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…

sermon · social justice

Until she was no longer useful

The Torah doesn’t tell us what happened. It tells us what always happens.

The weekly stories we read are not historical recountings of the lives of ancient people. They are contemporary retellings of the lives of modern people. Genesis is not a book about the past. It is about the present. 

So here is what happened. And here is what always happens.

Hagar had been an Egyptian princess in the court of Pharaoh. Sarah entreated her out to Canaan with promises of work. “You will serve such a holy man,” she promised her. She was given the name, Ha-Gar: the immigrant; the sojourner.

She worked as a maidservant. She, who had been so prestigious in her homeland, cleaned up after Abraham and Sarah in their tents. She washed their clothes and took care of their needs. 

Then Sarah realised that she was barren. She instructed Abraham to sleep with Hagar, and Abraham consented. We do not know how Hagar felt about her surrogacy.

They conceived on the first try. What a successful servant! Then Sarah became jealous. “Isn’t Hagar so haughty? Doesn’t she think she’s so much better than me?”

So she started afflicting Hagar and making her life unbearable. Hagar ran away. And then she came back, because where was she going to go?

Hagar did indeed bear a child, and called him Ishmael, meaning ‘God will hear.’ And then she was no longer useful.

Fertile woman. Hated woman. Did her work well. Did her work too well. Did her work so well she was no longer useful and had to be sent away

Sarah was threatened by her and demanded she leave. She was supposed to be a servant and now she was a competitor, with a rival child, an older boy. If Ishmael is allowed to grow up, he’ll take everything from Isaac. If Hagar is allowed to stay, she might have the upper hand.

And Hagar ran away into the wilderness and was so desperate she almost killed her son. But she found a well of water and they survived. Ishmael grew up to be a bowman.

We don’t know what happened next to Hagar. History does not record.

Now here is what happened. And here is what always happens.

Sentine Bristol was born in Grenada, a British colony in the Caribbean. The Empire lured her over to work in the United Kingdom. She came on a boat called the Windrush. She worked as a nurse in the NHS. A successful immigrant, keeping us alive. Too successful, stealing our jobs.

Aren’t they great, bringing their culture and ingenuity and skills? We will celebrate them in our Olympics opening ceremony. But it wouldn’t kill them to assimilate. Couldn’t someone else have done the work she was brought over here on the Windrush to do?

She brought her son with her. His name was Dexter. He worked as a cleaner until he was in his 50s. 

And then they were no longer useful. Hardworking immigrants. Parasitic immigrants. Did their work well. Did their work too well. Did their work so well they were no longer useful and had to be sent away. 

A new wave of nationalism swept the country. The Home Office destroyed the records of their having arrived in Britain. The government declared a policy of a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, which included people who did not have their papers because their papers had been destroyed.

So the state cast them out. Dexter had to prove he wasn’t a foreigner in the only country he’d known since he was 8 years old. And he couldn’t find the documentation. He lost his job and the right to claim benefits. He was threatened with deportation.

And no well appeared in the wilderness. And he didn’t go on to become a bowman or a great nation. He died of a heart attack from the stress of trying to keep his home. Sentine did not receive justice. She disappeared from the headlines two years ago. 

This is what happened. This is what always happens.

One group gains more wealth than another. Maybe by technology, maybe by force, maybe by resources, maybe by luck.  The wealthy people require the labour and expertise of others, so they entice them with promises of jobs and prosperity. People go wherever the wealth is. They become nurses, midwives, bricklayers, servants, dream-interpreters, delivery workers, chefs, surrogates, cleaners, plumbers and bus conductors. 

The migrant people are despised. They have taken our jobs and brought their diseases. Their ways are too different from ours; they refuse to assimilate. Their beliefs are too foreign from ours; they cannot be allowed into our spaces. We do not trust their food or their clothes or their appearance. They will overtake us by sheer force of their numbers or intelligence or might. They must be eradicated.

The migrant people are prized. Look at the wonderful ingenuity and work ethic they have brought to us. How lucky we are to have them in our ranks. Such awards we must give them for their brains, their athleticism, their musical talent. They have transformed our cuisine and our customs. We cannot imagine our culture without them. We must protect them.

And then they are no longer useful. Maybe they are feared or maybe their hosts become jealous. Maybe the wealthy people are no longer so wealthy, or maybe they no longer feel so wealthy. Maybe there is a new government or an old ideology or a charismatic movement promising to restore former greatness. And the migrant people are surplus to requirement, so they have to leave.

They go back where they came from or onwards to somewhere else, not that it makes much difference either way. They get deported or they go voluntarily because they know they’re not wanted any more, not that it makes much difference either way. They depart on foot into the desert unsure if their children will survive. They leave on camels, in caravans, on boats, in cars. They pile into buses and aeroplanes and dinghies, depending on which paperwork they have and how much money they can stump up front. 

And then they are forgotten. And we don’t know what happens to their story after that.

That is what happened. And that is what always happens.

The Torah’s stories tell of the time when humanity transitioned into a new kind of civilisation, one defined by inequality and migration. That is why they are not just about the past, they are about the present.

The Torah recalls what it was like for an Egyptian named Hagar to seek work and be abused among Israelites. It tells the story of an Israelite named Joseph who sought work and was abused among Egyptians.

And because it tells those stories of inequality and migration, it also tells the stories of all the people who moved to Britain over these centuries. Their struggles, our struggles, are reflected here too.

The Torah doesn’t tell us what happened. It tells us what always happens. Unless we do something about it.

I gave this sermon for Glasgow Reform Synagogue on Saturday 7th November 2020, Parashat Vayera.

judaism · sermon · social justice

What good is remembering?

Jews do not have history, we have memory. Whereas the rest of the world commits itself to dates, names and figures, our engagement with the past consists in rituals and symbols. At Pesach, we are not interested in the historical facts of the exodus from Egypt, but in reenacting its moral meaning. At Shavuot, as has just passed, we do not care so much about the geography of the Sinai peninsula as the words that were spoken on its mountain.

Memory is, in many ways, more powerful than history. Whereas history is focused on clinical facts, memory calls on raw emotion. Whereas history cares about leaders, memory looks at ordinary people’s lives. And although history looks only at the past, memory wonders what its events mean for the future.

Even when it comes to recent history, we are less interested in the architects and perpetrators of the Nazi genocide than we are in the diary of a 15 year old girl. Anne Frank has become a symbol. As one girl, she stands in for the memory of millions. In classrooms and homes around the world, Anne Frank is the way for people to remember the evils perpetrated in the Third Reich.

It is a great act of kindness to the Jewish community here, especially its Holocaust survivors and their descendants, that you have all chosen to join us in remembering. To the Council, for planting this tree in memory of Anne Frank, growing in the Herefordshire soil as a symbol to remember a symbol. To the dignitaries who join is in this service today, and who have been friends to our community, for joining us, please accept our thanks.

Memory turns death into meaning. When we remember our martyrs, we remember what they stood for. We remember Rabbi Akiva, flailed to death by the Romans, and we revive his vision for a Judaism that is creative and rich in interpretation. We remember the decapitated Rabbi Ishmael, and relive his conviction that Judaism must be principled and action-based. Their lives and deaths represent the values they inhabited.

Of course, Anne Frank was no martyr. Martyrs are those who die in the service of a cause, consciously choosing to affirm God’s truth rather than compromise. She did not choose her death. She did not pursue it in search of a cause. She was a teenage girl who wanted to ride her bicycle. Nevertheless, she has left behind a legacy of words, hopeful that something of her life could be recalled. And we have translated those words into a commitment to remember cruelty and have cause for hope.

Yes, memory is supposed to prevent evil being repeated. We recall a teenage girl who had to hide in a room in an attic before she was dragged away by soldiers to die of typhus in a concentration camp. And we commit to prevent bringing about a situation when any child has to live and die like that. 

May this tree call out to people with Anne Frank’s moral lesson. May they be the ones who would hide people who have been declared illegal aliens to stop their deportation. May they be the ones who would protest against the encroachment of civil liberties. May they be the ones who would stand up to resist fascism before there was nobody left to speak out for them.

May that memory of Anne Frank speak loud enough that even our world leaders can hear it. The memory of genocide in Europe was supposed to prevent it happening again, but we know that mass slaughter has not ended. We know that there are still children dying of typhus in concentration camps. We know that there are still forced labour prisons surrounded by barbed wire. We know that the nations of the world have only developed crueller and more effective ways to torture and kill people. May this tree and this service and that diary speak loud enough for that evil to be blotted out.

Many of our prayers this week are turned to the evil perpetrated in the United States. Black Americans, who endured centuries of slavery followed by segregation now face the injustice of police brutality. The world watches as they protest once more for their rights and we hope that they will see the justice for which they have longed.

I do not intend to engage in comparisons. Any attempts at equivalence are facile and destined to turn into competitions nobody wants to win. But the horrors endured in Nazi Germany and for Black people in America are united by the common fact of memory. Both call on their dead as symbols, martyrs and aspirations for a better future.

So George Floyd has become an international symbol. The man who could not breathe under the weight of a police boot is now the spark that has reignited a movement. And we should not underestimate the importance of that memory. Without it, our humanity is compromised. Memory makes people human.

Memorialisation gives people a dignity in their death that they were not afforded in life. By saying their names and recounting who they were, the dead are allowed to be people instead of statistics.

We remember George Floyd, and he is once again a gentle giant who said hello to everyone and was trying to look after his six-year-old daughter. Instead of a man in Minneapolis who was strangled to death by police.

We remember Tamir Rice, and he is once again a twelve year old boy playing games outside his home. Instead of a child who was shot dead by police on the street.

We remember Belly Mujinga, and she is a wife and mother working as a ticket inspector on the London Underground. Instead of a woman who died of Coronavirus after somebody spat in her face.

We remember Joy Gardener, and she is a mature student from Jamaica living in Crouch End. Instead of a woman who died from asphyxiation after she was gagged with adhesive tape by police. 

We remember victims of racial violence and they cease to be only victims, but can be full human beings with histories and dreams and potential.

And because we gather today in remembrance, Anne Frank is not a Jew who died of typhus in a Nazi concentration camp. If only for a moment, Anne Frank can be a teenage girl who wants to ride her bike. 

Thank you. Shabbat shalom. 

Anne Frank tree Saxon Hall 26 May 2020 (1)

I gave this sermon for Three Counties Liberal Judaism in honour of Anne Frank’s birthday on Saturday 13th June 2020. The picture is of the Anne Frank tree in Hereford.