‘Our English Zion’: Oliver Cromwell and the Jews

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“Build up the breaches, and re-establish the bulwarks of our English Zion” – Sir Walter Scott, Woodstock

Oliver Cromwell. Statesman, soldier, Puritan, Lord Protector and friend of the Jews. Contemporary accounts show that European Jewish intellectuals in the 1650s saw Cromwell’s philosemitism and his efforts to readmit Jews in England as proof that the great man was on a godly mission to save Jews and establish Zion – both in England and in the ancient boundaries of Israel. In 1657 – 360 years ago – the newly-confident Jewish community commenced synagogue services in London.

By Richard Mather

In 1655, a rabbi named Menasseh ben Israel arrived in London from Amsterdam. His purpose was to petition the English head of state, Oliver Cromwell, concerning the return of the Jews to England. “I am not come to make any disturbance … but only to live with my Nation in the fear of the Lord, under the shadow of your protection, while we expect with you the hope of Israel to be revealed,” wrote Manasseh in his petition.

Cromwell’s favourable attitude toward Jews was so marked that at least one of Manasseh’s retinue was said to have identified Cromwell as the Messiah. A Jewish delegation was sent to examine Cromwell’s baptismal records in Huntington, to see if he descended from King David. Did Jews really believe Cromwell was the messiah? Perhaps it was a case of wishful thinking on the part of some Jews. More likely it was a case of mischief-making by royalists and foreign agents who wished to sow discord among the English by falsely claiming that Cromwell was Jewish. Either way, it seems clear that continental Jews – especially Manasseh – were in awe of Cromwell. Indeed, Jewish fondness for Cromwell runs deep. Centuries later, Jewish psychiatrist Sigmund Freud named one of his sons Oliver out of gratitude for Cromwell’s protection of the Jews, and in 2006, 350 years after their return to England, Jewish communities throughout the country celebrated three and a half centuries of British Jewish life.

Changing attitudes

The first written record of Jewish settlement in England dates from 1070. According to William of Malmesbury, William the Conqueror brought Jews from Rouen to England. But anti-Jewish sentiment was never far away. Anthony Julius finds that the English were endlessly imaginative in inventing anti-Semitic allegations against the Jews, most infamously the blood libel. (In this regard, not much has changed in England judging from today’s excruciating amount of Jew-hatred on the Left and in the Muslim community.) Things came to a head in 1290, when Edward I issued the Edict of Expulsion, whereby the Jews were formally expelled from England. Apart from a handful of secret Jews, England was Judenfrei (Jew-free) for almost four hundred years.

The first half of the seventeenth century saw a modest change in English attitudes towards Jews thanks to the Puritans’ high regard for the Hebrew scriptures and their contempt for Hellenism and paganism. There was a fashion for biblical Hebrew names. Paul, Peter, Anne and Mary were out; Habakkuk, Amos, Enoch, Rebecca and Sarah were in. A Hebrew dictionary (the most complete to date) was produced by the parliamentarian Edward Leigh. The poet and pamphleteer John Milton (whose Christian epic Paradise Lost was published 350 years ago in 1667) recommended the teaching of Hebrew in English grammar schools. And in 1653, a radical overhaul of English law was proposed, including the institution of Mosaic Law, with England modelled on biblical Israel. Although nothing ever came of the idea, there was still a drive to create a godly society – an English Zion – where pagan holidays and festivities (Christmas, maypole dancing etc) were abolished.

Common to both Puritans and Jews was the widely-held belief that the year 1666 was going to a decisive year (think of the pseudo-messiah Shabetai Tsvi) – perhaps the restoration of the Jewish commonwealth in its ancient boundaries and the arrival of the messiah. Indeed, some Puritans were moved to help Jews recreate the Jewish commonwealth in Eretz Israel. And there was also a tradition held by Jews and Puritans that the Jewish diaspora must be extended to all corners of the world – and this included England – before the ingathering of the exiles could begin.

Exploding the myth of Puritan intolerance

Contrary to the popular and untrue portrayal of Puritans as intolerant, many Puritans (Cromwell among them) were quite liberal in matters of freedom of religion. True, one of the first acts of censorship by the Commonwealth in 1649 had been to seize an edition of the Quran printed in London, but attitudes towards Jews and other protestant sects were remarkably liberal. Cromwell, it seems, sought a union of “godly people” comprising Jews, Puritans and other gentiles. “Is it ingenuous to ask for liberty, and not to give it?” asked Cromwell somewhat rhetorically.

There was a small but influential community of Marranos (Jews who converted to the Christian faith to escape persecution but who continued to practice Judaism secretly) in London, living outwardly as Spanish Catholics, who wanted legal recognition. In the atmosphere of philosemitism, it was only natural that they wanted to legalize their position. At the same time, European Jews were already coming back to England, albeit illegally. The expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal at the end of the fifteenth century had made England a place of refuge for Marranos who settled in York, Dover and London.

There were also economic considerations. Cromwell was aware of the Jewish community’s involvement in the economics of the Netherlands, now England’s leading commercial rival. All of which led to his encouraging Jews to return to England in the hope that they would help speed up the recovery of the country after the disruption of the Civil Wars.

Enter the Jews

Menasseh ben Israel, an Amsterdam-based rabbi, author, bookseller and scholar, arrived in London in September 1655, with a delegation and members of his family. He personally petitioned Cromwell for the readmission of the Jews, for government protection, for the withdrawal of all laws against Jews, as well as a new synagogue, a cemetery, and the right to trade. It was agreed that a conference should be convened to discuss the issues.

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Menasseh ben Israel

Those summoned to attend the Whitehall conference of 1655 included Puritan religious leaders and merchants, as well as some of the most eminent judges and lawyers in the country who declared that there was no law preventing Jews from residing in England, as the 1290 expulsion had only applied to Jews who were then resident in England. However, both religious leaders and merchants – for very different reasons – opposed the readmission. After debating for a fortnight, no decision could be reached. Disgusted, Cromwell berated the participants and dismissed them. All was not lost, however. Unofficially at least, he had decided to readmit the Jews. Cromwell’s personal sympathies were manifested in the pension of £100 granted to Manasseh ben Israel.

And so Cromwell permitted Jews to reside and trade in England, albeit informally. A lease for Creechurch Lane Synagogue was acquired on 16 December 1656 and services commenced January 1657. This was the first synagogue to be established following the readmission of the Jews to England. In February, the community acquired a lease of land in Mile End, to the east of the city, for use as a cemetery, the first Jewish cemetery in England since the expulsion of the Jews in 1290. Meanwhile, Solomon Dormido, a nephew of Menasseh ben Israel, was admitted to the Royal Exchange as a duly licensed broker of the City of London, without taking the usual oath involving a statement of faith in Christianity.

And so began a renewal of Jewish life in England.

Ironically, it was following the collapse of Cromwell’s godly republic that the Jews were legally admitted to England. In 1664, King Charles II issued a formal written promise of protection, and in 1674 and 1685 further royal declarations were made confirming that statement. In 1698, the Act for Suppressing Blasphemy granted recognition to the legality of practicing Judaism in England. William III knighted the first Jew, Solomon de Medina, on June 23, 1700.

The Jewish Naturalisation Act of 1753 was an attempt to give foreign-born Jews the ability to acquire the privileges of native Jews, but it was quickly rescinded due to anti-Jewish agitation. In 1846, the obsolete statute “De Judaismo,” which prescribed a special dress for Jews, was formally repealed. In 1858 came the emancipation of the Jews and a change in the Christian oath required of all members of Parliament (since 1858, Parliament has never been without Jewish members). There was significant Jewish immigration from eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, and in the 1930s and 1940s, some European Jews came to England to escape the Nazi menace.

Today, the Jewish population in the UK stands at just under 300,000 – the fifth largest Jewish community in the world and the second-largest Jewish population in Europe. About two-thirds of the UK’s Jews live in the south-west of the country, with substantial communities further north, particularly in Greater Manchester, Leeds, Gateshead and Glasgow. Indeed, Manchester’s Jewish population is said to be the fastest-growing in Europe. Much of this can be attributed, at least in part, to the remarkable Oliver Cromwell, described by the poet Milton as “our chief of men.”

Final thoughts

In 1658 Cromwell was struck by a sudden bout of malarial fever, followed by a urinary or kidney complaint. He died aged 59 at Whitehall on Friday 3 September 1658. His death was a great loss to England and the republican cause. Fast forward three-and-a-half centuries, and British Jews (republicans and monarchists alike) view Cromwell with admiration for his religious tolerance and his fair-mindedness. Still, one question needs to be asked and that is, should Cromwell have legally readmitted the Jews instead of just allowing an informal arrangement?

Perhaps. But as it turned out, Cromwell’s informal decision was a good thing because when Charles II came to the throne in 1660 there was no statute to cancel and so things carried on as they were. Besides, the informal nature of the resettlement meant that opposition to Jewish readmission was unable to coalesce. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains it this way: “The fact that there was no formal legislation readmitting the Jews, which we could view negatively, actually worked out rather positively because other countries which enacted specific legislation found that this became subject to enormous public debate, and sometimes these countries took several steps backwards, sooner or later revoking those laws.” (Quote given to a Financial Times journalist in 2006.)

It should also be remembered that although many Puritans lauded the Hebrews as the noblest race in the world, acceptance of actual flesh-and-blood Jews was still a novel position in seventeenth-century England. There was opposition from religious figureheads who feared Judaism, and there was economic opposition from merchants. In addition, Cromwell’s royalist enemies (and there were many) drew a parallel with the political execution of Charles I, saying that the killing of the king was akin to the death of Jesus Christ, and that Jew and Puritan alike were deserving of exile. It was against this background that Cromwell somehow managed to pave the way for the political, religious, economic and cultural emancipation of the Jews in England. His outlook was largely shaped by the biblical traditions of the Hebrew scriptures, and combined with his passion for liberty of conscience, this predisposed him to regard the Jewish people with favor. And for this, we are extremely grateful.

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Spinoza was right: Free inquiry means piety and peace

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By Richard Mather/Israel News Online 

The political outlook of Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–77) is much like that of Thomas Hobbes, writes Middlebury College Professor Emeritus Victor Nuovo in the Addison County Independent.

“This is not surprising, for he schooled himself in Hobbes’ writings and appropriated most of his ideas from them. Yet on one theme in particular, he far exceeded Hobbes — the topic of free inquiry into the nature of things, or as Spinoza described it, the freedom to philosophize and to publish one’s thoughts and discoveries,” says Nuovo.

Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise (published in 1670) makes the claim that this freedom not only does no harm to domestic tranquility and religion, but that the peace and piety of a society depends entirely on it, Nuovo says.

Nuovo points out that Spinoza fastened upon this claim while reading Hobbes. In chapter 12 of his major text Leviathan, Hobbes explains the origin of religion. Hobbes observes that humans are curious creatures and are inquisitive about the causes of things, especially those things that are potentially beneficial or harmful.

From painful experiences we know that these causes often occur without our knowledge, much less our bidding.

“Ours, then, is an anxious and perpetual curiosity, motivated by fear of what may come, by fear of the unknown. In this anxious state of mind we imagine causes, powerful unnatural forces, which we personalize, hoping that by offering them homage we might gain their favor and insure ourselves against misfortune. Thus arise, in the human imagination, the panoply of Gods, demons, invisible spirits, who are taken to be our guardians or destroyers,” writes Nuovo.

Sadly, there are those who exploit our anxieties by inventing magical rites, religious cults and assorted superstitions.

Nuovo continues, “But, Hobbes remarks, there is another kind of human curiosity, which is disinterested and impartial; it is a purely intellectual desire to know and that leads the mind to conclude that there is a first cause of existence that is eternal and infinite, and a supreme power of nature that is omnipotent and inexhaustible.”

This search is impartial and fearless. And it results in the conclusion that there is a single and ultimate power of nature, which is the source of everything, and which we call God.

“This is a purely intellectual notion of God, unaccompanied by neither fear nor hope, but seasoned by pure wonder,” says Nuovo.

Nuovo believes that Spinoza pored over Hobbes’ Leviathan, and did so because he was led there by the central belief of his own monist philosophy, which is that God and Nature (Deus, sive Natura) are one and the same, and that God is the ultimate and rational principle of everything, whose ways can explained. And in the light of this discovery, we learn that the world was not created for the sake of human beings.

Nuovo continues, “The search after truth is an act of pure piety. We honor truth, we respect it, not because it is something we can own, like riches or power that we can use to our advantage, but because truth has no owner. It offers no advantages to anyone. Truth offers only itself, and it is the ultimate judge of all our reasoning and judgments concerning it.”

Truth is clear and transparent. It is enlightening, the very opposite of mystery. It is also joyful.

“Moreover, a society founded on the principle that free rational enquiry shall not be abridged will be free of internal conflict. It will not be plagued by internal conflicts between zealous advocates of rival orthodoxies, whether religious or secular, or by the machinations of predatory demagogues, because every claim to truth will be subject to rational scrutiny, to a calm and dispassionate enquiry by everyone everywhere,” Nuovo says.

According to Spinoza, the commitment to free inquiry manifests itself in our right to change our minds whenever we discover that our beliefs are in error. And in so doing, we will have discovered for ourselves that truth is something to be honored.

“This is the surest means to peace and piety,” concludes Nuovo. “I believe Spinoza had it right.”

To read Victor Nuovo’s article on Spinoza and Hobbes visit here

Spinoza’s intellectual love of God

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Baruch Spinoza

It is a popular misconception that Spinoza was a pantheist or even an atheist. He was not. Like the medieval Kabbalists, Spinoza was a panentheist.

By Richard Mather 

Panentheism, meaning “all-in-God,” is situated somewhere between pantheism and classical theism. For pantheists, the world is identical to God, while for classical theists, the world is completely external to God. Panentheists believe  three things: that the world is within God, that God is in all things, and that God is also supernaturally transcendent. To put it another way, God is ontologically at one with the universe and yet remains greater than the universe. The universe does not exhaust what it means to be God.

To use the terminology of mathematical set theory, the universe – the totality of facts, ideas and things – is a subset of God.

If the word panentheist seems alien to Judaism, a synonymous term is available: monistic monotheism. Either way, such a conception of God can be found in medieval esoteric Judaism (Kabbalah), in the writings of seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and in hasidut (Hasidic Judaism) and even in yahadut mitkhadeshet (Reconstructionist Judaism).

In his youth, Spinoza was exposed to Abraham Cohen de Herrera’s Gate of Heaven, a widely influential work of Jewish mysticism written in Spanish and translated into Hebrew. This work was apparently used by Spinoza’s Talmud teachers, Manasseh ben Israel and Saul Levi Morteira. According to de Herrera, God is not just hidden in himself but is also immanent in the universe. Indeed, the material universe “is actually nothing but the revealed and unveiled God.”

A classic Judeo-panentheistic formulation is memaleh [filling] kol almin u’sosev kol almin – that God fills and surrounds all worlds. This formulation is found in ha-Zohar (the Zohar) and the twelfth-century hymn Shir HaYichud, which contains the words: “All of them are in You and You are in all of them” and “You surround all and fill all and when all exists You are in all.” Similarly, the kabbalist Hayyim Ibn Atar writes in his commentary Or Ha-Hayyim, “The world is in its Creator and the light of the Creator is in the whole world.”

According to hasidut (which emerged as a popular movement less than a hundred years after Spinoza’s death), God both transcends and indwells the universe. The phrase, “The whole earth is full of His glory,” from Sefer  Yeshayahu (Isaiah) is taken to mean that God is in all things.

Hasidic Jews believe that the multiplicity of things we observe in the universe , including ourselves, is due to the screening of the divine light that prevents us from perceiving God as He is in Himself. Similarly, Spinoza refers to things, including ourselves, as “modes” or modifications of God. Both Hasidic Jews and Spinoza believe that only God is substantial. There can be no other substance in the universe but God. That is not to say that individual things aren’t real, just that they are modifications of God and are dependent upon God for their existence.

For Spinoza, because God is infinite, He therefore has infinite attributes, including mind and matter. But the attributes of mind and matter do not exhaust God’s attributes. Because God is infinite, God must have an infinite number of attributes, of which we know nothing. There must be an infinity of other divine attributes that are hidden from us, that transcend our senses and our knowledge.

Spinoza has been erroneously characterised as a pantheist because he asserted Deus sive Natura, which means “God or nature.” But he did not mean that God and nature (i.e. the universe) are synonymous terms, but rather that nature is God, but not God in His entirety. The  two attributes known to us – mind and matter – signify God’s indwelling in the universe. But His transcendence is secured by his infinitely many attributes, of which we can only guess.

As such, there are two inter-related aspects of God in Spinozism. First, there is the active, productive aspect, which is God and his attributes, from which all else follows. This is what Spinoza calls natura naturans (“nature creating”), which is wholly identical with God. Secondly, he employed the term natura naturata (or “nature created”) to describe the aspect of God when it is predicated into “modes” such as the laws of motion and rest, logic, the Milky Way, cats, buildings, rocks, minds, beliefs and so on.

Likewise, mystical Jews sometimes envision two aspects of God: Firstly, the impersonal Ein Sof (meaning “there is no end”), which is God in essence, absolutely transcendent, unknowable and limitless, hidden. Secondly, there is God in manifestation, the revealed aspect of God, which is accessible to human perception, and is dynamically interacting through spiritual and physical existence.

It would be a mistake to think of this as a dualistic conception. If so, the Kabbalists wouldn’t have been able to remain true to the strict monotheism of rabbinical Judaism. Rather, they sought (as they still do) to make the universe holy by unifying God-as-Other with God-as-immanent. Like the Kabbalists, Spinoza made a subtle distinction between two aspects of God, and like the Kabbalists, he also had the  fundamental insight that God is one substantial whole. Indeed, God is the only substantial whole.

Like the Kabbalists, Spinoza believed that there is nothing external to God, nothing outside of Him. And like the Kabbalists, Spinoza held that everything that exists is a part of God and is brought into being by God.

Because God is everywhere, and because holiness is literally in the world, religious Jews often emphasise simcha or joy. A popular teaching by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is mitzvah gedolah le’hiyot besimcha tamid – “it is a great mitzvah to always be in a state of happiness.” Similarly, Spinoza talks of the “intellectual love of God,” which is when the mind perceives God not only as essence but as the immanent causal power of the universe.

Spinoza writes of the person who has attained the intellectual love  of God that he “is hardly troubled in spirit, but being, by a certain eternal necessity, conscious of himself, and of God, and of things, he never ceases to be, but always possess true peace of mind.” Spinoza refers to this as “blessedness,” which is similar in meaning to shalem (and hence shalom), a Hebrew word-concept signifying wholeness, harmony, prosperity, delight, peace.

Whether we call it blessedness or shalem, the webbing together of God, humans and  creation is at the heart of both Spinozism and rabbinical mystical Judaism.

 

On the UK terror spree: We need to talk about Islam

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Photo by Katie Chan

Rather than labelling Islam’s critics as racist, we need an honest conversation about Islam. 

By Richard Mather

It’s a strange time to be alive. We live in a world that flies into self-righteous fury when a Jew builds a conservatory in his indigenous homeland, only to decline back into idleness when the footsoldiers of Allah slaughter men, women and children. In the UK there have been two major terrorist attacks in as many weeks, plus the Westminster attack in March. That’s 36 innocent people dead, and 217 injured, many critically. The response? A concert, balloons, candles, hashtags, expressions of love, and lots of waffle about Islamophobia.

The rush to reassure Muslims that they are “loved” now forms a major part of the post-attack ritual. Also part of the ritual is the eagerness to protect Islam from criticism. Indeed, political leaders and the media go to extraordinary lengths to avoid offending Muslims in the wake of each terrorist atrocity. As Brendan O’Neill, editor of spiked magazine, rightly points out, this “censorious privilege” is very dangerous, because it encourages Muslims to become intolerant. “You license their intolerance. You inflame their violent contempt for anyone who questions their dogmas. You provide a moral justification for their desire to punish those who insult their religion.”

Just as one might say about the Cold War that we knew how to make distinctions between what worked (democracy, capitalism) and what didn’t (totalitarianism, communism), the present age does not make distinctions at all: there is no difference anymore, it seems, between the massacred Manchester concert-goer and the terrorist who carried out the atrocity. Why do I say this? Because liberals argue that the terrorist is also a victim – a victim of borders, of capitalism, of the prison system, of colonialism, of global warming, a victim of everything except the ideology of Islam. This is censorious in the extreme. And we have allowed this daft narrative to take hold because we have collectively given Islam a free pass.

In what is shaping up to be the ideological war of the 21st century, we need to accept that there is a serious problem with intolerant Islamic beliefs about non-believers, martyrdom, jihad, sharia law, sexuality and the ummah. We also need to ask why so many criminals are drawn to Islam (especially in prison). More needs to be done to tackle non-violent Muslim fundamentalists who legitimize, excuse and passively allow jihadi extremism. For example, a recent opinion poll of British Muslims found that a mere 34 per cent said they would report to the police anybody they thought was involved with jihadi extremism. And we must not overlook university campuses, which are breeding-grounds for extremism and anti-Semitism. Indeed, universities that turn a blind eye to extremism (or worse still, actively promote such behaviour) must be called to account.

Of course, not all Muslims are extremists (this is a politically-correct cliche we trot out after every terrorist attack) but this does not mean that the religion of Islam itself is unproblematic. Far from it. Most people accept this fact; it’s just that the media won’t allow them to say it. Suppressing criticism of Islam and Islamic beliefs is not only very bad for democracy, it is a gift to the Far Right, which capitalizes on people’s frustration with the political system and thrives on the message that politicians and lawmakers do not speak for (or even care about) the majority.

Rather than labelling Islam’s critics as racist, we need honest conversations about Islam, censorship, and so-called Islamophobia. Such conversations may be embarrassing (for some), and they will no doubt expose some very unsavory truths about the doctrines, ideology and history of Islam. But we need to get this sorted if we are to avoid decades of terrorist attacks. Turning the other cheek in the face of Islamist malice may make liberals and the snowflake generation feel good about themselves, but in actuality it is a kind of enslavement – the enslavement of non-Muslims by religious extremists who think non-believers are whores, apes and pigs, or even worse, sub-human and deserving of death.

First published by Israel News Online and Arutz Sheva 

 

Unearthing the past for the sake of Zion

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Photo: Assaf Peretz / IAA

Generally speaking, ancient artifacts tell a particular story of a particular people. Tellingly, there are no archaeological Palestinian Arab sites – but there are plenty of Jewish ones. By unearthing and reconstructing meaning from a fragmentary past, the Israeli state is secured. Zion is very literally embedded in the mud and clay, in the strata of rock and soil.

By Richard Mather

Shortly before attempting to escape from Vichy France in 1940, the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” which has been described as one of the most insightful analyses of the failure of Marxism ever produced. Benjamin, who described himself as a cultural Zionist, claimed that every generation is endowed with a “weak messianic power,” which is the power to fulfill the messianic hopes of previous generations. His vision is best represented by thesis IX, which employs Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus (1920) as the “Angel of History,” with his back turned against the future. Where humans see history as a linear chain of events, the Angel of History sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble.

The liberal view of history that the full meaning of freedom can be found only progressively has been a cruel illusion, especially for the Jews of Europe. The Enlightenment idea that the human condition can be improved by advances in technology, science, and social organization surely died in the gas chambers. And if Marxists see history as a class struggle that will one day culminate in a classless society, Zionists, on the other hand, tend to see history as a catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage: the Babylonian exile, the Sacking of Jerusalem, the Holocaust, and all the disasters in-between.

This is not to say that the future doesn’t matter. But it does mean that we ought to be more sceptical of progress and human perfectibility, which after the horrors of the twentieth century, are no longer tenable. Benjamin writes, “It is well-known that the Jews were forbidden to look into the future.” He adds, “The Torah and the prayers instructed them, by contrast, in remembrance.” By engaging in ritualized memory – that is, redeeming history through acts of remembrance – the future is stripped of its idolatrous magic. And the “soothsayers” who promise enlightenment inevitably lose their power to enchant the gullible.

The existence of the Nazi death camps and the Soviet gulags ought to be enough to make us incredulous towards the grand narratives of progress, enlightenment, universal reason and emancipation. Benjamin’s solution is to break with any faith in the imminence of political salvation, preferring instead to redeem fragments of the past. He offers ‘messianic time’ as an alternative temporal model to so-called historical progress. Past events are given their historical meaning retrospectively, in messianic moments. “The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer,” says Benjamin, he also comes as the “subduer” of the enemy whose historical processes crush minorities such as the Jews. The task of the (Jewish) historian, then, is to engage in a kind of tikkun olam – repairing the world by “fanning the spark of hope in the past” (to quote Benjamin), of rekindling the fragments of light buried in the wreckage. For unless the past is recognised and saved, “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy.”

This is why acts of remembering are so important in Israel. Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron are two examples. And it is also why archaeology is so crucial. The metaphor of the past as an artifact that can be recovered out of the ground and recontextualized in the living present is essential to the Zionist project. Generally speaking, ancient artifacts tell a particular story of a particular people. Tellingly, there are no archaeological Palestinian Arab sites – but there are plenty of Jewish ones. By unearthing and reconstructing meaning from a fragmentary past, the Israeli state is secured. Zion is very literally embedded in the mud and clay, in the strata of rock and soil.

I started out with Benjamin’s claim that every generation is endowed with a “weak messianic power,” which is the power to fulfill the messianic hopes of previous generations. Today’s Zionists are doing just that, by uncovering artifacts in the Land of Israel. Not so long ago, a rare document mentioning the name of Jerusalem from the time of the First Temple was discovered when the Israel Antiquities Authority took action against a band of antiquities robbers who had plundered the papyrus from the Judean Desert. It is the earliest extra-biblical source to mention Jerusalem in Hebrew writing. And it is 2,700 years old.

Zionism has always been associated with redemption of the land, and the very existence of Israel (that ‘old-new land’ to quote Theodor Herzl) goes some way in rectifying the damage done to Jews by the “storm” of progress. As Benjamin states, “For we have been expected upon this earth. For it has been given us to know, just like every generation before us, a weak messianic power, on which the past has a claim.” 

 

UK: Labour’s view of Jews is an antisemitic caricature worthy of Soviet Russia

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Labour antizionism is an USSR-inspired propaganda doctrine that aims to unsettle Anglo-Jewry and to exclude individual Jews from British political life

By Richard Mather

Under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is the British political party that is most hostile to Jews, more dangerous than the extreme right-wing but insignificant British National Party, which tends to attract former Labour voters.  Given that most Jews in Britain are Zionists and that most Zionists are Jews, Labour’s disdain for the vast majority of Anglo-Jewry is incontestable. The main thrust of Labour’s antizionist message is this: Zionism is a form of racism, Zionists are similar to Nazis, and Israel is a tool used by both diaspora and Israeli Jews to foment imperialism and militant chauvinism.

This is the politics of anti-Jewish contempt, a variation of the contempt that has echoed down the centuries – from John Chrysostom’s fourth-century Adversus Judaeos homilies, through the medieval blood libel (invented in England) and Martin Luther’s demonization of Jews, and into the twentieth century’s pan-German and pan-Arab nationalisms, and the Soviet Union’s suspicion of ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ (code for ‘Jews’).

Labour’s anti-Jewish nastiness not only has centuries of historical precedence, it is cynically deliberate in its intent. Like the Soviets before them, the Labour Party has evolved a species of antizionist propaganda that aims to rob Anglo-Jewry of their security and to oust them from political discourse. Why? In part because the Left has always had an awkward relationship with what they see as Jewish exceptionalism and also because it plays well with the growing Muslim electorate.

It’s true that antisemitism in the British Labour Party is not new. It was evident in the foreign policy decisions of the post-WW2 Labour government. But there has always been (at least until now) a significant and sizeable pro-Israel, pro-Jewish contingent within the party: advocacy groups such as Labour Friends of Israel, and important individuals such as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown who stood alongside the Jewish state and spoke out against antisemitic prejudice and bigotry.

But Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to power has done more than just embolden the minority of antisemitic cranks already within the party; he has enthused a new generation of antisemites who have joined Labour in droves. Labour Zionists are now marginalised, and Jewish Labour MPs are routinely abused and bullied by militant Corbynistas. As a result, financial donations from Jewish donors have all but dried up and Jews are abandoning the party.

But anti-Jewish hostility is not just a problem for Jewish members inside Labour. It is an issue of concern for Jews in the UK more generally. The ascendancy of Corbyn and the militancy of Labour’s recently-formed Momentum group are reminders that left-wing extremism did not die out in the 1980s but remains an ongoing threat to the well-being and security of Anglo-Jewry. The rise in antisemitic attacks in the UK suggests that Labour and the rest of the British Left, in allegiance with Islamist radicals and a few nutjobs on the Far Right, now pose an existential threat to British Jews.

Corbynistas are a lot like the antizionist Soviet propagandists who studied Zionism in order to uncover its secrets. In Soviet lore, Zionism was the politics of the wealthy Jewish bourgeoisie which had closely allied itself with monopoly elites in the USA and the UK. The writers who specialized in the Soviet doctrine of Zionology considered any expression of Jewishness as Zionist and therefore subject to suppression and persecution.

In 1983, the Soviet Union established the Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public (AZCSP). Its manifesto (which was endorsed by a handful of self-hating Soviet Jews) stated:

“…By its nature, Zionism concentrates ultra-nationalism, chauvinism and racial intolerance, excuse for territorial occupation and annexation, military opportunism, cult of political promiscuousness and irresponsibility, demagogy and ideological diversion, dirty tactics and perfidy… Absurd are attempts of Zionist ideologists to present criticizing them, or condemning the aggressive politics of Israel’s ruling circles, as antisemitic…”

This radical caricature of Zionism accords very well with the views of Labour antisemites. Like the Soviets before them, the Corbynistas are convinced that Israel is home to several million racists, and that Zionists around the world serve as “the front squad of colonialism and neo-colonialism,” to quote the third edition of the thirty-volume Great Soviet Encyclopedia.

Even when there isn’t a flesh-and-blood Jew in sight, Labour antizionists are still tormented by the idea of ‘the Jew.’ Lacking political depth and therefore unable to distinguish between the real and the imaginary, the typical Labour antisemite is driven by the idea of the Zionist Jew, albeit a false idea.

It was the same with the Brownshirts and the Stalinists, the Lutherans and the medieval Catholic Church. The thought or image of the nefarious Jew is enough to engender a pogrom, a Stalinist show trial, an inquisition, a boycott. It is no wonder that the Corbynistas are irrational and abusive. They imagine themselves living in a world controlled by Jew-Zionists. And this is why Labour’s focus in the past couple of years has been to cleanse the party (and the country) of undesirable Zionist Jews.

More than that, party members are well aware that they do not need to be in government in order to do this. They already have the power and the resources to perpetuate their dirty war against Jews, not only through the media, but also by means of organized protests, marches and demonstrations, by the boycotting of Jewish businesses and individuals, and by aiding and abetting Islamist extremists.

If the Soviets learned a great deal from the Nazis about how to slander Jews, so the contemporary Far Right is taking lessons from the Labour Party. Last year, Nick Griffin, former leader of the extreme right-wing racist British National Party, took to Twitter to defend Ken Livingstone’s repugnant suggestion that Adolf Hitler was a Zionist:

“Hitler started war wanting to send all Jews to own homeland outside Europe & armed Zionist terrorists to fight Brits in Palestine. #RedKen,” wrote Nick Griffin, who then tweeted a message reading, “One day the world will know that #RedKen was right.”

Consider, too, the Far Right website deLiberation, which has hailed Corbyn as the “antidote to the Blairite virus and Zionist snake-bite”:

“Many certainly can see Corbyn as Prime Minister – a very different and totally new style of PM, to be sure […] he’s a man to look up to and identify with […] a man who is not tempted by the Israeli shekel. If any of his opponents lands the leadership Labour will remain under the yoke of Zionist ambitions and enslave by the gangster regime in Tel Aviv.”

The phrase “gangster regime in Tel Aviv” is a favorite on both ends of the political spectrum. It is sometimes used by the nefarious and divisive George Galloway, who manages to straddle both the economic Far Left and the Islamist Far Right.

The Far Right’s fascination with the Labour Party is what happens when a once-major political party is taken over by lunatics who transform their irrational fixation with Jews into party policy. The trouble is, even if Corbyn and his cronies lose the general election on June 8, there’s not much evidence that the party will recover anytime soon. The rot may be too wide and too deep.

The party is, on average, fifteen points behind the Conservative Party. As things stand, there is no chance of Labour doing well in the next general election. But that doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters to the Corbynistas is the cleansing of the party of Zionists and of other political foes. Purity of belief is everything to the Left. Under its current leader, Labour has been reduced to a social media/student union protest body that proffers a seemingly endless proliferation of callow opinion from the foolish, the extreme and the dangerous.

Thanks to Corbyn and his communist apparatchiks, Labour is limping through a catastrophic and unprecedented collapse of meaning and intellectual malaise, propped up solely by its Sovietesque obsession with Jews and Zionism, an obsession that is shared by the racists on the Far Right. If Labour is abandoned by a disgusted electorate on June 8, nobody can say Corbyn wasn’t warned.

Contra Corbynomics: Why we should be incredulous towards Labour’s economic statism

 

By Richard Mather

People are themselves. They are not objects to be pushed around by the State, which is what Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, proposes. This is why the British public shouldn’t be seduced by Corbyn’s vision of economic statism in which individualism, hard work and enterprise are demonised by expensive and controlling government.

Corbynomics, which is characterised by social ownership of the means of production and of the economy, is inefficient, unrealistic and reactionary. Corbynomics will not transfer power from the top of society to the bottom. It will merely hand power to (and enrich) apparatchiks, trade unions, politicians and state bureaucrats. In other words, a Corbyn government means power will be centralised and controlled by an overstaffed elite.

Corbyn’s economic statism reduces everything to the banality of the One: a one-size-fits-all economic narrative that ignores regional, local and competitive differences. The notion of the State as a single essence was a twentieth century experiment that failed. Look at the continental catastrophes of communism or fascism, or the public sector battles in the UK during the 1970s. It was only with the formation of a new British consensus in the 1980s and 1990s –  first under Thatcher and then Blair – that taxes were lowered and the monopoly of public sector power was broken, thanks in part to the privatisation of some industries/services.

Social mobility in the twenty-first century will not be helped by a return to an outdated economic public sector model. Contrary to popular opinion, the free market is not a reductive enterprise; rather, it is the guarantor of aspiration and progress. There is nothing immoral about people buying goods and services produced for profit. We need entrepreneurs, businesses and companies to invest in our local and regional economies, and to create new jobs. And of course, profits can be reinvested, fuelling economic growth and reducing prices for consumers.

Corbyn’s vision of the State comprises an unworkable trinity of nationalisation, people’s quantitative easing and higher taxes. But this trinity will not result in some kind of utopia. In the land of Corbyn, our democratic rights over state services will be endlessly deferred in a chain of bureaucracy and political obfuscation. Our frustrations with the railways will not diminish if the State steps in. On the contrary, our concerns will grow because of less choice, higher costs, below-par service and unionised public sector strikes.

Higher tax rates, for example, do not necessarily yield more revenues because they reduce incentives to work. What Corbyn fails to understand is that the UK is actually becoming more equal. The top one per cent of earners in the UK now shoulder a greater share of the income tax burden than at any time in the country’s history. Corbynomics is regressive and will generate less income for the country.

Corbynomics is a fantasy. It is an illiterate and ideologically-driven economic metanarrative that elevates and enshrines the grand role of the State and punishes the virtues of localism, eclecticism, enterprise, healthy competition and personal aspiration. These virtues help make Britain a modern and exciting country. Corbynomics, by contrast, is a return to the old and defeated arguments of the 1970s when high inflation, government inefficiency, bad services, trade union militancy and low growth turned the UK into the sick man of Europe.

Labour needs to get real and reach out to the British people with sensible and moderate policies. The electorate is neither stupid nor naïve. Given that the country rejected Ed Miliband in May 2015 and voted for a Conservative majority government for the first time since the 1990s, they are unlikely to vote for Labour’s dangerous economic statism on June 8.  But stranger things have happened and the Conservatives cannot afford to be complacent or indecisive on economic matters as the country prepares for this snap General Election.

 

On the London terror attack: What must be said

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(Photo credit: ktanaka / Wikimedia Commons)

Islam breeds terror. It’s an unsavory truth but it has to be said. Only then can it be confronted.

By Richard Mather 

The present age is essentially one of denial and misunderstanding; it is an age devoid of common sense; an age that judges the victims not the perpetrators; an age that flies into self-righteous fury over the descendants of Holocaust survivors building houses in Judea, only to decline back into idleness when men, women and children are broken into pieces by the Islamist menace. Our age is also one of resentment. The past is judged and found guilty for not being what it should have been. Many Muslims resent the fact that Islamic empire building has come to nothing. Every caliphate in history has failed. Moreover, there is not a single really successful Islamic country anywhere in the world. And since the past cannot be changed, the resentful individual settles his scores by wreaking revenge on the present by driving into crowds of people in London, Berlin, Nice and Jerusalem.

The West, which has become increasingly secular in recent decades, is blind to this kind of religious resentment. Western Europeans, in particular, are inept in their understanding of current conflicts. They misread the Israeli-Arab dispute as a clash over land, and they think that acts of terrorism on European soil are symptomatic of capitalism’s failure to cater for the global poor. Both views are wrong. What Westerners (particularly those on the Left) fail to see is that Islamic terrorism is rooted in religiously-inspired rancor and malice. This is where the Islamists have the advantage. They understand only too well that the war against Jews and the West in general is not just a religious conflict, but one that is born from utter malice and failure. If the Islamists ever do defeat Western democracy, it won’t be out of strength, but simply because Europe proved weaker and sicker than the Islamists.

Actually, such a scenario is possible. Since the end of the Second World War, Europe has rid itself of its Judeo-Christian-Enlightenment heritage and burdened itself with so much colonial guilt that Angela Merkel and her EU sidekicks now lack the political will to protect their own citizens because they no longer think Europeans are worth saving. Israel, by contrast, embarrasses the European Union by insisting on its own ethno-cultural heritage and by protecting its own citizens. This is why Israel is strong and Europe is weak. Of course, the situation might not be so bad if Europeans had embraced a robust humanism, which emphasises critical thinking, freedom and progress. Unfortunately, many in the West have become politically-correct automatons who tolerate the intolerable by creating ‘safe spaces’ on campuses for unpleasant people who wish to kill Jews and Europeans, and who undermine pluralistic values by allowing Islamist supremacists to flood into towns and cities.

Just as one might say about the Cold War that we knew how to make distinctions between what worked (democracy, capitalism) and what didn’t (totalitarianism, communism), the present age does not make distinctions at all: there is no difference anymore, it seems, between the murdered Londoner and the terrorist who carried out the atrocity. Why do I say this? Because liberals argue that the terrorist is also a victim – the victim of borders, of capitalism, of Israel, of the prison system, of colonialism, a victim of everything except the ideology of Islam. Even in the face of terrorism, left-wing liberals and globalists continue to call for an end to borders because they do not make a distinction between an Islamist from Tunisia and a secular Parisian. And yet anyone with any common sense can see that there is a distinction to be made, and that making sensible is a desirable thing to do. It is not racist.

By declaring that refugees are welcome after mass sexual attacks in Cologne or vehicular attacks in France, Germany and the UK, the West is showing itself to be weak and sick, that Europeans have given up on their own values and relinquished their own cultures, out of fear of appearing racist or colonialist. But when we no longer believe in anything, we may end up believing anything. Kindness, humility, and sympathy are all well and good, but if resentful Islamists exploit our values, then there will be nobody left to extol these virtues. Turning the other cheek in the face of Islamist malice may sound noble in theory, but in actuality it is a kind of enslavement – the enslavement of non-Muslims by religious extremists who think non-believers are whores, apes and pigs, or even worse, sub-human and deserving of death.

It would help if politicians stopped denying the link between Islam and terrorism. British prime minister Theresa May says it is wrong to describe the recent London attack as Islamic terrorism and that the attacker’s ideology was a “perversion of a great faith.”  As political commentator Melanie Phillips writes, “Since 9/11 the British political establishment has refused to acknowledge that the jihadi terrorism being conducted in the name of Islam is actually inspired by… Islam. Islamic jihadi terror has instead been called ‘un-Islamic’ or even ‘anti-Islamic’ or ‘a perversion of Islam’ or ‘a warped ideology.’ Everything but what it actually is: terrorism inspired by a fanatical but legitimate interpretation of Islam.”

Terrorism inspired by a fanatical but legitimate interpretation of Islam. Let’s be honest, it’s getting harder to avoid the conclusion that terrorism carried out in the name of Islam is a natural expression of Islamic beliefs (perhaps not the only expression, but nonetheless a legitimate one.) But politicians and the mainstream media refuse to concede this point. As another commentator says, “mainstream politicians cannot agree with this, not least because they (and Merkel in particular) are responsible for the massive upsurge of Muslim migration into Europe that is fundamentally changing its future. But this is a gap which they must at some point bridge.” So says Douglas Murray in The Spectator.

In what is shaping up to be the ideological war of the 21st century, we need to accept that that there is a serious problem with Islamic beliefs about non-believers, martyrdom, jihad, sharia law, sexuality and the ummah. We also need to ask why so many criminals are drawn to Islam (especially in prison). More needs to be done to tackle non-violent Muslim fundamentalists, who legitimize, excuse and passively allow jihadi extremism. (In a recent opinion poll of British Muslims, a mere 34 per cent said they would report to the police anybody they thought was involved with jihadi extremism.)

The general public in Britain, France, Italy and so on are thoroughly sick of being told there isn’t a problem with Islam. Unless the liberal elites come to their senses, the disconnect between citizens and the establishment will grow ever wider. Not only is this very bad for democracy, it is a gift to the Far Right, which capitalizes on people’s frustration with the political system and thrives on the message that politicians and lawmakers do not speak for (or even care about) the majority. People aren’t stupid. It’s time that the liberal elites in London, Berlin, Brussels and Paris cease sneering at the masses and concede that the belief system of Islam breeds terror. It’s an unsavory truth but it has to be said. Only then can it be confronted.

 

Exposing deception: The cult of Palestinianism

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It is crucial that the Palestinian deception is exposed for what it is – an anti-Semitic, terroristic, racist cult that spreads Jew-hatred, legitimizes murder and destabilizes societies.

By Richard Mather 

The term cult usually refers to a social group defined by their religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or common interest in a particular personality, object or goal. Cults range in size from local groups with a few members to international organizations with millions. Sub-categories of cults include doomsday cults, political cults, racist cults, polygamist cults and terrorist cults.

The Palestinian movement is a political cult, but it is also a racist and terroristic cult. Its goal is the advancement of the dishonest Palestinian narrative, the destruction of the historic Jewish homeland and the implementation of a racist sharia-state called Palestine, achieved through terroristic means. Cult members, who number in the millions, deny or falsify the Jewish people’s historical, legal and biblical ties to the land of Israel. They use the weapons of delegitimization, defamation, disinformation, anti-Semitic propaganda, faked news footage, sanctions and boycotts to achieve their aims.

The Palestinianist cult can be traced back to two men: Yasser Arafat and Mohammed Amin al-Husseini. The latter is the father of Palestinian Islamic nationalism who believed it was a religious impossibility for Muslims to share the Land of Israel with Jews. Even areas where Jews formed a majority were considered to be a kind of religious defilement. Husseini, who was complicit in the Holocaust, called on his fellow Arabs to “not forget that the Jew is your worst enemy and has been the enemy of your forefathers.” Not surprisingly, his bombast resulted in various pogroms, massacres and terrorist atrocities. 

Husseini’s political successor was Yasser Arafat. From the 1960s, Arafat toured the world, converting people to his cause, acquiring recognition and financial backing until his movement was a global phenomenon. Thanks to Arafat, Palestinianism has become a ‘new religious movement’ (NRM) that appeals to people of all faiths and none, including Christians, Muslims, hardcore communist atheists, agnostics, liberals and even some Jews (who are sometimes the most fanatical converts).

This particular NRM (another term for cult) offers all the benefits of mainstream religion, such as community and social action, but without any of theological ‘baggage’ such as the Trinity, Torah or Islam’s Pillars of Faith. Even the quasi-religion of Marxism can be included within the framework of this new interfaith ideology because it, too, turns a finite, limited ideal (a world without Jews/the classless society/the end of capitalism) into an object of absolute and murderous godlike devotion. 

Paradoxically, BDS is an egalitarian cult; it is not closed, secret or hierarchical. It doesn’t matter where you come from or which god you may (or may not) worship; all that is required is that you express genocidal disdain for Jewish political autonomy. In fact, proponents of the ideology are keen to make new converts. They routinely brainwash young minds on Western university campuses, and in colleges and in mosques; their literature demonizes Jews and the Jewish state; and opponents are slandered and condemned using conspiratorial language, usually involving words like “Rothschild,” “Nazi,” and “Satanic.”

Indeed, Jews are routinely described in abusive and cult-like language (sometimes reminiscent of medieval Christian theologians): Jews as satanic murderers, baby-killers, well-poisoners, harvesters of organs and stealers of land. The charge of deicide (killing God) has been resurrected in modified form and is now presented as the charge of genocide against the so-called Palestinians. Of course, such claims made against the Jewish people are scandalous nonsense, propaganda designed to both demonise and legitimize murder. But in the minds of cult members, any justification to kill Jews or force them into permanent exile will suffice. 

This is a very dangerous cult indeed. What’s worse is that it has the backing of many governments, international organizations, NGOs and charities. It is a movement of global proportions, bigger than the Nazi cult that killed more than six million Jews. But unlike the Nazis, the Palestinianists face very little opposition. This is why it’s crucial that the Palestinian deception is repeatedly exposed for what it is – an anti-Semitic, terroristic, racist cult that spreads Jew-hatred, legitimizes murder, undermines social cohesion and destroys any prospect of peace. It is only by constantly challenging, scrutinizing and revealing the sick ideology of Palestinianism that we stand any chance of ending this horrific movement.

 

Purim: Where is God in all this?

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Megillah Benedictions and Illuminations, painting on parchment, Italy, 18th century (via jewishvirtuallibrary.org)

The Purim story shows us that God expects the Jewish people to take the initiative, to act for themselves and to rely on their own talents and skills in order to ensure their long-term survival.

By Richard Mather 

Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther) narrates the story of a Jewish girl who becomes Queen of Persia and saves the Jewish people from a genocide decreed by the wicked Haman. The story takes place in 473 BCE. The Persian kingdom is a huge and sprawling empire, and all the Jews are its subjects. When King Ahasuerus deposes Queen Vashti for disobedience, he arranges a beauty parade to find a new consort. Esther is chosen and she becomes the new queen of Persia. However, she does not reveal her Jewish identity.

A wicked man called Haman is appointed first minister of the Persian empire. Haman becomes enraged when Mordechai, leader of the Jews, refuses to bow to him. Spitefully, Haman convinces the King to issue a decree ordering the genocide of all the Jews on the 13th of Adar. The date is chosen by lottery, hence the word Purim, which means “lots,” from the word Hebrew word פור.

Esther takes practical action. She reveals her Jewish identity to the King. Haman is hanged and Mordechai is appointed first minister in his place. A new decree granting the Jews the right to defend themselves against their enemies is issued. On the 13th of Adar the Jews kill many of their enemies. On the 14th, they rest and celebrate. The Jews of Shushan wage war on both Adar 13th and 14th, and rejoice on the 15th, which explains the celebration of Shushan Purim in Israel on the 15th.

The holiday of Purim is a time of merriment. Celebrants are allowed to drink alcohol to the point where they are unable to differentiate between the phrases ‘Bless Mordecai’ and ‘Curse Haman.’ Another feature of Purim is the Purimspiel, which is a dramatic retelling of the story of Esther, often involving costumes, masks, music, dance and humour. Traditionally, the Purimspiel was performed by poor students, actors and acrobats. These days, the Purimspiel is often acted out by children who dress up as characters from the story.

But there is a darker side to Purim. Megillat Esther depicts an existential threat to the Jews. Genocide hangs over them like the sword of Damocles. The Jews are saved and their enemies slain, not because God intervenes but because the Jews themselves take decisive action to eradicate the threat. Purim seems to be about the role of Jewish self-reliance in a universe where God has apparently disappeared from the stage.

This is why the story of Esther is particularly relevant in our post-Holocaust era. For many people, God’s goodness cannot be taken for granted. Elie Wiesel, the prize-winning writer and Holocaust survivor, has refused to shy away from the difficult subject of God’s absence during the Shoah. Perhaps his most famous book is Night. But for me, one of Wiesel’s most striking works is his play The Trial of God.

The Trial of God is set in 1649, and is a Purimspiel within a Purimspiel. But it is not the kind of Purimspiel we would recognise. This is a brief outline of the story:

Three wandering minstrels, three Purimspielers, come to a city called Shamgorod in the Ukraine. It is Purim eve, and they want to perform a play in order to get food and drink. The minstrels are unaware that a recent pogrom has killed all of the local Jews except for Berish the innkeeper and his daughter Hanna who was gang-raped and is now in a state of nervous collapse.

But the minstrels insist on performing and finally Berish relents and says, ‘All right. Under one condition – that I will give you the idea. The theme will be a “din torah,”  a trial of God. I want you to indict God for what he has done to my family, to my community, to all these Jews.’ The performers accept. In the first act the decision is made to hold a trial. In the second act there is a problem because there is nobody to play the role of God’s attorney. In the third act an attorney is found and we have the trial itself.

Wiesel’s play is based on an event that occurred in Auschwitz. According to Wiesel, three rabbis – all erudite and pious men – decided one winter evening to indict God for allowing his children to be massacred. The trial at Auschwitz lasted several nights and culminated in an unanimous verdict of guilty. And then, after a few moments of silence, one of the rabbis looked towards the heavens and said “It’s time for evening prayers.”

Given the subject matter, it is not surprising that Wiesel’s Purimspiel rejects the usual carnivalesque atmosphere of Purim. Mendel, one of the Purim minstrels, frequently asks the question, ‘And where is God in all of this?’ To which Berish the innkeeper answers: ‘Why don’t you ask where Berish is in all this? Let me answer you that one. God sought me out and God struck me down. So let Him stay away from me.’

In Wiesel’s text, God is accused of hostility, cruelty and indifference. Over the course of the trial, a number of arguments are made, both for and against God’s guilt. Wiesel’s play ends darkly, with the victory of Satan (who is God’s defendant) and the imminent massacre of the town’s remaining Jews by a mob of bloodthirsty gentiles.Megillat Esther is the only book in the Tanakh –  except for Shir Hashirim or the Song of Songs –  that does not mention the name of God. The Trial of God, however, makes God the central character, although like Godot in Beckett’s famous play, He never actually makes an appearance. And while Purim is generally a time of merriment, Wiesel’s play plumbs the depth of theological inquiry, asking, ‘Where is God in all this?’

In a world where the Holocaust was allowed to happen, the question of ‘Where is God in all this?’ remains pertinent. Of course, even before the Holocaust, Jewish experience was one of exile, alienation and violence – a sign perhaps that God’s power has rarely been some awesome force. Indeed, for much of history, God has hidden his face from us. The concept of hester panim (“hiding of the face”) is sometimes used to explain the absence or eclipse of God during times of suffering. The concept of divine concealment is based on words from Sefer Devarim: “I will become very angry at them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them. They will be devoured, and plagued by many evils that will distress them, and will say, ‘Do we not suffer because God has left us?’.”

In the case of Purim, the importance of hester panim is implied by the name of the heroine. Note the similarity between the words hester and Est(h)er. The Babylonian Talmud tractate Hullin 139B states, “From where does the Torah bring the name Esther? From the verse ‘But I [God] will surely conceal my face [“haster astir panai“] on that day for all of the ill that they have done–for they turned to other gods.”

In our post-Holocaust era, it can be difficult to subscribe to the notion of God as a transcendent Supreme Being who intervenes in history. Doesn’t the Esther story, and the story of the Jews in general, suggest that God’s power is not some ‘top-down’ affair but is conducted through the actions of individuals and groups, like Moses and the Israelites or Theodor Herzl and the First Zionist Congress? Isn’t it perhaps the case that God’s power is channelled through the Jewish people themselves?

In 1948 when Palestine’s Jews declared independence, there occurred a unique rupture in the history of colonialism and imperialism. But this declaration also ruptured the long-held hope of a messianic king or priest who would gather the Jewish people and end the exile. It wasn’t God or the Messiah who restored the Jewish nation. It was the Jews themselves. To paraphrase Rabbi Eleazar (Megillah 15a), the moment the Jewish people decide to cloak themselves in royalty and declare independence is the moment in which the Jews cloak themselves in the spirit of God.

This is why I strongly disagree with those ultra-religious Jews in Israel who refuse to serve in the army because it detracts from Torah study, which (they say) is Israel’s best protection. Unfortunately, history shows us that no amount of Torah study or prayer prevents pogroms or genocides; nor will Torah study protect the State Israel from future attacks. Likewise, it’s wrong of anti-Zionist religious Jews to argue that the State of Israel is a usurpation of the Messiah’s role. My answer to them is simple: for too long we waited for the Messiah, but he never came. And he may never come for one simple reason – because the Jewish people themselves already function as a messianic community.

In other words, it is not God or Messiah, but the Jews themselves who determine what to do, and when and how to do it. As Rabbi David Blumenthal says, God “has all eternity to make up His mind. We do not have all eternity; we have now.”  The example set by Esther shows us that God expects the Jewish people to take the initiative, to act for themselves and to rely on their own talents and skills in order to ensure their long-term survival. The success of the State of Israel and the fact that the majority of Jews are prepared to defend themselves in a world full of Hamans is testament to the spirit of Megillat Esther.