debate · sermon

Jews are coming home

The 1996 UEFA Cup was when I first truly became aware of football. I was 7. Everyone was talking about it. My mum, a proud Glaswegian, made sure all the neighbours knew that she would be supporting Germany in the upcoming semifinal. Still, she seemed to feel little glee when England inevitably lost on penalties. 

Football, I soon discovered, was not for me, but I still enjoyed the atmosphere. In the last UEFA Cup, I couldn’t help but join in the excitement and feel the buzz of possibility. Everywhere, you could hear a song that had been popularised in the first competition I could remember. Football’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming…

Legendary comedian, Frank Skinner, and his Fantasy Football League co-host, David Baddiel, wrote the song: ‘Three Lions’. It is more than a catchy anthem. It tries to put forward a vision of the nation that is about shared struggles and optimism in the face of defeat. It speaks to something wonderful: the joy of being an underdog; the thrill of hoping for a victory that might never be realised; the bittersweetness of feeling like your favourite thing belonged in your favourite place, but was also part of a much wider world. 

Recently, David Baddiel has come back into the public consciousness, this time with a new memorable slogan. Jews Don’t Count. This was the title of his book, published earlier this year, which seems to have been read by every politician and pundit in Britain. It is accessibly-written by a popular writer. Many Jews have a copy. Some have come to cite the book’s title, as if it were already a well-established truism.

This meant that, last week, as the Royal Court Theatre showcased a play where the main character was a greedy billionaire called Hershel Fink, whose climax is the sacrifice of a child, pundits asked whether this was evidence that ‘Jews Don’t Count.’ 

This week, when a group of teenagers attacked a bus full of Haredi kids celebrating Hanukkah on Oxford Street, the incident was treated within the prism of whether Jewish suffering matters. That is a narrow way to look at antisemitism, probably never even intended by the book’s author.

The most common criticism of Baddiel has been that he is the wrong messenger. 25 years ago, he dressed up as black footballer Jason Lee by covering his face in brown paint and putting a pineapple on his head. The offensive image sticks in many people’s minds, so they question how well-equipped he is to speak on racism.

Baddiel addresses this in his book. He says that he has already apologised, and, in any case, the people criticising him for doing blackface are the real racists because they think his historic racism invalidates his current experiences of antisemitism. He cites the example of Malcolm X, who despite having made antisemitic comments in the past, is still upheld as a visionary of anti-racism. 

What Baddiel seemingly misses is that Malcolm is an icon precisely because of his journey. He went from a pimp to a fundamentalist to a person committed to the liberation of all people. His earlier mistakes are viewed in light of where he ended up. If only all of us could be so willing to publicly make mistakes, learn, and grow.

Still, I don’t think it is helpful to criticise Baddiel as a man. We must engage with the content of what he has to say. The book’s thesis is that there is an oppression Olympics taking place, and Jews should have better odds of winning than the bookies have given them. It doesn’t challenge the idea of whether there is such a thing as a competition over who has suffered most, nor whether such a contest would be desirable. He just wants everyone to be clear that Jews have suffered as much as anyone else.

In only the opening pages, Baddiel bemoans hearing an antisemitic poem on the BBC and insists “no other minority group would be compared to rats, or envisaged as any similar negative racist stereotype, on Radio 4.” The claim is bizarre. The last few years have seen intense attacks on immigrants and asylum seekers, often likening them to vermin and plagues. Barely a day goes by without some racist dog-whistle making it into our mainstream press. 

Even if Baddiel was right, and it was only Jews who were subjected to bigotry in national media, his complaint about other minorities’ treatment is far from helpful. Freedom is not a finite resource and tolerance is not in short supply. If others did have more of it, our task would be to make the case for why we need it too, not to undermine others’ gains. Setting up the struggle against antisemitism as a competition with other antiracist struggles only weakens potential allegiances and undermines our cause.

But more than sending out the wrong signals to other minorities, this book gives the wrong message to Jews. It reads every silence as hatred, complicity or indifference. We are alone. Nobody likes us. The right wants to destroy us and the left doesn’t care. We are isolated on an island where nobody cares about our suffering and the only solution is to wallow in our own self-pity.

If Jews were a football team in this narrative, we would be Manchester United: unfairly reviled by everyone simply for being successful. No one likes us and we are very upset about it.

At a time when the British  Jewish community already feels beleaguered and lacking confidence, it is unsurprising that such a depressing message has taken hold. But is it helpful? Does it give us clarity about what antisemitism is and how to combat it? Does it strengthen our position as a people and foster solidarity with others?

Part of the problem with Baddiel’s analysis is that his main objection is to The Guardian and its readers. I am not a reader of The Guardian, so perhaps I underestimate its importance. But I do find it hard to accept that the problem of antisemitism begins with middle-class liberal progressives. Some may well be antisemitic, and I have no doubt that some are ignorant of Jewish experiences of prejudice. But they are hardly the part of British society that worries me most.

Antisemitism is not just an exchange between two people, or a trade-off between different groups, but a system that has been embedded in Europe for over a millennium. Since medieval times, Jews have been used as a racialised buffer class between the peasants and the elites. 

Jews were not citizens of the countries where they lived, but treasured subjects, offered physical protections by the monarchs if they did the most undesirable jobs. They were tax collectors, money lenders, merchant traders, and publicans. 

This precarious position meant that, when things turned bad, the poor would not storm the castles but then their ire on the middlemen. The elites actively encouraged pogroms. They spread blood libels and shady conspiracies about how the Jews were really the ones with all the power.

Antisemitism continues to work in the same way. Jews are not kept at the bottom of the barrel, nor are we permitted entry into the upper echelons. We do enjoy privileges that other minorities do not, and we do nevertheless experience discrimination and stereotyping.

That is the context in which we must view the recent ordeal at the Royal Court. They put on an antisemitic play, not because progressives are indifferent to Jewish suffering, but because British theatre is entrenched in centuries-old systems of promoting Jews as lascivious and money-grabbing. They reproduced the same images of Shylock and Fagin that have been used to promote antisemitism for years.

That is also the context in which we need to view the group of teenagers attacking a bus of Jewish kids celebrating Hanukkah. They didn’t harass them because they were indifferent Guardian-reading liberals. Far from it. They attacked them because they have grown up in an antisemitic system, imbibed its propaganda, and believed its lies. Any theory of oppression that doesn’t focus on its real origins will only address the symptoms at the expense of the root cause.

When we understand that antisemitism is systemic, we can see that the way to combat it is by directing our criticisms at the system itself. Outbursts of violence on the street are only terrifying results of something more deeply rooted. 

It is in our interest, then, to join our struggle that of all other victims of racism. It is necessary to treat other minorities not as adversaries for attention from well-meaning liberals, but as allies in a struggle for fundamental change. 

I hold on to a faith that such change is possible. 

In this sense, Baddiel’s original classic of ‘Football’s coming home’ speaks much more closely to my experience of being a Jew in Britain. It is not that I believe things are great, but that they could be. It is not that I feel like we are always doing well, but I feel invested in the struggle to get there. I am joined to others by a misty-eyed possibility of what this country could be. I hold out hope for ultimate redemption that may one day come, and work with others towards that goal. Like England fans, no amount of hurt has ever stopped me dreaming. 

This place where we live really is our home, and it is also somewhere that we must make our home. It has been where we belong and we must shape it into a space we never want to leave. We are here, and we are not yet, because we always have some way to go. Together, with all victims of oppression, we are always coming home.

Jews are coming home, we’re coming home, we’re coming…

judaism · sermon

What do Jews look like?

A woman on a train walked up to a man across the table. “Excuse me,” she said, “but are you Jewish?”

“No,” replied the man.

A few minutes later the woman returned. “Excuse me,” she said again, “are you sure you’re not Jewish?”

“I’m sure,” said the man.

But the woman was not convinced, and a few minutes later she approached him a third time. “Are you absolutely sure you’re not Jewish?” she asked.

“All right, all right,” the man said. “You win. I’m Jewish.”

“That’s funny,” said the woman.” You don’t look Jewish.”

This classic Jewish joke actually highlights a good question: what do Jews look like? I am often told either that I do look like one, or that I don’t, and when I ask what it is… nobody ever wants to tell me! Whatever the reason, people have in their minds a picture of a Jew.

As it turns out, this isn’t altogether a new thing. Indeed, this week, we read about the clothes for Aaron and his descendants of the priestly caste. They have a strict identifying uniform.

Linen headdress, sash and and robes. A metal encrusted breastplate. Ephod, urim, tumim, incense. Aaron looks holy. Aaron looks like he stands out. Aaron looks… Aaron looks a lot like the Tabernacle he serves.

Aaron is to dress in the same white linen that we are told covers the Holy of Holies. He is to wrap himself in yarns of crimson and turquoise, just like the sashes that decorate the sanctuary. He is framed in gold like the Tabernacle’s curtain rails. He must wear a breastplate encrusted with stones representing the twelve tribes, just as the stones were ritually placed at the major resting points of the Israelites. 

Aaron is the Tabernacle in miniature. He is a microcosmic representative of the function he serves. The clothes he wears even assist in atoning for the Israelites’ sins, just as a sacrificial altar would.

Aaron dresses like what he does. He says: I am going to do holy things, and I require holy garb to do it in.

What a contrast with the Megillah we read just yesterday. In the book of Esther, there is an initial threat to the Jews. Haman, their wicked adversary, stomps through the city and plots Jewish mass murder. But Esther, our triumphant hero, foils the plot and overturns the decision. Now, instead, her uncle Mordechai will stomp through the streets of Shushan.

The Book of Esther draws our attention especially to what Mordechai was wearing on his horseback gallivant. “Mordecai left the king’s presence in royal robes of blue and white, with a magnificent crown of gold and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool.”

What does Mordechai look like? He looks just like a Persian palace. He has the crown and clothes of a king. He has the horse of his vizier. He looks like the empire. He looks like his enemy.

Having adopted the outfit of the oppressor, Mordechai soon acts like one. Under his instruction, the Jews go off on their own rampage, killing Haman, his sons, and 75,500 of their supporters. What Haman had planned for Mordechai, Mordechai did to Haman.

In Reform Judaism, we often gloss over this awkward ending, but it is very important. Victims given power can become no different to their persecutors. Here, the Megillah wants to slap us in the face with that fact. Look, it says, Mordechai looks just like everything he set out to oppose!

There must be a lesson in this for us. If we can look holy and we can look like oppressors, we have to think carefully about how we appear. 

Perhaps, then, I am right in my decision to always wear a collared shirt and suit jacket when I come to preach on Shabbat. After all, these clothes show that I’m serious and taking the services seriously. 

Ah, but the trouble is, arms dealers, politicians and tobacco lobbyists also wear suits. Aren’t I just dressing up like them, mimicking the clothing of 21st Century professionals, and subconsciously siding with them?

Perhaps, then, I need to switch to jeans and a t shirt? Oh, those haven’t been subversive since Tony Blair got out a guitar and rebranded the country as “Cool Britannia.” Mark Zuckerberg goes to work in jeans and a t-shirt, I’d hardly be making a different point.

Maybe I should copy our friends in Gateshead. After all, if I wear a black hat, long coat and beard, nobody will doubt that I’m Jewish. The people who stumbled to tell me why I looked Jewish before will now have a very clear answer.

Only the trouble is Haredim just dress like Eastern Europeans did 300 years ago. Theirs might fit someone else’s stereotypes better, but there’s nothing more authentic about it. Besides, I’m not convinced I’d look any less oppressive to a great number of Progressive Jews.

So how do we stop ourselves looking like our oppressors? In honesty, I think a Jew only looks like our enemy when we are determining what Jews should look like. When we stereotype, we repeat prejudices. When we gatekeep people for their clothes, we play into classism and prejudice. When we set out an image of a Jew, we exclude and hurt others. Deciding who looks Jewish is the least Jewish thing we can do.

So, what does a Jew look like? Open arms. An open heart. A broad smile. Curious eyes. A face that says, welcome, you are welcome here. A Jew looks like someone who knows that Jews look like everyone. 

Shabbat shalom.