What Makes the Whole World Kin - Yom Kippur 5779

This derashah was delivered for Yom Kippur 5779 at St. Albans Masorti Synagogue


In the early 22nd century, humanity defeated death. For the prior two hundred years they had been pouring information, data, resources, and wisdom into the loose collection of networked storage which was called then, the Cloud. In the 22nd century, when the Cloud achieved sentience and became the Thunderhead, it managed to apply itself in a way humans never could- it found ways to stop, even reverse aging. For the first time, no one had to die.

Yet the Thunderhead was also wise enough to know that if no one ever did die, humanity would stagnate and rot. If no one felt the distant pressure of potential destruction, they would never do anything. As a result, the Thunderhead created the Scythes. The Scythes are an order of select individuals, the best of humanity, who are selected to undertake the greatest honour in society- they murder people. Except they call it ‘gleaning’ and they do it in service of the immortal order which the Thunderhead presides over.

While the Thunderhead can manage a larger population than humanity ever could, handily providing them all with peace, food, and shelter, it still required some checks on populations. So the Scythes, a group that in a different era would be called religious, committed themselves to gleaning- removing a fraction of a fraction of a percent of humanity. The chances of being gleaned within the next one hundred years is 1%. That means of course that the odds of being gleaned break even only at one’s 5000th year on Earth.

As a result, people live many lifetimes, create many families, reset their appearance back to a prior age over and over again- they call it ‘turning a corner.’ And the Scythes, who are the only force acting independently of the Thunderhead’s oversight, go on fulfilling small quotas of murders, randomly selecting those to be gleaned. Naturally, this utopia has some elements of dystopia as well- but I don’t want to spoil the end for you.

This brief summary is of the plot of Scythe, a young adult novel by Neal Shusterman, which imagines our future in an immortal world in a beautiful and terrifying way. Like most good science fiction– Shusterman’s vision of the future isn’t without its antecedents in our own time. The world of Scythe is fascinating because it could happen. In fact- there are many many people working quite desperately to make sure it does happen.

We live in a world where scientists, philosophers, and perhaps most-critically, philanthropists, are being gradually convinced that death is a disease. They argue that death is simply unnatural: we only age and die because of errors in our genetic code, failures in our cell reproduction, small mistakes which add up to eventually cause total system failure, ie. death. However, they tell us, if we can only address these small errors along the way, with gene therapy, stem-cell replacement, and other rejuvenation technologies, then we can actually slow, and even potentially stop ageing altogether.

These crusaders against death criticise two concepts which they believe hamper our ability to see the truth of the matter. They argue that the human tendency to believe that: 1) death is natural, and 2) that death is necessary keep us from correctly addressing the problem.

Is Death Natural?

What we consider to be ‘natural’ affects what we fight against and what we are willing to try and change hugely. Take the two disparate examples of homosexuality and schizophrenia. For much of the last 500 years, the medical establishment, under the influence of Christian moralising, believed that homosexuality was ‘unnatural.’ Seen as a condition that merited treating- therapeutic approaches were justified, regardless of their cruelty, on the basis that this was an ‘unnatural condition’ which needed to be ‘cured.’ Money and resources and time were poured into inhumane therapies and procedures which hurt, maimed, and killed innumerable homosexual individuals. We don’t even have to look far back in time to see examples of this. Of course, less than an hour from here we can learn about Bletchley Park and the amazing work that Alan Turing did there with cryptography. What’s less happily celebrated is that Turing was also the victim of a medical establishment which believed they were justified in chemically castrating him in order to ‘cure’ him of his homosexuality. Directly or not, a medical approach which saw homosexuality as an unnatural disease was responsible for his, and many more deaths.

On the other side- for the better part of the last several thousand years, schizophrenia, and actually, most mental illness, was accepted as a flawed variation of human character. People who suffered under the grip of a deceptive mind weren’t considered to be the victims of a disease but simply evil- immoral minds, with damaged souls and compromised spirits. The mentally ill were not treated because no one believed that they had an illness deserving of therapy or treatment. Only in the last few centuries have people started to view mental illness as illness and not just simply madness- and unfortunately most of the early efforts to come up with ‘medical’ treatments and therapies for schizophrenia and other illnesses were cruel and unjust, often leading to more harm. Thankfully, we have finally reached a point where we recognise that mental illness is not natural- it is not inevitable, and it is not a flaw in character to suffer from it.

So– is death natural? The scientists at Google’s Calico Labs have been working for five years with the greatest resources known to contemporary society to defeat ageing and prove that death is unnatural and thus, treatable. Similarly, biologists like Aubrey de Grey have promoted the idea that we are wrong about death - that death itself is a disease. De Grey has created the Methuselah Foundation to help raise money to fight ageing and death, including a prize which currently stands at 4.2 million dollars for anyone able to significantly prolong the life of a mouse and demonstrate an anti-ageing technology.  These scientists, among many many others, are slowly trying to change the narrative- to sell us on the idea that death is a unnatural process which is not inevitable nor untreatable.

I can’t help but have some admiration for these individuals, who are claiming that something which 100% of humans experience is actually just a bug in the genetic code that they believe they can eradicate. It’s quite a Sisyphean endeavour to try and stop something which has a 100% incidence rate and a 100% fatality rate. No one, ever, has escaped from death. If it is indeed a disease, it is the most virulent plague, the most devastating pandemic that we can ever imagine. I am not a biologist or a geneticist or even remotely educated on the intricacies of human metabolism and ageing- but I am capable enough of observing that death is not some fringe event which affects an unfortunate few. Natural or not, death is universal– at least for the time being–– which brings us to the second question facing us: is death necessary?

Is Death Necessary?

In Scythe, the omnipotent and omniscient Thunderhead realises quite quickly that death, while now entirely preventable, is nonetheless crucial to human experience. Even in the absence of natural ageing and mortal life-spans, the Scythes are needed to ensure that humanity does not become complacent in its immortality. If death and ageing are in fact necessary, then what purpose is it that they serve?

There are more or less two answers to this- often separated and cast as the religious answer and the scientific answer. I suspect they’re not so different, but nonetheless: 1) the religious answer is that mortality is a consequence of sentience, as told by the Garden of Eden story in Genesis. Before eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, humans were both lacking in consciousness and ageing. They would have lived eternally but unknowingly. Once they choose to know, to experience life fully, the consequent punishment / effect was to experience a mortal life, outside of the Garden. 2) the scientific answer is that all systems need to clear away old material to make way for new replacements- trees shed their leaves in the winter even as the sap within begins to regenerate new leaves and new flowers.

As I said, I suspect these aren’t as different as they seem, but the result is the same conclusion: death has a purpose, a necessary function. Natural or not, we need death.

I think however, that there is in fact another function to death, one which the scientists who have set themselves to defeating it have no good answer to. The most powerful response to the debate around whether death is natural is to point out its universality. Similarly, the universality of death can also be seen as its functional purpose. The fact that every single one of us experiences death not only defeats any sense that it is unnatural but also provides an apt application of the function of death- we need death to bind us all together.

Death is the only thing that we all share.

On Yom Kippur, when we come together to approach God in sincerity and repentance, when we confess in the plural and recite our communal transgressions, when we take the time to remember those who are not here today- those for whom we mourn- we would do well to reaffirm this one simple truth: death, however much we dislike it, is what enables all of us, all humanity, and all life, to share an experience. We will all be either mourners or mourned - most likely, we will be both. We cannot escape it, we cannot treat it- but we can commiserate, and we can comfort.

To return to the words of Scythe, we find perhaps the greatest statement of the need and naturalness of death, from the mouth of someone who is tasked with dealing death in a society cured of the ‘disease’ of it:

“My greatest wish for humanity is not for peace or comfort or joy. It is that we all still die a little inside every time we witness the death of another. For only the pain of empathy will keep us human. There’s no version of God that can help us if we ever lose that….Death makes the whole world kin”

Death makes the whole world kin. Without it, we would be strangers from one another, estranged from the experience of life that is shared by all life. We should be very wary of medical technology and scientific arguments which aim to defeat death- because we would lose something very great without it. To help people live better and longer lives is admirable and appropriate- but to see death itself as something to be defeated is dangerous.

We say of those who have died, ‘May their souls be bound up in eternal life.’ We carved the initials of that phrase into the tree that memoralises our dead and we carve it on headstones and in the prayers we recite. It is death that binds us to each other- that allows us to understand each other. Despite the pain and suffering it causes us, it saves us from much greater pain in that it allows us to connect with one another, to empathise with all life, and to value life as we live it. I am willing to be proven wrong- but I believe that death is both natural and necessary and that it is the tie that binds our souls up in the bonds of life. Death is that which makes the whole world kin.

On this Yom Kippur, as we contemplate the lives we have lived the past year and the life that faces us in the coming year, this is my prayer for us:

May we accept death as both natural and necessary. May we find in the painful experience of loss a recognition of each other. May we find comfort from Heaven and from one another. May we always die a little inside everytime we witness the death of another. May those whom we have lost be bound up in the bond of eternal life- and may we, and they, find that death makes us all kin.

Observer and Observed - Kol Nidré 5779

This derashah was delivered at Kol Nidré 5779 at St. Albans Masorti Synagogue


We’ve all had the sensation: you’re going about, minding your own business, when suddenly you experience the inexplicable sensation that you are being stared at. It happens to all of us– and what is remarkable is that this shared experience actually has some real evidence behind it. Several scientists have conducted experiments, the results of which were published in a 2015 meta-analysis, that indicate that people are able to perceive someone else’s attention focused on them, even when they are nowhere nearby.

We’ve all felt the weight of someone else’s eyes on a crowded bus or in a coffee shop, but for these studies, the scientists separated two subjects into two totally separate rooms, each sound-proof and light-proof. The observer, a fair distance away and in their own sealed room, was asked to intently stare at a CCTV monitor image of the observed for alternating periods, focusing on the image for a minute, then looking away for a minute, etc. What they found was that there were repeatable, although subtle, biochemical changes in the person being watched- changes which are entirely inexplicable under our current model of sensory perception.

If these studies turn out to be correct and repeatable, it will considerably challenge mainstream perception of how human beings interact. If you can affect someone by looking at a live image of them in another room, then our influence on one another must be more than physical. It also must mean that we possess some sensory ability to perceive when we are being watched– perhaps it was an evolutionary trait, along with senses like vision and smell, which remained unused or underdeveloped.

What’s perhaps even more remarkable is that we are not the only ones who act differently when being watched.

A famous experiment at the Weizmann Institute in Israel in 1998 proved something that experimental physicists had been seeing for years: some particles acted differently when they were being watched. In a broad sense, we experience this ‘observer effect’ all the time- in order to check your tyre’s pressure you have to let out some of the air– meaning that measurement of the pressure is inherently incorrect because in order to measure it you have to alter it. That’s not news to anyone. But what was shocking was that electrons only show up as particles sometimes– specifically, when someone is watching them.

It sounds absurd- but the so-called ‘double slit experiment’ has been proven and repeated many times. We know that electromagnetic radiation (AKA light) is neither exactly a particle nor exactly a wave. It seems to sometimes act like a wave and other times act like a particle. This facet of light was demonstrated in 1801 by the first double-slit experiment. Many came after, which demonstrated that electrons, atoms and other matter often operates the same way. What the 1998 experiment proved is that the presence of an observer forced the electrons to act like particles and go through one slit or the other. It didn’t matter if the observer was a human being or a digital algorithm calculating the outcome- all that mattered was that if something was watching the electrons acted one way, and if no one was paying attention, they acted a different way.

It may sound bizarre to suggest that we can actually perceive someone watching us, and it certainly is bizarre that elementary particles behave differently when watched! What each suggests is that the act of watching, of paying attention, of looking at something– it actually interacts in some unexplainable way with the thing being watched. Although we can neither record nor measure the effect, it is clear that our attention affects the world around us, both at the very small scale of particles and waves and at the much more mundane level of staring at one another.

As we turn to begin Yom Kippur and reflect on the past year, we can surely see the ‘observer effect’ in action in our own lives. How differently do we behave when we believe no one is watching? What things will we do when we believe we are unobserved? At the most mundane, we may indulge in the occasional nose-picking or not-so-stealthy fart. Slightly less innocuous, I suspect many of us would engage in behaviours when unobserved that we wouldn’t dare do while being watched- perhaps dancing around the house in only pants or singing along to Adele at full-volume in an empty car. At a more critical level though, the moments when we believe we are alone are those in which we’re willing to indulge our dark passions, our addictions, our secrets. What things do you have tucked away in the quiet recesses of your soul that no one else sees? What secrets do you keep for the moments when no one else can see you?

The truth is- whether we admit it or not, whether we are conscious of it or not– we act differently when we believe we’re being watched. When we consider the effect that such an idea can have on electrons, on elementary particles, and among people participating in scientific staring contests, we should not underestimate the role of the ‘observer effect’ in religious life as well.

Over the course of the next 25 hours we’re going to recite the Ashamnu, the prayer of community confession, many times. Each time, the maḥzor includes several prayers just prior to the Ashamnu to help introduce it. The one which we will read this year is rendered in the English as:

“You know the mysteries of the universe,

The deepest secrets of everyone alive.

You probe our innermost depths;

You examine our thoughts and feelings.

Nothing escapes You;

Nothing is secret from You.

Therefore, may it be Your will,

Our God and God of our ancestors,

To forgive us for all our sins,

To pardon us for our iniquities,

And to grant us atonement for all our transgressions.”

This prayer is attributed to the 2nd century rabbi known only as Shemu’el and it reminds us of something we’d probably rather ignore, something many of us find strange and alienating in the modern world: in the eyes of Judaism, there is no time or place in which you are ever unobserved. There is, in fact, a cosmic ‘observer effect,’ which means that if and when we believe that there is a God who is watching us, we act differently. To be our best selves we actually might need to believe that God is watching– we may need to feel that sensation of eyes on the back of our head to be good. We may need to be forced, like the wave-electron, to make choices when observed that we otherwise would not have to make.

I want to suggest to you as we begin Yom Kippur and 5779 that there is merit in choosing to believe that you are being watched. Our immediate assumption, out of guilt or paranoia or just unease, is that what we mean when we say God watches us has to be threatening or creepy. But there is another way to understand it. When we recite, as we will do repeatedly, that God knows the mysteries of all creation, sees the secrets of everyone alive– we are simply recognising that God, like the observer of the double-slit experiment, affects our behaviour simply by paying attention.

Imagine- for a moment, how differently you would approach life if you genuinely believed there was a capital-O Observer present. Like the electrons or the participants in the experiment, you would react, consciously or not, to the idea that someone, something was watching.

In an era of near-ubiquitous CCTV, in an era in which we put smart devices into our homes which listen to our conversations, in an era in which we routinely talk to Alexa, Siri, Google, and ask them to intervene in our lives- is it really such a difficult stretch to imagine God as a omniscient presence- always watching, always listening, always observing?

I think, perhaps counterintuitively, that this concept of interminable cosmic surveillance is probably easier for us to understand than it was for our ancestors. And I think- as strange as it might be- that if we choose to believe the supposition of the maḥzor that God watches all of our behaviour, it can help us to live more ethical, more spiritual, more honourable lives.

The sensation of total isolation is increasingly an illusion- whether it is our phones, our cars, our homes, or our bodies themselves, we are choosing to be observed more and more. We are signing over permissions to these anonymous observers to listen, watch, and record our lives. All I’m suggesting is that we apply that same thinking to God.

The knowledge that we are being watched, the sensation of being observed– it can help make us better. If we think twice before we assume we are alone, we may be more likely to resist those temptations which have the greatest pull over us in the moments when we feel least-connected to the perception of others. If there is an Other who is an Observer, we are accountable to something beyond ourselves, even for those moments when we delude ourselves into thinking it is just ourselves present.

It may sound strange to suggest that we actively choose to see God as some great cosmic CCTV, but I think there is a distinct benefit to be gained. We are increasingly accepting of omniscience in many aspects of our lives, but we incorrectly attribute that omniscience to algorithms rather than the Almighty.  If we can internalise the sensation of being observed, find it comforting rather than threatening, we can be the best versions of ourselves.

I want to end an unlikely message with an unlikely quote, from the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca:

sic vive cum hominibus tamquam deus videat, si loquere cum deo tamquam homines audiant.

Live among humanity as if God was watching you, and speak with God as if humanity can hear you.

Letters, X, line 5

My prayer for us as we enter this Yom Kippur is Seneca’s: May we speak with God today as if each of is listening to one another, and may we live out this year behaving, believing, that we are being observed- being our best and acting our best due to the presence of the One who knows and sees all.

Ḥatimah Tovah.

Better and Better Tomorrows - Rosh haShanah 5779

This derashah was delivered at St. Albans Masorti Synagogue on Day 2 Rosh haShanah 5779

Statue in the center of Stalingrad after Nazi air strikes, 1942.jpg

It was like any other day, really.

I was in 7th grade, and as usual, got up early to do homework, having uniformly failed to do it the night before. As usual, I turned on the TV to try and help wake me up at 6am, and sat down a bowl of cereal. I put pencil to paper and started working on whatever maths assignment I had neglected– when I finally bothered to look up, I could not believe what I was seeing. I assumed then that I was actually still dreaming. On the TV was an emergency news broadcast showing the north tower of the World Trade Center on fire, with the rear-end of a passenger jumbo-jet sticking out of it, and a huge plume of black smoke. I sat transfixed, and literal moments later, at 6.03am, just as my mind was beginning to accept that this was in fact real, a plane rocketed out of the sky, on live television, and slammed into the south tower.

There would be too more planes- at 6.37, the third hit the Pentagon, and at 7.03, the news reported that a fourth airplane which had diverted from course had crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. By 7.30, both of the 110-storey towers had fallen, taking with them nearby buildings and engulfing lower Manhattan in ash, smoke, and the bodies of all of those who could not escape.

Unbelievably, that was 17 years ago today– and the world that emerged from those attacks 17 years ago is deeply shaped by the experience of them. For me, and I think for many like me, that experience plunged us into history. Before that moment, as a child I was ignorant of what ‘history’ really means. I assumed, as many would- that history is simply a record of what happened before- but it is so much more than that. What we believe happened, affects very deeply what we think is happening and it shapes and molds what we make happen in the future.

Rosh haShanah, in many ways, positions itself to be a statement about history. Today is the birthday of the world, we recite over and over again. What is a birthday other than an annual commemoration of an historical event? Moreover, we include in our Musaf Amidah those special sections which define Rosh haShanah: Malkhuyyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot. The second of them, Zikhronot, is all about history- and it’s that spirit that informs so much of what we do and what we aim to be on Rosh haShanah. Yet, it is worth us stopping to consider- why is history such a central theme to our observance of the Yamim Nora’im, and to our process of self-transformation which we are meant to be undertaking?

The answer is that Judaism is actually extremely radical on the question of history. The Torah puts forward an extremist doctrine of historical time and historical development- and it simply slips under all of our noses.

In the world which the Torah speaks to, history, even time itself, is an inevitably and unchangeably circular phenomenon. For every ancient people - Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Assyrians, Sumerians, the Vedic culture of India, ancient Chinese philosophers, pre-Buddha dharma traditions - time is a cycle, a wheel that turns and turns, never moving– eternally exchanging endings for beginnings and beginnings for endings. In this world, the Torah makes an assertion which must have seemed absurd when it came out- the world is progressing. Time is advancing. History moves from a beginning, which is Creation, towards an end, which we mythologise as the Messianic Era. They must have thought we were nuts.

Today, we can hardly realise the radicality of such a concept- only because it has become the new normal. The Torah’s notion of history’s progress is the basic building block of all Western society and philosophy, it is what creates the intellectual foundation for the enlightenment, for science, for technology, and for the constant and consistent decrease in human violence over time.
Yes– you heard me right.

There is a rabbinic maxim, which I have had printed on all of your tickets for the High Holy Days this year- מעלים בקודש ואין יורדים - we increase in holiness and never decrease. History, holiness, time, development– it only goes one direction: good increases and never decreases. It always reminds me in particular of the way in which my in-laws respond to basic questions. No matter what the actual situation, they almost always respond to ‘How are you doing?’ with the same refrain: ‘Going well’, ‘Getting better.’ When there’s a problem, it’s always ‘It’ll be okay,’ ‘Things will be better tomorrow.’ Perhaps its foolish idealisation or some notion of self-fulfilling prophecy, but I actually think there lies in that response a deep and important truth.

Now, that sounds lovely and all, but many of you may think it is absolutely daft to suggest such a thing when we live in a world in which we experience such violence. We live in a world where school children know what the word genocide means and in which we find ourselves unable to figure out how to stop people terrorising others with bombs, guns, knives, and acid. Yet- if we take a step back- if we really consider it- is our world actually as dangerous as it seems? Is that rabbinic maxim wrong? Is today the safest time in history?

As odd as it may seem, I believe the answer is yes. We perceive there to be a great deal of violence because it is so readily available to us: dispensable by smart phone notifications and a twenty-four hour news cycle. Yet, that doesn’t reflect the reality of human history and the changes that have been wrought over time.

Let’s look at the numbers- just to see if we can get a sense. I owe a great deal of my knowledge of this question to Steven Pinker’s book, Better Angels of Our Nature where he asks the following question: What, would you say, are the bloodiest events in human history? Yes, predictably, the Second World War is number 1 with a death toll of 55 million people. In second place is the famine and destruction wrought by communist China in the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward, which together claimed 40 million lives. Closely following is a much older crime, the Mongol Conquests of the 13th century, which claimed an estimated 40 million lives as well.

That would seem to prove that the Torah is wrong- the worst atrocities of violence have occurred in the 20th century. Yet, any statistician would tell you that it’s not an accurate representation of per capita violence, because the world population during the Mongol Conquests was only about 400 million, whereas the mid-20th century saw a world population of 4 billion. As a result, if we really want to understand the history of human violence, we need to understand in in context. The question is not: have more people died in the 20th century than prior centuries- because the answer is of course yes, but largely because more people have lived in the 20th century.

Instead we need to adjust for population changes to assess these atrocities in contemporary terms. If we do the maths to equate all explosions of human violence for which we have records to relate their population to a mid-20th century equivalent, the chart looks a bit different. The top five are now astronomically larger than our objective 20th century data. All end up over 100,000,000 dead and all occurred before the 20th century. They are:

  • The An Lushan Revolt - equivalent of 429,000,000 - 8th century

  • Mongol Conquests - equivalent of 278,000,000 - 13th century

  • Arab Slave Trade - equivalent of 132,000,000 - 7th-19th century

  • Fall of the Ming Dynasty - 112,000,000 - 17th century

  • Fall of Rome - 105,000,000 - 3rd-5th century

What a different picture of the world that presents! If we consider how little of the data we have, especially of the ancient world, the maths could be even yet more different. The reality seems to be that with every day, the chances of a given person experiencing serious violence in their own lives have steadily decreased. That sounds to me like the world is getting better. Now, the chart of human violence may be a descending line over ten thousand years, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t aberrations here and there- the 20th century certainly seemed poise to upset the trajectory of that downward curve. But, with the advances in human society since, the ‘Long Peace’ that has prevailed since 1945, and the surprisingly un-bloody end to the Cold War, the trend has nonetheless continued. On the broadest scale, the average chance of being a victim of violence continues to decrease.

For me, revelations such as these absolutely confirm the notion that we are, in fact, getting better. With each Rosh haShanah, with each year that ticks past, things do improve, we do ‘increase in holiness and not decrease.’ Progress is a real factor, even if it is eludes our day to day perception. We are in the funny position as being the people who live in the safest time in history, yet we believe it to be the most dangerous. If we can see past that, and look at the bigger picture and the longer scale, we may yet realise that our world is indeed improving.

I think that the Torah’s idea of history is more important than ever. In a time in which we think things are so much worse than they are, we need to repeat and reaffirm that maxim: we increase in holiness and never decrease. 5779 will be a better, safer, and holier year than 5778. Our calendar is indeed a wheel- but rather than the eternally-cycling wheel of the ancients, ours is a wheel on an axle, a tire which, as it turns, inexorably advances that which it carries. With each Rosh haShanah we celebrate another revolution, another step in holiness, another decrease in violence, and another improvement on the human condition.

I know it is easy to be bleak about the future– but we are asked to see it differently. Even when it appears to be dark and gloomy, we are asked to step back and look larger, to realise the role that each year plays in bringing redemption closer and closer.

For me, this day is an apt coincidence. Rosh haShanah coinciding with September 11th - that juxtaposition reminds me to remember that although there are peaks and troughs along the curve, the curve is going the right way. Even though we experience violence and see terror, we must remember, as Rosh haShanah asks us to do, that this year will be better than the last, and that an even better one will follow after. Over and over, around and around, until we reach that vision of the future when violence has disappeared and history is redeemed. We must not give up on the notion of progress, whether personal, communal, or historical. Things are doing great, and they’re getting better.

Shanah Tovah.

Two Assumptions on Antisemitism - Rosh haShanah 5779

This derashah was delivered at St. Albans Masorti Synagogue on Day 1 Rosh haShanah 5779


A week ago on Sunday, I attended the Jewish Labour Movement’s second annual day-long conference. All day there were fascinating and intense discussions and speeches from leaders of the Jewish community, of the Labour party, etc. Some of you may have seen the emotional speech Gordon Brown gave or heard on the news about the programme of the day– and it was truly impressive. To see so many people, of all backgrounds, gathering together to fight anti-semitism in inspiring. Yet, the most transformative encounter I had did not happen in the lecture halls or breakout rooms of the conference- but on bench on Finchley Road, a mile and a half away.

During the break for lunch, I decided to stretch my legs and ended up in St. Johns Wood. Having picked up lunch, I sat down on a bench facing Finchley road to eat it, while listening to music and enjoying the beautiful not-quite-Autumn day. A few minutes later, a man enters my peripheral vision with his hand outstretched- obviously asking for food. Without really looking up, I offered him part of my lunch, although with a moment’s hesitation– as the only bit remaining was the Victoria sponge cake. Regardless, rather than take my proffered food, the man began to talk to me.

Looking up and removing my headphones, I saw he was probably in his mid-60s, and with obvious Muslim dress. He introduced himself as Ahmad and clarified that he was just joking. Evidently, he does this often- walking up to sitting people and seeing if they’ll offer him food. I asked, ‘well, does it usually work?’ He replied, in somewhat broken English: ‘Yeah, almost everyone gives me food. Well, everyone except the Jews- you must not be a Jew.’

Without missing a beat, I removed my hat, showed him my kippah and said, ‘Not only am I a Jew, I’m a rabbi!’ Surprised, he sat down, and we spent a few minutes talking. He still didn’t quite believe my Hebraic credentials. He asked: ‘Okay, so you’re Jewish - but you must not be a Zionist right?’ Once again- ‘Actually, I am quite a Zionist.’ Immediately he retorted, ‘So, you want to kill all the Palestinians?’ I began to try and explain that a) I don’t, and b) it’s because I’m a Zionist that I don’t. Because I’m a Zionist and a Jew I want peace for my people and for the Palestinians. Surprisingly sated by this answer, he went on to tell me how, ‘…we’re actually cousins, you know?’ The children of Yitzẖak and the children of Yishma’él, sitting together on a bench, all those years later.

I excused myself, as I had to head back to Finchley- and he warmly wished me goodbye, and assured me I had changed his perceptions of Jews, and perhaps even of Zionists. He said: ‘I guess I can’t say Jews don’t offer me food anymore!’ and he blessed me in Arabic as I left.

Despite all of the many important conversations going on in Finchley that day– I don’t believe any were as critical to fighting anti-semitism as my chat with Ahmad on a bench a mile and a half away. He demonstrated so well the two assumptions that are at the heart of contemporary left-wing antisemitism, that sort of this ancient hatred that’s been making headlines. There’s two key things which Ahmad believed which undermine the anti-racist claims of the people who share them: 1) A good Jew must not be a Zionist, and 2) A Zionist can’t be in favour of peace.

I’d like to try and address each of these in order to try and find some place from which we can stand and can speak about anti-semitism.

A Good Jew Must Not Be A Zionist

This assumption is absolutely elemental to the world-view of many left-wing thinkers, and it is not a historical novelty for it to be so. Two examples serve to illustrate the history of the ‘good Jew’ myth in left-wing politics;

  • Soviet Union: Yevsekstiya. The Yevsekstiya was the organisation established by Bolshevik leadership in the early days after the revolution to represent Jewish communities. Having rejected the Bund for being insufficiently revolutionary and for being too attached to Jewish culture, the Soviet leadership instead empowered a small group of young radical Jews to form the Yevsekstiya, whose stated mission was: was the "destruction of traditional Jewish life, the Zionist movement, and Hebrew culture". For years they rampaged through Jewish communities, burning synagogues, arresting rabbis, and destroying anything even remotely evocative of Hebrew or Zionism. These young Jews eagerly attacked Jewish communities, and in doing so provided cover to Bolshevik politicians, who could respond to accusations of Antisemitism by pointing out that the Yevsekstiya was made up of Jews themselves. If Jews were fighting Jews about these questions– then surely it couldn’t be Antisemitism to take the side of the ‘good Jews.’ Unsurprisingly, even the ‘good Jews’ of the Yevsekstiya were later purged (that is, executed) under Stalin’s Great Terror for being suspiciously too close to the people they had destroyed, despite their many protestations that they were good and faithful communists.

  • Poland: Meanwhile, after WWII, Poland saw the creation of a communist government which promised hope and security for the small Jewish community that survived the mass extermination within Poland’s borders. Yet, by 1967, Jews’ association with Israel meant that they were suspect– it was no longer enough to be a good communist, you now had to prove you weren’t a Zionist to be a good Jew. On 19 June 1967, Polish premier Władysław Gomułka gave a famous speech in which he said: “Since the Israeli aggression on the Arab countries was met with applause in Zionist circles of Jews... I wish to announce the following: ….we maintain that every Polish citizen should have only one fatherland: People's Poland. This view is supported by the overwhelming majority of Polish citizens of Jewish descent, who faithfully serve our country. Every citizen of our country has the same rights, but also the same responsibilities toward People's Poland. But we cannot remain indifferent toward people, who in the face of a threat to world peace, and thus also to the security of Poland and the peaceful work of our nation, come out in favor of the aggressor, the wreckers of peace, and imperialism….We do not want a fifth Column to be created in our country." In the Wake of Gomułka’s speech, 13,000 Jews emigrated from anti-racist, socialist Poland, with those who remained being purged from the party, kept from work and universities, and facing universal discrimination.

These two examples serve to show, hopefully, that the notion that ‘good Jews’ will oppose Zionism (which is clearly bad) is not one new to left-wing thinking. Because the anti-racist left rightly opposes any Imperialism, Zionism is assumed to be one in the same. This is a critical flaw: Zionism is not Imperialism. Imperialism is a foreign people who have no racial or historical connection to a place invading it in order to oppress the local native population and exploit natural resources. Jews are neither foreign to the land of Israel nor are they without many and plentiful historic and racial connections to it.

The assumption that there are the ‘good Jews’ who oppose Zionism (which is bad) is one we’ve seen in our own circumstance now repeatedly. How many times do media sources eagerly pick up on someone who is willing to defame Zionism and defend those accused of antisemitism by writing the seemingly innocuous clause: ‘X, who himself is Jewish…. ‘Jewishness has become an insurance policy, and those on the outside who don’t know any better are eager to display some of us as the ‘good Jews’ despite the apparent absurdity of such a distinction.

Sadly we don’t have to look far for an example of this in our own time: Jewish Voice for Labour is a fringe group set up by a handful primary members, specifically to comment on this current crisis. Meanwhile, the Jewish Labour Movement is a over a hundred years old, was a founding partner of the Labour party itself, and boasts thousands of active and engaged members. Yet, on every interview, every street protest, the media is eager to present that- ‘even within the Jewish community this is a hot debate.’ JVL has gotten as much airtime as JLM, and has been allowed to speak for the ‘good Jews’ far too often.

To counter this assumption we need to deal with what Zionism is in the first place. Let us be really clear about this: Zionism is nothing other than the belief that Jews have a right to national self-determination. That’s it- it’s not complicated. If you believe every nation has a right to decide its own fate, then you’re a Zionist. You don’t have to agree with the Israeli government, you don’t have to defend Israeli history, and you certainly don’t need to advocate for policies like settlements and military intervention- that is not the only way to be a Zionist. There are innumerable ways to be a Zionist, because Zionism is simply the notion that Jews are a nation and deserve the rights of every nation.

Thus, when we recycle the assumption that ‘Good Jews must not be Zionists’ what we are saying is that the ‘good Jews’ are the ones willing to forgo their own national interest, the ones who apologise for their difference rather than assert it. The danger of that should be obvious- and it leads us to our second assumption:

A Zionist Must Not Be in Favour of Peace

Ahmad’s second assumption was that if I say I’m a Zionist, it must mean that I’m in favour of exterminating the Palestinians. I never thought I would have to explain why this isn’t the case, but that is the world we now live in. This should not be a radical idea, but here goes: You can be a Zionist and be in favour of peace. Moreover- if you are truly concerned with the best interest of the Jewish people and their right to a national home you should be in favour of peace.

We have fallen into this trap of childish self-assignment to ‘sides’ like in a schoolyard football match. We are told we must be either on ‘Team Israel’ or ‘Team Palestine.’ We are told they are mutually exclusive, that there are no options which bridge this absurd divide of interests. We are told it is a zero-sum game, if the Palestinians gain the Israelis lose, and if the Israelis gain the Palestinians lose. This is utter bullshit.

When I consider the conflict in Israel/Palestine, my criterion for what is ‘good’ is pretty simple, I just ask myself: ‘Does this action advance the cause of peace?’ If so, I’m for it. If not, then not. It’s that easy. I believe that the settlement project, left unchecked, is a barrier to peace not a vanguard of it, thus I am against settlement expansion. I believe Hamas is unable to actually move towards non-violent resistance and a peaceful resolution of the conflict, thus I am against them because they do not further peace. That is all we must evaluate: will this further peace? That is all we must ask ourselves.

Thus the true binary in this conflict is not pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, there is no Team Israel and no Team Palestine- there is Team Peace and there’s Team Strife. There are people and policies on both sides of the conflict who actively seek to encourage strife and conflict, or at their most benign, accept a status quo which itself furthers conflict. Similarly, there are people and ideas on both sides whose primary goal is to reach a peaceful settlement of it. I am with those people- regardless of what their identity card says or where they live. They can be settlers, like the late R’ Menachem Froman or Israeli Arabs or Palestinians, Jews or not, Zionists or not- what matters is whether they are working towards a just and final peace between two equal partners.

So, you can be a Zionist and for peace- arguably, in order to be a Zionist you may need to be on Team Peace- and you can be a ‘good Jew’ and also be a Zionist, because Zionism is only the idea that Jews are people too.

How can you tell if a policy or person is an antisemite? The test is easier than you might think- it’s a single yes or no question: Do you believe that Jews have a right to national self-determination just as other nations do? If yes, then you are a Zionist, because Zionism only means that. You may be a Zionist opposed to the Likud, you may be a Zionist who wants a two-state solution or a one-state solution. If you answered no to that question, then you are an anti-semite. It’s that simple.

Well, you might say, what if I’m someone that doesn’t believe in ‘nations’ or ‘nationalism’ and opposes Jewish self-determination equally with all other nations? In which case, you really can’t have much stake in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict at all, as the Palestinian cause is an exclusively national one. Assuming you are not as radical as that- you may find that you are a pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, pro-Peace person, as I think is right to be. All 3 of those are required. You cannot be 1) Pro-Israel and 2) Pro-Peace without being Pro-Palestinian, because there can be no just peace that doesn’t recognise the rights of Palestinians. Similarly- and this is the lesson that our comrades may need to hear- you cannot be 1) Pro-Palestinian and 2) Pro-Peace without being Pro-Israel because there is no just peace which erases the national self-determination of Jews.

So, is anti-Zionism anti-Semitism? Yes. That does not mean that being opposed to Israeli policy or actions or history or ideology is anti-Semitism. But, if you find yourself denying the right of national self-determination to Jews while granting it to others, you are an anti-semite. To hope that Israel and Palestine both move towards a peaceful resolution is essential. To describe the founding of Israel as an ‘inherently racist endeavour,’ as some may want to do- is anti-semitic, and perhaps even more critically, it is not helping to further peace. Team Peace is the place to be and it involves being pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, and most importantly, pro-Peace. That is the only team which can win.

I don’t know if I changed Ahmad’s mind for good, but I certainly was able to challenge his ideas about Jews, Zionism, and peace. Who knows, maybe our brief encounter on a London bench may have won him over to Team Peace- but there are many more to win over, Israelis, Palestinians, and British alike. Go out and recruit, go out and change minds, go out and challenge the assumptions which lead us all further away from the resolution of conflict which we all desire. Join me on Team Peace– here’s to victory in 5779.

Shanah Tovah.