Shabbat Shuva 5783

In 1983 when Afghanistan was under Soviet occupation, a group of Italian anarchist artists from the avant-garde magazine “Frigidaire” organised a memorable political prank with some anti-Soviet activists based in France. They printed hundreds of thousands of copies of a fake edition of “The Red Star”, the daily newspaper of the Red Army. On the first page, they published a photo of a Soviet soldier tearing his machine gun apart, with a title all over the page: “War is over, let’s go home!”. They smuggled the copies into Afghanistan and circulated them among the soldiers.

It was a masterpiece. These artists informed the world that Soviet soldiers were fed up with Afghanistan's war and less inclined to believe in the Communist rhetoric. Anti-Soviet pranks have a long history among anarchists and libertarians.

Last week a couple of Italian radio hosts interviewed two Putin-appointed “ambassadors” of the fake republics created to justify the war of annexation. During the interview, those two were exposed as dodgy middlemen and ex-pats runaways from the Italian police. They pretended to have worked as international observers of the fake referendums in Ukraine last week; during the interview, it turned out that they never moved from Moscow!

I hope the program recording will be available and translated. It is hilarious how they try to deny it. And then contain the damage (they mixed up the weather forecast of Ukraine and Moscow…). And eventually, they admit the lie. These two radio hosts who have played the prank (one of the two is Jewish, by the way) rely on a pre-existing tradition.

But of course, there is very little to laugh about. The conflict in Ukraine is escalating. Vladimir Putin yesterday annexed to the Russian State those parts of Ukraine where the Ukrainian Army is currently fighting. Russian does not call the war a “security operation” anymore. Now it’s open war, and Putin being Putin -that is a psychopath- nuclear threats are part of the game.

We have learnt that the Russian soldiers are deeply demotivated and predatory, that they unleash violence on the civilians. The amount of crimes committed is unbelievable. Independent observers (not the fake dodgy ones) speak openly of genocide. Further bloodshed will happen. And, of course, as we already know, the consequences on the economy will be tragic.

That was yesterday

Yesterday I watched Vladimir Putin delivering his speech in front of the audience he had assembled. All white, mostly male — so much for the allegedly multicultural Russia… Almost 10% of Russians are ethnically Turks or Mongols. Still, there is no room for those not white minorities in the ruling bodies. There are so many inconsistencies and lies in the speech that it is almost impossible to some it up -someone from the BBC studio invoked the help of a psychiatrist.

But, too many parts of Vladimir Putin’s series of rant sound familiar to us Jews, especially those who have to do with supporters of the Palestinian cause.

According to Putin, “Russo-phobia” is a permanent malaise of the Western world and Anglo-Saxon culture. The supporters of the Palestinian cause point out perennial and insidious “anti-Arab racism” everywhere, but especially at the basis of the Zionist ideology. According to Putin, Americans have organised a genocide in Ukraine, and the victims are the members of the Russian minority. The supporters of the Palestinian cause continuously talk about an ongoing genocide in Palestine, even if currently, the Palestinian population is three times bigger than in 1948.

Putin maintains that the end of Communism has been a catastrophe for Russians. The self-appointed pro-Palestinian folk constantly complain about the loss of friends and allies brought to their cause with the end of Communism.

The Palestinian leader Arafat with the Soviet leader Brezhnev

Russophobia is part of Western colonialism and serves the interests of small elites who own the media and the bank, they say, and guess what it is the religion/ethnicity of this hook-nosed elite. Islamophobia — quacks the ordinary supporter of the Palestinian cause — is part of western colonialism and serves the interest of a small elite blah blah blah… that is, the Jews. Sorry, “the Zionists”.

Really the similitudes are striking, And so it is the mindset.

A mindset of perpetual victimhood where one sees himself only as a victim of racism. Therefore, they feel entitled to use violence, lie, and even commit genocide. Every attempt to make peace and halt the hostilities is perceived as a deadly attack.

In the victimhood mind-frame that Putin exhibits and that we recognise in many parts of the pro-Palestinian public discourse, war is inevitable and ongoing (because enemies are everywhere). To them, terrorism is legitimate. No compromise, no mediation is ever possible. Because the world is in black and white, absolute innocence versus absolute guilty. And the enemies are labelled as Nazis. “Nazis” are the Ukrainians, for Putin. And for the pro-Palestinians, “Nazi”, or “Zio-Nazi”, are the Zionists, that is, the Jews, that is us. And, of course, you can not negotiate with the Nazis. It is immoral. You can only aim to exterminate them.

It is, of course, complete nonsense. The Far Right in Ukraine is currently at its historical minimum; it’s undoubtedly less influential than in Italy or France. The concept of “Nazi-Zionism”, the alliance between those who wanted to kill Jews and those who tried to rescue them, is historical fiction. These people have skipped too many history classes.

Nonetheless, this is the world they live in. If you try to point out the aggressor in Ukraine and who in the Middle East has rejected any peace proposal from 1948 to today, here you go! Someone will call you “Nazi” (sadly, this someone sometimes is Jewish…).

This approach, needless to say, is the complete opposite of Judaism. As Jews, we never accept, nor preach, a black and white representation of the world, where the Army of Good is engaged in the perpetual fight against the Army of Evil. This is not Judaism. This is -and sorry for the difficult word — Manichaeism.

Manichaeism is an ancient Middle Eastern religion whose believers saw everywhere reflections of the perpetual war between Good and Evil. Already in the Talmud, Rabbis were horrified by this approach. Because it deprives those, who have found themselves on the wrong side of the opportunity to redeem themselves, evolve, and change.

Manichaen Temple banner.

Listen to the so-called pro-Palestinian camp. To them, Israel has been evil since its foundation. There is no possible redemption. It must disappear and be replaced by some kind of utopia, where Jews will be a minority, subject to abuses, as per long-standing tradition in that part of the world.

Contrary to Manichaeism -and to its secularised contemporary versions- we Jews believe in the potential of the human being to improve, to change, to learn from their own mistakes. We actually devote these days, the ten days of teshuva — between Rosh ha Shana and Yom Kippur- to this significant and very demanding spiritual work, to scrutinise ourselves, looking for the mistakes we have made. Our spiritual tradition encourages us to admit our mistakes before the other side, even if our errors are minor. Because we hope more: we are sure it will motivate our adversary to consider his own.

There are many jokes about Judaism and guilt, and they are excellent jokes, but the central concept is not a joke; it is serious. Good and evil are not always clear-cut. Even the most righteous person in the world has their own mistake to expiate and repair.

To make things easier, we have even a period in our calendar designated for this process of reparation and change. Indeed, our faith is the opposite of Manicheism. It is not surprising that autocrats and tyrants, Arab or Russian, target our people and culture so often and cruelly.

As it is clear from the flag we have exposed at the entrance, this synagogue supports the right of the Ukrainian people to self-determination and their resistance to the Russian Army. But at the same time, we wish and pray for a change of heart of the Russian people so that they cease supporting a genocidal war. This is probably happening already; Vladimir Putin is increasingly less popular among ordinary Russians.

We commit ourselves to a more moral and just behaviour with our family, friends, and community. And we hope and pray for a similar change in the souls of the Russian people so that the war will be over and Ukraine will be free. Hopefully, the world will be a better place.

[After being racially abused, I committed myself to talk about Italian culture as much as possible. We are not gangsters].

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Rabbi Dr Andrea Zanardo, PhD

I’m the first Rabbi ever to be called “a gangster”. Also, I am a Zionist.