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.
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