Anti-Semitism is in the news again. First: the deadly assault on the kosher supermarket in Paris on January 9(2015), which claimed four lives, two days after the murderous attack against Charlie Hebdo magazine. Then, on Shabbat, February 14: the killing of a Jewish man on security duty and the wounding of a police officer outside a synagogue in Copenhagen – after an attack against a cafe holding a meeting about free speech, where another person was killed. All these attacks perpetrated by Islamist extremists, and in each case, anger against Western press freedom that has allowed the publication of material that is disrespectful of the Prophet Muhammad, followed by the targeting of Jews.
So, has anti-Semitism got worse? Those who set up the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism UK (CAA) that was launched in August 2014 believe that it has. A YouGov poll commissioned by the CAA that was publicised following the Paris attacks, said that 45% of Britons assented to at least one of four anti-Semitic statements put to them. The CAA also conducted their own survey of over 2,200 British Jews, which showed that more than half felt that they had witnessed more anti-Semitism in the past two years, and that 54% feared that Jews have no future in the UK. Alongside the results of these surveys, the Community Security Trust recorded a 36% rise in anti-Semitic attacks in the first six months of 2014, while during the Israeli operation in Gaza in July 2014 hate crime in London soared, with 90% of attacks being aimed at Jews.
No wonder people are alarmed. But a note of caution has been sounded about the findings of the two surveys by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. Indeed, on the very day that the Independent newspaper reported the results – January 14 – an article on ‘Researching anti-Semitism‘ on the JPR website addressed the flaws in the CAA survey of Jewish respondents:
… the data about Jewish attitudes are based on an open web survey that had very limited capacity to assess whether respondents were in any way representative of the British Jewish population. So the percentages quoted are of survey respondents, not of Jews in the UK…
Because of this, the claim in the report, for example, that “more than half of all British Jews feel that antisemitism now echoes the 1930s” verges into irresponsible territory – it is an incendiary finding, and there is simply no way to ascertain whether or not it is accurate.
While commenting that the results of the YouGov poll are more reliable because ‘broadly representative of the UK population’, the JPR article makes the point that:
The findings would have benefited significantly from greater contextualisation, both in terms of attitudes towards other minorities, andthe inclusion of some positive statements about Jews rather than just negative ones….
A far more accurate and honest read of the YouGov data would highlight the fact that between 75% and 90% of people in Britain either do not hold antisemitic views or have no particular view of Jews either way, and only about 4% to 5% of people can be characterised as clearly antisemitic when looking at individual measures of antisemitism.
So what do we make of the situation? Are we living in fear? No doubt much will depend on each individual’s direct experience, and on our own personal responses. The Institute of Jewish Policy Research is clearly not comfortable with sensationalist headlines and the adoption of an alarmist response. The article concludes:
Antisemitism is a serious topic, and the claims that it is rising need to be taken seriously. Government officials need accurate data about it to inform policy. Legal authorities need accurate data about it to assess levels of discrimination. The police and security services need accurate data about it to minimise the chances of harassment, assault or murder. Jewish community leaders need accurate data about it to provide sound advice to community members. And British Jews in general need accurate data to make sound judgements about their future and the future of their families. If the CAA’s work achieves anything, let it be this: that there will be a new-found commitment to start researching and analysing this issue in a methodologically serious and analytically intelligent way, with a clear eye on the shaping of policy at all levels.
I think we would all say ‘Amen’ to that. But I don’t think we can just leave it there; because the issue is not just about flawed research. There is a deeper problem that informs the responses of many Jewish people to anti-Semitism. First, of course, there is the horror of the Sho’ah, which is still brought to life in the testimony of survivors 70 years after the Allied forces defeated Hitler. Then, there is the historical context that made the Sho’ah possible: almost two millennia of Jew-hatred promulgated by Christian teaching and translated into discrimination, and periodic violence and expulsions. So, when Jews get nervous about anti-Semitism, we can cite our long history of persecution.
But it’s not just the reality of historic anti-Semitism that informs our responses. It is also the way in which we make sense of our history and remember our past. Today is known as Shabbat Zachor because on the Sabbath that precedes the festival of Purim, following the reading of the portion of the week, we turn to verses from the Book of Deuteronomy chapter 25, which exhort us: Zachor! ‘Remember! what Amalek did’. We read (17-19):
Zachor! Remember! What Amalek did to you along the way as you came out of Egypt. / How he met with you by the way and cut off all the stragglers in your rear, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. / And so it shall come to pass when the Eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies roundabout in the land which the Eternal your God is giving to you as an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget – lo tishkach.
The passage recalls the story that concludes the portion B’shallach, which relates the Exodus from Egypt. We remember Amalek before Purim, because the tale recounted in the Book of Esther read on Purim centres on the plan of King Achashveirosh’s chief minister, Haman, to kill all the Jews throughout the Empire. According to the text, Haman is an ‘Agagite’, and Agag was the name of two Kings of the Amalakites mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. So, Haman is a descendant of Amalek – hence the reading of the passage from Deuteronomy 25 on the Shabbat before Purim.
I say, ‘hence’ – but taking for granted that the Jewish calendar would designate the Shabbat before Purim as Shabbat Zachor, and that it would even include a festival called Purim, with the ceremonious reading of the Book of Esther, begs a lot of questions. As it happens, while the Book of Esther itself inaugurates a festival, the dating of the book is the subject of scholarly debate, and the reading of the Book of Esther and everything associated with Purim – including, the designation of Shabbat Zachor – is a rabbinic innovation.
Significantly, the Jewish calendar is replete with rabbinic innovations, in particular, with dates set out in the earliest rabbinic document, M’gillat Ta’anit, ‘the Scroll of Fasting’, which recall tragic events, including three dates associated with the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE: 10th Tevet, when the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem, 17th Tammuz, when the conquerors breached the city walls, and 9th Av – Tishah B’Av – when they finally put Jerusalem and the Temple to the torch. In our own time, we have added another date to the calendar of commemoration of churban – ‘destruction’ – namely, Yom Ha-Sho’ah, ‘Holocaust Day’, which was established in 1951 by the Israeli knesset to take place on 27th Nissan – eight days before Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, Israel Independence Day.
The psychological impact of reciting the litany of our history of suffering year after year cannot be underestimated. The great 19th century German Jewish historian, Heinrich Graetz, whose monumental four-volume opus, Geschichte der Juden, History of the Jews, was first published in 1853, understood Jewish history from the destruction of the Temple onwards, as a ‘vale of tears.’ This lachrymose view of Jewish history is a subject of scholarly discussion among Jewish historians. But quite apart from the debate about how we make sense of Jewish history, there is little doubt that the liturgical repetition of our historical experiences of persecution fosters a particular ‘victim’ mind-set. So, as we confront the reality of anti-Semitism today, we are also challenged to confront the extent to which remembrance of Amalek and Haman, in particular, encourages Jews to regard anti-Semitism as a meta-historical perennial menace that we cannot escape.
So should we stop remembering – and like, our classical Liberal forebears, cease to commemorate Purim and Tishah B’Av? Alternatively – and this is what I would recommend – should we commit ourselves to a fuller and more dimensioned understanding of Jewish history that acknowledges the achievements and astounding creativity of Jewish life alongside the suffering? And how should we respond to anti-Semitism today? Anti-Semitism – like xenophobia and all forms of racism – is wrong and should always be challenged in all contexts and all circumstances. As we have seen, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research calls for rigorous investigation and analysis of anti-Semitic incidents. Would we feel less terrified by the overwhelming spectre of anti-Semitism if we paid more attention to the particular contexts and circumstances in which anti-Semitism arises? The Israeli writer, A B Yehoshua, a passionate Zionist and an ardent supporter of the two-state solution, speaking on BBC 2’s, ‘Newsnight’, on Wednesday (February 25, 2015), was adamant about the need to contextualise the upsurge of anti-Semitic attacks, arguing that the incidents in Paris and Copenhagen need to be understood in the context of the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He added that Europe, as the site of the resurgence of anti-Semitism, has to take responsibility for playing its part in resolving this conflict
Again: how should we respond to the rise in anti-Semitism? We can identify a possible response in this week’s Torah portion, T’tzavveh, which opens with instructions concerning oil ‘for the lamp’ (la-ma’or) to be set up as a ‘regular light’ (ner tamid) ‘in the Tent of Meeting’ (b’oheil mo’eid) ‘from evening until morning’ (mei-erev ad-boker). Elsewhere, in the Book of Numbers, in the parashah, B’ha’alot’cha, it is clear that the light that was set up by the priests every day was the seven- branched candlestick, the M’norah. Rather than being overwhelmed by anti-Semitism, the Torah reminds us to continue to light the light of Jewish life, day after day.
And there is something else. A B Yehoshua was interviewed on ‘Newsnight’ at the conclusion of an extensive report, which included another interview – with the French Justice Minister, Christiane Taubira, who was born in French Guiana, and who has herself experienced racist abuse, not least when she was referred to as a ‘monkey’ by a far right National Front member, Anne-Sophie Leclere, in October 2013. Distinguishing between the different approaches of Britain and France to ethnic and religious diversity – ‘multicultural’ Britain, on the one hand, and ‘integrationist’ France on the other – Christiane Taubira argued that the fundamental question both nations need to address is: how do we live together?
An answer to that question was provided by another component of the ‘Newsnight’ report: an item on Coexister – the youth interfaith movement in France, founded on January 14, 2009, by eleven young Jews, Christians and Muslims after a meeting for peace in Paris, in response to events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at that time. The motto of Coexister is ‘Diversity in faith, Unity in action’, and its young members remain determined to put that motto into practice. Meanwhile, the response to the attacks in Copenhagen, which saw thousands of Danes of all religions and ethnicities crowd the city in a candlelit vigil, and more than 1000 Norwegian Muslims form a human shield around Oslo’s Central synagogue, chanting ‘No to anti-Semitism, no to Islamophobia’, demonstrates that it is possible for people to make common cause and come together across the religious and ethnic spectrum.
So: how should we respond to anti-Semitism today? Rather than taking flight and retreating from constructive engagement and cooperation with others, may we continue to light the light of Jewish life every day, and to build tents of meeting and coexistence in every place.
And let us say: Amen.
*Delivered as a sermon on Shabbat, February 28, 2015.
Rabbi Elizabeth (Elli) Tikvah Sarah became the first lesbian to lead a mainstream synagogue, following her ordination in 1989. She has been rabbi of Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue since December 2000, and is the author of Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul Books, 2012).
 Ibid. The data gathered from respondents included: 25% had considered leaving Britain and 45% felt that their family was threatened by Islamist extremism.
Thanks for posting this sermon which dovetails nicely with a piece I wrote for Tikkiun Daily on January 28th. Your voice and perspective help to build the “tents of meeting and coexistence” that you write about.