For Eco Shabbat: between shame and compassion

This is Eco Shabbat, timed to coincide with COP 28.

I don’t love the name ‘Eco’, apt as it is. I’d rather describe the day in spiritual terms: the Shabbat dedicated to reverence before the beauty of creation, the subtle and wondrous interconnectedness of all life; the Shabbat in which we determine to honour and protect it.    

Yet I’m struggling with a feeling I hesitate to name, a deep sense of shame.

This is due, partly, to the war between Israel and Hamas. But the causes lie wider.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. This is in no way, heaven forbid, shame at being Jewish. I joined the rally against antisemitism last Sunday, profoundly moved by the historic companionship of tens of thousands proud of our identity. No, I reverence our millennial tradition of devotion to God and Torah which demands of us everything. I know myself an unworthy heir to its depth and wisdom.

It’s not shame for my strong connection to Israel, my bonds with precious friends and colleagues there, my prayers for those confronting Hamas, my joy at the release of tens of hostages and my hopes, and fears, for those still left in the tunnels of Hamas.

Nor is it shame that I listen with sorrow to the distress and desperation, anger and tears, of families of Palestinian civilians caught in the horrors of Gaza, or pursued by settlers on the West Bank who profane the name of God and Judaism.

No; it’s more than that. Sometimes I’m simply ashamed of being a human.

It’s the shame described by Dante when, overcome in the presence of his beloved Beatrice, he lowers his gaze and, seeing his own reflection in the waters of a stream, looks instantly away ‘filled with shame unspeakable.’

It’s akin, despite the utterly different circumstances, to the shame Primo Levi perceives in the faces of the first Russian horsemen when they come into sight of Auschwitz-Buna in January 1945, the shame ‘a just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, and that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defence.’ (The Truce, p. 188)

I keep thinking of the unanswerable Biblical question, Eichah? How? Why? How has humanity descended into such destruction? Where are those evil ideologies conceived that long to hurt and kill? How have we reached the state where, across the globe, homes, cities and landscapes are laid waste? Why are we ruining our sweet air and beneficent earth? Why do we continue to do so, when we know the price our grandchildren will pay for our actions?

All this, which daily confronts us, fills me with shame. How can humanity look itself in the face? If God were a person, God would be tearing out so much hair that the Godhead had none left.

Yet maybe something else, something better, can emerge from the pain.

I joined a vigil for the children of Israel and Gaza in St James’ Church, Piccadilly. Every quarter of an hour, a participant from a different faith spoke for just two minutes. The rest was silence.

In that rich quiet, I felt once more the compelling power of pity. In that heart-space of grief, wordlessly there grew a resolute, implacable commitment to compassion, to caring for life more fiercely than before, for this vulnerable world, its tenderness, beauty and wonder, its undressed wounds and inconsolable sorrows. We must lay it upon our hearts that, despite everything, humanity is commanded, ceaselessly and irrevocably, by compassion

Crossing the silence: the healing power of listening

‘We came today to tell, to listen, to remember,’ said David Grossman at the mourning gathering of the Kibbutz movement. He knows what it’s like to lose a child.

I believe in the power of listening. It’s limited; it takes away from life’s sorrows nothing except the loneliness, the fear, the frustration that no one hears or cares. But that itself is solidarity and solace.

Since I came back from Israel, people have asked me ‘Why did you go?’ I went to listen. I want to listen to those who suffer the anguish inflicted on them since October 7, grief, shock, and waiting, waiting, waiting for news of relatives taken hostage, news which may or may not come even today. As the Torah says in tomorrow’s reading: ‘Give me my wives and my children.’

I want to listen, too, to those who uphold the human spirit, bringing reprieve, strength and joy. And, as Grossman says, I also want to tell, so that there’s less aloneness and miscomprehension in the world.

What’s more challenging, I feel the need to listen, too, to those who inhabit the other side of silence, those to whom a Jew like me may not be thought to want to talk, and who may not want to talk to me, in these cruel and divisive days. I want to try, at least try, to listen to those whom the appalling death tolls and the relentless rhetoric of hate push apart:

If we don’t find ways to listen across the divide between factions and acknowledge each other’s pain, the current conflict… will remain embedded in patterns of trauma for generations to come, almost certainly birthing even more violence. This task is more urgent than ever. (Quoted by Solutions Not Sides)

There are so many reasons for avoiding listening, (and they aren’t always wrong): don’t legitimise their point of view; stay with your own; have no time; change the subject; argue back; don’t expose yourself to what you don’t want to know. I’m as guilty as anyone.

Yet I believe in listening. It’s not always possible; there can be too much division, too much hardness of heart, too much hate. Yet I believe, want to believe, in listening’s healing power.

So how do we enter those silences, those spaces filled with the unspoken, with suspicion, with hostility real or perceived, that separate us, Jews and Muslims, colleagues with whom we used to chat over coffee at work, friends, even members of our own family? Where does listening begin?

It’s a question as old as the Mishnah. ‘Listen,’ says Rabbi Yossei, means ‘hear the words your own mouth is speaking.’ He’s addressing an entirely different question: the import of the first word of the Shema, (‘Hear!’) which opens Judaism’s most familiar meditation.

Nevertheless, his explanation is acutely relevant. If we want to listen across the silence, we need to consider what we ourselves are putting into it. Have I said hate-filled words? Is my posture saying, ‘I don’t want to know you’? Can I articulate instead, in word or gesture, ‘I’m ready to hear’?

‘Hear’ isn’t the same as ‘agree’. ‘Hear’ means ‘hold your story’, have a place in my heart for your humanity too.

This takes courage, not the daring of a fighter, but the readiness to step off the ledge and abseil into the abyss of human troubles and sorrows, cruelties and injustice, held safe only by the thin rope of faith. This is not exactly faith in God. It’s the faith that somewhere in the rawness of our consciousness, across our different journeys between life and death, we can take heartfelt cognisance of each other’s humanity.

Then maybe, just maybe, we can nurture from there small shoots of hope and trust, vulnerable, subject to hail and drought, but slowly, slowly, capable of growth.

How else are we to rebuild, out of our griefs, our enmities, our fears?

Trying to be human at an inhuman time

Last week I accompanied a friend to the Knesset to mark the sheloshim, thirty days since the terrorist atrocities committed by Hamas. We joined a thousand people, families of the hostages and the murdered among them, gathered in the raw solidarity of trauma, pain and anger.

As we walked through the deserted artist’s quarter of Mishkenot Sha’ananim towards Israel’s parliament, I recalled a party held there forty years ago. Our host asked us to state in a single sentence what we wanted from life. Someone said simply, ‘I want to be a human being.’ I don’t recollect his name, but I haven’t forgotten his words.

People ask, ‘How are you coping these impossible days?’ It’s the wrong question, wrote Lital Kaplan in a poem composed just days ago:

‘What’s up?’ is disallowed. Instead ask:
‘What’s lost?’
‘What’s broken?’
‘What’s left?’

My only answer is that what remains is trying to be human. I’m hoping that’s sufficient to enable me to put one foot in front of the other, reject hatred, not yield to fear, not look away from pain and not shut my heart. I’m hoping it’ll help me stay loyal to who I am: a Jew, part of the family of Israel, a human being striving to live by that most universal appellation, ‘made in the image of God.’

I’m not finding it easy. There’s no guidebook to say precisely where that leads just now. I’m troubled and pained, and I’m far from alone. On just one day four groups approached me: ‘How do we cope with the silence, the hostility, the brazen hatred, at work, on campus, among colleagues?

It’s the cruellest time I’ve lived through.

There are so many dead. ‘I’ve seen wars,’ a journalist told me, ‘They’re disgusting, indescribable.’ ‘People we know are losing their sons,’ said an Israeli colleague. ‘My uncle died in Gaza City,’ said MP Layla Moran, before hundreds gathered opposite Downing Street under the banner Humanity Not Hate. ‘My parents were murdered on 7 October,’ said Ido at the same vigil. ‘More deaths won’t bring them back.’

There are huge demonstrations everywhere. ‘When Russia invaded Ukraine,’ an international analyst told me, ‘Colleagues in India said it was a regional conflict and not their concern. Suddenly they’re all worked up about Israel. I knew there was European antisemitism, but I never thought it would burst out like this worldwide.’

Yet the marches are complex. Some people flock to banners of hate. Many more are ignorant, driven by disinformation. But thousands, Jews included, are deeply distressed by what’s happening to innocent people in Gaza, can’t understand how this will bring the hostages home and fear that violence must breed more violence.

What horrors Hamas has released, knowingly, cunningly, upon Israel, Jewry, the world, and, not least, the Palestinian people, for whose lives they care not at all! I ask myself how and by whom such deep, heart-destroying hatred has been promulgated. I shudder to think how much more contagious it may yet prove to be.

On top of everything are the terrible wrongs perpetrated by West Bank settlers driving out Palestinian villagers while the world, mostly, looks the other way. They undermine both Israel and the moral standing of Judaism.

What, then, does trying to be human mean at this time, loyal as a Jew and loyal to the image of God?

It calls me into solidarity with suffering, firstly among my own people, but also with whoever feels anguish and grief. It teaches me to rejoice in nobody’s pain. It demands my commitment to chesed and tsedek, loving kindness and justice. It requires me to do everything I can for the hostages, for life, for the future.

Most days that’s enough to help me put one foot in front of the other and find companions to walk together.

Just back from Israel: this isn’t post-trauma; it’s trauma

‘This is the life of:’ thus begins tomorrow’s Torah reading. How many families are staring, half numb, at what those words conceal: ‘This is the death of…’ But, unlike our biblical mother Sarah, their loved ones didn’t reach the ripe age of one hundred and twenty-seven. They were scarcely twenty; maybe they weren’t even seven.

Yesterday Ilana Kaminka sent me pictures of the sheloshim, the thirtieth day of mourning, for her son Yannai. He was one of seven soldiers, men and women, boys and girls really, killed as they courageously defended their army base at Zikim, protecting their ninety new recruits against Hamas. ‘He missed out on his life,’ said my friend who’d been one of Yanai’s teachers.

‘I’ll continue taking Palestinian patients to hospital appointments in Israel,’ said Ilana, gently but firmly. as we left. ‘With Road to Recovery?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she said, with Humans Beyond Borders.

The same day I got a whatsapp from Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish – my brother found me his number. ‘Your family in Gaza?’ I’d asked him. ‘Tens dead. When will this horror and violence end?’ He’s the author of I Shall Not Hate. Just now he’s sent me the You Tube of his interview with Piers Morgan: Palestinians Are Not Numbers, They’re Human

‘Is he family?’ I asked a woman at the huge, quiet gathering for the sheloshim outside the Knesset. She was holding a picture of a young man killed on October 7. ‘My son,’ she said, simply. ‘My son Tom,’ said his bereaved father, addressing the crowd. There was deep pain, and anger at Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government who left the south defenceless.

Tom’s father is encamped outside the Knesset with other families of those murdered and taken hostage. There’ll be even more fury if it proves true that a significant deal involving the release of many of the latter wasn’t followed through.

Our group met President Herzog and the First Lady. ‘The date in Israel is still October 7,’ she said. ‘This isn’t post-trauma; it’s trauma.’

The shock to the country is immense. The breach of confidence is multiple: political, military, economic, personal (can my children ever feel safe here?); spiritual (where was God?); societal (how long will unity last when blame has already begun? Can we trust Palestinians after what Hamas did? Can Palestinians, also fearful, trust Israelis after what the West Bank settlers are doing? Can we ever co-exist?) The unaskable question is: if not, then what?

Leaving Israel yesterday felt treacherous. Walking down the long slope at Tel Aviv airport you pass large pictures of each and every one of the hostages. It feels like betrayal, like leaving them behind. We shan’t.

So where do we who live outside Israel place ourselves right now? I’m not speaking politically, but as a Jew, a human being, someone for whom those two loyalties are inseparable because true faith and true humanity must be one.

Since we’re not immediate combatants in the horror of the front lines, we can, and should, be in places of healing. To be clear, this involves no compromise whatsoever with the indescribable hatefulness of what Hamas did on October 7.

There are innumerable options. We can give money for hospitals, orphans, displaced people. We can volunteer to pick crops, pack food. We can ‘adopt’ specific people who need us. We can draw into our communities, homes and hearts, Israelis, fellow Jews, and, importantly, others too, who feel broken and alone. We can, and should, speak frequently to Israeli friends, and, more importantly, listen.

Where possible we can dare the silence and suspicion and try to share with Muslim colleagues, ‘I hurt; you hurt too.’ A Palestinian student at Israel’s Arava Institute wrote of the ‘implied consensus to act from a place of compassion and not from a place of anger.’ If a bereaved mother can commit to Humans Beyond Borders, we can too.

What we can’t allow to be broken are courage, compassion, determination and hope.

Hineni: being there with each other at this cruel time

In these cruel times I keep thinking of Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker and hearing in my head that unique low voice which goes straight to the soul:

Hineni, hineni,
I’m ready, my lord…

These are the words Abraham speaks, as we read in the Torah tomorrow. He says them no less than three times, when God commands him to offer up his son and he tries, impossibly, to be present not just for his God but also for his beloved child.

Leonard Cohen follows Rashi in his lyrics, that great eleventh century commentator who explains that hineni means humility, readiness. But the most basic translation of hineni is simply ‘I’m here.’ It’s the answer we try throughout our life to give to God’s first, and everlasting, question: ‘Ayeka: Where are you?’

In these distressing weeks, there are so many for whom we are called to be here, not just in body but in heart. Almost everyone reading these words will have loved ones for whom they are deeply concerned, in Israel, perhaps in Gaza, around the world. Saying hineni, being together, gives us strength.

Hineni is the coming together of two words, ‘Hineh, Behold!’ and ‘Ani, I’. But it signifies the very opposite of ‘Look at me!’ On the contrary, it means that I dedicate my self to being present with you: ‘I’m here, I’m listening, “I’m ready, my Lord.”

I feel for so many people. Yesterday I found myself helping facilitate three different groups about Israel and Gaza, for colleagues, a multi-faith team, and an online gathering wanting to understand what’s happening and what it all might mean. I imagine that, in different contexts, that’s been other people’s week too.

‘I’m here and my heart is here:’ how do we say that truly? We must do our best to be there for our own people, family, friends, here, in Israel, anywhere. We must do our best to be there for those who’re afraid, or grieving, or worrying because their children have been called up, or desperate for relatives taken hostage.

Being there is not just about doing, though often there’s much we can and should do. Being there is not about having the right words, though sometimes there are things to say. But often there are no great words. There’s only the heart’s language, the unspoken, the hug, real or virtual, the tears.

Hineni is not just for those who see the world the same way as we do. What kind of humanity do I have if I withdraw into hostility or indifference when the person next to me says quietly that she’s had no news from family in Gaza, not for days or weeks, and a whole generation maybe gone?

Strangely, paradoxically perhaps, this is where we can meet, Jews and Muslims, people of other faiths and none, in our very anguish, our fear for those we love, our aloneness when we feel shunned because we’re a Jew, or a Muslim. The very pain that divides us may become the pain that unites us, at least here in the UK.

Only if we reach deeper than fear and hate can our world progress beyond hatred.

It’s not possible with people while they proclaim and act out antisemitism or any form of racist spite. It’s unthinkable with the brutal terrorists who commit wanton, indescribable acts of premeditated torture and murder.

But where it may be possible, there we must try.

How, though, can the heart find the strength? I believe that if we go down, down and down, we reach within ourselves the deep hidden river of life through which all spirit, all existence is sustained.

We make that journey each in our own way, through prayer or silence, music or nature, alone or touched by others.

It takes us to that place of mercy, hidden yet all around us and within us, where God, the unnameable, gives us strength and hope.

Not alone: hopes and prayers in these times of deepest distress

Two people reached out to me unexpectedly last week. The first was Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, who called me in the days after the horrors perpetrated by Hamas. Years ago, we’d walked together through the centre of London leading a protest against racist violence of all forms.

‘We need to do something he said.’ That was the start of conversations which led to his public condemnation of antisemitism and my response to him in the presence, and with the strong support, of Archbishop Justin Welby. ‘We’re all on the side of life,’ I concluded. (Click here to read the statements in full).

The second person was a woman walking behind me on Lambeth Palace Road. I’d paused to put my backpack down on a bench when she turned to me: ‘I’m so glad to see you wearing your kippah round here,’ she said, starting to cry. ‘I’m Jewish and I’m so afraid.’ My heart went out to her. My heart goes out the many who feel as she does.

I’ve thought repeatedly this week of those pictures one finds in old Haggadot of a man rowing a boat crossing a wide river. They’re illustrations of ‘Avram Ha’Ivri, Abraham the Hebrew.’ Ivri derives from ever, meaning bank or side. As the rabbis put it: ‘All the world on one side, and Abraham on the other.’

I feel for everyone who finds themselves alone at this extraordinarily difficult time, especially students, especially pupils in non-Jewish schools, especially those working in places where there are no fellow Jews. How many times I’ve heard: ‘There’s a wall of silence around me; even my friends don’t ask.’ Or those seeming friends post something vile on Instagram.

I feel, too, for everyone for whom the pogroms by Hamas have re-awoken the traumas of the Shoah and earlier ages.

We must reach out to each other; we must open our doors, our kitchens, our hearts. Over and again, I hear from friends in Israel: ‘What’s not let us down is our society. Everyone’s helping. Am Yisrael chai – the people of Israel lives.’ We, too, must be in sustained contact with our family, friends and colleagues in Israel, and with each other.

And we must try to reach further. Despite the mass rallies, the hatred and the disgusting social media, we do have friends. I’ve had many messages of solidarity, from Christian groups especially, but also from other faiths, and from acquaintances near and far.

Wherever possible we must build with these relationships. Cruel as the times are, we must not solely hunker down in distrust, fear and anger. We must find those with whom we can stand together in a deeper, more embracing humanity. I believe in God who is ‘Elohai haruchot lechol bassar, God of the spirits of all flesh.’

We must not lose our hope or our deepest Jewish, humanitarian values. Beyond war there has to be a different vision. All the people I’m close to feel deep pity for everyone across Israel and the Jewish world who is grief-stricken, traumatised, desperate for the release of family members taken hostage. At the same time, we also feel great pity for the poor people caught up in their thousands in Gaza, who want nothing to do with Hamas and who are, in a different way, also hostages, struggling to escape with their lives, their children.

We pray, for all our sakes, for a better outcome than the creation of the next generation of fear and hate. I think of Zechariah’s prophetic words, lo vechayil velo vecho’ach ki im beruchi. What they mean to me today is: Neither power nor force will help unless guided by My spirit, says our God.

My feelings were summed up when I listened to my colleague Nathalie Lastreger, rabbi of Kfar Veradim in the far north of Israel, as she struggled to keep singing the HaTikvah through her flowing tears: Od lo avdah tikvateinu, Our hope has not ceased.’

Hope itself must never cease.

A Prayer

In the midst of our own trauma, grief and anguish, we do not lose sight of Judaism’s supreme values of chesed and rachamim, loving kindness and mercy.

We protest and pray for the release of all the hostages and for their safe return to their longing and desperate families. We pray for a minimum of casualties in the IDF, and among all civilians, in Israel’s war against the terrorist organisation Hamas. We pray for strength for everyone, across the whole of Israel’s society and the Jewish world, who gives shelter and support to the tens of thousands evacuated from their homes and to everyone traumatised and grief-stricken by Hamas’ barbaric attack.

Our God is the God of all life. We pray, too, for the safety of all the many, many thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians caught up in this horror, who desperately need food, water and medical aid. Their plight is unimaginable. They desperately need a safe escape route from the fighting. We ask and pray for a humanitarian corridor to be established, maintained and safely supervised. We pray for a better future of life, hope and freedom for them too.

Our prayers are with the remarkable people who devote themselves to saving lives, wherever they are. We pray for all who, despite the fear and hostility, recognise the image of God in all the victims of this terrible conflict and who work for healing on all sides.

We pray, too, for our society here in Britain, that we should not be the targets of antisemitism, that all forms of race and religious hatred and prejudice be overcome, that we should work together in solidarity for a safe and harmonious future for all.

Even as continued fighting seems inevitable, we pray that a better way will swiftly be found than war with all its unspeakable horrors, so that Israel and its neighbours can live together in safety and peace, with life and hope for everyone.

In These Terrible Times

Elohei haruchot lechol basar – Our God and God of the spirits of all flesh, send us, all Israel, our Jewish People across the world, and all humanity, strength, resilience, wisdom, courage, compassion, vision and hope in these terrible days.

I’m filled with horror, pain and disgust for what has been perpetrated by Hamas. I feel trepidation over what is now coming.

Last Shabbat was the worst day in Jewish history since the Shoah. There are no adequate words.

In their cunning and brutal mercilessness, Hamas’s terrorist mass murders were an attack on Israel, on Jews, on humanity itself, on every value and feeling that makes us truly human.

Yesterday I was on a call with a number of Israeli colleagues. ‘I’m safe,’ said a friend from Jerusalem, ‘But I’m not OK.’ How can one be? There is searing trauma across the country. Rabbis are conducting funeral after funeral. Their children have been called up, some to units whose task is to identify the dead.

Our hearts and prayers are with everyone grieving for murdered relatives and friends, in Israel, and across the world, including in our own community.

Our intense and heartfelt prayers are for the hostages, small children, old people, a woman who came on the Kindertransport, and for their desperate families. May God, who teaches that no one is more vulnerable than a hostage, and that pidyon shevu’im, the redemption of captives, takes precedence over every other cause, bring about their speedy release and safe return to their homes.

We pray for everyone wounded and traumatised, for the medical teams caring for them, for those arranging logistics and care, for everyone in Israel and across the world supporting others in their pain and anguish.

Our prayers are with Israel’s soldiers, for their safety in what will now ensue in the battle against Hamas, and for an absolute minimum of casualties.

Our prayers for human life have no political borders. We pray for the ordinary people of Gaza, helplessly caught up in this war, who want nothing to do with terrorism, but only safety, a future, life. May they find safe refuge, food and water. Israel is at war with Hamas, not with them.

We pray for safety for all our communities across the world.

We pray for a better future for everyone, one day, soon.

From where do we take strength at this time?

Firstly, from each other. ‘Zeh mechamem at halev – it warms the heart,’ said Rabbi Idit Lev, referring to how people are caring for each other, offering their homes to others forced to leave the south, bringing food to elderly people who cannot go far from their safe rooms. In a pause between sirens, said Rabbi Michael from Beer Sheva (who was formerly at Edgware Masorti) ‘I take food to Bedouin families.’ Here, too, our gathering both in person and on line, are a source of support to us all. We need to reach out to everyone isolated, whether geographically or emotionally, especially university students and children.

Our relationships with friends, leaders and communities of different faiths are also profoundly important at this time. Some people have told me of the support they have received. Others report that they have had none.

We draw strength from Torah, ‘a tree of life to those who hold fast to it.’ The Torah’s teachings, and the devotion of Jews across millennia to studying and following them, are the secret of the endurance, resilience and creativity of the Jewish People.

We draw strength from our values. Even, and especially, at this terrible time, we must not forget our core teachings: that every human being is created in God’s image; that we must try to honour and foster that sacred presence in each other (the very opposite of what terrorist and terrorising organisations seek to do); that justice and compassion are the supreme human qualities.

We draw strength from God’s world, its beauty, despite everything, its music, its call to us to love and protect it and not destroy it.

However deeply challenged, these remain the core of the Jewish faith and way of life.

I will conclude with the striking words from my colleague in the north of Israel, Raba Nathalie Lastreger: We need each other and we all need both oz va’anavah, both robust strength and inner humility at this terrible time.

Why Democracy and Equality Matter

I had two small encounters yesterday on my way to a conference in Cambridge.

I took a cab from the station to a used-car garage which had a possible replacement for our electric vehicle which was stolen last month. Noting my ‘small hat’ the driver told me he used to work in Brent Cross. ‘All Jews are rich,’ he added.

‘That’s not true,’ I said, taken by surprise by this gratuitous comment. ‘There are many poor in the Jewish community.’

‘All the big companies are owned and run by Jews.’  

‘That’s not true.’

Ugly thoughts invaded my mind: if I’m ‘a Jew’ he’s ‘an Asian.’ Shall I ask where he’s from? Of course, I didn’t. I didn’t even want to have such a thought in my mind. But now neither of us were simply you and me.

Perhaps stupidly, I had another unpleasant thought: ‘Is he at all right? Are we, am I, too entitled? Here’s me, trying to buy a car…’

‘Let me out here,’ I said, preferring to walk the last stretch, ‘have a good day.’

Before I even entered the garage showroom, the salesman approached me, ‘I know who you are. I’ve looked you up. We’re both Glaswegians. And another thing we have in common – border collies. Mine died a week ago; we’re heartbroken. The dog waited until my son came back specially from the States. He stood up from his basket, licked his hands, lay down and died…’

The man’s humanity touched me exactly when I needed such kindness.

These two small incidents connected me with the great issue which preoccupies so many of us regarding Israel, and many other countries across the world. How do we defend democracy? Why does it matter so profoundly? Why is equality essential?

Demos means ‘people’: democracy is the endeavour to do the best for society in a spirit of collective responsibility, while protecting the freedoms, rights and opportunities of each individual, whatever their faith, ethnicity or gender.

With heart-rending concern, David Grossman wrote this week:

Now a process of destabilization and disintegration is taking place (in Israel), a shattering of the social contract… [R]egression is intensifying: to reactionary attitudes of discrimination and racism; to the exclusion of women and LGBTQ people and Arabs; to ignorance and boorishness as a positive value. (Haaretz, August 27)

At stake is what the Torah calls anshei kodesh, being ‘holy people,’ that is, people who respect the holy in every life, including ourselves and everyone else.

Grossman continued:       

The protest movement is the hope…the creative act, the mutual responsibility, the ideological courage. It is the lifeblood of democracy. It is our and our children’s chance to live a life of liberty here. 

These collective public actions, in Israel, London and across the world, are hugely important. At the same time, underlying them must be a more basic, constant, all-pervasive protest, manifest through who we are. It should permeate all our actions, and, as much as humanly possible, our very thoughts and feelings.

It’s an unceasing protest against bigotry and dehumanisation, proven in the way we treat everyone and anyone. For I am not ‘the Jew’ and that other person is not ‘the Asian’, ‘the Palestinian’ or ‘the Charedi’. Rather, we all carry an aspect of God’s image and our purpose on earth is to uphold and develop that sanctity in ourselves and each other.

What that car salesman really said to me was, ‘I know who you are. You’re a human being, like me.’

For more information about Israel Democracy Week, click here. Highlights include:

Time to take a stand: Judicial reform or regime coup?, Monday 4 September, 4pm  
Speakers: Yossi Klein Halevi, Daniel Gordis, Matti Friedman 

Democracy Rally, Sunday 10 September, 3-5pm
Speakers: Yuval Noah Harari, Mika Almog

Time to take a stand: what can the Jewish diaspora do?, Monday 11 September, 7pm
Speakers: Yossi Klein Halevi

Whose faces do we see?

I received a remarkable WhatsApp from Raba Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, rabbi of the Tsion community in Jerusalem. The colleague who introduced us said to me ‘Meet your soul-sister’. It’s an honour I don’t deserve, though now that her family has a puppy maybe it’s a little less untrue.

Rabbi Tamar had just concluded a ten-day hunger strike out of deep anguish for Israel. Two weeks ago, she told me at the demonstrations in Jerusalem, ‘Don’t compromise your principles. But listen to everyone.’ The struggle for democracy and justice must be won. But behind it lie further dangerous rifts, angers, insecurities, wrongs and fears.

Tamar reflected deeply on the words of the Hatikvah, “The Hope”, Israel’s national anthem, especially on the line kol od baleivav penimah, ‘For so long, deep within the heart…’ Penimah means ‘within’, but panim are also ‘faces’. She wrote:

 ‘So long as I have within my heart the faces of my brothers and sisters, so long as I acknowledge them, carry them, seek their peace as I seek my own…’

Her words reminded me of Pasternak’s poem ‘Daybreak

In me are people without names,

Children, stay-at-homes, trees,

I am conquered by them all

And this is my only victory.

So who are these people we must carry in our heart?

Some are our nearest-and-dearest because we feel and care in similar ways. But Tamar’s point is that’s not enough. What about others?

Pharaoh asked Moses this very question three thousand years ago: Who’s going with you on your journey to freedom? ‘Our old and our young,’ he replied, ‘our sons and our daughters.’ Moses was leaving no one behind.

Now, approaching Pesach, ‘The Festival of Our Freedom’ who must we carry with us in these troubled times? To whom as we open the door to Elijah, prophet of peace, can we open our hearts and minds?

Some things are easily said, just hard to do. We must take the poor with us in our increasingly unequal societies, refugees, children, all children, those who cope readily in our fierce-elbowed world and those who find it tough.

Some things are hard even to say. Can we carry in understanding, without agreeing or conceding, those whose views, and often actions, we oppose, including, perhaps, communities we call ‘ultra-orthodox’ who fear modernity? Are there values with which we can empathise?

Is there a place in our thinking for those whose hurts are also, alongside the oppression and hatreds of so much Iranian and Middle Eastern politics, partly our responsibility after fifty-five years, Palestinian people on the wrong side of those concreate walls, without rights we mostly take for granted? If not, to what shared pain are we jointly condemned?

Is there even space in my imagination for those whose actions I utterly deplore and in no way seek to justify, supremacists and racists who profane the name of Judaism? Should I see their actions, without in any way exculpating them, as in part the product of hurts and wrongs, pogroms and attempted genocides, absorbed by Jews for centuries and now poured forth in vindictive anger, and fear?

To what wrongs – I write this with trepidation – here in the UK, across this unjust world, and among my own people, am I too party? We read the famous verse v’ahavta le’re’acha kamocha, as ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, which numerous rabbis, being pragmatists, understand as ‘respect and acknowledge others as you want to be respected.’ But the words, vowel-less in the Torah, can be misread as ve’ahavta lera’achah. It’s a harsh misreading, but not beyond the scope of what one sometimes finds in Hasidic discourse. It means something like ‘acknowledge the bad which is like you,’ the wrongs in which I also have a share.

If we wish to advance our journey towards freedom and redemption this Pesach, these are some of the questions we may have to face.

I love the festival and shall write affectionately and uncritically about its details on Monday.

Why I went to the demonstrations

Sometimes people do things they shouldn’t, but years or even generations later one’s grateful. My cassette machine, if people remember what that is, stands gathering dust on my study windowsill; I guess I’ve left it there just in case its very antiquity should somehow prove it useful. It was an instrument like that which someone smuggled unlawfully into the synagogue in Berlin’s Pestalozzistrasse one Rosh Hashanah. That’s how we have a series of recordings of my grandfather Rabbi Dr Georg Salzberger’s sermons, audible despite the static, in that strong, clear voice which, even in his nineties, he never lost.

So this morning, as I think of the fighting in Ukraine, where I was six weeks ago, or the battle for true democracy and the impartiality of justice in Israel, I hear my grandfather’s voice as he opens a sermon with the words of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, the leader of the Jewish People through their struggles under Roman tyranny in the mid second century:

The world is established upon three things: truth, justice and peace. (Chapters of the Fathers 1:18)

Then I hear my grandfather ask: ‘Ist es denn so, wirklich so, meine Freunde? – Is that so, really so, my friends?’ He had, after all, lived through two world wars, persecution, flight, and the Cold War after that.

It’s because of these same principles that I will shortly set out to join the demonstrations in London, because they constitute the foundations of Torah and the soul and strength of Judaism throughout its long history of moral courage and survival.

I will go in sorrow, because the very fact that it should be necessary to demonstrate against the Prime Minister of Israel Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to London troubles me. But I will go willingly, because I will be standing in public support of Israel, in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands on the streets of its cities every week. They want their, and our, beloved country, for whom they are ready to give their lives, to be precisely a place of truth, integrity, justice and peace, because these are the qualities upon which a free, honest and equal society depends.

Truth, and the unflinching readiness to tell it to power, is the very heart of the prophetic literature, which forms a full third of the Hebrew Bible. Time and again, kings and ministers turned on the prophets; many knew they might die for their cause and several were indeed murdered. Yet still they spoke out, because God’s words ‘burned like fire in the bones’; because they could not witness wrong and keep silent.

This fire was inflamed by every form of injustice, the wrongful accrual of wealth, the arrogance and dishonesty of high office, the heartless dispossession of the poor, the failure to honour the supreme value of chesed, loving kindness, which must always be the partner of justice.

This same cruelty and wrongdoing, the similar endeavour to corrupt and pervert justice, is manifest today before our eyes in many lands today, sadly now not excluding Israel.

The prophets had probably never heard of democracy; their chant was not de-mo-krat-iah but tsedek, justice. For them, theocracy was the ideal form of governance and God the supreme Judge.

But the underlying values were the same. They understood that God is the God of truth ‘who sees to the heart.’ They knew that justice had to be placed in the hands of those who ‘respected God, loved truth and hated corruption.’ (Exodus 18:21) They understood that a peaceful society depends not just on the rule of the majority, but on how it upholds the dignity, voices and rights of minorities because every human being is created in God’s image.

They knew, and we know, that it is on these principles that the good name of Israel and the reputation of Judaism rests.

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