On October 8th I headed to Berlin to participate in the opening in-person seminar of a certificate programme entitled ‘Current Forms of Antisemitism’ and organised by the European Network for Countering Antisemitism Through Education – ENCATE (https://encate.eu/). The fully funded seminar, with a selected group of only 20 participants from across Europe, struggled to get off its feet. We started by listening to one of the organisers, Avital Lutzky (Kreuzberger Initiative genen Antisemitismus – KIgA [https://www.kiga-berlin.org/en/]), who had family in southern Israel. We decided there had never been a more important time for us to learn and sensitise and teach about antisemitism. And it transpires that the old antisemitic tropes are alive and well, including some that have morphed into contemporary avatars. In the weeks that have followed the opening seminar, and 7/10, no one can call this into doubt.
During and since my Berlin trip my Facebook feed has been full of terrible images. One appeared recently of the communal dining room of a kibbutz in southern Israel that had been used as a morgue. An unimaginably sad and disturbing picture. Thousands had reacted with a sad face, but to my horror five hundred people had ‘laughing faced’ it. I shouldn’t have looked at the comments, but I did. It was a mistake. I read vicious anti-Zionist, anti-Israeli invective and, in light of my evolving understanding of antisemitism in its current forms, I read antisemitism.
The Torah tells us that on the day God created humanity, God saw everything God created and God saw that it was very good. How could I read these names and these comments and see those who wrote them as good, as people created by God in God’s image?
The emerging Israel-related antisemitism
Some of those who reacted to this post-October 7th picture conflated Israelis and Jews everywhere as the deserving recipients of this evil massacre. We got what we deserved. A now emerging Israel-related antisemitism is clearly gaining ground. Any Jew and every Jew can be identified with Israel’s actions, but let’s be clear, if you identify Jews as individuals or as collectives with the State of Israel and its actions you are being antisemitic. This kind of antisemitism dehumanizes Jews – in the first instance those who were brutally murdered and kidnapped on October 7th – but also every Jew, Israeli or not, because it assumes we experience no pain and that we have no compassion for the Palestinians who were also created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.
In an essay published a couple of weeks ago in the New York Times by Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NYC, the author makes reference to a congregant who said she was considering removing her mezuzah from her door. How often have we been faced with this question in our own back yard? Most Jews – in Brussels at least – do not put the mezuzah on the outside doorpost but rather on the inside, because they don’t want their home to be identified as Jewish and potentially singled out. This isn’t a reaction to Hamas’ recent barbary, but an older historical fear. Rabbi Timoner suggests it is a response to what terrorists do, make us afraid, and now we’re being made to believe that we deserve it.Keep your mezuzah on your door
Keep your mezuzah on your door
But let me quote Rabbi Timoner’s response: “Please, please do not take your mezuzah off your door. Please do not stop assembling in your synagogues to be together. Please do not take your star from around your neck. Please do not stop living as proud Jews. Please do not stop standing as steadfast supporters of our Israeli family, who feel more alone in the world now than ever. Please do not stop calling for the return of the hostages. Please do not stop giving to aid funds. Please do not stop calling Israeli friends and family, here and there. Please do not stop doing all of the Jewish things you do. Every one of them, every Jewish thing you do, matters.”
Easier said than done, perhaps, but being visible as Jews, as people of compassion, as people of tradition, and not only as weird and secluded, but as a rainbow of Jewish identities has been argued by some as a first step. Stand up and stand out! It’s easier said than done.
But one thing is clear to me, no matter what we think of the present situation in Israel/Gaza/Palestine and its history, and even if colonization and apartheid and genocide are the words that echo in some heads and fall from their pens and lips, what happened on October 7th cannot be justified or explained by the occupation no matter how terribly wrong we believe it to be.
The Catholic bishop of Antwerp Johan Bonny recently addressed his ‘Jewish friends’ in an opinion piece in a Flemish newspaper suggesting that October 7th was ‘predictable’ and was even now providing what he called an ‘ideal alibi’ for further devastating destruction deliberately designed by ‘certain political leaders’ to put an end to even the remotest possibility of a solution based on dialogue and mutual respect. But let me quote Rabbi Timoner once again: “No people had this coming to them. There is no history, background, theory, analysis, oppression, harm or grievance that justifies what Hamas did. None.” I agree with her 100%.
At the same time, there is an obvious and urgent need to respond to the immediate situation. Rabbi Timoner draws our attention to a passage in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah: “When a siege is placed around a city to conquer it, it should not be surrounded on all four sides, only on three. A place should be left for the inhabitants to flee, to escape with their lives.” All of those with a controlling role to play should pay heed.
Let me conclude with Rabbi Timoner’s concluding prayer: “I pray that we will find a way to free the hostages, end Hamas’s reign of terror and save innocent Palestinian lives. Someday, may all people see Israelis and Palestinians in their goodness, in their pain and in their full humanity, just as, at the beginning, God saw us all.”
Rabbi Brian Doyle-Du Breuil