Don't let antisemitism take over our narrative

By Jonathan Wittenberg, June 2, 2011
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Every person and every community, whether or not they want to, tells the story of itself. How we tell it both describes and defines our values, exemplifies and determines who we are morally and spiritually.

Judaism has always taken seriously the way we tell our story. That's why, even in this assimilated age, Seder night, the night of the story, remains Judaism's best kept ritual.

In Anglo-Jewry, a time-honoured way we relate our collective story is through the Jewish Chronicle, that beloved, derided, maddening and indispensable institution, about which I've heard countless people say "I'll never buy it again!" as they fork out for another year's subscription. And it was in last week's JC leader I learnt that I "sup with the devil" because I've been on London Citizens' platforms representing Jewish ethics (I will be looking closely to that organisation to make doubly sure of the credentials and good faith of its trustees and members.) Two weeks earlier, the Pears Foundation was "outed" for not unconnected reasons.

Antisemitism and anti-Zionism are the dominant concerns of British Jewish life today. And anyone who engages at the challenging frontiers between Islam and Judaism, Israelis and Palestinians, may fear short shrift. Mick Davis suffered sharply for his reasoned, conscience-driven criticisms of Israel, despite his hands-on, indisputable love for the country. Our story, and our telling of it, is becoming strident.

We shouldn’t make 'the world hates us' our motto

We live in frightening times. The argument about Israel threatens to recede from 1967 to 1948, from, "How can we achieve peace with security in internationally recognised borders?" to, "Does Israel deserve to exist?" I often feel fury that we, alone of all peoples, should have to justify our right to be. I abhor both blunt and subtle attempts at delegitimisation, think the academic boycott bigoted and misguided, reject comparisons with Apartheid and frequently rage over how Israel is reported. The Arab Spring, deeply important in itself, makes Israel's future even more uncertain. There is an understandable mood of anxiety.

Vigilance is therefore necessary. There is a great difference between listening to ethically driven criticisms or hearing important Palestinian voices on the one hand, and offering the sanctuary of respectability to supporters of violence on the other. Both those who incite and those who execute violence must be brought to account.

Yet, without relinquishing such vigilance, I believe it is important to uphold a narrative of greater imagination and tolerance. "Either you're for us or you're totally against us" expresses an oversimplified, often bigoted world-view. It's easy to brand others as antisemites, hard to engage at the borders between ourselves and those who don't see the world as we do.

But engage we must. I would never give a platform to a proponent of violence but would I never talk to such a person? I have indeed been on platforms where I'm invited to challenge ignorant, sometimes ugly, views of Jews and Judaism, where I may, just may, have a chance of being heard. I do so because I love Judaism, Israel and peace, because I reason that it's better to be there than for no Jewish voice to be heard, and because never to believe in change is to despair. Once, on Al-Mustakillah television, an Arabic network broadcast from London, a woman called in: "I always understood Palestinians were human beings; you've made me realise Israelis are too". Sometimes we need reminders about the humanity of others.

But I'm risking committing the very error I'm warning against. My point is that we shouldn't make "the world hates us" our motto. It is a negative basis for Jewish identity and accords our detractors a victory they don't deserve. It represents not courage but submission to our fears. Most importantly, it is untrue of the creative reality of Anglo-Jewry.

Jewish life in Britain today is more vital than ever. Think of Limmud, Jewish Book Week, the Jewish Film Festival, Gefiltefest, independent minyanim, the rich interface of inter-faith encounter, and the flourishing social action scene largely due to the inspiration of the Pears Foundation. The story we tell should embrace this creative Jewish energy. We'd let ourselves down if we allowed the hunt for antisemites to dominate it.

It's not just to ourselves that we risk conveying too negative an image. The Christian and Muslim communities look to our media and our pronouncements to understand us.

But most important is the story we tell ourselves. It is this that creates our identity, forms our values and generates our vision. It sets our boundaries and establishes our horizons. Thus the great narrative of the Seder reminds us yearly of freedom, justice, faith, gratitude and the determination to travel onwards. It's a story of many voices, questions, children, arguments and songs, bound together by an irrepressible collective zest.

Fear and defensiveness should not lead us to censor our spirit. Our story today should be as rich, diverse and challenging as ever.

Jonathan Wittenberg is the rabbi of the New North London Synagogue

    Last updated: 10:54am, June 2 2011