On 21st century idolatry and its repercussions

The planned Holocaust memorial and learning centre(Photo: Adjaye Associates & Ron Arad Architects)

Do you think it is right to trample over the needs of the local populace in order to build and worship idols? No - me neither. Our greatest prophet, Moses, certainly didn't, and this is what he reminds the people of in the last speech to the Children of Israel before his chosen successor, Joshua, takes over and leads them into the Promised Land.

The Torah reading this week takes place in the period leading up to Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year), when the sombre month of Elul intervenes, giving us the opportunity for mellow contemplation as autumn creeps in, enhanced by the closing pages of the Book of Deuteronomy and the uplifting Haftorahs taken from Second and Third Isaiah (40-66).

This year, we also welcome in yet another Shemitta Year (time of letting the land lie fallow), which occurs every seven years in the State of Israel and coincides with Rosh Hashana.

However, the reading urging us to let the Land breathe and lie fallow is actually taken from this week's Torah reading (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17), known as Parshat Re'eh, and the prophetic Haftorah reading is Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5: 'All, who are thirsty, come and drink, and whoever has no money, go and eat!'

These sentiments against idolatry and for universal openness (irrespective of clan, creed, ethnicity, religion, gender, colour or politics) are the hallmark of the last chapters of Isaiah – emphasizing Israel's role as the servant of G-d, primed to carry out His divine mission of openhandedness to all peoples and nations – and especially to the poor and needy. Therefore, nothing could be more apt every seven years than to bestow on the land a year of rest, just as every seven days we offer Shabbat to people and animals!

This all came to mind on Sunday when our Jewish Christian dialogue group, now reaching its 13th Bar Mitzvah, anniversary, zoom-hosted the President of Hazon, the largest faith-based environmental group in North America, with links to Jews all over the world, for a discussion of what it means to delve deeper and deeper into the open-handedness commanded us at this time of year by our Torah portion from the Book of Deuteronomy.

Hazon means 'vision' in Hebrew, and that is what we are all called to be – visionaries for the future.

Bearing in mind that the Bible contrasts the evils of idol-worship with the positives of rest and repose (including for the Land), it came as a terrible shock to learn that the government in this country, supported by many in the Church hierarchy and by many in the Jewish establishment, have turned down the well-thought-out protests against the building of the controversial Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in Victoria Tower Gardens, Westminster – a massive megalith in a tiny park.

Sadly, this memorial will trample over the liberties of local park-users, animals and their owners, and most of all children, who currently use the purpose-built playground, which will be destroyed – as well as the historic trees.

Not only this, but the monstrosity these powerful people have agreed to construct against expert advice will overshadow both physically and spiritually the already existing memorials to seminal moments in English history.

This goes against all that was said some years ago to the jury originally nominated to choose the best design for a memorial in this location. The phrase used by the powers-that-be at that time was 'blending in' – when what they seem to have meant was 'destroying'.

And for what? You can read what the acclaimed architect and co-chair of the local committee established to stop the rot had to say about the plan here.

The fact is that antisemitism has increased dramatically in the four years since I was part of that national jury and was, like others, materially misinformed. This proposal does no service to the Jewish community – quite the contrary. It is a cruel irony to be told by non-Jews that this memorial is what we need – and that we ought to be grateful for it.

As we have seen from my previous article on the idolatry practised around sport, and especially around football (one could replace by film stars, ideas, and political stances), idols do not have to be figurines, they can be fixations, ideas, philosophies – any type of '-ism' you care to mention!

This is exactly what Moses and Isaiah, two of the most humble and influential 'shepherds' of the Jewish people have ever encountered, are warning us against in the lead-up to Jewish New Year. And we disregard these words at our peril.

Let's face it, we in the Jewish community have known for a very long time that 'Jewish leadership' in this country is distanced from the real concerns and priorities of Jewish people at the grass roots. How can they be trusted by Jewish communities if they go along with vanity projects like this when there are real and urgent issues about how a population ignores and despises Jews?

Why are they not pressing for money on this scale to be spent on more effective and imaginative education?

And what should be said about the Church of England? It is deeply saddening to see members of the Church hierarchy going along with what comes across as another kind of idolatry. Surely the words and acts of Jesus are about the rights and freedoms of ordinary people, and about what we owe to the lame, the weak, the widow, the orphan, the single mother, the poor, the needy and also to what is naturally beautiful and healing?

Does the Church hierarchy also have a death wish? One can't help but wonder.

And the outcome? Together with others who have campaigned valiantly and at cost to their own reputations (just like the prophet, Isaiah, I might add), I predict that the growth in antisemitism we have experienced since this miserable scheme was envisaged will rise and rise; the local population will suffer tremendously with no other open space in the vicinity; their children will be subject to an increasing battery of mental health issues; wheel-chair users will have nowhere to go; and the Government's vaunted 'green' policies will be seen for what they are – yet another red herring and not worth the paper .....

In other words, vested interests will have won out, and all on the back of the Holocaust – the Shoah – this tragic event which happened to my parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins – a whole extended family destroyed – and which is being disgracefully exploited by the rich and powerful to prop up a political establishment that has lost its moral compass.

And the Church doesn't seem to have listened to its own local representatives on this, let alone to some of its former leaders. It's the same problem again and again – a confidence among those born into the establishment that they know best and don't need to listen to what people's experience is at street level – which is where prejudice and injustice are directly felt. We need in our leaders that trait shared by Moses, Isaiah and Jesus alike: a humility and willingness to listen, not to look for grand and empty gestures.

If this were a time for civil disobedience on a grand scale.... For what was really destroyed at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bergen Belsen, in the pits of Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Ukraine etc, were not only entire lives, but the whole concept of Jewish values.

Jewish values – care for the earth, care for the poor, the demand that we behave with transparency and courage – and finally, the demand that this confused and damaging scheme should not go forward unchallenged.

But to end on a high, this is also what Moses Rabbenu (our teacher) tells his people in this week's Torah portion. In complete contrast to the way that the religious leaders, political bigwigs, and the rich and powerful have behaved in this regard, you have in these words one of the most sublime messages of the Hebrew Bible:

'See, I present before you a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you heed the commandments of the Lord your G-d. And the curse: if you do not heed the commandments of the Lord your G-d and stray from the path ... to follow the gods of others that you didn't know.... If there is a destitute person among you... you mustn't harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother or sister. Rather you should open your hand to them ... and not bear them a grudge.'

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.