Laugh­ing at the an­ti­semites

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - Yoni Birn­baum THE VIEW FROM THE PUL­PIT

IN A Mu­nich beer gar­den in 1932, a re­mark­able di­a­logue took place be­tween Win­ston Churchill and Ernst Han­f­s­taengl, a close con­fi­dant and spin-doc­tor of Hitler. Dur­ing the con­ver­sa­tion, as re­counted by Boris John­son in his book The Churchill Fac­tor, Han­f­s­taengl an­nounced his in­ten­tion to or­gan­ise a meet­ing be­tween Hitler and Churchill. He then asked Churchill what ques­tions he would like to ask, so that he could plan the pro­posed meet­ing in ad­vance.

“Why is your chief so vi­o­lent about the Jews,” Churchill wanted to know. “I can quite un­der­stand him be­ing an­gry with Jews who have done some­thing wrong or are against the coun­try, but what is the sense in be­ing against a man sim­ply be­cause of his birth? How can any man help how he is born?”

Thank­fully, Churchill’s pro­posed en­counter with Hitler never tran­spired. But his be­wil­der­ment about an­ti­semitism has cer­tainly en­dured and seems more un­fath­omable to­day than ever.

Fol­low­ing the re­cent pub­li­ca­tion of the CST’s an­nual re­port show­ing el­e­vated lev­els of an­ti­semitic in­ci­dents, I was in­ter­viewed on sev­eral lo­cal ra­dio sta­tions. The pre­sen­ters were hop­ing a rabbi would be able to pro­vide some in­sight into how peo­ple in the Jewish com­mu­nity felt about these dis­turb­ing sta­tis­tics. A ques­tion posed to me by more than one in­ter­viewer greatly dis­turbed me, how­ever. “What do you think the Jewish com­mu­nity can do about an­ti­semitism,”, I was be­nignly asked.

The ques­tion both­ered me for sev­eral rea­sons. Firstly, it is ob­vi­ously never the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the vic­tim to change their own be­hav­iour in or­der to pre­vent an at­tack. If some­one shouts “Jew” at me in the street I do not in­tend to re­act by going out next time with­out a kip­pah on.

But the main rea­son it dis­turbed me was be­cause it made me won­der what ex­actly can be “done about an­ti­semitism”. Are we re­signed to this scourge for­ever oc­cu­py­ing the front pages of Jewish news­pa­pers?

Clearly, as a com­mu­nity, we can fight the prej­u­dice that leads to racial ha­tred and must con­tin­u­ally send out a mes­sage of zero tol­er­ance for any form of an­ti­semitism. Thank­fully, we have won­der­ful com­mu­nal or­gan­i­sa­tions that lobby the Gov­ern­ment in or­der to ad­vance these aims. They cor­rectly ad­vo­cate for na­tional cur­ricu­lum man­dated ed­u­ca­tion that chal­lenges the harm­ful stereo­types ex­ist­ing be­neath the sur­face in so­ci­ety. And they have fa­cil­i­tated wide­spread in­ter­faith di­a­logue with some very pos­i­tive re­sults.

But there is per­haps some­thing else that we can add to our ar­se­nal in our on­go­ing fight against the ac­tions of these rep­re­hen­si­ble in­di­vid­u­als.

The vil­lain of the Book of Es­ther, Ha­man, jus­ti­fied his plan to per­se­cute the Jews be­cause their, “laws are dif­fer­ent from those of all other na­tions…” (Es­ther 3:8). The Jews are dif­fer­ent, so they are there­fore a dan­ger to so­ci­ety. Thank­fully, the Jewish peo­ple mirac­u­lously sur­vived the ex­is­ten­tial threat posed by Ha­man. But no less re­mark­able was the way in which the rab­bis chose to mark the oc­ca­sion.

Purim is the only fes­ti­val in the Jewish cal­en­dar on which there is a mitz­vah to have fun. To laugh, to joke, to dress up. “Days of feast­ing and hap­pi­ness”, the megillah calls it. But to laugh at what, ex­actly? At the fact that we only just man­aged to sur­vive de­struc­tion, yet again?

One pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion is that, if we did not laugh, we would cry — at the im­mense loss, the pain of prej­u­dice, the mil­len­nia of in­jus­tice. But we also laugh on Purim at the ridicu­lous­ness of the an­ti­semites them­selves. We laugh at them, and in do­ing so, per­haps make them oc­ca­sion­ally stop and think about how stupid they ac­tu­ally are.

An­ti­semitism is any­thing other than a laugh­ing mat­ter. It re­mains a se­ri­ous prob­lem, and we are for­tu­nate to live in a coun­try in which the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of peo­ple wish to see its erad­i­ca­tion.

But, mean­while, there is also a value in laugh­ing in the face of the an­ti­semites. As we do through the ex­u­ber­ance of our Purim cel­e­bra­tions. There is a value in pub­licly high­light­ing the out­ra­geous­ness of their be­hav­iour. Per­haps Churchill him­self ap­pre­ci­ated this. He told Han­f­s­taengl that evening in Mu­nich: “You tell your boss that an­ti­semitism may be a good starter, but it is rarely a good sticker.”

Wait­ing at a bus stop with a group of friends in my early twen­ties, some lo­cal youths shouted at us the pro­found ques­tion: “What time’s the bus Jew?”

And, hon­estly, there really was noth­ing else we could do other than laugh.

What can the Jewish com­mu­nity do about an­ti­semites?

Rabbi Birn­baum is Rabbi of the Hadley Wood Jewish Com­mu­nity

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