What’s This Jewish Thing? The Man Asked the Rabbi

Dear Community,

I was having a coffee at Charing X Station when a man approached me and asked with bemusement, ‘What’s this anti-Jewish thing?’

I muttered something about hate, racism, age-old, when he asked again, ‘What’s that ‘s’ word?’ ‘Anti-Semitism?’ ‘Ah, yes, that’s it’, and he wandered off.

I was left asking myself why I didn’t have a proper pre-prepared one-liner. The answer is partly because books are being written on the subject, currently by Deborah Lipstadt in the States, and another, I believe, by Rabbi Dame Julia Neuberger here. But it’s also because I’m not willing to say anything which might invite the response: ‘Well, if you weren’t successful…; if you didn’t keep yourselves to yourselves…; if you didn’t have Israel… people would like you more.’

It’s no doubt true that different groups can always do more to open the door, build bridges, make themselves better understood. I believe in such activity.

But it must not lead to blaming the victim. The responsibility for hating lies with the hater. We are neither able nor entitled to take away other people’s answerability for their conduct. The responsibility for racism lies with the racist.

It must be faced, individually and institutionally. It won’t do to think, as it seems some in high places do: ‘I’m ideologically anti-racist. I always have been. Therefore, nothing I do can be anti-Semitic’ or anti-Muslim or anti- any other group.

Like love, hope, fear and anger, hate is a human response. None of us is immune. I’m uneasy when anyone says, ‘I’m not prejudiced’. Prejudice springs eternal in the human breast. Uncertainty, frustration, envy, even too many people in the waiting-room: we fix on someone to blame. The someone easily becomes them; they become a conspiracy. The The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was exposed as a vicious forgery in The Times in 1921. But tragically, like fake news, it’s not the facts which have the impact but the supply of a seductive story which suits, promotes and magnifies peoples’ prejudice.

Vigilance against racism, anti-Semitism, any form of bigotry which fixes on a collective target, must begin at home, in the mind and conscience. Self-deceit is easy. So is blaming the victim for being upset at the perpetrator. It’s a truism that not everything a ‘victim’ says is necessarily fair: everyone carries their history, sensitivities, prejudices of their own. But the refusal to meet, listen to and engage with the coherent responses of victim groups is a further and clear sign of bigotry.

Vigilance must extend to public discourse, the media and social media, the pulpit, local and national politics and the law. Lives are at stake: the safety in the street of people like you and me, sometimes Jews, sometimes Muslims, sometimes people who are black, sometimes refugees. The reputation of the country is at stake.

In the growing environment of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia I’m especially concerned as a rabbi with how we develop individual and communal spiritual resilience, show solidarity with other vulnerable groups, and understand identity.

A cynic once called anti-Semitism ‘the rabbi’s friend’; it makes more Jews feel Jewish than the longest of sermons.

I don’t love what I’d call such ‘negative identity’; it’s not the Judaism I want to promote. Professor Arnold Eisen writes about the difference between a covenant of fate and a covenant of destiny. One doesn’t choose the former. It happens by birth; it’s reinforced the moment someone says, ‘You Jew!’

The covenant of destiny is what we make of our given identity. It’s how we live, love, cherish, and study it; how we interact with its ancient wisdom and contemporary communities so that they deepen our conscience, open our hearts and guide our values and actions.

Humanity hasn’t got the time to waste on hatred. There’s too much, too important, to be getting on with.

Shabbat Shalom

Jonathan Wittenberg

Letter to the congregants of the North London Synagogue by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg – February 2019

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