Sunday, 11 November 2018

On Squirrel Hill and Kristallnacht - Memory and Plurality

Shabbat Shalom

Partic warm welcome to guests; family and friends of Felix in particular.
Usually, if there is a BM, I like to give a sermon that is a little warm and fuzzy and can have everyone going on their way with a spring in their step.
But this isn’t a normal weekend.
And I’m too angry, and too sacred and too in pain to give a warm and fuzzy sermon.

I’m still angry and scared and in pain from the news now two weeks old about the attack on the Synagogue in Squirrel Hill Pittsburgh - no longer the most recent atrocity perpetrated in the United States.
And, frankly, I’m still angry and scared and in pain on this Shabbat marking the 80th Anniversary of Kristallnacht - a night of destruction of Jewish life and property from the darkest ages of our people - 1938 Germany.
I think I would be less angry and less scared about the attacks from two weeks ago and 80 years ago if I didn’t feel what I do about the world of politics.
There would still be pain. Of course, there would still be pain, about the lives lost, and the simple barbarity of destruction.
But I can deal with pain. The pain thing is somehow assimilatable.

It’s the fact that the destruction of 80 years ago and the destruction of two weeks ago resonate off one another, like some wave of energy bouncing between the past and present and threatening to bounce off again into the future.
That’s the thing that makes me so scared, and so angry.
How come we are here?
How come 80 years after we thought we would never again slide into a world of fascist intolerance, a fascism that stirs up and explicitly or implicitly gives a Heter to racist violence and offence, how come we seem to be back here?

How come instead of having reasoned debate and disagreement about the facts that before us we have - country after country - society after society - adopted as argumentative strategies personal abuse and humiliation, dehumanisation and deceit.
How come it’s acceptable to attack a person for their very existence when the thing they say makes us feel uncomfortable.

Yes, of course, I’m talking about President Trump, and Putin in Russia and Orban in Hungary and ah this list is too long.
And, forgive me, but somewhere on this list of political leaders who are prepared to inflame or permit societal hate to secure their own approval and treat opposition as something to be crushed, not something with which to engage, belongs politicians in this country also. And even politicians in the State of Israel.

And here’s the really bad news - imagine you are a political consultant looking to advise someone on how to get power in these febrile times what advice are you going to give? Actually, these wannabe-politicians don’t need consultants to tell them which way to go. They’ve got the message already.

And if it looked, in those hopeful days of the aftermath of Holocaust as if the UN with it Human Rights’ convention and the whole apparatus of international commitments to “never again” were going to work. It doesn’t feel that way today.

And if it looked, in those 8 years in which Obama served as President of the United States, and I don’t care if you are Democrat or a Republican, if it looked for those eight years as though the most powerful country the world has ever seen, had embraced Hope not Hate, it doesn’t feel that way now.

This week I’ve been reading and listening to Sarah Churchwell, author of a new book, Behold America. She points out how triumphalist nationalism, don’t mess with us patriotism and a racism that lurks only just below the surface has never really gone away in America.
American has always thought of itself as the land of the free and home of the brave, and it’s always behaved as a bully taking the lives and the land of whoever came in the way of those who had the might to enforce their sense of right.

I did warn that this was going to be a political sermon.

But the thing that really struck me about America - and America is Ground Zero for this international horror - is how surprised it gets at the same thing happening again. I lived in New York for the five years surrounding 9/11. I saw the stunned amazement of Americans at 9/11. They couldn’t believe they would be attacked. But what was Pearl Harbour? They couldn’t believe it would be so hard to destroy what George Bush called the Axis of Evil. But what was Vietnam?

And the same thing goes for my dear friends in the Jewish community. They couldn’t believe that a Synagogue could be the target of a raging wicked act of antisemitic murder. American Jews feel so at home in America, they can’t imagine themselves as victims of anti-Jewish hatred. They’ve forgotten that General Grant expelled the Jews from the States in 1862. They’ve forgotten the Klu Klux Klan’s invidious Jew-hatred - they should go and watch Spike Lee’s new movie - BlackkKlansman, we all should. I warmly recommend Philip Roth’s Plot Against the Jews. It’s a fiction only a hairs breath away from an entirely plausible past. And today it feels less like some apocalyptic horror show and more like reportage.

Back when I was at Seminary, in New York, we had a class on Mediaeval Jewish History, and the first class of semester was the expulsion of the Jews from England, and the second was the expulsion of the Jews from France, and the third was the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and one of my nice Americal fellow students said something witty about how great it was to be American. And the professor, Dr Benjy Gampel, with the withering scorn of someone who actually knows about history looked down on my colleague and said, ‘If you really think you are so safe in America, you have no understanding of the nature of history.’   

But it’s not just the Americans and not just the Jews.

Anyone else here remembers Gordon Brown announcing the end of the boom-bust cycle?

There is, in us all, a kind of willful amnesia. We don’t want to live in a world where hatred exists, so we imagine we don’t. We don’t want to imagine that it could get worse, so we suppress the knowledge that it ever did.

So what to do?

I want to share two things, two thing I commit myself to, and two things I need your assistance with.

The first thing is we must never forget, we must always memorialise, even as the names are too many and the eyewitnesses too few.
Last week I recited the 11 names of those murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue. This week I want to recite the names of the 2,000 who were murdered, and the 1,000 synagogues destroyed.

I want to count aloud every Mark’s worth of damage that Nazi acolytes caused and Jews had to pay for, on that awful night 80 years ago.
I want to hold up and hand around photos of this destruction from 80 years ago this very weekend,
Together with photos of what German Jewry used to look like, back in the days when German Jews couldn’t imagine anyone othering them - so at home did they feel as full and equal members of German society.

I want to that term, ‘Never Again’ to sound like a question, a fearful and un-easy gnawing in the gut. Because for the term ‘never again’ to sound confident and secure shows, in that phrase of my Jewish history professor, no understanding of the nature of history.
That’s the first thing.
We need to remember and recount and retell so we don’t fall into selective amnesia.

The second thing we all need to do is make the case for the principle of decent society most under threat in this unstable world.
We need to make a much better case for the principle of plurality; the plurality of people and the plurality of ideas.

Too much of the proto-facism of contemporary society is based on an erroneous idea that there are proper members of society and then there are others. And the others don’t really count as full human beings and we would do well to make their life as tough as possible.
And that idea turns my stomach.
It should turn all our stomachs even if we aren’t Jewish ourselves, even if we can trace our ancestry on these isles back to the days of Angles and Saxons and Celts, because if we allow ourselves to drift into becoming a society which doesn’t respect otherness - the plurality of people,  if we allow ourselves to drift into becoming a society which doesn’t recognise that all human beings are equally made in the image of God, and all human beings deserve the same opportunities and chance for a decent life they will eventually come for us.

Eventually, we will all fall foul of being too dark-haired, or too blond or too tall or too short, or too fat or too thin, for we are all too much one thing or not enough another.

Pastor Niemoller wrote in the 1930s

First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It’s that time already.
If we allow ourselves to slide into a society where difference is not celebrated and protected and promoted, they’ll come for us all.
That’s we plurality of people is so important.

The same thing goes for how we talk, how we debate, how we disagree. Debate, disagreement is good.
It’s how we learn, it’s how we discover things we don’t know. Disagreement isn’t to be disparaged. We need a plurality of ideas. People who take positions that are outside the mainstream are the people who most deserve our respect - they are the most important people in society. They aren’t to be threatened, abused, locked up. They certainly aren’t to be strangled, chopped up and boiled in acid in an Embassy in some foreign land. In what kind of world are we living?

So, do something to promote difference. Give some money to our Drop In Centre for Asylum Seekers, talk to me about getting involved in Citizens UK. Do something.

Promote disagreement, listen harder to those who disagree with you in the hope of learning something you don’t already know. Tell others also to see debate as a good thing.

A belief in plurality isn’t just being nice. It isn’t just a belief in human rights, it’s self-interest - it’s the thing that might, just, save us.

Just don’t forget, and don’t just watch on as decency slides away.
Here’s another thing we learnt 80 years ago.
It’s the bystanders who were, in the end, the people who made the difference.

Don’t be a victim, wrote the great Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer, Don’t be a perpetrator, but, above all, Don’t be a bystander.” — Yehuda Bauer

For as Simon Wiesenthal, camp survivor and Nazi hunter put it

“For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.”

Shabbat Shalom

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