The sun has set and a New Year has just begun. Before we can look forward and move forward, we must look back and reflect on the year that has now passed. There’s been a lot in the news about anti-Semitism during the past year. In particular, here in Britain in connection with the Labour Party. How odd it has been, day after day, to switch on the radio, TV, or go on the Internet and find one story after another about anti-Semitism. Over the summer, the focus was on the Labour Party’s new Code of Conduct on Anti-Semitism and its departure from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Definition that has gained almost universal acceptance across the world. Why did the Labour Party decide to depart from this definition? The reason why the IHRA definition was not adopted by the Labour Party revolved around examples of anti-Semitism included in the IHRA definition that related to Israel. In case you are not familiar with these examples, they include – and I quote: ‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavour’, ‘Applying double standards by requiring of it behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation’, ‘Using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterise Israel or Israelis’, ‘Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis’, ‘Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel’.
As you may be aware, I was one of 68 rabbis from across the denominational spectrum, who wrote a letter to the Guardian challenging the Labour Party’s failure to adopt the IHRA definition. Like several of the signatories, I am also a member of the British Friends of Rabbis for Human Rights, an Israel-based organisation that defends the rights of Palestinians, and in particular, challenges house demolitions. I’ve also been a Labour voter for 45 years. Ten days after that letter was published, I wrote my own letter to the Guardian – which wasn’t published. I decided to write because I felt that for all the words written, spoken and shouted about the issue, it had not been made clear that the reason why the IHRA definition and its examples was not adopted by the Labour Party is because of a particular view of Israel and Zionism. Let me quote from my letter:
The Labour Party’s departure from the IHRA working definition in respect of anti-Semitic responses to Israel fails to challenge the persistent view held by certain sections of the Labour Party that Israel is by definition an imperialist state, and by extension, that Zionism is a racist ideology.
This view, which refuses to acknowledge that the rise of political Zionism was a Jewish response in the late 19th century to a new form of racist anti-Semitism, and that national self-determination was understood by Herzl and others as a solution to that anti-Semitism, demonstrates a complete disregard for Jewish experience, and, consequently, is a form of anti-Semitism.
As we know, last week the Labour Party National Executive Committee, which is the body responsible for determining Labour Party policy, took the decision to adopt the IHRA definition in full, with the addition of a statement that – and I quote: “This will not in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of the Palestinians.” Was this additional statement necessary given that the IHRA definition does not prevent criticism of Israel? The longer statement suggested by Jeremy Corbyn, which was not adopted, gets to the heart of the issue. This is what he wanted the Labour Party to say – and I quote: “it should not be considered anti-Semitic to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact, or to support another settlement of the Israel Palestine conflict.”
I’ve read the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and I have also read the Labour Party’s code on anti-Semitism prior to the adoption of the IHRA. I’ve also listened to endless commentary on the BBC – principally, Radio 4 and BBC 2’s Newsnight – and various commentators from both sides of the argument, and yet, in my view, no one has yet identified the central issue. If the Labour Party wishes to bridge the gulf between these opposing sides – and let us not forget that there are Jews on both sides of the argument – what is required is acknowledgement that the rise of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century was a direct response to the rise of a new virulent form of racist anti-Semitism in Europe, and that the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was a direct consequence of the murder of half the Jews of Europe in the Sho’ah. To do justice to both peoples, all that is required is for the Labour Party to acknowledge these ‘circumstances around’ the ‘foundation’ of Israel. Only those determined to maintain a binary view of the issue – so plainly played out in the pro-Palestine versus pro-Israel demonstrations that were held during the NEC meeting on 4th September – could argue with this statement; my suggested version: ‘The creation of the State of Israel as a refuge from persecution for the Jewish people, following the unprecedented horror of the murder of half the Jews of Europe, had an unintended discriminatory impact on the Palestinian people. It should not be considered anti-Semitic to challenge Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians – both in Israel and in the occupied territories – as racist.’ On 29th November 1947, the United Nations adopted resolution 181 (II) to partition the disputed land into two states, a Jewish state and a Palestinian state. If the Labour Party is a true friend of the Palestinian people then what they should be doing is campaigning vigorously for the establishment of a State of Palestine alongside the State of Israel, which is what the majority of Palestinians want.
So, the Labour Party has some more work to do. But I haven’t decided to speak to you about this issue this evening as we embark on a New Year simply to rehearse a concern close to our hearts that has dominated the headlines. In my view, there is something even more problematic at the core of this. It makes me feel rather queasy that Jewish life is barely visible in Britain, except when anti-Semitism rears its ugly head, or an Israeli government action grabs the headlines – as it did during the summer concerning the military response to the protests in Gaza and also the recently enacted Nation State Law, which has legalised the treatment of Israeli Palestinians as second-class citizens. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my Jewishness defined, either, by anti-Semitism, or, by the actions of the Israeli government.
So, here we are, on the threshold of the New Year – the Jewish New Year. As we prepare to make a new beginning, each one of us is challenged to consider what being Jewish means to us and, perhaps, ask ourselves some questions – like: In what ways do I identify as a Jew? In what ways do I live as a Jew? Is being a Jew central to my life, or simply, one of the many facts about me? If we don’t want to be defined by anti-Semitism or by the actions of the Israeli government, then each one of us needs reflect on how we define ourselves.
It’s not easy to face a challenge. And it’s even harder than those questions might suggest. That’s because something else has become very evident during the past year in the midst of the heated discussions about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, and that’s the phenomenon of another form of Jew hatred: Jews expressing hatred towards other Jews.
Sadly, it’s not a new phenomenon. The early rabbis explained that the last Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE as a consequence of sinat chinam, ‘groundless hatred’ that had fomented between the different factions of Jewish life at that time. Interestingly, the phenomenon of Jews hating Jews does get spoken about, but mostly by Jews who justify their hatred of other Jews on the basis that the Jews they hate are self-hating Jews, who seek the destruction of the Jewish people – in particular, because they don’t tow the Israel right or wrong party-line, but rather are committed to a just and equitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
During the summer, Jews spewing hateful abuse about other Jews came to a head, following the decision of some young Liberal and Reform Jews to attend a ‘Kaddish for Gaza’ event on 16 May that was held in response to Israeli military action that involved the killing of 62 Palestinian protesters. One young person, in particular, a youth leader whose family are members of a Reform synagogue in North London, was subjected to extremely hateful outpourings, and eventually the decision was taken by the Movement for Reform Judaism that she could not take up her place as a youth leader on the RSY-Netzer Israel tour.
I’m pleased to say that Liberal Judaism reached out to her and offered her a place on the LJY-Netzer Israel tour instead. But that’s not to say that LJ has been immune from the climate of hostility generated in the aftermath of the Kaddish for Gaza. In fact, although it was not official LJ policy, I was warned off saying my prayer for peace between Israelis and Palestinians during the Shabbat morning service I led with my co-editor colleague Rabbi Lea Mühlstein of Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue at the LJ Biennial conference on the basis that reading the prayer – which, incidentally, is included in the draft Shabbat morning service we were using – might antagonise some people who were angry about Liberal Jews participating in the Kaddish for Gaza.
As I mentioned a moment ago, the expression of antagonism between Jews is not a new phenomenon. As the saying goes, ‘two Jews three opinions’, and we Jews tend to express our opinions rather vehemently. But the issue is not just about arguments between Jews and between groups of Jews. The entire structure of the Babylonian Talmud, edited around the year 500, takes the form of argument and the lengthy presentation of different viewpoints, followed by the majority decision taken. The problem centres on the crystallisation of particular points of view as ‘right’ which are then set against other points of view regarded as ‘wrong’. The mainstream Jewish community – that is the organised cross-denominational Jewish community – often adopts this binary approach, most frequently in the context of Israel. Meanwhile, those Jews who oppose what is seen as the Jewish establishment, also often adopt a binary approach. In other words, both sides of this Jewish argument seem to be saying the same thing: ‘we are right and you are wrong.’ Of course, it’s not an equal match. The established Jewish community represents the majority – that is Jews who are affiliated to synagogues and other mainstream Jewish organisations – and this only serves to fuel the grievance of the minority, who are unaffiliated or disaffiliated, and see themselves as marginalised.
Nevertheless, for both sides, the attitude seems to be, either you are for us or you are against us. And woe betide you, if you pick the wrong side, because you will be seen, either, as a self-hating-Jewish-traitor, or a supine-Jewish-establishment-apologist. Of course, the wisest thing to do is not take sides, but rather, investigate what is actually going on and, above all, reconnect ourselves with our values as Liberal Jews, who are working for a ‘world’ which ‘stands’, as we read in Pirkei Avot, the collection of the wise aphorisms of the early rabbis, ‘on Justice [ha-Din], and on Truth [ha-Emet], and on Peace [ha-Shalom].’
I could move to a conclusion now, but there’s something else that needs to be said about anti-Semitism itself, not just about the debate about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and Jews hating Jews. In August, Jess and I went to Edinburgh. While we were in that stunning city, we chose a rainy day to visit the National Galleries of Scotland. The contemporary art collection is divided into two buildings and in ‘Modern Two’, we visited the exhibition of the works of German expressionist painter, Emil Nolde, entitled, ‘Colour is Life’. Reading the panel introducing the exhibition, we learnt that Nolde had been a member of the Nazi party, but had then fallen foul of the Nazis, who condemned his art as ‘degenerate.’ Having the impression that Nolde had rejected Nazi ideology, nothing could prepare us for we found in room 3, which was dedicated to his ‘religious paintings.’ The introductory panel described him as a ‘passionate’ Christian, and then we saw a painting of the crucifixion, entitled, ‘Martyrdom III’, with the crucified Christ in the background, and four other figures, depicting the chief priests and elders referred to in the Gospels, two of whom, facing one another in the foreground, appeared as ghastly anti-Semitic caricatures. We felt extremely shocked. Reading the accompanying panel, the anti-Semitism reflected in the images was mentioned, but we felt that it was described rather than challenged.
We decided to make a complaint. Fortunately, we were taken very seriously. The manager spent some time with us in the library, and took copious notes. In addition to listening carefully, his notetaking also included our suggestions for what needed to happen in order for the public to be warned about the anti-Semitic content of the painting, and for the message to be clearly communicated about the link between such anti-Semitic caricatures and anti-Jewish persecution that continues to this day. The same day, he copied us into an email he had written to those involved in the exhibition, including the Director-General of the National Galleries of Scotland. The next day we received an email from the Director-General, Sir John Leighton. To cut a long story short, Sir John kept us regularly informed, sending us the amended texts for the panels in question, for the website and other publicity materials, and for new warning notices at the ticket office and at the entrance to the exhibition. Within three days all the actions we had suggested had been taken.
Anti-Semitism was a reality in the past and remains a reality today. It finds expression in art and culture, Christian Scripture, Islamist radicalism, right-wing movements everywhere – and on the left, where it principally takes the form of demonisation of Israel as a racist state. So, what is anti-Semitism? The central motif of anti-Semitism that distinguishes it from other forms of racism is the identification of ‘The Jews’ as the malevolent perpetrators of every evil from the killing of Jesus through Capitalism, Communism and Imperialism – depending on the perspective of the Jew-hater or Jew-hating group. Will anti-Semitism ever end? An unanswerable question. So, where do we go from here? What hope is there that the New Year may be any different from the old one? Well, it certainly won’t be any different if we don’t make a difference. And we can make a positive difference to the world in which we live. For one thing, we can work to eradicate anti-Semitism and all forms of racism. But to have any chance of making a difference on any matter each one of us needs to take time to inform ourselves, reflect, draw on our personal resources of integrity and courage, and then take steps to do what we can to promote justice, truth, and peace in our homes, in our communities, in the wider society and across the globe – and yes, in connection with the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. May this be our New Year’s resolution. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue, Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah 5779 – 9th September 2018
- On the Jewish Voice for Labour website you can find a document that compares the Labour code on anti-Semitism with the IHRA definition – side by side:
https://www.jewishvoiceforlabour.org.uk/app/uploads/2018/07/ANTISEMITISM-IHRA-and-LP.pdf See also:
- https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/jul/16/labour-party-must-listen-to-the-jewish-community-on-defining-antisemitism ↑
- https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-45414656 ↑
- https://unispal.un.org/DPA/DPR/unispal.nsf/0/7F0AF2BD897689B785256C330061D253 ↑
- https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-44124556 ↑
- https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-44881554 ↑
- We read in the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 9B): ‘Why was the first sanctuary destroyed? Because of three things which prevailed there: idolatry, immorality, bloodshed. But why was the second sanctuary destroyed, seeing that in its time they were occupying themselves with Torah, mitzvot and the practice of tz’dakah? Because therein prevailed hatred without cause [sinat chinam]. This teaches you that groundless hatred is considered as of even gravity with the three sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed altogether.’ ↑
- https://www.facebook.com/events/371596950027114/ ↑
- https://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/reform-judaism-sorry-for-hurt-it-caused-dropped-kaddish-for-gaza-participant-1.467627 ↑
- https://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/kaddish-gaza-nina-morris-evans-israel-tour-liberal-reform-ujia-1.467237 ↑
- 30 June 2018. https://issuu.com/liberaljudaism/docs/online_programme ↑
- Pirkei Avot 1:18. Pirkei Avot, ‘The Chapters of the Sages’ is appended to Seider N’zikin, the fourth ‘order’ of the Mishnah, the first rabbinic code of law, edited c. 200 CE. ↑
- Matthew 27. ↑
- https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/emil-nolde-colour-life ↑