Jewish defiance is Shabbat, simchah and Torah

On October 7, Hamas tried to destroy all three, so let’s show our resistance by celebrating


March For Palestine, in London on October 21, 2023 (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)

March 06, 2024 16:26

I’m a firm believer in the right to protest. While I was still at school, I attended the “Say No to the PLO” rally in Trafalgar Square, and marched between the Soviet and Israeli embassies, demanding freedom for refuseniks with my parents and friends. As a student, I was active in the Soviet Jewry campaign, and I think it’s long enough ago now that I can admit to having stuck pictures of our designated refusenik around town, and to having phoned the Soviet embassy with the intent of blocking its lines.

Since October 7, I’ve participated in rallies and marches, waved placards and shouted, “Bring them home” and “Am Yisrael Chai”. I’m one of the people channelling a 1970s bar mitzvah by enthusiastically singing Hevenu Shalom Aleichem, welling up during Hatikvah, and trying to remember to say King instead of Queen in the national anthem.

I realise that to a certain extent, the Union Jacks and national anthem are performative, emphasising that British Jews are patriotic — we are “good immigrants”. We are the ones who thank the police at the end of the rally for keeping us safe. Think about that for a moment: the police are there to keep the marchers safe, rather than to keep bystanders safe from those demonstrating!

On none of these occasions have I felt the need to call for the destruction of a state or for genocide. I’ve protested against a government, a regime or an organisation and, yes, I used to boycott South African apples, but I’ve never chanted slogans implying the eradication of a people. I know that “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter” and that some of the activities of the pre-State of Israel military groups might not stand up well to objective scrutiny. Nevertheless, the hypocrisy of those who criticise Israel for collective punishment but abuse visibly Jewish passengers on the Tube is breathtaking. Free speech and the right to protest must have a limit and demanding or threatening the death of people with whom you disagree is well beyond that limit, as is creating an environment in which children at Jewish schools are advised not to wear their uniforms in public.

It has been widely reported that Jewish people are scared to go into central London and other urban areas when pro-Palestine marches are taking place. From speaking to family and friends, I know that people are nervous even when demonstrations are not happening. Everyone knows someone who has been abused and the more visibly Jewish a person is, the more likely this is to happen.

In the modern Orthodox world, woolly hats and baseball caps are hiding kippot, and Magen David necklaces are firmly tucked inside. Chassidim, with a more distinctive style of dress, are always a target and some people in that part of the community are now avoiding using public transport completely. I always follow my mother’s advice from when I first started travelling by myself and check who else is in the carriage before getting in, and while I haven’t stopped using the Tube, I am cautious about what is showing on my screen if there are people sitting next to me. I cover my hair with a scarf, and I sometimes wonder whether people around me know what that signifies.

Do they think it’s a style statement or an attempt to disguise hair loss? I’m pretty sure that most people outside of Jewish areas do not know what it really signifies and at the moment, I’m quite happy about that.

Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi, voted one of the most influential women in Israel, suggested a powerful response to the hatred surrounding us. She said that Hamas attacked on Shabbat, which was Simchat Torah in Israel. As she said, they tried to destroy Shabbat, simchah (joy) and Torah.

What should our response be? To increase Shabbat, to increase simchah and to increase Torah. There have been many initiatives around the world to do all these things, both as an end in themselves and to accrue spiritual merits for the hostages and the soldiers of the IDF. One typically Jewish suggestion is to enhance Shabbat by making an extra dish, perhaps a variant on “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” This time, we’re not even waiting until we win, but eating as a form of resistance.

As protests go, it has to be one of the easiest and most pleasurable. Why not give it a try?

Vicki Belovski is the former rebbetzin of Golders Green Synagogue

March 06, 2024 16:26

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