’s hut constructed of beams and poles recovered yearly from their dusty storage to build the frame for our booth of branches and flowers. Above my head, among the bay twigs which compose the Shach, the leafy roofing material which defines a Succah as truly a Succah, hang gourds, peppers, black- and-red-grained sweet corn, pumpkins and even the one and only melon we succeeded in growing this year.

A Succah is a place of joy, beauty and, above all Hallel, praise and thanksgiving:

Thank you for shelter
Thank you for land on which to grow grain, vegetables and fruits
Thank you for the rain and dew fall
Thank you for life.

 In the Succah we ask for a blessing upon the seasons, vistas and scents which form the subliminal rhythm of our existence, those smells of field and mountain, twilight and rainfall, for which every refugee from a once safe homeland longs:

‘There’s nowhere on earth so beautiful as my northern Iran’, says K, who fled for his life from his native country, nevertheless insists.
‘The allotments are full of people from all over the world, growing what they miss from home’, a fellow gardener tells me.

The Succah smells of the beauty and preciousness of the earth. Yet, like the slight bitterness the autumn brings to the misty smells of dawn, the tang of brevity hangs about the Succah and its end-of-season fruits: the unavoidable knowledge that time and destiny leave us uncertain, vulnerable, ignorant of our destiny in our pilgrimage on earth.

Maybe that’s why the prayers on this festival are formed round a key word more powerful even than thanksgiving, more urgent and more poignant: Hoshana, Save!

Save your city, save your people;
Save humankind and the animals;
Save men and women, formed in your image and likeness;
Save the vineyards and sycamore groves;
Save the trees planted in the desolate earth.

I realise now that when last Shabbat I joined the first People’s March for Wildlife, enjoying four and a half hours of cheerful rainfall to catch up with the thousands of demonstrators whose placards filled the mile to Whitehall with calls to save the bees, badgers, bats, trees, owls, nightingales and meadows, I was in fact part of an urgent contemporary Hoshana: Save this beautiful earth.

‘There is a time to plant,’ says Ecclesiastes, (which we read in Synagogue tomorrow) before adding that there is also ‘a time to uproot that which has been planted’. Our world knows too much uprooting, of refugees from their lands and persecuted people from homes where they once felt safe, of sustaining rainforests and rich ancient woodlands, and of the trees which prevent hot lands from turning into uninhabitable deserts.

This is a time to plant, a time to save and protect the lands and trees whose shade and whose fruits sustain us. The Succah reminds me how much I love this world, its landscapes, its fruits, the bronze and red beauty of an apple in the autumn. ‘Save this earth!’ There is no prayer more urgent.

 

 

The fate of the earth: God and our children will hold us to account

Birthdays aren’t always simple experiences.

I remember as a child looking forward with impatient excitement to my birthday, then agreeing with my older brother that the day after was a low point, ‘because it’s now ‘364 days until your next birthday’. Those were the times!

As we get older we don’t necessarily want our friends to clock the passing of our life. I’ll never forget how we made a card for a relative’s ninetieth and were asked in no uncertain terms to alter the ‘9’. Few of us truly believe we’re getting older at the rate we actually are.

From time to time I’m asked questions trickier than such foibles: Do I send greetings to X? I hurt her, but want to make up, – is it OK to get in touch?

I feel like that about Rosh Hashanah, the ‘birthday of the world’. I love the world, yet know I mistreat it. What greeting should I send?

No-one attends a friend’s birthday, then stays behind to trash his home. But that’s what we do with the earth. It’s not ours. It belongs to God, to all the lives it sustains, and to our children’s children.

Yesterday I met with Michael, Gove, Secretary of State for the Environment. I spoke to many activists beforehand and read their papers: the net-zero carbon emissions target must urgently be brought forward to 2050; air pollution costs lives; intensive farming hurts wildlife and poisons the soil; eating little or, better, no meat would have a huge impact on global warming.

I had a pre-meeting with the editor of the government report: A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment. I asked what legal teeth the good intentions in the paper would have in the forthcoming Environment Act and how urgent the timelines would be. ‘The Secretary of State and the Treasury need to hear these concerns from people like you’, he replied. (I’d been clear to the point of shameless about how many environmental groups I was in touch with.)

I believe the conversation with Michael Gove went well. ‘We need your pressure; hold us to account’, he stressed. ‘The timing is good, as we draft the Act’. ‘Will it comply with the net-zero emissions by 2050 target?’ I asked.

There was one email I received from a Christian activist which had no briefing papers attached. She simply wrote: ‘He’s meeting you because you’re a spiritual leader: you should say something about that’.

I did. Michael Gove was aware that Rosh Hashanah was near. At New Year we all stand before God. We can think of this also as standing before the world’s yet unborn generations. ‘Today is the birthday of the world’, we will say. Then what? What are we intending to do if we don’t want to continue trashing the celebrant’s home? God and our children’s children will hold us all to account, ministers of religion and state alike.

A beautiful, challenging Mishnah (2nd century) insists that every person must say, ‘For me the world was created’, because we each have a unique contribution to make.

‘For me’: what am I going to do about it?

 

The sound of the shofar and the breath of creation

It is the custom to blow the shofar every day (except Shabbat) during the month of Elul at the close of the morning prayers. So I picked up my shofar early this morning, then remembered the tacit agreement in our household, tacit being the word, that none was to blow the shofar before 9.00 am.

Instead, I simply breathed into the shofar, with no pressure, as I would breathe an ordinary breath. To my surprise, the shofar wasn’t silent, though I’m sure it wasn’t so loud that anybody else could hear it. It made a sound like a gentle breeze across fields or through a grove of trees on a still, calm day. Very quietly, the shofar sang.

It reminded me of a passage by the Hasidic teacher Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piazetsner Rebbe:

The fundamental reason all beings are created is so that they should sing, for in this way they reveal the greatness of God. Every single created being sings, as we know from The Chapter of Song. Thus, each and every being reveals a spark of the glory of the God of blessings.                      (Derech Hamelech to Rosh Hashanah)

The Chapter to which he refers ascribes words from the Bible to all existence, from the seas and rivers to the eagle and the swallow, whose lyrics are: ‘So that my soul may sing to you and not be silent’.

I always think of the shofar as coming from the depths of creation. Formed from the horn of a ram or mountain goat, its rough, un-honed cry calls of the bond which unites all nature, animal and human. It speaks without words of our bare and basic togetherness in this world of cold and warmth, food and hunger, life and death. The breath which flows through the shofar resonates with the ruach, the breath or spirit which breathes through all life, the spirit of God which hovered over the face of the deep in the beginning and which creates and sustains all living being. It calls us home to the sacred within ourselves, and in all life.

More than in any other section, the Torah speaks this week of our responsibility towards animals: not to ignore a lost ox or sheep; not to turn a blind eye toward a donkey collapsing beneath its burden; not to take a mother bird from the nest with its young and so hasten the extinction of its species; not to harness an ox and ass together, making a mockery of their unequal strength. The Torah and Talmud understood well what Jeremy Bentham later expressed: that the issue is not whether animals are intelligent or able to talk, but that, like us, they are susceptible to suffering.

The shofar calls us back to the bond of life. For too long a utilitarian attitude to nature has prevailed: How much land can I make mine? How much milk can I squeeze from each cow? Farmers do have to make a living in extremely hard times. But if a solely exploitative attitude prevails, humankind will suffer and perhaps perish alongside the world we abuse.

The Mishnah considers whether the shofar blown on the New Year should be pashut – ‘simple’, or kafuf’- ‘curved round’. Tradition decided in favour of the latter, seeing in the shape of such a shofar the image of a person bowed in prayer: ‘The more one humbles oneself the better.’

We need that humility. It’s not the humility of passivity or resigned subservience. It’s the humility of understanding, of realising that the breath which flows through us is part of the same gift, the same song which sings in all creation.

 

A special day in the life of a rabbi

My Tuesday touched on almost everything I care about most deeply. I wouldn’t normally write up my dairy, but these are values I hope we can all work together to make real.

10.00am, Mill Hill: a meeting of councillor, community and faith leaders, two days before the anniversary of the Grenfell fire, ten days before the Great Get Together in memory of Jo Cox, to learn to work together. Emily, now studying to be a C of E minister, describes how she became the landlady of a pub in Colindale and transforming it from a place known for violence into a beloved local hub. ‘Find the dormant talent’, she says: they’ll come forward, musicians, magicians, gardeners…. She’s the opposite of what the Mayor of London called ‘A culture of institutional indifference’.

12.30, Victoria Station: coffee with broadcaster, naturalist Mary Colwell. She walked 500 miles for curlews, the emblematic bird whose haunting song cries out the decline of once rich meadowlands. Her book Curlew Moon shows her knowledge, faith and passion for this beautiful world. Intensive farming is robbery of the land: we can’t just take and take again, as if the earth has no inner life and its creatures don’t matter. I think of the Torah: ‘The land is Mine’ says God. The mystics teaching that one life runs through all existence; what we destroy is always also part of our own spirit. A pragmatist, Mary campaigns for the best compromise for farmers, wildlife, food production: creation must live together.

2.00, Charing Cross: more coffee with Marie van der Zyl, new President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Her life has given her a special and profound commitment to the diversity of the community. We too discuss togetherness: can we create a Street Festival of Judaism? Can we advance Eco-Synagogue, supported by all denominations from Liberal to the Chief Rabbi? How do we work with friends, and antagonists, of other faiths and none? In a crisis, God forbid, could all British Jewish clergy say psalms together: ‘From the depths I call to you, God’?

(Another chance to get running practice; hate being late.)

3.30, St Pauls: (refusing coffee) meeting Graham, advisor to the Islamic Finance Council and the Church of Scotland, who’re working on a declaration of values. It speaks of ‘Stewardship’, ‘Love of the Neighbour’, ‘Justice and Equity’. ‘Could there be a Jewish voice?’ he asks. ‘It’s already there,’ I say, the unnamed source of these very principles. He smiles and nods: that’s why he’s invited me. My first request is to change ‘Old Testament’ to ‘Hebrew Bible’. No-interest loans to the poorest, micro-finance, supporting the earth which supports us: how can faiths together make these ideals real?

4.30, tea in a quiet corner. I try to study the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto’s sermon on chukkah, God’s laws beyond the grasp of human rationale. There are times, he writes, when reason cannot help us. The mind must immerse itself in the purifying waters of the sacred. Only faith can strengthen and console us…But my phone goes; a question about wedding plans; another about conversion; a call from Refugees at Home.

6.30, meeting Nicky in the Strand to celebrate Tim Robertson’s appointment as Chief Executive of the Anne Frank Trust. His speech is outstanding: this would have been Anne’s 89th birthday, he notes, reading from the diary about her hope in life…He explains the experiences which motivate him to lead the Trust in teaching against racism across the UK: his years of work in child protection, love of literature and nature (Wordsworth first), commitment to education, religious practice as a Quaker (keen to visit our synagogue).

Nicky and I travel home together. Then it’s back to the desk. I haven’t prepared tomorrow’s teaching. I need to make a personal list of people who are ill. But I’ve a full heart, the gift of so many courageous, innovative people, who live the values I passionately care for too.

Bedtime: ‘Not yet!’ says Mitzpah the dog, waiting eagerly for his night-walk.

 

 

Never despair! Thoughts on a difficult spring’

Tomorrow is the first day of the Hebrew month of Nisan; in Jewish terms it’s the first day of spring.

Nisan is a month of celebration. Sad, penitential prayers are left out of the liturgy. Instead, in the domain of history we focus on Passover; we follow our ancestors on their journey from slavery to freedom and try to create a world which celebrates, life, liberty and justice.

In the domain of nature, we go out into the fields and gardens and say a unique, once-a-year-only blessing to God

in whose world nothing is lacking, who created beautiful creatures and beautiful trees for the enjoyment of humankind.

I’ve just been outdoors to check: the almond tree is pink with bloom; the apricot, usually first to blossom, is wisely still sleeping out an especially long winter; the pears have a good month to go before May, their season of white glory.

Yet, despite all this, I’m struggling to feel joyous.

Instead, I feel anxious, afraid for our beautiful world. We live in increasingly dangerous times. Much of humanity, or at least its leadership, seems intent on a journey from liberty to tyranny, from peace to war and from injustice to greater injustice. Meanwhile, the poorest and weakest, who have always suffered, suffer even more.

In the world of nature, I read with despair of the huge decline in animal life, of species hunted to extinction, of the pollution of land and ocean by plastic particles. You may think me crazy, but these matters drive me close to tears.

I could take to retail therapy, decide not to think, or close my eyes, and heart, and sit back to enjoy my corner of privileged living, among the world’s wealthiest.

But that’s not the human, certainly not the Jewish way. ‘You are not free to cease from the work’, said Rabbi Tarfon almost two thousand years back. ‘Assur lihitya’esh; it’s forbidden to give up and despair,’ insisted Rebbe Nachman of Breslav two hundred years ago, despite, or because of, his own susceptibility to depression. And, on the back of today’s Guardian, Gareth Southgate adds his own gloss to his rabbinic antecedents: ‘You can live in fear or you can get on with it’.

That’s what saying the blessing over ‘beautiful creatures and beautiful trees’ means right now. Never give up! Never stop appreciating how wonderful the world can and should be! For the sake of the beauty of children, help the besieged, the hungry, the persecuted. For the sake of the beauty of animals and trees, plant and protect, so that they, and humankind together, may live and flourish to breathe a better future.

Last Friday, as I approached the old Jerusalem railway station, some 28 kilometres into running the marathon, I passed a group of people pushing their friend in a wheelchair, or rather in something more like a full hospital bed. According to my running app, the Jerusalem marathon route has a total climb of well over 2,000 feet, with challenging hills and sharp descents. These good people must have taken turns to push their friend up the hardest inclines, then hold on tightly to ensure a smooth run down the steepest slopes. When they reached the finishing line, the entire crowd cheered.

That’s love; that’s courage; that’s doing the best one can to share the basic freedoms of breathing the open air, enjoying the wide panorama, waving to friends, relishing the crazy happiness of those mad enough to run.

On Seder night I don’t just want to read the Haggadah, the story of the Exodus. I want it to shout back at me: Never give up on freedom. When I go outside, I don’t just want to see the world. I want it to sing back at me: Look at all this beauty! Use your life to love it and protect it!

 

Living in peace with creation

Only last week, in the beautiful poem with which the Hebrew Bible opens, we read of a God in love with the world. ‘God saw that it was good’ is the chorus line of creation.

Now, just one week’s reading later, God sees that the world is bad. Losing patience with humanity ‘whose every thought is evil’, God determines to destroy the earth. Only Noah is to survive, with the precious gene-pool of all living things sealed away in the floating bubble of the Ark.

Everyone knows the story. Except that we sing it from the point of view of the animals who ‘came in two by two’. What about those who didn’t? And the people? Were they all so awful that they really deserved to drown?

Afterwards, God is sorry. It’s history’s first ‘Never again!’ In soothing words, God ensures Noah that

All the days of the earth [the rhythm of] seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day-time and night-time shall never come to rest (Genesis 8:22)

It feels a little late. According to the Zohar, when Noah opens the portal of the Ark and looks out on the mud-flats of devastation where once there had been villages, fields and forests, he weeps. So Noah is sorry too.

What about us? Do we regret, or really care about, what we do to the earth?

The Torah tells us what was wrong before the flood: ‘All flesh had destroyed its way upon the earth’. But what does this broad indictment actually mean?

Rashi, the great 11th century commentator, explains: ‘even the cattle, wild animals and birds interbred,’ corrupting their species. Blame the animals, too.

Nachmanides (1194 – 1270) disagrees, maintaining that the plain meaning is that ‘all flesh’ refers only to humans. Our species did wrong, but all living beings had to pay the price.

This is disturbingly close to home. If we’re not disturbed, we’re probably missing the most important issue confronting our civilisation.

To return to the critical sentence: what might ‘destroyed its way’ mean to us? The Hebrew for ‘way’ derech, appears in another, much-loved verse about the Torah and wisdom as a whole:

Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.

Are our ways, towards each other, nature and life itself, ways of pleasantness and peace? If not, how can we make them so, urgently?

Every day I receive letters about cruelty, the callous neglect of human life and contempt for nature. Some provide distressingly explicit details about the deliberate, sadistic enjoyment of the pain suffered by animals, – and by people.

While I obviously abhor the particular abuses described, such communications leave me with a more difficult question: am I, too, complicit? Can I live without colluding with, or even relying on, the practice of cruelty and injustice to someone else, to some other living being, somewhere?

Can we live in ‘peace and pleasantness’ with each other and with nature?

No issue is more urgent

 

President Trump: Why many of us are angry

I struggled with a surge of anger last night as I listened to President Trump announce the withdrawal of the US from the Paris climate agreement. Like millions of others, I’m trying to work out how to direct my outrage constructively.

Beneath the anger lies pain.

From my earliest memories, I’ve experienced the world as a place of wonder.

That nature is a sacred gift is not merely some intellectual idea which makes sense to me after due consideration. I feel it viscerally, intuitively, in my very bones. It’s not a thought, but a command. It calls out from every tree, river, bird and animal. I hear it as God’s voice throughout creation. It has the eloquence of the wind and the waves; the vast sky is its articulation. It speaks in the tiny eyes of baby animals and the urgent cries of fledgling birds. Its voices are the silence of hungry children and the sickness of families with no source of clean water, and the hunger of men and women whose land, the earth which fed their ancestors, has turned to desert, or lies beneath the rising waters.

This voice penetrates the consciousness more powerfully than any form of merely human words. But if I must translate it into language, what it says is simple, brutal and commanding: ‘I am life; do not destroy me’.

I am often ashamed of my own existence, fearing the damage I may inflict on what I reverence, the woodlands and fields, the animals and birds, children. I’ve long ago resolved to be a planter, not an uprooter, of trees, and not to kill for my food. But still I feel faithless to this great world of sanctity and beauty.

It was with these thoughts of wonder and shame that, alongside hundreds of millions, I welcomed the Paris agreement and felt great relief in its wake. Whether the 2 degrees centigrade limit on global warming is too high and should be 1.5 degrees; whether the accord is enforceable; whether signing was for certain leaders no more than an act of public show; how the accord relates to social justice: all these remain vast areas of uncertainty. But Paris was a huge move in the right direction.

Now one man has made what may be for him a small, almost casual step backwards, but it is a vast leap in the wrong direction for all humankind.

Part of the reason I’m angry is because of the contempt shown towards the 195 nations who signed in France. The agreement was the result of a vast international effort, supported by the leaders of all faiths and none, headed by Pope Francis in his magnificent encyclical Laudato Si.

But I am mainly angry because of the cause itself. President Trump’s claim that he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” is indeed true. But what good can global warming do to Pittsburgh, or Chicago, or Detroit? Research and industry are themselves already (finally) moving towards renewable energies and different technologies. Is the aim to penalise his own country?

Closer to home, doesn’t the President of the United States represent his own children and grand-children and their future on this earth, not to mention my children and yours, and all the children yet unborn who will inherit the wrongs on which our generation turns its back?

The hope is that the President doesn’t represent the USA, let alone the globe, and that his intentions will be challenged in states, cities and courtrooms. Perhaps he will yet experience a change of heart.

The hope is that we will not agree to let this wonderful, breathing world be asphyxiated by our own indifference or negligence, that we simply love it too much, that we will do more because others threaten to do less.

 

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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