The only illegitimate choice is to do nothing

It was noisy where I was sitting with X, a professor of Jewish Studies from America, for a chat and a snack. So I thought perhaps I’d misheard when he said: ‘I understand the Germans better now’.

But I hadn’t got it wrong. I sensed at once what he meant: German people in the Hitler years weren’t the only ones to carry on with their lives and not get involved when evil was happening at – and within – their borders. We’re capable of doing that too. It’s not a pleasant thought to let into one’s mind. Of course, there are radical difference in degrees of evil, the paralysing effect of fear and, no doubt, many other factors.

‘There are children of five and under’, my friend continued, ‘separated from their parents in detention centres near the US borders, living in their own excrement. The physical and mental trauma will never go away’.

Next day I received an email from a friend, now in another country:

We have a choice to see how today’s events pan out in history. Get out there, fight for [the democracy] we have. We cannot stand quiet. Make it clear there is a side for good and a side for evil. If alternatively you prefer to get that hoped for role of Kapo in the future state where all those moaning do-gooders like me will finally shut up about all those things that annoy you (Human Rights anyone?), please defriend me.

I wouldn’t have used exactly that language (you should see some of the political comments which, as a rabbi, I left out). But I feel no less strongly.

For two thousand years our teachers have understood the danger of moral indifference. The rabbis took the Torah’s instruction ‘You may not stand idly by your brother’s blood’ as a commandment never to be a mere onlooker in the face of evil.

Evil is not endemic in our society. But it has roots, and shoots which look like growing: ignorance among the rich and comfortable of the life of the poor; hostility to ‘outsiders’ (not excluding Jews); contempt for the environment; shamelessness and disdain for truth and integrity in high places; unbridled consumerism for which our children will pay the real price.

Good is also all around us: letters and emails from organisations and individuals courageous in compassion pour through my letterbox and into my inbox. As the Torah says: the choice has been set before us.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once thought he’d spend his life as a spiritual teacher, serving ‘in the realm of privacy’. Three considerations changed his attitude. The first was the inability to sustain inner stillness in the face of what was happening around him. The second was ‘the discovery that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself’. The third was the impact of the outspoken moral courage and visceral compassion of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, on whom he wrote his PhD in Berlin, precisely as Nazism was tightening its hold on power:

There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of man is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul and the violation of the dream of honesty.

I think of these words alongside those which the biblical Mordechai passed in secret to his protegee Esther at the critical hour in their shared destiny, knowing even as he did so that it would be hard for her to act on them: ‘If you remain silent now…’

There are innumerable issues which go to the heart of justice and compassion. The only illegitimate choice is to engage with none.

 

Never Give Up

Picking up the newspaper, following election days and Brexit dates, I find Milton’s lines echoing in my head: ‘On evil times though fallen, and evil days’. How, in the UK, Israel, so much of the world, have we allowed ourselves to get into such a mess?

Pesach, the festival of freedom, Spring and hope is scarcely a week away. I was studying a Hasidic commentary on its core text, the Haggadah, when I came across the Rebbe of Slonim’s interpretation of the second-century teacher ben Zoma’s analysis of the commandment to recall the Exodus from Egypt ‘All the days of your life’. Ben Zoma says:

‘The days of your life’ refers to the days.
All the days of your life’ includes the nights.

The Rebbe explains:

There are those who take strength only when it is day; that is, when they see light. But there are also those who take strength even in the hour of darkness, when all is as night, so that the nights, too, may become like ‘the days of your life’.

I went to bed connecting in my mind this spirit of courage and determination with the scores of people I know on either side of the Atlantic and Mediterranean who fight cruelty, devote their lives to healing pain, talk to homeless people, ensure hungry children have breakfast, lunch and dinner, speak out on behalf of the wordless world of nature, feed the birds, plant trees, give beds to those fleeing persecution, challenge racism, inspire the soul with words and music, and refuse to give up.

I woke up to the following email, a translation by my colleague Gil Nativ of a letter by David Grossman:

In the footsteps of this election day…I promise to examine myself every day to make sure none of this evil spirit sticks to me: not the racism, exploitation, nastiness, belligerence, stupidity, or short-sightedness. I shall continue, like a child, to believe that there can be justice and equality here, tranquillity and peace between individuals and peoples. Even if my elected representatives do not believe in this and my government is not doing it, I will strive to achieve this here, in the small four cubits of my personal space.

Given the course of the last five years across the globe, the Israeli elections are hardly the only ones about which he could be writing, and there, at least, there are elections.

Grossman’s concluding phrase may require explanation. The Talmud observes that, since the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70CE, all God has left in this world is ‘the four cubits of halakhah (Jewish law)’. Notably, four cubits is also the rabbinic definition of any individual’s personal space.

Can we, then, make our personal space into God’s sacred space by what we do and how we act? The story of the Exodus carries clear directions on how to achieve this: never exploit another human being; respect and uphold the dignity of every person; shun any nationalism and popularism which entails the degradation of other peoples; do nothing which brings environmental disaster upon your country; refuse to be compliant to cruelty and injustice; locate yourself, like Moses, in places where the sufferings of others are not invisible to you, because those who suffer from them are our brothers and sisters; dedicate your life to these values.

I watched a wren in the garden this morning. It’s Britain’s second smallest bird; it weighs little more than a 20p coin. But it’s doughty and determined. You can’t always see from where it sings, but it has, for such a tiny bird, the loudest, brightest, most sustained and heartening song.

 

Don’t carry on the same as before

From time to time I think back to the old joke about the man who went to the doctor to sort out his aches and pains. Aware that initial appointments cost $100 while subsequent visits were only $50, he said with a smile as he entered the consulting room: ‘Here I am again doctor’. ‘Well’, said the latter, looking him over with a smile: ‘As for the treatment, just carry on the same as before’.

I’m lucky: I like most of my ‘same as before’. If I could have the time back when the children were small, the dog just a puppy, the light rain drying off the rowan trees and the sun shining back from the puddles on the path – I’d have it, please, right away.

But the world is not in a state where we can carry on just as before. The earth is too beautiful, life too precious, and the future of its children too great a responsibility. ‘Do something; change your ways’, they’re demanding as in their hundreds of thousands they strike about climate-change across the globe. Perhaps, in an oblique, disturbed and disturbing way, the gangs who do knife-crime are saying something similar: ‘We want a future: meaning, value, hope’.

Shabbat Hachodesh, ‘the Sabbath of the New Moon’, falls this year precisely on the new moon of Nissan. It opens the month of spring, the month of Passover, when we tell our ancient story: ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt’….

‘Why?’ a teenager asked me: ‘Haven’t we got better experiences to talk about?’

My immediate answer was that one can’t be a healer unless one feels how the world hurts. Those hurts are urgent.

‘Help’, says my colleague Levi Lauer from Israel: There are 900 single asylum-seeker mothers here. Their problems are multiple: ‘PTSD; separation from friends and churches; extreme language and cultural estrangement; a propensity to resort to corporal discipline of their kids; long undertreated medical issues…’ I’m not going to not answer on behalf of our community.

‘Put a hot red pepper on your Passover plate’, say Jews supporting Extinction Rebellion: think what to do about the world heating up. (The first site which came up when I googled the group was ‘Synagogue of Satan – Jewish Supremacy’, with a Swastika in the middle. What vile abuse!)

Look through a turtle’s or an albatross’s eyes at the plastic you dump in the sea, says David Attenborough of Blue Planet. In the queue at the bakery I chatted with the woman behind me about how both of us had brought our own bags. ‘Anyone who says we need less plastic’, the lady behind her chimed in, ‘Is an anti-Semite. We need more plastic, not less’. (What folly. How foolish, too, to misapply and trivialize anti-Semitism.)

‘Begin again’, teaches Rabbi Haim Haika of Amdur, in a penetrating re-reading of Hachodesh, ‘this month’, as ‘Heichadesh: Renew yourself’. Habits, he continues, have a way of imprinting themselves on your insides. (‘Habit’, teva, and ‘print’, matbia, are also from the same root in Hebrew). Don’t let that happen.

I don’t want to cheat life. I don’t want not to care. I don’t want the God who resides in all life to turn me away with a cheap answer because I wanted a cheap getaway. I need to say to God, to all life, to the spirit which lives within us all, to the ultimate healer, ‘I am here. Help me not to carry on the same as before.

 

Don’t blame others – be a leader

I have just come inside from saying shacharit, the morning prayers, in the garden. The last of the snowdrops, the crocuses, the early daffodils; that faint late February smell of pre-spring buds and promise: my heart gives thanks for you.

There’s nothing I want more than to pass to my children, to all children, a world of such wonder and multifarious beauty. The longing to do so has become my passion and, increasingly often, my frustration.

Perhaps it seems odd to focus on pastoral trivia in a week of political drama. I haven’t had my head in the sand. On Monday I had to facilitate what became an angry and aggressive evening on the impact of anti-Semitism. On Tuesday I worried for my French colleagues as there took place in France hate and counter-hate demonstrations. Last night I spent with the Community Security Trust.

I worry for Jewish, and not just for Jewish, MPs. I worry for anyone who, in this rising tide of populism, puts their head above the parapet in the name of humanity, truth and compassion. And I’m sure we have to be out there with them.

Meanwhile the government and opposition in this country are caught in the blinding intricacies of Brexit, bringing most other business to a virtual halt. Elsewhere, Presidents Putin, Trump and Bolsonaro are not currently leading their countries, or the world, in inspiring directions.

Yet all the while the earth itself is suffering, as report after report, on soil impoverishment, insect depletion, falling biodiversity and habitat loss makes so clear that it’s hard to bear reading them. If this continues, with land and food loss, we will see refugees from environmental disaster, from whole territories become uninhabitable, in numbers we had not imagined before.

In these frightening times, when the future of humanity is at stake, we need leadership which faces the real issues in energy, agriculture and transport policy, and in economic and social justice. We need a leadership with integrity, honesty, humility and imagination. We need leaders who can help us turn fear of the future, and the anger and frustration it engenders, into a vision for the future which inspires and enables us to work together, British, European, Jewish, Muslim, whoever we are. I expect this is what many current leaders aspire to be and do. Perhaps they need not just our support and encouragement, but also our indignation.

This brings me back to the garden. Nicky – my wife – has become a galanthophile, a lover of rare and unusual varieties of snowdrop. When, as we stared at two virtually indistinguishable flowers, I asked her why she cared so much about the minute differences in petal and pattern, she said, ‘Because they make me notice’. I’ve been thinking about that answer ever since.

The garden, the park, the birds, make me notice. The refugees we’ve hosted, the homeless I’ve met and the people I’ve encountered who look after the homeless, make me notice. Noticing makes me care and caring makes me passionate. This helps me find others, individuals, organisations, leaders in thought and action, who know more. They are my teachers and my inspiration, in Britain, Israel, wherever they are.

What matters most is not blaming other leaders but supporting and becoming leaders in the issue about which we care.

Judaism teaches me to love this earth, cherish this creation, care about people, seek understanding, support those who are weak, live by my values.

The sight of the snowdrops reminded me of that this morning.

 

What we must learn from destruction

Tishah Be’Av, the bleak 25 hour fast of mourning on which we recall the disasters of Jewish history, poses a central question: What must we learn from destruction?

I grew up in a world which remembered war. One of my teachers had been decorated for bravery in the Royal Navy; another suffered continued mental torment from his years as a prisoner of the Japanese. My parents spoke about hunger, bombings, flight for their lives.

The generations who lived through the wars remembered; they strove for no more war.

In 1919 The League of Nations was created “to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security.”

On 26 June, 1945, the United Nations Charter was signed in San Francisco:

We, The Peoples Of The United Nations, Determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind..

On 10 December 1948, in Paris, the United Nations adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaiming that

recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

Too many leaders of our generation seem to have forgotten. National politics and international relations are increasingly characterized by self-interest, aggression, cunning, bigotry, folly and contempt for the lives of the weakest. Last night I heard Philip Pullman speak of an age of ‘mendacity, hypocrisy and stupidity’.

The rabbis of the Mishnah lived during the Roman persecutions, between the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135, both commemorated on Tishah Be’Av. They saw the war against Rome as leading only to self-destruction. The Talmud records that

There were sufficient supplies in Jerusalem to outlast a siege for 21 years. There were lawless gangsters there. The rabbis said to them: ‘Let’s go out and make peace’, but the former would not let them. They, in turn, said, ‘Let’s go and make war’. ‘It’s futile’, the rabbis responded’. The gangsters burnt down all the food stores and famine forced the people to fight.        Talmud, Gitin 56a

The Talmud’s overall verdict: ‘Needless hatred destroyed Jerusalem’.

Similar needless hatred could destroy the entire world today. That is why it is essential to learn from destruction.

What does it teach? Sadly, probably not that war is always wrong. There is a point when tyranny must be resisted, lest it swallow us all up. War remains a last resort.

We learn that we must try our utmost to live by the creative arts of peace and understanding. We learn that wanton aggression, boastfulness, vulgarity, cruelty, exploitation, injustice and contempt for life are evil, and exact a terrible price not just from their victims but, through the slow yet inevitable processes of time, on their perpetrators as well.

Above all, we learn to cherish life, all life, and the gifts of understanding, healing and creativity which lie within us all.

 

What defines our humanity?

I haven’t gone to the demonstrations in London today. It’s partly because of other commitments and partly because I don’t love demonstrations. But it’s chiefly because I want my whole life to be a protest against certain policies and attitudes advocated by President Trump, and not just by him alone, or Republicans only, or the US only, or solely by politicians. We must be activists against heartlessness not just somewhere, but everywhere.

The first chapter of Bereshit is my creed, the magnificent, misunderstood poem which opens the Hebrew Bible. It’s not a discredited attempt at the history of the universe, but a beautiful declaration of values:

light and dark, land and water, God sees that they are good;
grasses, flowers and trees, God sees that they are good
stars and planets, fishes, birds and animals, God sees that they are good;
human beings created equal in God’s image,
endowed with freedom, imagination and conscience, God sees that they are good.

This remarkable creation, vital, interconnected, interdependent, is henceforth entrusted to our hands. Our humanity is defined by how we honour that trust. Truly to be human is to respect nature, honour all life and stand up for the humanity of others.

Yesterday I attended a ceremony at Hoop Lane Cemetery, where many refugees from Nazi Germany lie buried, to dedicate plaques in honour of courageous rescuers. Among them were: Irena Sendler, the young Polish social worker who smuggled countless people out of the Warsaw Ghetto; Sir Nicholas Winton, who, with Trevor Chadwick, brought more than six hundred children to Britain; Ho Feng Shan, the Chinese consul general in Vienna who enabled thousands to flee to Shanghai.

The night before, I was with Refugee Tales. Through walking together, telling their stories and the power of music, they campaign against the indefinite detention of asylum seekers. I was asked to write one of their Tales this year; it’s about S, who fled for his life from country X. Although as ‘a highly skilled migrant’ he had permission to work here, he was peremptorily detained and sent to Harmondsworth (‘At first it looks beautiful – from the outside; inside it’s really a prison’).

I saw a man sobbing. He’d been in detention for six months: “When I was brought here my girlfriend was pregnant. Meanwhile she’s given birth. I haven’t ever seen our baby”. Another man tried to kill himself, – out of despair. He’d been inside for over a year. He didn’t understand what it was that the authorities were waiting for.

Tomorrow is Sebrenica Shabbat, in memory and in outrage over the fate of the thousands of Muslim men and boys massacred in July 1995, and all the innocent people slaughtered, mutilated and made to ‘disappear’, in the brutal Bosnian war. Women often still do not know the fate of husbands and sons.

God of mercy… we remember with sorrow…
The young dreams that never came to fruition,
The old age that was not spent with family and friends. (Prayer by Mehri Niknam)

Today is the first of Av, the beginning of the nine days of mourning leading to the bitter fast of the Ninth of Av, commemorating the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem and Jewish communities across Europe throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

It is held that the Messiah is born on that day of fasting and sorrow. We should take this personally: what is there redemptive within us, our societies and our collective humanity, which we must learn from so much suffering and cruelty and put into practice in our lives.

The issues which define our humanity are not all over the oceans. They are here in Europe too, in our cities, at our doorstep, in our hearts.

 

‘If this is a man?’ Primo Levi, the Torah, refugees…

If This Is A Man, the searing question which forms the title of Primo Levi’s first and most powerful testimony, has never gone away.

It points in two directions. It focuses on the victims. Can wretchedness grind the humanity out of a human being?

Consider whether this is a man…
Who labours in mud / Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread / Who dies at a yes or no. (Primo Levi: Shema)

An American colleague, Menachem Creditor, outraged at the separation of families, wrote a personal prayer for last Wednesday’s International Refugee Day:

God, we know there is little chance these poor children, newly huddled tender masses, will be reunited with their parents, little chance these terrorized parents will hold their children again…

I remember standing some years ago at the Hoek of Holland with ‘children’ who travelled that way on the Kindertransport, at the unveiling of a memorial. ‘It was an act of mercy’ one of them said. ‘And it was an act of cruelty: think of the parents…’

Levi’s question focuses equally on the perpetrators. Are we still human if we mock, beat, and kill? Is it human to allow other human beings to drown, starve, weep in lonely desperation?

The three simple words ‘this’, ‘Torah’, and ‘Adam’ – occur twice in immediate sequence in the Hebrew Bible. Together they form the statement: ‘This is the teaching of what it means to be human’. What is that teaching?

The first time the words appear together is in the description of ritual impurity occasioned by death: ‘This is the Torah, when a man dies in the tent’ (Numbers 19:14). But their meaning is incomparably broader that that context: ‘This is the teaching for humans who are mortal’.

The inference could be that we needn’t bother. We all die in the end, so why make an effort? Neither the Bible, Jewish wisdom, any other faith, nor our plain humanity has ever understood matters that way.

We are physical, vulnerable, mortal beings. We get hungry, lonely and frightened. We want comfort, company, community. If these are our needs, they must be those of everyone else also. So what are we going to do about it? Just as we hate others doing nothing when we suffer, so we must not do nothing when others are in trouble:

Never say: “What am I and what difference can my actions make?” Everyone needs to understand, know, and fix firmly in their heart that all their thoughts, words and actions are never lost…Every one of them makes an impact… (Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin)

He was thinking of the second sequence of the three words, ‘this’, ‘Torah’ and ‘man’. This time the context is a basic existential question posed by King David: ‘Who am I?’ he asks God. How come I’m the recipient of so much privilege? Is ‘this the Torah of the human being, Lord God…’? (2 Samuel 7:18-19)

His words point to the other facet of mortal existence: to be human is to partake of God. To live is to embody a fragment of divine life; to feel life’s boundlessness flows through our consciousness; to apprehend wonder, know love and experience the fathomlessness of pity. We are mortals yet traversed and transformed by what is immortal.

If so, how can we let the lives of others be stymied by misery and their children be prevented from reaching out in joy and wonder towards the world?

 

The Teaching of Life: tears and solidarity

There is one quality associated incomparably more than any other with Torah, the teachings, law and lore at the heart of Jewish existence: life. The Torah is Torat Chaim, the Torah of life. For its inspiration flows from the same invisible springs and currents which nourish all life, feeding the roots of the trees of forests and orchards, inspiring the heart, flowing through all living beings.

Consequently, the Torah is equally Torah Hesed, the Torah of faithful kindness, of a compassion which includes an urgent sense of justice. For how can the Torah of life require anything other than that we should respect, nurture and cherish all life? This is the ideal of which the prophet Isaiah dreamt in an ancient version of ‘Imagine’ when he saw a world in which ‘None shall hurt or destroy in all [God’s] holy mountain’.

Throughout the millennia, as Jewish teachers and communities have studied the Torah, understood as God’s word and the expression of God’s will, they have interpreted, re-interpreted and sometimes deliberately mis-interpreted its apparent meanings in the light of these overriding values: life, compassion, justice.

Yet this very week, as we approach Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah of Life, there has been bitter hatred and terrible killing. Whatever our politics, religion or identity, we must mourn these terrible wounds in the body and heart of our collective humanity.

The Talmud speaks of God weeping. Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto, wrote in March 1942 of God withdrawing to the inner chambers to weep. He counsels those who feel terrified and alone to seek God there, in those interior spaces of the spirit.

Over the last five years it has become clear that we live at a time of a renewed and aggressive politics of identity. It is manifest in different, but inter-related ways, across much of the globe. It incites in us a visceral reaction to stand only with our own; to draw up lines of defence, internally as well as externally; to recall our universalist hopes or fantasies and batten down our moral imagination. It is hard to resist these reactions.

Yet we are also drawn to an inner space in which we hear life’s tears, the sorrows of those whose children have been killed; or whose sons have to go to the dangerous front lines of the army; or who have no homeland, or home; who face the brutal police of violent regimes, who are on the wrong side of the guns of vicious, racist militias. With us in that same space are those who devote their very souls to care for the ill, get food to hungry families, imagine how to give shelter to the destitute. There too are the people, from across the globe, who strive to protect the very earth which nourishes us, its animals, fishes, trees and meadowlands, and who mourn in the barren spaces where birdsong used to be.

I believe we can, and must, try to find each other there, not just because we each have cause to weep, but because, even more deeply, we are united by the love of life, the desire for life to thrive. The teaching of life and compassion, as Torah, Gospel, Koran, or as an agnostic sense of wonder and awe, calls us into fellowship to serve humanity, the earth and the life it sustains, and, if we so believe, the God of this rich and unfathomably intricate and inter-connected creation. We can only do so together; we can only maintain hope together, and, because we stand together, we can affirm to each other that no good, compassionate, creative action we undertake is too small to matter.

That, I believe, is what the giving and receiving of Torah truly means, on this festival of Shavuot.

A specifically rabbinic response to racism and antisemitism

I have a full heart after speaking at the synagogue of my friend, companion and colleague Marc Soloway, about my book My Dear Ones: One Family and The Final Solution. I think of the love my great-grandmother had for her children, the love and faith she carried in her heart through all the terrible years. She began even her last postcard, from Theresienstadt, with the words ‘My Dear Ones’. Life is precious and the bonds of love are ‘powerful as death’.

That is why hatred is such a sin against humanity, both that of the person who is hated, and of the person who harbours hate. ‘Do not hate your brother in your heart’, the Torah commands. The word ‘brother’ must be understood as comprehensive and inclusive. It is not okay to hate people because they are white, because they are black, because they are Jewish or Muslim. When we hate others because of the bare fact of their religion, nationality or identity, we destroy each other; we denigrate them and defile ourselves. That is why the rhetoric of racism, antisemitism and nationalist and religious abuse is so dangerous and must be countered, in whatever form or forum it is expressed.

This week the Board of Deputies of British Jews met with Jeremy Corbyn. This followed a powerful Parliamentary debate in which John Mann spoke movingly about the threats to his family while chairing the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, – online attacks, a dead bird in the post.  Meanwhile communal action by Jews and those in solidarity with us has once again been branded a ‘Corbyn smear’. In fact, many of those who dare to raise these challenging issues are, or wish to be, Labour supporters, and several Jewish Labour MPs and local party activists have received appalling abuse.

The Board and the Jewish Leadership Council welcomed Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘personal involvement in the discussion’ and his further comments recognising and apologising for antisemitism in the Labour Party. But they found the meeting ‘a missed opportunity’; none of the six action points they had set out in order to establish a rigorous, unambiguous and transparent policy were agreed.

Antisemitism is not, of course, solely a province of the left. Across parts of Europe, and the globe, it is once again a weapon of the far right. For yet others it is simply a politically expedient tool, to be exploited as a cynical instrument of self-interest. Nor are Jews alone in facing a rise of racist attack in an increasingly aggressive and dangerous world.

Saying we have no place for antisemitism and racism is not enough. Professing ideological opposition (‘I don’t believe in racism, so how can I be a racist’) may be little more than self-deceit. It is our actions, far more than our words, which show who we are.

So what must we do to stand up both for ourselves and other vulnerable groups? It is not my role to determine what must be done politically and legally. Rather, as a rabbi, I want to stress a specific Jewish response. It derives from an incident in the Talmud on which I often reflect. During the Roman persecutions in the early second century Rabbi Pappos comes upon Rabbi Akiva, who is teaching Torah in public, an activity strictly forbidden by the Roman rulers. ‘Desist’, Pappos insists. Rabbi Akiva refuses. He is promptly caught and imprisoned. Shortly afterwards Pappos is also incarcerated. (Tyrants will always find reasons for persecuting their ‘others’) ‘Happy are you Akiva’, Pappos tells him when he meets him in prison, ‘At least you were caught for something’.

In standing up against antisemitism and racism we should know who we are. I do not mean this in an arrogant manner. Rather we should seek strength in knowing and living what it means to be Jewish; by making ourselves more deeply literate in our history and faith, studying our texts, knowing the language of our traditions, exploring and expanding our spirituality, participating in our communities and living our values. In this way we stand up for our Judaism and for humanity in general, because to know our Judaism is to know that we and every other human being created in God’s image, of unique and special value, never to be hated, but protected and cherished in his or her particular dignity.

 

My heart is my compass: Dr Abuelaish and ‘I Shall Not Hate’

Late last night I took a torch and, shining the beam across his path down the garden, lead our guest to the apple tree. The damp buds, latent with leaf and life, glistened in the darkness. My friend held up his phone and took photographs.

He was Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, author of I Shall Not Hate, about his life as a Gazan doctor with close friends and colleagues in Israel, who lost three daughters, Bessan, Aya and Mayar, when their home was shelled twice in swift, fatal succession in the Gaza war.

Soon afterwards, I came to know him and planted that tree in his daughters’ memory.

‘I’d like to see it’, Dr Abuelaish told me.

Earlier, we’d been in conversation at my synagogue, sitting together beneath the verse ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ inscribed above the holy ark. A hundred people were held silent by his heart-felt words.

From the time I was a very small boy I have been able to find the good chapter in a very bad story…

From where did he draw the strength?

God knows what has to be, he said. Therefore, we must take what happens for the best.

Maybe his beloved wife Nadia had died four months before the tragedy so that she wouldn’t have to witness the deaths of three of her daughters. Mothers are the life-givers, the life-cherishers: let women walk in this world not behind us men, but by our side, out in front…

Do not see the other; he said. Do not look at the world out of one eye only, one perspective; see the humanity in all. (I still have that vista before me, the day I first saw a familiar Jerusalem scene from a Palestinian home in a refugee camp. Yes, I knew this valley; I recognised that road. But I’d never seen it from this angle. It was a mere 500 metres away, and a universe apart. I love Israel no less, but with more complexity, more simplicity, more humanity, since.)

Do not blame, Dr Abuelaish added. Don’t say ‘them!’. God judges us for what we do. We must take responsibility, each for our actions, our errors and our future.

Life is a short journey. He pointed at the doors on either side of the synagogue: ‘We enter here and exit there’. In the space between, we can do good. We can leave behind kindness, love. That is all that matters.

Afterwards, at my home, he said ‘My heart is my compass’.

On Passover night we dip our maror, the bitter herbs of history and memory, into the sweet paste of charoset, made, the Talmud teaches, ‘in memory of the apple’.

What apple? ‘It’s the apple tree in the Song of Songs’, the commentators explain. Beneath it during their slavery and degradation in Egypt, the Children of Israel showed each other solidarity and love.

Thus, the sweet charoset mitigates, overcomes, the venom of the bitter maror. So may love disarm hate; the steady heart of compassion withdraw the fuse from fury and from fear.

Will it work?

I asked Dr Abuelaish how the next ‘good chapter’ in a harsh story could be written. He made no comment about the plot, but pointed at the authors.

We are all responsible. We are all the writers of the future. No action is too small to matter and every one of us can choose to be a healer.

 

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