2nd Day Rosh Hashana 5779 – Rabbi Howard Cooper

RH2 2018

In the spring of 1945 George Orwell was having difficulty finding a publisher for his latest work. He’d written a novella entitled Animal Farm: A Fairy Story and had sent it first to his regular publisher, the left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz, who rejected it, and then to several other publishers, including T.S.Eliot at Faber and Faber. Nobody would publish it, this allegory of the way cults of personality form and lead to dictatorship and terror. For these publishers, the fable – woven around a  thinly-disguised critique of Stalin and the Soviet Union – could not be allowed into the public domain. The  Soviet Union were allies, and a key member of the alliance that were about to defeat Hitler and the Axis powers after six years of bloody and exhausting conflict.

Orwell however was undaunted. That spring, 1945, he wrote an introduction to Animal Farm confident that he’d soon find someone who would publish his work. He was right. Yet when Secker and Warburg did publish it in mid-August of that year, Orwell’s introduction was missing, for reasons that remain obscure.  So you won’t have read his introduction, even if you have read at some stage in your life what became this internationally recognised classic tale, Animal Farm.

Here’s his introduction – at least, here’s part of it:

At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness.

[In its way this is an amplification of the remark made by the playwright Ibsen sixty years before that in his play An Enemy of the People (1882): “The worst enemy of truth and freedom in our society is the compact majority”]. Later on, Orwell developed this theme about how hard it is to go against prevailing orthodoxies, when he wrote in his novel 1984 about societies that succumb, willingly, or unwillingly, to what he termed ‘Groupthink’ –  Orwell had a sure instinct about the ways in which societies can become dominated by hyper-conformity and manufactured consent, often out of deference to, or compliance with, the thoughts of strong personalities or leaders.

People are persuaded – or bullied – into believing a strongly stated view, regardless of whether it is true or not. It becomes just what ‘we’ think. Or are supposed to think.

One more sentence from Orwell’s unpublished introduction – self-justifying, but understandably so – and then we will see what all this has got to do with us:

If the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of western civilisation means anything at all, it means that everyone shall have the right to say and to print what he believes to be the truth, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way.

That’s a very interesting proviso isn’t it? – the right to say or print anything one believes to be true, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way. We will need to keep this in mind because the question of what ‘harms’ a community is a moot point.  It gets close to the nub of our current discontents and distresses in the Jewish community, as disingenuous as some of those perceived discontents might turn out to be. For we are being told, I think, by people who should know better, that we as a community are being harmed ‘in some quite unmistakable way’.

Let’s be clear though what it means that people have the right to say or print what they believe to be true. It means Donald Trump has the right to tweet whatever fatuous, blustering and narcissistic remarks he wants – and each of us has the right, as do commentators anywhere, to mock, scorn, argue with, point out the inconsistencies and lies in, or just ignore, what he has tweeted. He’s not harming the rest of the American community – people agree with him or not – the harm he’s doing is more to the Office of the Presidency, and to the notion that there is a difference between facts and opinions (and that that difference matters), and not least there’s the harm he’s doing to the English language itself.

So what about Jeremy Corbyn? ‘Oh – Jeremy Corbyn’. What does he have a right to say, and what has he said that might have done harm to the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way?

 First of all, obviously, he has the right to say that he abhors racism and anti-Semitism. He has a long track record supporting that claim – the problems that have arisen for some in the Jewish community revolve not around this claim but around him offering  support to pro-Palestinian groups, and solidarity with some who themselves have clear anti-Semitic views. That was enough, some three or so years ago, for the Jewish press in this country and some leaders of communal organizations to start a campaign to expose him as an anti-Semite himself. Until recently it’s been a campaign of slurs and innuendo and guilt by association but then came that revelation – gold dust – posted online by the Daily Mail, (who of course have no agenda of their own about Corbyn), about his remarks in 2013 at a meeting with the Palestinian ambassador Manuel Hassassian.

And yes, when you refer to a group of people in a room – or even if they aren’t in the room – as Zionists who despite “having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, don’t understand English irony” – then, yes, that crosses a line. The implication of that is pretty clear: Jews are fundamentally ‘other’, alien, people who will never be truly English/British. It’s a classic antisemitic trope and as my colleague Rabbi Alexandra Wright of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue wrote, his words were “indefensible, ill-advised and, no doubt, designed to rebuke and give maximum offence” – offence to those Jews who were at the meeting to argue with the Ambassador.

Was he aware when he said this, that this was antisemitic? Who knows? Unlike Trump, Corbyn is not an ignoramus. Stubborn maybe, but not stupid. But at the very least these comments revealed a clear moral blind spot and this needs to be, as it has now been, called out.  People can be, and are, unconscious of, unaware of, their anti-Semitism. That’s not an excuse, just a reality. He may in private be horrified to realise, as we all would be, that he’s unwittingly given voice to a deeply pernicious and prejudicial view. I don’t know, and none of us knows, or can know. I would suggest though, before we get too much on our high horse, that all of us can at times be unconscious of the potential offensiveness of some of our views and opinions. We are all capable of moral blind-spots. And if these things are ever exposed we feel shame and humiliation, sometimes too much to bear. We get defensive and, often, belligerent. And for politicians in particular this puts them in a truly unbearable position. Corbyn could never admit it, publicly, even if he felt it, that he’d got something seriously wrong in those off-the-cuff remarks.

But I’m not worrying about Corbyn’s soul – I’m wanting to focus on ours. Part of our work at this time of the year is not to cast our eyes outwards and see the faults in others, but to see where what we perceive as faults in others reflect parts of ourselves we’d rather disown, or not know about. Where are we guilty of sins of prejudice? And stereotyping? of sins of hatred? of sins of disdain towards others? Let’s use Corbyn, in other words, as a mirror, as uncomfortable as that might be, to reflect on our own failings to live up to our ideals, our better selves. To reflect on the gap in ourselves between the vision of how we’d like to be, how we’d like to think about ourselves – and our failures to live up to those ideals.

I want to leave Corbyn for now, he will soon enough become just a footnote in the history of these decades. I hold no candle for him, by the way – I think his leadership on the gravest issue facing this country, the Brexit fiasco, has been quite hopeless. So don’t hear my remarks about him as coming from some Labour-supporting cronyism. I’m much more concerned about the witch hunt against him by elements within the Jewish community and the harm that could do to the well-being of our community, than I am concerned about one leader’s failures to be rigorous in his commitment to anti-racist views.

We know that the issue that has been concerning the community is wider than Corbyn – that it’s been about real antisemitism in parts of the Labour party, and the party’s relative failure to address this thoroughly and comprehensively. I’m not naïve: I have no doubt that strands of real hostility to Jews exists in the UK – this is nothing new, it exists in all parties and in all sectors of British society from what used to be called the working classes through polite English middle class prejudices to the aristocracy and their longstanding contempt for interlopers into their ranks – think of the upper-class opprobrium heaped in the 19th century on men like Disraeli, the Prime Minister, and the Rothschilds; or of the common-or-garden antipathy towards Jews expressed by writers like T.S.Eliot and Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc and Graham Greene. Anti-Semitism has always  been part of the fabric of this country: always has been, always will be. But we have survived it and thrived, in spite of it all. And we’ll survive these latest shenanigans as well.

So why am I wanting to bring Orwell into all this current furore? What is he speaking about that is so relevant to us today? Well, sadly, it’s prompted by what I see going on around me: am I alone in thinking that it’s all become rather hysterical, all this talk about ‘existential threat’, this fantasy that British Jews are getting ready to pack their bags en masse and leave the country out of fear for their well-being and very survival?

What I am concerned about is the way in which an atmosphere has been created, led by some very prominent communal voices (rabbinic and lay) and by the Jewish press, an atmosphere and attitude that has become a kind of orthodoxy. As Orwell reminds us: At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it.

Well, it might be ‘not done’ to say this, but I need to say it: it’s as if a virus has been let loose amongst us, and it is affecting our mental well-being, our capacity to discriminate the wood for the trees, our ability to think clearly about what is happening, to get a perspective on events. There are elements of hysteria in this, elements of paranoia, elements of attention-seeking, and I sometimes wonder – and I hesitate to say this, as if I’m breaking a taboo – I even wonder if there’s a strand of hidden feeling, a kind of unconscious wish, where we in this generation can secretly compare ourselves to Jews in Germany in the 1930s but this time make the story turn out differently, as a victory over the forces of evil rather than being annihilated by them. Jews have always been haunted (understandably) since the events of the Holocaust by questions like: would I have had the courage to leave everything behind, leave family members, or all my material comforts and possessions, how would I have known what to do, what would I have done, when would I have done it? And an atmosphere has been stoked up over this last year or so, and particularly in recent months, with the strong subtext that there’s this unprecedented threat to the future safety of the Jewish community in this country.

I have heard people comparing Corbyn to Hitler, which is bonkers (as we used to say up North). And to compare Corbyn’s ignorant remarks to Enoch Powell’s inflammatory speech of fifty years ago – which was made as Shadow Defence Secretary in the highly charged atmosphere of the arrival of thousands of Kenyan Asian British citizens and the debate over the 1968 Race Relations Act to outlaw discrimination – to make that comparison might be a piece of slick rhetoric but it is a wilful misappropriation of history. It was a reckless analogy. It hardly helps Jews in this country to be aligned in the public mind, as Lord Sacks did, with that wave of immigration that was stirring up ill-feeling and that Powell was addressing. That is not our situation as Jews in this country.

This is all terrible stuff to have to talk about to you, and for some of you it might be unbearable to hear it, or it may make you very angry, so I’m sorry if you feel that way, but I feel a deep responsibility to try to throw some dispassionate light on all this rhetoric and drama that is being played out around us.

You see, I’ve been collecting material for some years now, three or four, where I’ve heard speeches given by major British Jewish figures, rabbis and lay leaders, who go to conferences – often abroad in other parts of Europe, or in Israel, or they give interviews to European or American newspapers – and they talk about Anglo-Jewry as being awash with fear for their survival, about to pack up and leave, suffering from existential dread – and this kind of hyperbolic language has now flooded into our communal discourse and it is ratcheting up our fears in ways that are just not congruent with our external realities.

Because when I look around me at this community here, and other synagogue communities across the religious spectrum in London, I see dynamic programming, whether it is for Jewish learning or Jewish social action or interfaith work – I don’t know how it is outside London, but I get reports from Manchester or Brighton, Glasgow which certainly aren’t filled with doom and gloom – but what I can see across London is a vibrancy, a creativity, a freedom to innovate and explore Jewishness that isn’t only within religious sectors of the community, but is there in communal institutions like JW3 and the Jewish Museum, it’s in Limmud and its offshoots, it’s in the passionate commitment of workers in and supporters of a huge range of Jewish charities, it’s in festivals of music and cooking and the arts and film, it’s in the spread of Jewish schools, primary and secondary, it’s in a healthy sub-community of Israelis who have left their homeland to set up life here, no doubt for a variety of reasons, but surely not unaffected by having had to live for two and more generations being told daily by Israel’s leaders that they are under daily existential threat for their very lives – yes, it’s Netanyahu’s language that has now contaminated British Jewish leaders responses to these recent local manifestations of that-age old antipathy towards Jews in this country.

So what I see when I look around me, and in emails I get from people confused about what on earth is going on, and when I talk to people about how they actually feel, what I see is not a community waiting to pack its bags, a community living with a sense of existential dread, but a community that is a leading European centre for Jewish life.

It was ironic – thank you Jeremy Corbyn, my sense of irony is fully developed, intact and robust, I can spot an irony at 100 yards – there was an irony for me over this summer, a sobering irony, that while all this brouhaha was going on here, I was at a conference of Christians and Jews in Germany. And listening to some of the pastors there, and to members of congregations, Catholic and Protestant, people who are wholeheartedly committed to their historical work of reparation for the sins of the past, when they spoke about issues they are dealing with in their local areas, and about their concerns about the rise of the AfD in Germany, a right-wing, anti-immigrant party who entered parliament for the first time in September last year and are gathering 20-30% support in the polls, a party behind the attacks on foreigners in Chemnitz last month, a party that joins in demonstrations with Nazi salutes, a party that is not as overtly anti-Semitic as other parties in Europe (in Hungary, in Poland, in the Czech republic) but only because Muslims make a more readily identifiable target at the moment, when I look at the rise of real anti-Semitic activity on the mainland of Europe – when I look at all that, I know that many European Jews still do remain vulnerable, more so in some countries than others. But that’s not the situation we are faced with.

As this New Year begins I’d like us to feel what a privilege it is to be able to live freely as Jews in this country at this time in our history, free to celebrate, free to be as expressive and creative as we want to be.  And free to critique and resist the ‘groupthink’ some in the Jewish community would like to impose on us, free to resist bodies of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question’. I hope this New Year brings you much fulfilment, joy, contentment, good health, and a renewed sense that – in spite of the problems this country faces – as a Jew you can make  a real contribution to the well-being of this nation, and to your own community, local or Jewish. Let’s keep our vision clear, as individuals and here in this community,  and continue to celebrate who we are, what we have, and the good fortune we have, the blessing we have, to be living in this place at this time in the long and glorious history of our people.