So, the UK has left the EU. Let’s look at those acronyms for a moment. The ‘United Kingdom’ that encompasses England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Oh! what a complex morass of stories spanning centuries, underlie that conflict-ridden alliance. The ‘European Union’; formed in 1993, the EU was preceded by the European Economic Community that was established by the Treaty of Rome of 1957. The EU – now minus the UK – encompasses 27 nations, spanning from the Republic of Ireland in the west to Poland in the north east and Cyprus in the south east.
The debate over the past three and half years since the Brexit referendum has been dominated by the binary anthem, played over and over again: ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’? ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’? I haven’t conducted any research, but my gut feeling is that the majority of Jews voted ‘Remain’. Why? I would guess one reason could be that having wandered all over the world for millennia, we like the idea of ‘freedom of movement’. Another reason: having been defamed and persecuted for millennia – a major spur to our constant movement – we feel strongly about equality and the execution of justice in all areas, including the economic arena, and so are in favour of the European Court of Human Rights and EU employment legislation.
After all, Europe wasn’t always like this. For hundreds of years, Jewish life in Europe was circumscribed by the strictures of mediaeval Christian regimes that restricted our movements, forced us to wear identifying emblems and items of clothing, like special hats, prevented us from owning land, entering the skilled guilds or professions, and confined us to walled ghettos whose gates were locked after sunset. And, if that wasn’t enough, we were subjected to violent attacks at Easter time and periodic massacres – for example: in the Rhineland in 1096, perpetrated by Christian Crusaders heading east to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslim caliphate; and the Chmielnicki massacres of the Jews of eastern Poland and Lithuania that took place during the Cossacks’ uprising of 1648-1657.
And then of course, there were the attacks on Jewish teaching. Throughout the Middle Ages, Christian authorities staged ‘disputations’ aimed at disproving Judaism. In 1239, Pope Gregory issued a letter to every ecclesiastical authority in France demanding the confiscation of Jewish books on the first Saturday of Lent, March 3, 1240. He subsequently ordered the heads of the Dominican and Franciscan orders in Paris to burn the books at the stake. The kings of France, England, Spain and Portugal received similar instructions. Two years after the disputation staged in Paris in June of that year, 24 wagon-loads of books were burnt. Attacks on the Talmud, specifically, continued over the next centuries. The last public burning of the Talmud – one thousand copies in all – took place in Poland, in Kamenets-Podolski in the autumn of 1757.
So, violent attacks against Jews and the destruction of Jewish teaching. The notorious Spanish Inquisition, established by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in 1478, combined the two themes: Jews were given the choice of conversion to Christianity or death.
Finally, when the Jew-hating tormentors had exhausted all options: the expulsions of their Jewish populations – often on several occasions from the same place. Between 1100 and 1600, Jews were expelled from Crimea, Silesia, France and Provence, England and Wales, Germany, Hungary, Austria, Lithuania, Spain, Portugal, Sicilia, Sardinia, Tunis, Naples and the Papal States. The most well-known expulsions were from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497, following the reunification of Spain orchestrated by Isabella and Ferdinand.
Of course, even in the most hideous circumstances, Jewish communities across Europe lived the cycle of the Jewish year and continued to study and expound the Bible and the Talmud. And for those who did not live within Christendom, life could even be rather wonderful. By contrast with conditions in northern Europe, Jewish existence in Muslim southern Spain from the 10th through the 12th century blossomed into a ’Golden Age’ of cultural sharing and borrowing and creativity.
And then, the development of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, beginning in the 17th century, signalled a change in fortunes for the Jews of central Europe. Nevertheless, it took cataclysmic events to force change. It was in the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789 that over the course of the 19th century Jews were liberated from a segregated existence, and given equal rights, most importantly, the right of citizenship wherever we lived – that is, for the first time, the right to be French or German or British, and so on.
But we know that that wasn’t the end of the story. There were other developments in the course of the 19th century. Anti-Judaism morphed into anti-Jewishness. Consequently, it was no longer possible to escape the calumny of being Jewish by converting to Christianity. According to the new ‘race science’, Jews were, essentially, a demonic and evil race. We could not be civilised and sanitised. Hence, in the 20th century, in the aftermath of the abdication of the German Emperor towards the end of the First World War and the economic crash in the late 1920s, when a scapegoat was needed, the Jews, those erstwhile Christ-killers, became the prime target in the new National Socialist campaign in pursuit of Aryan purity.
You know what happened next. Europe became a mass grave. How ironic that with the extension of the European Union eastwards, the EU has managed to include most of the sites of the mass murder of half the Jews of Europe in the Sho’ah.
Of course, for those who came here as refugees from Nazism – and my Dad came here from Vienna via South Africa – Europe was their home. When I was growing up in Finchley, North London, home-life followed the rhythms of life in Vienna, complete with Sunday afternoon kaffee mit schlagobers – coffee with whipped cream – accompanied by the sonorous tones of Richard Tauber on the turntable.
But let’s not be romantic about Europe. Certainly, the continent boasts magnificent architecture and spectacular art. But while Michelangelo was painting those beautiful frescoes on the roof of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome (between 1508 and 1512), Jews were an alien, hated, feared and persecuted people living a segregated existence – and soon to be expelled. In fact, there were two expulsions from the Papal States, in 1569 and 1593, respectively.
So, Europe has not exactly been a haven for the Jews. But is the UK any better? The history of Jewish life in England, in particular, suggests not. Some Jews probably made their way to these shores at the time of the Romans, but the first significant immigration was from France with William the Conqueror in 1066. Before too long, Jews were the object of fear and hatred, expressed in the most extreme form in ‘blood libel’ accusations – which were also a feature of anti-Jewish persecutions across Europe. Alongside accusations of well-poisoning and desecration of the communion host, the myth that gave rise to what came to be known as ‘blood libel’ was the notion that Jews make matzah – unleavened bread – out of the blood of Christian children.
The first blood libel accusation took place in Norwich in 1144, when the Jews of Norwich were accused of ritual murder after a boy named William was found dead with stab wounds in the woods. A certain Thomas of Monmouth made the claim that every year an international council of Jews convened at which they chose the country in which a child will be killed at Easter. Similar accusations were made in Gloucester (1168), Bury St Edmonds (1181) and Bristol (1183). And then, in 1189, a deputation of Jews attending the Coronation of King Richard the Lion Heart was attacked by the crowd. Not long after, On March 16, 1190, 150 Jews in York were attacked and then massacred when they took refuge in Clifford’s Tower. A century later, King Edward The Confessor expelled the Jews of England on All Saints Day, November 1, 1290. The edict of expulsion has never been revoked, but during his brief rule, Oliver Cromwell invited the Jews of the Netherlands to come over to England, and Jewish life became re-established on these shores from 1656 onwards.
There were further chapters to come. When Jews began to immigrate to these shores in large numbers in flight from pogroms in the late 1890s, fear of an alien invasion led to the enactment of the first anti-immigration legislation in Britain, the Aliens Act in 1905. When German Jews sought refuge from Nazism, between two and three thousand were interned as aliens on the Isle of Man. Famously, ten thousand Jewish children – a fraction of the over one million children murdered – were saved on kindertransports – but not their parents and other relatives.
So, for Jews, both life on the continent of Europe and life on this island has been marked by persecution and hatred – and continues to be complex. Jewish experience simply doesn’t fit easily into the ‘Remain’/’Leave’ binary divide. In both Britain and in Europe, we have made our home and we live as an ever-vulnerable minority. And more than that, by definition we transcend the binary divide between this island and the continent, both physically, and just as important, in terms of our values. In this week’s parashah, Mishpatim, we find the first code of law in the Torah, including laws on worship, serfdom, the treatment of strangers, the vulnerable and the needy, injuries, property, economic and moral behaviour. Fashioned for life in the land across the Jordan, like the aseret ha-dibbrot, ‘the ten utterance’s, known as the Ten Commandments in last week’s parashah, Yitro, the laws we find in Mishpatim are not defined by a particular geographical area – and indeed, the narrative setting is the wilderness. Rather, they have international application.
And we are an international people: the Jews, the Israelites; our oldest name is the ‘Hebrews’ – ivrim – from the Hebrew root, Ayin Beit Reish, to ‘cross over’. The most defining characteristic of this international people is the physical fact that since Abraham and Sarah set out on their journey away from their land, their kindred and their family home, we have crossed borders and settled in different lands. And if one of the reasons that so many Jews voted ‘Remain’ was because of a commitment to freedom of movement, then the Jewish experience of wandering across the world demonstrates that the principle of freedom of movement should be applied globally.
So, how should we express our Jewish internationalist values in post-Brexit Britain? In particular, how should we express our Jewish and internationalist values as a congregation in post-Brexit Britain? By speaking out against nationalism and xenophobia. By challenging immigration policies designed to keep out the poorest migrants and by championing the cause of refugees. By supporting efforts to ensure that the UK continues to adopt environmental, food-safety and animal welfare regulations in relation to the import of food products into this country. By campaigning for the re-establishment of the Human Rights Act that has been progressively dismantled over the past ten years. In short, by doing everything we can as individuals, as a community and as citizens of this nation to act on our global responsibilities towards the planet, including, all its inhabitants, and every living thing that lives here with us.
Kein y’hi ratzon. May this be our will. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
22nd February 2020 – 27th Sh’vat 5780
See Jewish People, Jewish Thought. The Jewish Experience in History by Robert M Seltzer (CollierMacmillan, London, 1980), Chapter 7 Mediaeval Jewry to 1500. ↑
See Seltzer, Chapter 10, Jews and Judaism in the Early Modern Period (Sixteenth to Mid-Eighteenth Centuries). ↑
Seltzer, Chapter 7. ↑
Seltzer, Chapter 7. ↑
Seltzer, Chapter 11 The European State and the Jews, 1770-1880. ↑
Seltzer, chapter 14 The Onslaught of Modernity: Jewish History from 1880 to the Present. ↑
See note 6. ↑
for the classic account, see A History of the Jews in England by Cecil Roth (Clarendon Press, Oxford 1978). ↑
Lech L’cha, Genesis 12:1). ↑