Sermon – Shabbat T’rumah – 4th March 2017
91 Jewish community centres in the USA have received over 100 bomb threats in the last few months. At least three Jewish cemeteries in the States have been vandalised and many Jewish schools and Jewish museums in the UK and abroad have faced the terrifying moment of receiving that phone call and not knowing what terror might be unleashed. Rabbi Mona Alfie of B’nei Yisrael in Sacramento said, “While on a conference call with three of my rabbinic colleagues this morning about how to engage our communities in social action one of the rabbis had to rush off the phone as his day school had just received a bomb threat. I guess this is the new normal”, she said.
Thankfully although it has been frightening, unnerving and disruptive fortunately nobody has been hurt. This week the Daily Mail fell foul to becoming part of ISIS devilish propaganda machine by printing and article with the headline, “Dress up like a Jew and make sure you have plenty of weapons under your coat’: ISIS fanatics issue chilling call to ‘terrorise’ Jewish people in the West“.
What is the purpose of publishing such an article? Either it’s spreading the message far beyond ISIS fanatics to any lunatics that might like to join in such a game or it serves to spread fear among Jews not even to trust each other for among us may be the evil pranksters.
This week I was talking to a member who lost his eyesight a year ago while in his late 50s and is now registered blind. He is still getting used to his disability and was telling me about a weird experience he had had last week. He was walking in Hackney, the area of London he had lived in as a young boy but had not been back to for many years. He was walking along with his white stick and a friend. He was describing the fact that he was straining to see with the tiny letterbox shape bit of vision he has in one eye, which is like looking through a fuzzy netting or gauze, and just making out pavement and house frontages on one side of the road that looked so familiar as if they hadn’t really changed from his childhood but disorientatingly he could just make out that on the other side of the road was built up with modern luxury flats. As he strained and strained to see the bits he could make out, the world suddenly started spinning and he felt completely nauseous. He had to sit down for a moment. It was as if his brain was trying to see in two ways. On the one hand it was using the small about of vision it could muster. On the other it was recalling memories of the roads once so familiar but not travelled down for the last 40 years to fill in the blanks. It seems when the brain couldn’t rationalise the memory with the reality of the visuals it became disorientated. I could only liken it to the brain getting a warning message to download a more up to date version of the maps because the reality and the memory were not quite syncing.
I realise we are all walking down those roads of Hackney right now. On the one hand every bomb scare and vandalised cemetery takes us back to moments in history best left far behind us but our eyes are actually seeing something different as well, something of our time: something never yet seen and needing to be experienced without the prejudice of downloading the related historical material of our own or our learnt past. So we enter into the moment of nausea where we need to stop and assess the incidents for their own sake. Here we have a choice. Which vision wins out? What we can strain to see in our blurry vision of a tiny slice of life not really being able to see the global picture or the blanks that are being filled in with a fear of our past.
If we let the vision of memory win out we become paralysed with fear, if we don’t let our brain support the incomplete new images with memory we cannot see it at all because it is lurking in the shadowy silence. How many non-Jews even know this is happening, because it isn’t in the news? So how can we respond to what we are seeing in the immediacy without the prejudice of the past?
What can we do? I think we have to acknowledge this is happening and act because I fear this isn’t the behaviour of little brothers who are just trying to aggravate and will run out of steam when they don’t get a response. We need to motivate a movement away from sinat chinam– hatred without cause. We have to make big gestures to stay in the moment and not to let fear get the better of us. Make an extra visit to the Jewish Museum, JW3 or choose a kosher restaurant in Hendon or Golders Green to show them that they will not lose out on business, fear will not keep us away. Don’t just go but let’s start a hashtag #davka because we are going davka, just because we are not giving in to fear.
Journalist Jordana Horn wrote, “Talk about these hoaxes and the scare tactics. Don’t act like nothing is happening. The mainstream news isn’t telling people and that silence is part of what sows the seeds of fear — people who are not affected turn a blind eye and pretend nothing is happening. IT’S HAPPENING.” So let’s take control of the narrative and ensure it is one of confidence in the face of bullies.
Rabbi Larry Karol wrote in his shul newsletter “This is most definitely a time to be watchful and vigilant however it is not a time to be afraid… Purim is here next weekend, the holiday on which we mock the one who hated the Jews of Persia and cheer for the bravery of Mordechai and Esther for standing up for their people. It is always time to be like Mordechai and Esther in how we view our Jewish identity and in how we can find ways to stand against hatred in cooperation with partners in the local community. History has taught us that those connections can bring us both strength and hope, so let us pursue them in the days to come.”
We need to find ways to reconnect with London. It’s easy to retreat inwards at times like this; we need to push ourselves to do the reverse.
Horn wrote. “I went to the zoo the other day with my kids and saw a sign on a tree that said, “It takes 200 years for a tree to grow to this size; it takes 20 minutes to chop it down.” So often, it can seem like acts of hate or violence or evil or treachery are more powerful than acts of love because they happen quicker and are more violent. But they are not because acts of love and kindness are so meaningful, they are what make life worth living.”
Nachman of Bratslav said Kol haolam kulo gesher tsar meod all the world is a narrow bridge. We know because there is a fine line between hoax calls and terrorist attacks. V’haikar lo le fached klal but the thing to ensure is never to be afraid.