Where does the Jewish protest against racism begin?
It doesn’t start with the Jewish People’s long experience of exile. It commences even earlier, in a time almost before time itself, on the sixth day of creation, when God is understood to say ‘Let us make man in our image and according to our likeness’. (Genesis 1:26) ‘Man’ here is neither black nor white, neither Jewish nor non-Jewish, for no such divisions exist. All life is sacred and God is present in every human form. There is no person devoid of God’s image and whose existence does not reveal some unique, otherwise unapprehended aspect of God’s world. Nor is the word ‘man’ gender-specific, suggests the Talmud, for the first person was neither male nor female, but both.
The story is told of how Rabbi Elazar son of Rabbi Shimeon was returning home from his studies when he met a man described as ‘exceedingly ugly’. Proud of having learnt so much, he rudely failed to return the stranger’s greeting and called out instead, ‘Empty head, is everyone in your city as ugly as you?’ ‘Go’, said the man, ‘And tell the maker who fashioned me how ugly his works are!’ Instantly recognising his sin, Rabbi Elazar dismounted from his donkey and begged forgiveness. If only those who call Jews, Asians, Muslims, Africans or any one else ‘ugly’ would recognise as quickly that we are made in the same image and hurt in similar ways, and climb down from the easy haven of our racism, and apologise.
‘You shall love the stranger like your own self, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt’, teaches the Torah (Leviticus 19:24). Rabbi Natan comments sharply, ‘Don’t lay your own blemish upon others’. Is it really a blot or blemish to be a stranger? One would have hoped not. But Rabbi Natan is reflecting on the already long Jewish experience of marginalisation and dispossession, on the slave-market and the overseer’s whip. He knows. Had he written not in the 2ndbut in the 20th century his comment would surely have been stronger.
Jews have long been, and continue to be, victims of what has been called ‘the oldest hate’. It therefore troubled me when a Muslim colleague asked for my help. The English Defence League have exploited the Israeli flag in anti-Islam rallies, co-opting the beautiful symbol of our hope and freedom and into a disgusting campaign. Purportedly Jewish bloggers have written virulent anti-Muslim poison. There is only one response: Not in Judaism’s name, which commands us to stand alongside anyone who is the victim of such hate.
I was pained, too, to read the words of Aliyana Traison, Deputy Editor of Haaretz, following vicious attacks on Africans in the South Tel Aviv where she lives: ‘The racism that has engulfed Israeli society cannot be ignored, lest we wish to destroy ourselves.’ She’s not afraid to live alone in her street, she continues, but ‘I am afraid…to live alone in a hateful society. I am afraid to live alone in a country where my government supports discrimination and racism.’ This, she adds, in a land created by refugees as a haven for those who know what that means.
And what is it like around the corner from us? I was pained also, but moved, to learn from members of our own community of how they struggled to prevent an NHS hospital from turning onto the sodden street a homeless asylum-seeker the day after her baby’s birth.
These issues define the living meaning of our Judaism. There’s none of us they don’t concern.