What is the fundamental principle of the Torah – loving your neighbour as yourself, or honouring the Divine image?
There was actually a dispute about this conundrum, which took place in the 2nd century CE between two of the greatest rabbinical scholars, Rabbi Akiba (30-135 CE) and his student, Rabbi Azzai (2nd C), which is set out here.
Rabbi Akiba (who was horribly tortured and murdered by the Romans in the wake of the Bar Kochba revolt), is one of the best-loved rabbis of all time. Some would say that he was the greatest rabbi of that era. He started out late in life, encouraged by his wife Rachel, and being poor as a church mouse, found studying an ordeal. Not so much is known of Rabbi Azzai, Akiba's student, who dared to argue with his great master – and won!
For this famous Jewish dispute clarified that the fundamental principle of Torah is honouring the divine image of G-d in which we are made. In this case the student 'defeated' his master in argument, and what was the master's reaction? He was thrilled!
It was this very famous Jewish dispute on the most fundamental principle of all that led me to take part in the recent Zoom Planning Inquiry regarding the construction of a Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in Victoria Tower Gardens, a small park adjacent to the Palace of Westminster.
I felt that, although I am a Mancunian and very unlikely ever to visit Victoria Tower Gardens (VTG), it was my duty to come forward, if nothing else to point out a few facts about the Jewish community in this country and the way it behaves.
For not only am I the child of Holocaust survivors on both sides but, my brother and I are the only survivors of that line. Luckily I have two daughters and grandchildren living in Israel who can carry on the legacy of those relatives exterminated 80 years ago at the heart of European culture and science.
In addition, however, not only have I taught the subject academically (and 42 contemporary Holocaust historians also wrote in against the VTG proposal), but have also tried to teach this subject in the school sector. I therefore know first-hand how dire the introduction of Holocaust studies has been to this country, with very negative consequences for contemporary Jews, leading regrettably to the present breakdown in community and race relations.
Moreover, throughout my life I have discussed the issue of Holocaust memorials with some of the world's leading experts on the subject, including survivors, writers, academics and at least one Nobel Peace Prize winner. Not one was in favour of these constructions. All were vociferously against for the same reason. These memorials to dead or dying Jews are always and everywhere political initiatives of control. And as for their 'learning centres', these are simply filled with the latest iteration of political correctness – and nothing whatsoever to do with Jews or Judaism per se.
Most compelling of all though, I was actually a member of the Greater Manchester jury established to choose the winning design. The jurors consisted largely of Holocaust families resident in the North of England. So I also know first-hand exactly what we were told on that day in April 2017.
Because what was at stake was not actually a memorial simply to the Shoah. We were told that the aim was to celebrate and safeguard contemporary Jews.
In Manchester, it was explained by the PM's speech-writer that the winning design should 'harmonize' – that was the word used – with the beautiful Buxton memorial to Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, the person who managed to get the Bill against slavery passed in the House of Commons in 1834, just before he died.
We were therefore asked to choose a design which acknowledged the contribution of the Jewish community to the life of this country – as befitted a tiny park which also houses a statue to the suffragette movement and to the Burghers of Calais, an uplifting story I first learned at school and which has stayed with me for the rest of my life.
I had a nagging feeling at the time that all wasn't as it should be. For wasn't one of the other designs on offer by Daniel Libeskind (designer of the locally-based Imperial War Museum North)? And didn't the Prime Minister's speech-writer and Chair urge us to overlook it, as he dashed forward with his obvious favourite – the one with the fins and extra 'Learning Centre'. But that offering simply epitomized the teenage male fantasies of imagination gone mad, devoid of any link with the Jewish community or with the Buxton memorial – and frankly as ugly as hell. Surely, no-one could take that design seriously.
We therefore asked whether the local park-users and Council were in favour of an extra addition to their tiny green space, and were told that they were. 'Planning permission is a mere formality,' we were told. The rest of course is history.
And this brings me to our Sedra of Toldot (Generations), which describes the birth of twins Esau and Jacob to Isaac's wife, Rebecca (Rivkah in Hebrew). The Torah states of these very different personalities: 'two nations are in your womb' (Genesis 25:23):
The normal interpretation of this statement is that Jacob, 'the heel', is the epitome of diaspora Jews, while Esau, who will 'live by the sword' (Genesis 27:40) represents the future Christian world. This is the environment which, for 2000 years, will unleash one onslaught after the other upon unsuspecting and guileless Jews, thus making it impossible for Jews to feel comfortable in the diaspora.
But there is another interpretation. We often find that there are two types of people in the world – those who are trusting and giving, and others who are thrusting and taking.
And the Jewish way in diaspora has often been the former, leading inevitably to the death and destruction of the Jewish community. This is why Jacob is the 'heel' – he has to learn how to be cunning in order to survive in a world in which his main 'other' represents greed, selfishness and aggression.
Put another way, as former Archbishop of Canterbury and theological scholar, Dr Rowan Williams pointed out to the Planning Inquiry, it is actually the 'agonizingly difficult negotiations that Jewish people were forced to undertake ... in finding any kind of security in Christian Europe' that led to the eventual extermination of the six million, and not simply a generalized type of hatred of the other, which encompassed anyone who was deemed to be 'weak'.
And that is why 'honouring the image of G-d' tips even 'love your neighbor as yourself' in importance for Judaism.
For, when faced by guile, crookedness and sleight of hand, what does the gentle person who loves their neighbor usually do? Surely (and we have all been there), we give them the benefit of the doubt. In other words, we choose to passively 'love our neighbor as ourselves,' and therefore often allow evil to flourish – often evil of the most banal kind - the most banal kind that ended up in the Shoah. It's otherwise known as 'being a bystander'. That is exactly what each one of us does every day to survive and that is what most people did in the Shoah. They simply allowed life to carry on as normal. But sometimes that simply isn't enough.
But when I was on the jury in Manchester, and despite everything I know about the Shoah, having lived it, taught it, translated it, worked with it, and never ever forgotten it, not even I could have imagined that the UK Government of the day, acting in tandem with a number of civil servants, might actually deceive Holocaust survivor families, some of them aged 90 or over. This country's politics may now be a laughing stock, but surely they couldn't actually stoop so low?
Yes, they could. But a jury is a jury – from the original French word 'to swear an oath'. A jury is not a mothers' meeting, a parish council get-together, a Shul AGM, a bazaar or a general knees-up! A jury is not a joke. And the Jewish community is far more than the often self-appointed cohort which makes up the Jewish 'powers-that-be' in London. Jury service, in other words, is 'a sacred task', to be undertaken with the utmost seriousness.
For if the Shoah has taught us anything, it is that 75 years ago not only Jewish people were exterminated. Hitler and his eastern European cronies used all their considerable intellect, will-power and energy to eradicate the very last vestiges of what we call 'Jewish values'. These are the values of 'honouring the image of G-d'; followed by 'love your neighbor as yourself' and of 'What does the Lord require of you, but to act justly, be merciful and walk unobtrusively with your G-d.' (Micah 6:8).
So when it was obvious from the Inquiry that, contrary to what we, the Manchester jury, were told, actually 99% of the local Westminster residents will not only be inconvenienced by the construction of this huge edifice, but also suffer physical and mental health problems; lose a much-loved and needed children's playground; have nowhere to walk their dogs; sacrifice their trees and their much-treasured views, plus be reminded with every step of the adolescent male fantasies that have conjured up this massive monstrosity, what else could I do, but participate. Even though this took five weeks out of my very busy routine and probably many more years off my life! And even though friends, families and colleagues told me not to get involved, as it would, as so often, only end in tears. After all, at the end of the day, what they decide in London will do nothing to harm our great open spaces in Broughton Park, Salford ....
So what actually is the reasoning behind this ghastly construction? Apparently the goal all along, as was stated openly at the Inquiry, is to prevent Muslim extremism in the heart of London. And of course, that was also the reasoning behind Holocaust Memorial Day – and hasn't that unnecessary addition to British public life also completely backfired?
I cannot think of anything more despicable than what successive British governments have done to the Jewish community from the year 2000 at least – i.e. using the suffering of the Jewish people as a hook with which to realize their own political goals.
And these goals are in the main, as we have all seen for two decades at least, appeasement of terrorism. Jews are obviously a very convenient hook with which governments of different hues have endeavoured to carry out these aims, which simply haven't worked at all. And this is why every living PM and all political parties seem to be in favour of this dastardly plan.
A plan in which local residents who love their green spaces are called 'antisemitic' by cronies of that arch Jew-lover, Jeremy Corbyn (oy veh), and Jews who point out the drawbacks of the proposition (including all my Holocaust family friends and acquaintances up here, by the way) are tarred with the brush of disloyalty (disloyalty to whom, one might ask) – and where both the Times and the Guardian have not allowed a proper discussion of all of this. In other words, the Press has colluded in all of this outrageous politicking, at our expense. And we Jews are of course getting the blame.
For this is also what Rowan Williams stated to the Inquiry: 'But to understand just why Jewish people were singled out for extermination requires us to understand something of what made this possible ... And that means understanding the toxic history of Christian hatred and calumny.'
And if we want to find out why Christians and the West in general have hated Jews so much, there is no better place to start, I believe, than with this week's Sedra about the twin births of Esau and Jacob – Esau always being the favoured child, with Jacob hanging on to his coat–tails. Which is why eventually, in order to survive and carry out his sacred mission, Jacob, the heel, has no choice but to morph into Israel, the person who 'struggles with G-d and overcomes.'
For what is at stake, and certainly was in this case, is that the long-term interest of honouring the Divine image must always take precedence over what may seem to be 'loving' action towards the neighbour, but which so often actually is simply acquiescing in the status quo, which may in fact lead to evil. And sometimes honouring the Divine image may even have to involve open conflict for the sake of the greater good. And that is why Jacob learns that he must eventually grow into Israel, who struggles with both G-d and man, and eventually 'prevails.' But that is another story.
Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.
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