I keep thinking this morning of that image of an old man in a boat. One sees it on the front of reprints of old Haggadot: there’s a big river, in the middle of which is a fragile skiff with an old man holding the oars, rowing towards the unknown bank, away from everyone else.
It’s a depiction of Abraham, Avram Ha’Ivri, ‘Abram the Hebrew,’ whose story we begin to read at this difficult time for our country and the world. Avar means ‘cross’, ever is a bank; so Abram is the one who crosses to the far side. He’s the ‘other’, different, alone, following the voice which tells him to ‘leave his land, his motherland.’
Yesterday was a painful day for many. I tried to write down Ruth Smeeth’s words as she responded to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report on antisemitism and the Labour Party. It vindicated Jewish Labour Party members, she said. But what came across was the pain: how for years she’s been unable to go anywhere, including the party conference, without security; how this has affected her family; that she’s had to move home; that she received constant abuse, including death threats. She emphasised the viciousness to which Jewish women have been exposed: abuse on social media is almost invariably even more vile for women. I think of Louise Elman, Luciana Berger and Margaret Hodge: I admire the courage of these women, – and also the men – who spoke up persistently in the face of deafness, indifference and, not rarely, malice. ‘It’s also about those who kept silent and failed to speak out when they knew what was going on,’ Luciana Berger told me. As Jews we know all too well the price of not speaking out, strongly and early, against injustice.
A young man in our community listed the names of contemporaries who left the party because of intimidation and bullying at local meetings, each of them someone I’ve watched grow up, at whose Bar or Bat Mitzvah I’ve spoken. Of course, there are many who are equally passionately engaged with other parties and social and national causes – and rightly so: that’s how it should be in an open, democratic society.
Deeper than the politics, I feel for the aloneness these MPs and young people have experienced. There’s a rabbinic saying that ‘ma’aseh avot siman labanim, the deeds of the ancestors are signs for their children.’ There are times when we are, once again, Abram on that river. I wonder if that’s how my grandfather felt in the autumn of 1916, when, a chaplain in the German Army on the Western Front at Verdun, he witnessed the very country for which he’d enlisted because the Kaiser proclaimed that citizens of all faiths were equal, turn against its Jews.
But this isn’t just about Jews. It concerns society as a whole and the sanctity of faith. Did Vincent Loques, the verger murdered yesterday in Notre Dame in Nice, feel suddenly and utterly alone when the terrorist came towards him with a long knife, in the church where he’d faithfully lit the candles and welcomed visitors for a decade? My heart goes out to his family and the families of the two women murdered alongside him.
Our faiths and faith communities with their sacred precincts, both physical and spiritual, should be places where we re-encounter the God of all flesh and re-affirm our commitments to compassion, justice and service. From there we should be able to go out in freedom to contribute to our societies, which should be enriched and strengthened both by the unifying commonalities of our faith-rooted values and the diversity and wealth of our different cultures.
The first word of the EHRC report is ‘trust’. I hope that processes will be strengthened at this critical time in the UK, in the US with its elections, and across the world, to heal our wounded trust.