In 2001, in a moment of its history that hardly can be considered inspiring, Leo Baeck College hosted an interfaith talk with Dr Faisal Bodi. Dr Bodi is a Muslim journalist. Also, he believes that Israel has no right to exist. According to a column he published in the Guardian (where else), the audience had no problems with his perverse belief.
That was long ago. Obviously, they say, things have changed since then; and Dr Bodi went a long way since that talk. En route, he had some problems with the BBC because his views on the Middle East were reputed too extreme. The BBC. That’s something… Now Dr Bodi’s writings are hosted on the website of the “Islamic Human Rights Commission”, “a non-profit organisation -according to Wikipedia- “aligned with the Islamic Republic of Iran based in London”.
This is past history, one would hope. Although I still wonder whether one can say that “Palestine has no right to exist” in that same learning institution. But I digress. Unfortunately, it is not past history the leniency with which Islamic extremists are treated in some sections of the Western world.
We have seen terrible images from Kabul; we look with fear and anxiety to the future of Afghanistan. Yet, who is to blame for the rise of the Taliban, one of the worse theocracy of the 21st Century? ‘“The Americans”, we hear. That is the Western world, that is us. We dared to impose “our” democracy to that part of the world -which apparently does not deserve it (this is the implication). And they have rebelled against the colonialist enterprise. We are admonished that Muslim fundamentalism, or “radicalisation”, is mainly a consequence of colonialism. Or it is a punishment for Western arrogance. A Western fault. Our fault.
And as regards the Taliban? We are told last time that they came to power, the civil wars ended; that under their rule there was no corruption, while during American “occupation”, crime was everywhere. One must acknowledge, we are told, that the Taliban proved to be effective in keeping order. After all, not so many Afghani men and women protested at the time, which must mean it was good for them.
Unfortunately, this leniency towards radical Islam, the self-blaming, for the Americans (and the West)… are about to return en vogue. I can easily foresee that many of us will be annoyed or enraged, or worse. Well, bear in mind that our irritation is nothing compared to the suffering endured by the Afghan population: to which the media won’t pay much attention, of course.
There’s another leitmotif that is about to return, and it is worth paying attention to it. We will hear, and perhaps the opinion has already been expressed, that there is not much difference between Zionism and radical Islam. We will be lectured that the former (those bloody Zionists…) has caused the latter as a form of defence.
Those poor folks! They see the suffering of their Palestinian brethren, and what can they do to defend themselves? Of course, they feel the urge to leash some woman or to stone some infidels! It’s so human! It’s a natural reaction, completely understandable. Islamism, so the saying goes, is the only means for the Muslim masses to restore their dignity.
You’ve heard the reasoning, right? It continues this way.
Judaism and Islam are similar. They are both patriarchal and misogynistic religions whose followers are equally dangerous and intolerant. Look what the Jews do when there is no one to restrain them. Look at what happens in places such as Meah Shearim or Gateshead!
As far as I know, in neither place, people are beheaded, and in no ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood, women are leashed. Haredi Jews do not force their children to watch public executions. If anything, because public executions do not take place where ultra-Orthodox Jews live. This is obviously a minor detail for those keen to notice the similarities between Zionism and Muslim fundamentalism.
We will have to face these idiotic arguments a lot of times in future. So I want to point out an important difference between Judaism (and I mean all the forms and the denominations of Judaism); and Islam, as it is practised by fundamentalists such as ISIS, the Taliban or the Iranian regime.
We believe in the dignity of human beings, regardless of religion, status, or social class. They do not. And the proof can be found in a passage of our Torah portion and in the way the Rabbis have interpreted to make it relevant.
It is not in the part of the Torah we have read today. Allow me please to recapitulate it briefly. Deuteronomy 26:5 -10. The declaration that the Israelite farmer had to give while bringing to the Temple the bikkurim, the offer of the first fruits. “My father was a wandering Aramaean etc….” we are familiar with that; we read on Pesach.
There was a problem for those illiterate Israelites who could not remember the formula accurately.
The Rabbis treated this problem as a paradigm for a larger problem: “what can we do to facilitate the participation to religious life for those lacking education?. This problem remained after the destruction of the Temple when sacrifices and offerings were not anymore part of Jewish religious life.
The Mishnah explains that it was up to the Kohen, the priest, to recite the declaration if and when the farmer did not remember it. The farmer would then repeat word by word.
But what happened then? The less educated farmers stopped bringing the fruits at the Temple because they did not want to be embarrassed by the public exposition of their poor education! Therefore it was instituted that, whether the farmer knew or did not know the formula, the Kohen always recited the declaration first; and the farmer, rich or poor, literate or illiterate, always repeated.
All of this to preserve the dignity of those who could not read or memorise a one-paragraph declaration
This is, by the way, the reason why -as a rule-, even if you’re able to read directly from the Torah, from the Scroll, it is the Rabbi or the Baal Koreh, who does the actual reading. This is done to preserve human dignity, and how could we not, in front of the open Scroll, the holiest and solemn moment in any ritual of the Jewish religion.
I would like to call your attention to this. On the high value that human dignity has in our faith. It is precisely to preserve the dignity, not to embarrass the worshipper, that in every synagogue, from the ultra-Orthodox to the ultra-liberal, the reading of the Torah is carried by one individual only, while those who are called read only the blessings.
Now compare this to the Taliban‘s practice to ambush the worshippers at the exit of the mosque, with a centimetre ruler in hands, and to measure the beards to check whether they were grown according to the precepts of the Qoran. And if it was not, the poor Muslim is publicly humiliated, or worse: beaten, on the door of the very mosque he’s just been in, to pray.
This is not the worse crime committed by the Taliban. Still, it speaks volumes about what they think of human dignity, and more generally, about how they practice their religion: through humiliation and prevarication.
Let me stress, many of the victims of these Talibans’ crimes are Muslims themselves. We should never fail to make the important distinction between Muslim fundamentalism and the rest of the Muslim world.
But, equally, we should never leave unchallenged the crass generalisation according to which there’s no difference between us Jews and the violent theocratic ideology of the Taliban. The differences are very visible, and we should never be tired or ashamed to talk about them. Their faith is not like our faith and it does not deserve to be treated with leniency.
Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue, 28 August 2021 / 20 Elul 5781 Parashat Ki Tavoh