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Rabbi Wittenberg's Weekly Message

Erev Shabbat, 21 Shevat 5770,
Friday 5 February, 2010
Dear Community,
‘Without the feeling of belonging to the threatened I would be a self-surrendering fugitive from reality’. Thus wrote Jean Amery in his essay On the Necessity and Impossibility of Being a Jew, a painful reflection written over thirty years after his experiences of being tortured by the Gestapo and surviving Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. He was referring specifically to his identity as a Jew and to his solidarity with Jewish insecurity and suffering. But the sentence could well be used to describe that particular affinity so many Jews often have with those who suffer anywhere, irrespective of who they are. Indeed, one of the definitive moments in Judaism, the very taste and texture of Jewish ethics, is when we chew the bitter herbs on Seder night and thus declare our solidarity with Jewish, and with all human, suffering.
This ethical outlook marks many features of Israeli society and testifies to its inner strength in spite of the threats, violence and constant pressures to which Israel has been subject. Chesed organisations of all kinds, soup kitchens, civil rights NGOs, groups which protect the Jewish and Arab poor, help asylum-seekers and migrant workers, groups which strive for democracy and justice, - they, their leaders and members live out the demanding teachings of Jewish ethics in challenging and sometimes dangerous circumstances. Witness, too, the extraordinary assistance the Israeli rescue and medical team has been giving in Haiti.
But in the last weeks Human Rights organisations in Israel, foremost among them the New Israel Fund, have come under attack from several right wing organisations, one of which, Im Tirzu, published a caricature of Naomi Chazzan, head of NIF, with horns in the very style of the worst anti-Semitic slander. Arik Ascherman, chair of Rabbis for Human Rights, wrote that this reminded him of the portraits of Yitzhak Rabin in SS uniform, prior to his murder. The same language of betrayal has been used, chiefly because NIF has supported Israeli human rights organisations which have called for an independent Israeli investigation into Gaza and some of which made submissions to the widely hated Goldstone Report.
What’s worrying is that this is part of what looks like an attempt to clamp down on civil protest in more serious ways. Anat Hoffman, Director of the Israeli Religious Action Centre was arrested and finger-printed for involvement in prayer sessions with women at the Wall. Hagai El-Ad, CEO of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel was arrested while monitoring a peaceful demonstration in East Jerusalem. An Israeli colleague of mine, Yehiel, who took me to Sheikh Jarrah to meet Arab residents evicted from their lifelong homes, was himself arrested on one of his subsequent visits.
These matters are not distant from our community; Naomi Chazzan, Anat Hoffman and Arik Aschermann have all spoken in our Shul, and Hagai el-Ad was at Limmud. Those who support asylum seekers in Israel have been under attack, and key ex-leaders of Noam are in the forefront of that work. More importantly, these issues are not distant from our values, key Jewish and Israeli values concerning free speech and civil rights, of which we are proud and which must be actively defended by all.
We must urgently and constantly refute and repudiate the arguments of those who really do hate Israel and seek to delegitmise its right to exist. But we must also engage with those who weaken core Jewish values – as an affirmation of our love for and commitment to Israel.
Shabbat Shalom
Jonathan Wittenberg