Tuesday, 11 June 2013

England v Israel

England, admittedly ‘only’ the U21 team play Israel in the European Championships this Saturday.

I wrote on the ‘problem’ this raises for English Jews for the JC last time there was a similar clash, in 2008.


Would you pass the Tebbit Test?
Jeremy Gordon 

“A large proportion of Britain’s Asian population fails to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for?”

Norman (now Lord) Tebbit’s words echo 17 years after he spoke them. It has always been a good question for Jews to ponder, wherever we have lived, but now — for the English at least — it has become very concrete. With England due to take on Israel in the Euro 2008 qualifier on March 24, which side should an English Jew support?

The rabbis of antiquity did not have much time for football, especially on the holy Sabbath (truth be told, the rabbis had a distaste for public games of any sort). Nevertheless, we can look to them for some guidance.

First we should consider England’s claims.

Jeremiah might have cheered on Steve McClaren’s boys. He demanded that Israelite exiles living in Babylon should “seek the welfare of the city to which I [God] have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf” (Chapter 29). However, I am not that sure he meant “at the expense of Israel”.

Rabbi Hananya, a rabbi in the time of the Romans, called on the people to “pray for the welfare of the Kingdom [Rome], for without the fear of it, a man would eat his neighbour alive” (Avot
 3). But his rationale seems to have more to do with one’s self-preservation than with national identity.

Similarly, the basic structure of the traditional prayer for the Royal Family — “May the One who gives salvation to Kings” — has been part of British Jewish liturgy since the time of Manasseh Ben Israel, 350 years ago, and would seem to imply that we should be supporting England. But it does call for “leaders and advisers… to deal kindly with the House of Israel” — not exactly blessing English midfielders and strikers looking to capitalise on weaknesses in the Israeli defence.

Now for the Israeli case. A rabbinic teaching on which charitable causes we should support says: “The poor of your city take precedence over the poor of another city, but the inhabitants of Israel come before those who dwell outside the land” (Shulchan Arukh
 YD 251). This would be a good reason to support Israel, but trying to learn something about cash-soaked footballers from the laws of charity is stretching the rabbinic system beyond its limits. Hillel is perhaps the clearest cheerleader for the Israelis: “If I am not for me, who will be for me?” (Avot 1). It is a message Jews have come to understand again and again, no matter where we have wandered, but it is hardly a decisive call one way or the other.

Several months ago, my European Masorti rabbinic colleagues and I were invited to meet with the German Interior Minister, Dr Wolfgang Schäuble, to discuss Germany’s offer of citizenship to around 150,000 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Dr Schäuble wanted to talk about what was and was not necessary in order to be considered a good German. I took the opportunity to present the minister with a German version of Tebbit’s test. If Germany played Turkey at football, which side would he expect a German citizen of Turkish origin to support?

“In this case, Turkey,” came the surprising response. My memory of Dr Schäuble’s exact wording is vague, but he went on to say something like: “Of course, if Germany were playing anyone else, I would expect they would support Germany, but it makes no sense to expect a person to turn away from their ethnic origin, even to support the country where they live.”

It was a remarkable thing to hear from a minister with responsibility for immigration and a truly remarkable thing to hear in a re-united Berlin, of all European cities. More than that, I doubt any rabbi could have put it better. So, in the absence of any clear rabbinic precedent, I’ll be relying on the words of a German minister as I cheer on Israel, against England — once Shabbat goes out, of course.

Jeremy Gordon is rabbi of St Albans Masorti Synagogue



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