In a Munich beer garden in 1932, a remarkable dialogue took place between Winston Churchill and Ernst Hanfstaengl, a close confidant and spin-doctor of Hitler. During the conversation, as recounted by Boris Johnson in his book The Churchill Factor, Hanfstaengl announced his intention to organise a meeting between Hitler and Churchill. He then asked Churchill what questions he would like to ask, so that he could plan the proposed meeting in advance.
“Why is your chief so violent about the Jews,” Churchill wanted to know. “I can quite understand him being angry with Jews who have done something wrong or are against the country, but what is the sense in being against a man simply because of his birth? How can any man help how he is born?”
Thankfully, Churchill’s proposed encounter with Hitler never transpired. But his bewilderment about antisemitism has certainly endured and seems more unfathomable today than ever.
Following the recent publication of the CST’s annual report showing elevated levels of antisemitic incidents, I was interviewed on several local radio stations. The presenters were hoping a rabbi would be able to provide some insight into how people in the Jewish community felt about these disturbing statistics. A question posed to me by more than one interviewer greatly disturbed me, however. “What do you think the Jewish community can do about antisemitism,”, I was benignly asked.
The question bothered me for several reasons. Firstly, it is obviously never the responsibility of the victim to change their own behaviour in order to prevent an attack. If someone shouts “Jew” at me in the street I do not intend to react by going out next time without a kippah on.
But the main reason it disturbed me was because it made me wonder what exactly can be “done about antisemitism”. Are we resigned to this scourge forever occupying the front pages of Jewish newspapers?
Clearly, as a community, we can fight the prejudice that leads to racial hatred and must continually send out a message of zero tolerance for any form of antisemitism. Thankfully, we have wonderful communal organisations that lobby the Government in order to advance these aims. They correctly advocate for national curriculum mandated education that challenges the harmful stereotypes existing beneath the surface in society. And they have facilitated widespread interfaith dialogue with some very positive results.
But there is perhaps something else that we can add to our arsenal in our ongoing fight against the actions of these reprehensible individuals.
The villain of the Book of Esther, Haman, justified his plan to persecute the Jews because their, “laws are different from those of all other nations…” (Esther 3:8). The Jews are different, so they are therefore a danger to society. Thankfully, the Jewish people miraculously survived the existential threat posed by Haman. But no less remarkable was the way in which the rabbis chose to mark the occasion.
Purim is the only festival in the Jewish calendar on which there is a mitzvah to have fun. To laugh, to joke, to dress up. “Days of feasting and happiness”, the megillah calls it. But to laugh at what, exactly? At the fact that we only just managed to survive destruction, yet again?
One possible explanation is that, if we did not laugh, we would cry — at the immense loss, the pain of prejudice, the millennia of injustice. But we also laugh on Purim at the ridiculousness of the antisemites themselves. We laugh at them, and in doing so, perhaps make them occasionally stop and think about how stupid they actually are.
Antisemitism is anything other than a laughing matter. It remains a serious problem, and we are fortunate to live in a country in which the overwhelming majority of people wish to see its eradication.
But, meanwhile, there is also a value in laughing in the face of the antisemites. As we do through the exuberance of our Purim celebrations. There is a value in publicly highlighting the outrageousness of their behaviour. Perhaps Churchill himself appreciated this. He told Hanfstaengl that evening in Munich: “You tell your boss that antisemitism may be a good starter, but it is rarely a good sticker.”
Waiting at a bus stop with a group of friends in my early twenties, some local youths shouted at us the profound question: “What time’s the bus Jew?”
And, honestly, there really was nothing else we could do other than laugh.
Rabbi Birnbaum is Rabbi of the Hadley Wood Jewish Community