The shooting in Pittsburgh was one year ago. I don’t know what you remember of that day. I have several American friends and colleagues and I share much of their anguish and their pain. Nobody expresses these feelings better than Bari Weiss, a Jewish journalist who grew up in Pittsburgh, and actually had her bat mitzvah in the same Synagogue that was the theatre of the shooting.
Bari Weiss says that it has been like waking up from a dream. For decades the American Jewish community had lived in a sort of a dream, mistaking it for reality. The delusion of being safe, of living in a country where anti-Semitism was just a fringe phenomenon, where Judaism was held in high esteem in general culture, and where the majority of the local population actually likes the Jews. It is still the case in many parts of the USA, but the thing is that anti-Semitism is on the rise and the American Jewish community does not feel safe anymore.
It is not only in Pittsburgh. In Brooklyn, ultra-Orthodox Jews, those Jews who are very visible, because of the clothing they wear, are physically harassed every other day. It goes unnoticed: the assailants are not your typical Nazis, they do not go around wearing a red hat with the slogan “Make America great again”. So, there is a general assumption according to which these Orthodox Jews are victims of casual violence, of the kind of attack that is so common in the USA. And neither the Democratic Mayor of New York, nor the current Republican President of the USA, have dared to call the attacks with their proper name: anti-Semitic.
This is when you feel alone and abandoned yourself. Which for the Jewish community in the USA is unexpected. “Perhaps,” said Bari Weiss presenting her new book “we will end up like in Europe, with security outside of the synagogue. Or like in the UK, where the Jewish community look fearfully at the future, thinking that an unrepentant hater of the State of Israel, and an anti-Semite, can actually become Prime Minister”.
As I have said, Bari Weiss echoes perfectly the feelings and the fears of many American Jews. But here in the UK, including Brighton, we must say we are not, thank God, alone and abandoned ourselves. At the vigil organised in the aftermath of the attack, all the religious communities were present, and almost all the political parties. One was missing: Momentum, the Far-Left coalition of supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes. In many localities of the UK, vigils were organised by the Jewish communities and the Friends of Israel. But not at a single vigil, were there any representatives or supporters of Jeremy Corbyn who had dared to show up to express solidarity and support to us Jews. We had, and have, on our side, many members of the Labour Party, as well as from other parties, but not from the Labour’s leadership.
So, this is where we are, and this is also where, unfortunately, the American Jewish community is going. A place where not every politician feels that it is important to take a stand, publicly, against anti-Semitism and to show support to the Jewish community. So, things are this way. Anti-Semitism is raising its ugly head, once again, in the USA as well as in the UK.
Where does this indifference come from? What are the reasons of this plain hostility? Good question. Perhaps it is not by chance that this is an age of simplification, a time when politicians see things in black and white. In the representation of reality peddled by many politicians, people belong to groups, and these groups are either oppressors or victims. Nuances, situations in between, shades do not exist. Immigrants and minorities are only oppressed or discriminated. There are minorities who do not subscribe to a radical, subversive agenda, like us Jews, or many Indians, or Sikhs… well, we are traitors. Jews, especially us Reform Jews, have never tried to change the laws but rather we worked hard and given important contributions to the culture and to the economy of the country in which we have become citizens.
For the Far-Right this is not true, rather it is part of a plot to subvert the Countries where we live in and gradually to take over power, become the rulers and subjugate the local population. The Far Right maintains that we Jews never look for the good of the countries, we care only of what is good for the Jews. For the Far Left, on the other side, we are traitors. By accepting the laws of the Countries, and not turning our identity into a tool for the revolution, we betray the natural call of every minority. They want us to enrol under the red flag of their favourite version of socialism, and to serve as tools of their propaganda.
Far Left and Far Right are not that different. They want a society where everybody thinks the same, have the same values and behaves in the same way. They are both totalitarians.
A famous example of totalitarianism is indeed in our Torah portion, the story of the Tower of Babel. We tend to see the destruction of the tower of Babel as a catastrophe, but a close reading of the text shows that it’s not. After all, no one dies when God intervenes. The text says that before the episode, all of humanity was of one language and one speech”. After the failure of the construction, different languages arose, different speeches, different thoughts and different identities.
The world before Babel was a world without differences. It was indeed very similar to a totalitarian society: quickly everyone rushed into this enterprise of construction, without opposition, without debate, without discussion…. God truly did a great favour to humanity, destroying the Tower of Babel. God prevented totalitarianism and allowed different languages and different civilisations to flourish. Among them, the Jewish civilisation, our own.
And this is the reason why both the Far Left and the Far Right, these totalitarian ideologies, deeply dislike our culture, our faith and, in times of crisis, attack us physically, with violence. But precisely because we are under attack from different sides, but for the same reasons, we have a duty not to surrender, not to give up. In spite of our enemies, from the Left and from the Right, we must be proud of being Jewish and of our thousands of year-old culture and of the successes of the State of Israel, and we must continue to educate our children to be Jewish and to love their, and our, beautiful heritage.
We Jews are stronger than our enemies, wherever they are, in the USA, in Brighton or, God forbid, in Downing Street.
Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue, 4 Heshvan 5780 / 2 October 2019, Parashat Noach