Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, the mass of territory he ruled got divvied up among his generals and the general whose name comes into the Hanukkah story is Seleucus.

The diadochi – the successors of Alexander – didn’t sort it out amicably but, one way or another, Seleucus ended up with swathes of the Near East, including Syria. The Ptolemies had Egypt, which explains why Cleopatra was Greek.

Seleucus founded an empire, a centre of sophisticated Hellenistic influence and culture, ruled by kings who were mainly called Antiochus. The rest of the Seleucid kings  were called Seleucus, as you’d expect and there were a couple of Philips, but that’s another story.

In 175 BCE the Antiochus on the throne was the fourth of that name, called Antiochus Epiphanes, which was complimentary, but also known as Antiochus Epimanes, which meant bonkers. I’m not excusing the mental health slur but that’s what they called him.

The Seleucids had ruled over Judea without causing too much trouble but Antiochus IV was a tyrant and wanted to put a stop to Judaism. To be fair, he believed that the Greek way of life was much superior to any other but he imposed his will in a cruel, persecutory manner, as tyrants generally do.

He outlawed Jewish practices, making them punishable by death, and defiled the Temple in Jerusalem (the one we call the Second Temple, built after the return from exile in Babylon) by setting up an altar to Zeus as well as other abominations which I won’t go into here.

There was a Jewish revolt, led by the Hasmonean family of Modi’in (currently a modern Israeli city with over 90,000 inhabitants). The Hasmoneans are also called the Maccabees. Hashmon was the family name and Maccabee was a sort of nickname, meaning hammer, initially applied to Judah ben Matitiyahu, but eventually the Jewish revolt against the Seleucids was known as the Maccabean revolt.

A word about Matityahu, Mattathias in Greek and Matthew in English, not that anyone spoke English in those parts: he was a priest from a distinguished family, the sons of Hashmon. His grown up sons all fought alongside their brother Judah. Their names were John, Simon, Eleazar and Jonathan.

Through guerrilla warfare against the powerful army of Antiochus, the Maccabees took back Jerusalem, including the Temple, which was thoroughly cleansed and rededicated, hence the word Hanukkah, חנוכה , which means dedication.

It would be nice to think this was a final victory but the war with the Seleucids dragged on for years, recorded in the four books of the Maccabees which you will find not in the bible but in the Apocrypha or, as Catholics call it, the Deuterocanon. They were probably written originally in Hebrew but the earliest extant versions are in Greek, like most of the Old Testament Apocrypha.

Of the Hasmonean brothers, Simon survived the longest and fathered a dynasty of high priests and kings. The Seleucid Empire disintegrated and the new kid on the block was Rome, with whom the Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus had good relations.  Supporters of the Hasmoneans tended to be from the priestly elite known as Sadducees and they were opposed by the Pharisees who were devout but generally more in touch with the ordinary people.

You may notice that I haven’t mentioned the miracle in the Temple when the oil in the menorah burned for eight days.

The reason is this:  the books of the Maccabees don’t mention the menorah or the miracle. They are more concerned with battles, power, dynasties and realpolitik.

The story of Hanukkah as we celebrate it comes from a later source, the Talmud, written down between about 200 and 600 CE.

The Gemara asks: What is Hanukkah, and why are lights kindled on Hanukkah? The Gemara answers: The Sages taught in Megillat Taanit: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight. One may not eulogize on them and one may not fast on them. What is the reason? When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of hallel and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings.

Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 21b

The men who wrote the Talmud – and I think we can be sure that they were men not women – had an affinity with the Pharisaic tradition. The militaristic expansionism of the later Hasmonean kings wasn’t something they admired and, chronologically speaking, the Talmudic sages had the last word about this.

After the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, there was no place for Jewish kings and high priests  but the pious traditions of the Pharisees evolved in the rabbinic literature of the first millennium: the Mishnah and baraitot, the two Talmuds of Babylon and Jerusalem and the midrashic writings which are a source of rabbinic folklore and biblical exegesis.

As the Hanukkah story isn’t in the bible, it doesn’t get read in the synagogue on the shabbat that falls during Hanukkah. The Torah reading at this time of year is always about Joseph in Egypt, but the prophetic reading from Zechariah does have a connection with Hanukkah.

Zechariah tells that an angel showed him a vision of the gold menorah in the Temple.

And the angel who talked with me came again and woke me, like a man who is awakened out of his sleep.  And he said to me, “What do you see?” I said, “I see, and behold, a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it, and seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it.  And there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.”  And I said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?”  Then the angel who talked with me answered and said to me, “Do you not know what these are?” I said, “No, my lord.”  Then he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts. 

Zechariah 4: 1 – 6

When we light the Hanukkah candles, we remember the Maccabean revolt and we remember the miracle of the oil in the candelabrum, the Menorah.

Each night, after lighting the candles, we say:

We kindle these lights to commemorate the wonders, the victories and the marvellous and consoling deeds which You performed for our ancestors through Your holy priests in those days at this season.

Happy Hanukkah.

Post script. There is another explanation of the name Maccabee, besides the well known one that it means hammer, referring to the Maccabees’ strength in battle. It has been said that it is an acronym for the words Mi Camokha Ba Elim.

Who is like You, God, among the mighty?

Exodus 15:11

As with Zechariah, the emphasis is on piety rather than militarism.

The new BBC drama Ridley Road was on television on Sunday night, close to the anniversary of the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, although Ridley Road is set in 1962, when the neonazi Colin Jordan voiced his ambition of completing Hitler’s work. Even more poignantly, the new series stars Tracy-Ann Oberman and Eddie Marsan who fight so fearlessly against present day antisemitism and are much abused for it by those who identify as the anti-Zionist Left.

The same day, Mr Corbyn and the JVL took to Cable Street as they have for several years past. As is often the case, Mr Corbyn spoke from a platform accompanied by alleged antisemites.

Wise words have been written about the Corbynist Left’s appropriation of Cable Street, by Nicole Lampert today in Jewish News and yesterday by Lee Harpin. So accurately has Nicole Lampert summed up the situation that I hardly need to add anything to it.

I had a little run in on Twitter in the last twenty-four hours with an account who calls himself ‘Rob Filth UK’ (possibly connected with or in homage to the 1980s punk comic, ‘Filth.’ ). Rob identifies critics of Mr Corbyn with fascists and antisemites. As critics of Corbyn are often in point of fact Jews or the friends of Jews, he regards us and our friends as a rabble of antisemites, fascists and nazis, while – as Rob sees it – Corbyn alone defends us, the undeserving.

Enough about what the Corbynists say.

Watching Ridley Road made me think about my family and our encounters with antisemitic movements in Britain, in my lifetime in the 1960s and before my lifetime in the 1930s.

My mother’s parents came to England as children, from Lodz in Poland, around 1900. Her father was an orphan, illiterate as he had no formal schooling, and he worked in the East End for a recently arrived family who had acquired a workshop with sewing machines. He married the oldest daughter, my grandmother, got his own workshop and, in postwar years, a factory which moved from Shoreditch to Leyton to Bow until it closed down in the 1980s.

My father’s parents came to England from Podolia, now in western Ukraine, in 1910. All the children of the family were born in Russia except for the youngest, my father. He went to a grammar school which he loved, then to a teachers’ training college and had started teaching when war broke out.

My parents grew up in the same street, Crellin Street, which was destroyed by bombs during the blitz. When my mother was a new born infant, the grandmothers said jokingly that she was a bride for my father, who was three. True words spoken in jest: their wedding took place in 1940 in Cannon Street Road Synagogue, and they were married for seventy years until my father died, in 2011.

My father is wearing army uniform in the wedding photos. He fought in North Africa and in the Atlantic, accompanying merchant shipping as a gunner. The ship was torpedoed and he was several hours on a raft in the very centre of the Atlantic Ocean, until being taken aboard a corvette.

My sister had been born by then. The shenanigans of Cable Street had been and gone. My mother said that she was at an upper window with a bucket of water to pour down on the fascists if they broke through.

I was born in 1949 when we were living in Amhurst Road Hackney, although we soon moved to the boreal locale of Upper Clapton. The Mosleyites were active, calling themselves the League of Empire Loyalists. One saw their graffiti on the walls but I didn’t see them close up until they held a rally in Ridley Road.

I remember my father, who never swore, shouting ‘Balls, balls, balls’ (my sister says it was ‘Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks’ and at the Jordan meeting) while Mosley attempted a speech in Ridley Road and kicking the getaway car driven by Max Mosley with a scared looking Oswald Mosley in the passenger seat.

Still more dramatic was the Colin Jordan meeting in Trafalgar Square where I aimed a blow at a woman who called my sister ‘dirty Jewish whore’. She kicked out. There were men holding us back, my mother, my sister and me and the neonazi woman too. My father and brother-in-law, deeper in the crowd, for some reason saw less action that day, as far as I know.

Since writing this, I’ve spoken to my sister about these events. She recalls attacking the woman and myself joining in. It was sixty years ago, the memory clear in both our minds, but our memories do not match in the details. Regarding the woman’s words to my sister, we entirely agree.

My sister was in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, where she met her husband. They have been married fifty-eight years as I write this. As a teenager I joined the Young Socialists and, as I have written before, the SWP, until anti -Zionism became a prominent feature of left-wing politics, soon after the Six Day War.

If a Corbynist wants to abuse me on social media, they tend to call me a far right apartheid lover (being called old, ugly et cetera is par for the course). It seems strange as we were active against apartheid and I remember my parents taking me to an anti-apartheid meeting in Trafalgar Square to hear the then Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell. Anglican bishop Trevor Huddleston is in the centre of the photo.

I was on anti-apartheid demonstrations in my student days in Manchester when the all white Springboks came to Old Trafford. Peter Hain was the prominent leader of the movement in the UK. There is a famous photo of Jeremy Corbyn being arrested while wearing an anti-apartheid sandwich board, but his was not a name I ever heard until well after 2000, by which time he was a seasoned Labour backbencher.

Back to Twitter: Rob Filth UK is putting his back into arguing that opponents of Corbyn appease neonazis for ‘lack of bottle’. It is not a young man’s turn of phrase. I would guess that Rob is one of Corbyn’s silver haired devotees. He also argues that Stalin called it right with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

Corbynists display great resentment towards ‘centrists’, a pronounced not to say malevolent dislike of Keir Starmer and a loathing for any politician or celebrity who speaks out against the antisemitism of the Left. I am myself a centrist now, but always considered myself on the left of the Labour Party until it became inimical to Jews, certainly under Corbyn but prior to his leadership too, on the fringes of the Party.

The latest from Rob is objectionable indeed.

I recall from the long ago days in the SWP that the Group preferred the International Marxist Group and Militant to the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (formerly Socialist Labour League), not that they liked them, but everyone hated the WRP and the WRP hated everyone else. The UK Left in the 1960s was like Homage to Catalonia which came before it and The Life of Brian which was yet to come. Now they seem to have found some unity in their opposition to Israel and all who sail in her. ‘All who sail in her’ includes most of us Jews in the diaspora and all our allies.

I think of the past, my family in the East End, the aunt who went back to Russia after the revolution and eventually disappeared without trace; Communist Party activists related by marriage to another of my aunts and the endless struggles against antisemites, in those days and in these. I think of the Jewish charity boxes displayed in all the homes of my childhood: Jewish National Fund; the kibbutznik figurines brought back by those who had been to Israel and the Stars of David which we girls wore – which I still wear – as necklaces.

Some troll on Twitter says to me ‘lack of bottle’ and I get upset.

Such bottle they had, the dead and the living.

To the members of my family now in Gan Eden, L’CHAYIM!

לחיים

L’CHAYIM!

‘Zionists are the abused who have become worse than the abusers,’ says Siân, in the Facebook group, ‘Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn.’

Almost daily, I see evidence of this inclination to minimise the enterprises of the Third Reich by replacing nazism with Zionism as the supreme evil. Did the nazis kill Zionists (the abused who are now the abusers according to Siân), rather than Jews? I think Siân is using Zionists as a synonym for Jews which she would be likely to deny, if challenged on this point. Moreover, she would hardly be so careless as to say ‘Jews are worse than the abusers’ on Facebook, where she fears the Zionist censors lie in wait.

There is one person, Adam, who argues with Siân and she replies sternly:

Zionism reeks of pure evil…Please see some sense before it is too late to save your soul.

The Facebook group in question, Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn came to my attention just a few weeks ago. Most of the posts are about Israel. If people with this outlook still adhere to the Labour Party, it is not surprising that Conference chose Israel/Palestine as one of seven urgent matters for debate. For the folk of the Corbynist forums, many of whom claim to be still in the Labour Party despite their visceral loathing of Keir Starmer, Israel/Palestine is the paramount subject. They see it as an ongoing holocaust perpetrated by Israel against Palestinians and, noticing that the State of Israel has lasted six times as long as the Third Reich, they suppose it must be six times as evil.

If they had the power of life and death over us British Zionists who, they believe, control politics, media, academia, the judiciary and even the monarchy by the expenditure of bribes, would they let us live? I do not think so.

I hope continually for some influential body or individual with clout to stem this flow of ill-informed hatred. We have had the EHRC report and Keir Starmer’s determination to rid Labour of antisemitism. Yesterday the University of Bristol at last fired Professor David Miller. All of these are cited by the comrades of the forums as proof of Zionist control, to which they attribute almost occult power. Lisa Nandy, they say, has been bought. Angela Rayner has been bought. Emily Thornberry was bought. These are politicians who have been relatively even-handed about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, hardly uncritical of Israel. ‘Who’s paying her?’ the comrades ask each other, and there is always one who does not discern the rhetorical nature of the question and answers ‘Israel’.

They say that the BBC and the Guardian are mouthpieces for Israel and prefer to rely on Palestinian news sources, which are easily accessible through other Facebook pages of similar inclination. The UK’s own Skwawkbox, and to a lesser extent Novara Media and Dorset Eye, furnish them with opinion. They admire bloggers such as Tony Greenstein, loose cannons like Chris Williamson and cultural icons Ken Loach and Roger Waters. They follow JVL – Jewish Voice for Labour – which provides an admission of Zionist evil, from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Photographs of the charedim of Neturei Karta holding anti Israel placards are also popular on anti Zionist social media where the NK theology is not closely examined.

Most people see through the biased fury and self-justifications of these anti Israel groups which, 80% of the time, have Jeremy Corbyn’s name in their title. I am told that their irrational excesses are transparent and that this is why Corbynism held the Labour Party back when it came to the ballot box. I agree. They are not as many as they think they are and, although UK Jews are few in number (about 270,000), our friends and allies are not so few. There are more discerning, honest people than there are racist activists. I receive some abuse online, but I get very much more encouragement. Very occasionally, some neonazi contributes a comment to this blog such as ‘Gas all Joos’. They use false IP numbers to disguise their locations (I do look). After Labour Conferencce passed a motion condemning Israel, I got more tweets than usual calling me ‘apartheid lover’.

The danger is from the potent rabble rousers who have reputation and status in British society: the MPs still in the Labour Party, the activists in the CLPs, celebrities like Lowkey and certain mainstream journalists and reporters who are very far from being, as the comrades suppose, favourable to Israel.

Why would I need journalists who are favourable to Israel, you might ask? A fair question. It is enough when they are even-handed and well-informed. Dayenu.

After Labour Conference passed Young Labour’s motion condemning Israel, Jeremy Corbyn allowed himself the luxury of posting on Twitter a gif of a Palestinian flag, unfurled against the sky. The Prime Minister who never was. He knows not what he does or, if he knows, he does not mind.

Jonah was only three days in the whale. He didn’t complain and neither can we. Conference passed the changes required by EHRC; 73% in favour, 27% against. Changes in the rules for nominating and electing the party leader were passed, narrowly.

The political editor of LBC was physically ejected from a JVL fringe meeting by the ursine Mr Tony Greenstein. He was later readmitted and JVL apologized. Jewish blogger and investigative journalist David Collier was ejected from the same meeting but not readmitted.

It is not all doom and gloom for the Corbynist tendency. Conference chose Israel/Palestine as a topic for debate – the only foreign affairs topic I believe – and voted today:

“Conference condemns the ongoing Nakba in Palestine, Israel’s militarised violence attacking the Al Aqsa mosque, the forced displacements from Sheikh Jarrah and the deadly assault on Gaza.”

Numbers in favour of the motion, presented by Young Labour, were about two thirds with about a third voting against.

And yet – a blow to the antisemites, this – Dame Louise Ellman, former MP for Liverpool Riverside, has returned to the Labour Party, expressing confidence that Keir Starmer will make Labour again a safe place for Jewish members.

Her return is much lamented on Corbynist social media but it is a potent endorsement of Starmer for those hesitating over rejoining. Louise Ellman was a Labour MP for twenty-two years. It could not have been easy for her to issue divorce proceedings, so to speak, against the party when she believed that antisemitism had become mainstream under Corbyn’s leadership.

It was easier for sometime members and consistent Labour voters like me to distance ourselves when the toxicity became too much. I am safe in my home in north London, watching the conference on Youtube: the interesting loucheness of Angela Rayner calling Tories scum; the impressive speech by Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves and the moving appearance of Ruth Smeeth at the debate on the EHRC regulations regarding antisemitism.

One of the comrades on a Facebook forum called Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn lamented ‘They’re all back’.

Not really… Dittany, is it? Some are back but some of us, like Mary Poppins, will not come back until the wind changes.

Below are comments from Corbynists on the Conference so far, in approximate order of recency but not, I’m afraid, of decency.

Six or seven years ago, a word cloud tool was popular on Facebook. Many people I knew gave it a go, self included. My most used word was not the name of a family member nor of a much-frequented location, but ‘Labour’. It was in the days of Ed Miliband and not the result I expected.

The Labour Conference starts tomorrow and my thoughts focus on it with an engagement which is no less for my being well and truly no longer a party member.

If I thought that Keir Starmer could hold the line against antisemitism and the self-righteous indignation which spills forth from the left due to his efforts to contain it, I would at least be planning to vote Labour in the next election. In the local and mayoral elections earlier this year, I did vote Labour, believing that the party was on the right track.

By my own choice, I am familiar with the social media outpourings of what might, not very accurately be called the Corbynist left or the hard left. Not accurately, because you don’t have to be hard left to be antisemitic and Marxists are not always antisemitic. Not Corbynist, because the revival of antisemitism on the left was evident long before Corbyn became a household name.

For Keir Starmer there can be doubt about the nature of the opprobrium which comes his way. His advisors will have seen the replies online to his every word and action. He is said to be paid by Israel and his Jewish wife is cited by way of evidence. He is said to be in cahoots with – actually Netanyahu, as the names of Naftali Bennett and Benny Gantz have not yet registered with most of Starmer’s detractors. His cabinet are said to receive ‘backhanders’ from Israel. The entire Labour Party is said to be owned by Likud, not the Israeli Labour Party but their equivalent of the Conservatives.

The Corbynist forums on Facebook are currently all about how best to snub and insult Keir Starmer at conference. They have suggested singing or humming ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ and standing with their backs to the party leader when he makes his speech, but so many claim to have left the party or been suspended that the humming may sound less like a political movement than a bee trapped in the conference hall.

‘The World Transformed’ has a programme of events featuring Zarah Sultana, Jo Grady, Mark Drakeford, Jeremy Corbyn, Shami Chakrabarti and Ash Sarkar, by way of a left alternative. There will be a fringe meeting arranged by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and titled ‘Justice for Palestine,’ with Richard Burgon, Jess Barnard of Young Labour and several officials of the PSC.

The proscribed group Labour Against the Witch Hunt is holding a fringe meeting called Defend the Left, speakers to include Lowkey, Jackie Walker and Graham Bash.

JVL will hold a fringe event chaired by Jenny Manson.

Chris Williamson’s Festival of Resistance is not running concurrently with Conference but in October, in Nottingham. Speakers will include Lowkey, Tosh McDonald, Ilan Pappe and, unexpectedly, ‘the Gillet [sic] Jaune Movement’.

Considerable effort will go into undermining Starmer’s Labour but the only potent opposition to the leadership, in my opinion, will be those who remained in the Labour Party and are still MPs or Union officials.

I was not particularly attentive when Neil Kinnock waged his war against the Militant presence in Labour. It seemed to me then, not now, an internecine matter. I was aware that Derek Hatton was a turbulent character but it did not occur to me to be afraid of antisemitism coming from the left of the party.

I know now that Israel, Zionism and Jews are the daily if not hourly topic of Corbynist social media. Enormous energy is expended arguing that there is and was hardly an antisemitic bone in the Labour Party until Keir Starmer began expelling or suspending members believed to have engaged in antisemitic discourse. As these included the JVL leadership, they responded swiftly by saying they were targeted due to Keir Starmer’s animus against Jews, a prejudice which was as remote from Corbyn, they maintain, as a penguin from the North Pole.

All in all, the Conference has explosive potential. Three years ago, during Corbyn’s leadership, delegates were given Palestinian flags which they unfurled, chanting associated slogans. For many Jewish delegates, it was an intimidating experience. One might think that the Palestinian flag is hardly aggressive to Jewish delegates who might favour a Two State Solution where Israeli and Palestinian flags would fly side by side. This was in no way the import of flag waving at the 2018 conference. It showed that only one kind of partisanship in this conflict was acceptable in the Labour Party at that time. It was as if delegates had been given the Irish tricolore to wave during conflict in Ulster or the flag of the Viet Cong while the war raged in Vietnam. It was a message to Zionists that they were not welcome in Labour and that being unwelcome could be more menacing than a frosty look or a refusal to engage.

This year, if there is a display of Palestinian flags in the conference hall, it will not be with the encouragement of the leadership. If there are Latuff cartoons on show in Brighton, it will be at a fringe event, not an official one.

In 2017, the leader of Brighton and Hove’s Labour Council, Warren Morgan, stated his concern that anti-Semitism was being aired publicly in fringe meetings and on the floor of conference. Warren resigned as council leader in 2018, after representing East Brighton ward for fifteen years.

By the middle of 2019 there had been an exodus from the party of MPs, peers and councillors who considered the party lost to antisemitism. Their testimonies have been chronicled in the film Forced Out, by Judith Ornstein, David Hirsh and Andrea Frankenthal, accompanied by a book of the same name.

Now there is a different landscape in the Labour Party but few have returned of those who left it when antisemitism seemed to have gained the upper hand.

I have not come back. The opposition to Starmer’s leadership is busy and hopeful. Who knows when Labour will be safe again for Jewish members and if it is not safe, how could it be a voting option?

The strictures still imposed on us by the covid situation means that we are not in the synagogue this year and there is no Minchah service which would include a Torah reading followed by the haftarah, the book of Jonah.

So we miss out on Jonah but can take this time, via Zoom, approximately when the afternoon service would have been, to think about Jonah.

Hebrew prophets are often reluctant to hold prophetic office: Moses didn’t want it, Amos thought he wasn’t worthy of it, Jeremiah knew it would bring him trouble, the visionaries Isaiah and Ezekiel had prophecy thrust upon them and Elijah, a different kind of prophet, had to do a runner when King Ahab took against him.

Jonah was about the most reluctant of them all. As soon as he heard God’s command, ‘Go to Ninevah, that great city, and proclaim against it’ – he made for the port of Jaffa and boarded a ship bound for a western extremity which is called Tarshish. This is likely to refer to what we now call Spain, possibly the straits of Gibraltar.

There are two unusual things about the prophecy delegated to Jonah. One is that, rather than prophesying to the people of Israel or Judah, he is being sent to the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, to bring a foreign people to repentance.

The other unusual thing is that, as we shall see, the prophecy doesn’t come true.

Deuteronomy is quite dismissive about prophets whose prophesies don’t come to pass.

…if the prophet speaks in the name of the LORD and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the LORD; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously: do not stand in dread of him. (Deuteronomy 18:22)

Did Jonah know that his task was to utter a prophecy which wouldn’t come true? Is this why he attempted to run away from God?

On board the ship, Jonah didn’t hang out with the mariners but went down into the innermost part of the ship where he fell into a deep sleep. A life-threatening storm blew up, and the sailors prayed, each to his own god. Eventually the captain went down to Jonah, woke him up and told him to pray to Eloheykha, ‘your God,’ so that they wouldn’t be drowned.

The sailors had worked out, by a system of casting lots, that Jonah’s presence was the cause of the storm, so they questioned him, but didn’t lay hands on him or behave threateningly towards him. Jonah explained that he was a Hebrew who had fled from his God and advised the sailors to throw him into the sea, which was getting increasingly tempestuous.

Reluctant to do this, they tried to steady the ship, to no avail and they then began to pray to God, using the name Adonai, which is the name that we Hebrews, like Jonah, call our God.

It is almost as if the sailors were converted. Perhaps we’ll park that idea and come back to it later.

They threw Jonah into the sea which immediately stopped raging and, awed by everything they had seen, they made a sacrifice to God – to Adonai, says the text – and made vows, which is what we do on Kol Nidre.

You might think that, with the storm stilled, Jonah might have had some sort of chance of swimming to dry land, but as we all know, he was swallowed by a great fish, a dag gadol, not apparently a whale although the ancient Greek translation does use the word ketos which suggests an aquatic mammal, cetacea being the zoological term for such.

There is an enormous amount of midrash about sea monsters of the bible, Leviathan being a primordial example of the genus. There are innumerable artistic depictions of Jonah inside the fish, especially the moment when the fish vomits up Jonah, who emerges carrying a scroll with which he had occupied himself, for the duration inside the fish.

Jonah is particularly interesting to Christian artists as there is a reference in the gospel of Matthew to Jonah’s three days inside the whale or fish as foreshadowing the three days between the crucifixion and the resurrection. (Matthew 12:40). Matthew, writing in Greek, does use the word ketos, suggesting a whale.

Three days is a motif found often in Tanakh: Abraham and Isaac heading for Mount Moriah, Joseph’s brothers in Egypt, awaiting the revelation at Sinai, Esther’s fast and other instances in Numbers and Hosea. Three days seems to be a sort of liminal time in which events germinate before reaching a climax.

Do you remember what Jonah did, in the belly of the fish?

He prayed a psalm of thanksgiving, stylistically very similar to the psalms of David, spoken in the first person with phrases about being encompassed by dangers and troubles, from which God redeems him. After Jonah’s prayer, God spoke to the fish which vomited out Jonah.

After these ordeals, Jonah was, in a sense, back to square one, as God again told him to go to Ninevah and make a proclamation there, as instructed.

Nineveh was a huge city, requiring a journey of three days to cross it on foot and on his first day there, Jonah proclaimed the prophecy: In forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown.

ע֚וֹד אַרְבָּעִ֣ים י֔וֹם וְנִֽינְוֵ֖ה נֶהְפָּֽכֶת׃

For full disclosure, I should mention that in the Greek Septuagint, translated  from Hebrew in the time of Ptolemy II in the third century BCE, Jonah says ‘In three days the city will be overthrown’.

How did the people of Nineveh respond?

Instantly, they believed, they fasted and they put on sackcloth, like mourners. The king of Ninevah likewise was deeply affected and decreed a penitential fast throughout the city, even for the animals. The livestock were covered in sackcloth, just like the citizens.

The king reasoned thus:

Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish. (Jonah 3:9)

מִֽי־יוֹדֵ֣עַ יָשׁ֔וּב וְנִחַ֖ם הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וְשָׁ֛ב מֵחֲר֥וֹן אַפּ֖וֹ וְלֹ֥א נֹאבֵֽד

When God saw their repentance, He said that He would not strike the city. Repentance brought mercy, as we hope on Yom Kippur, although this was no Israelite city, but the capital of the Assyrian Empire, a world power at that time.

You might think that this was a happy ending but Jonah was beside himself.  He prayed angrily, saying ‘Isn’t this exactly why I didn’t want this commission in the first place? I knew the people of Nineveh would get round you with their repentance and now I look like a liar because the city won’t be destroyed, after I told them it was going to happen. I might as well be dead.’

God answered: ‘Are you very angry?’

Jonah walked on through the city and sat down somewhere on the east side, in the shadows because it was very hot.

In the Book of Jonah, God is said to ‘prepare’ certain things: the great fish, the gourd, a worm which ruins the gourd and an east wind. The gourd, kikayon in Hebrew, which is something like a pumpkin or squash, sheltered Jonah with its shade and he was happy. At dawn, the worm infested the gourd which withered and Jonah was exposed to the sun, beating down on his head. Again, he prayed for death.

God replied, ‘Are you angry about the gourd?’

Jonah acknowledged that this was the case.

God said ‘You pitied the gourd when it was destroyed. Shouldn’t I have pity on Nineveh, a great city with more than 120,000 inhabitants who don’t know the difference between their right hand and their left?’

Then we come to the famous final words of the book of Jonah, ‘and much cattle.’ In the form of a question to Jonah, God explains to him that He pities Nineveh, the people and the domestic beasts.

Lives were saved because the prophecy brought the people of Nineveh to repentance. Jonah’s role as a prophet was not to foretell the future, but to save lives.

The primary mission of the Hebrew prophets was not to foretell the future, like the morally neutral Delphic Sibyl of the Greeks, but to reach out to the people, persuading them to atone for evil, to do good and to obey the commandments.

*

In the discussion on Yom Kippur afternoon, we spoke about Jonah’s flight from prophecy, about his deep sleep in the hold of the ship and about the conversation between God and Jonah, where God asks the questions:

 ‘Do you do well to be angry?’

‘Do you do well to be angry about the gourd?’

We referred to the gourd in The Life of Brian and the whale in Pinocchio. We spoke of the meaning of Jonah’s name, ‘dove’ and of etymological connections with the island of Iona in the Hebrides and the Ionian Sea between Italy and Greece.

I don’t think we reached a consensus about whether Jonah was right to be angry.

In the ferment of left social media, there are heroes and villains, as clearly delineated as in any James Bond narrative, Indiana Jones, Lord Of the Rings, or Harry Potter. There has to be a powerful enemy. If the premise is that the evil empire is none other then Israel, then Israel’s allies also must be evil: the United Kingdom, the United States and now the Arab countries which are party to the Abraham Accords and made peace with Israel.

Being anti Israel they say is not at all the same as hating Jews, which they prove by citing Noam Chomsky, Ilan Pappe, Miko Peled, Norman Finkelstein, Tony Greenstein, JVL and Neturei Karta. It is a fact that there have always been some Jews who want not just to separate themselves from the majority but to attack the majority.

Here in the United Kingdom many Jews had, until relatively recently, a slack, lacklustre interest in Israel, which was after all a foreign government far away and with its own problems while we, the British Jews had enough problems with our political parties, our economy, our strikes, our taxes, our NHS waiting list. There was some terrorism from the IRA and some terrorism against Jewish organizations and synagogues around the world. There was always security outside synagogues and Jewish communal buildings. As a parent, I was called on to do security duty myself, when my children were in the bar/bat mitzvah class. Back in the 1990s, a woman, five foot two, walking up and down with a walkie talkie, was considered enough to render the community secure.

After 9/11, there was a much greater sense of urgency. Here in the UK, hostility to the American and British goverments, which had been marginal, even during the Vietnam war, was now a commonplace.

The financial crisis of 2008 eroded trust in banks and businesses. Economic insecurity tends to reinforce the conservative vote. Was Ed Miliband really the Labour leader for five years? Like a flower of the field, he flourished but the wind passed over him and he was gone.

With Corbyn as Labour leader, some Jews became conscious of their Jewishness, as if for the first time. Some became aware that antisemitism could harm them, although they were not shul goers and had never thought about visiting Israel. Others concluded that Israel was the problem and their Jewishness could be put to use by denouncing it.

Those of us who recognize the current resurgence of antisemitism know that Israel cannot be treated as a separate matter. We know that anti-Jewish racism will be defended with respect to the conduct of Israel. To complicate matters, Israel’s conduct will be reported wrongly or out of context, not once or twice, but whenever anti Zionist activist puts fingertips to keyboard. It is not what the Knesset decides that puts us in the diaspora at risk, but what anti Zionists say about the Knesset, the IDF, the settlers: it is their lopsided narrative which puts us at risk.

If you select a particular nation and make it your work to denigrate it, there must always be grist for the mill. There will be injustices, bad judgments, corrupt politicians. The Left has settled not only on Israel for this exposure but also the UK & the USA. No goverments are more despised by the Left than these.

When the Skripals were poisoned in Salisbury, the supporters of Mr Corbyn shared his doubt concerning the involvement of Russia. When Bashar Al Assad was suspected of using barrel bombs and poison gas, the same people suggested that Prime Minister Theresa May had created a propaganda film at Pinewood Studios, to incriminate the Syrian President. ISIS, they agreed was bad, but they said it was an Israeli outfit run by a Jewish actor called Simon Elliott, from Greater London. Evidence was a photo of a dark-haired man with a scruffy beard and a ballpark resemblance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

When an explosion occurred at a Beirut warehouse, a meme appeared on both right and left social media, showing smoke rising from the warehouse in the likeness of a charedi Jew above a text: ‘We know it was you.’

This year, during the conflict in Israel and Gaza, there were anti Jewish attacks on the streets of the UK, as well as online. The first strike had come from Hamas, but their supporters said they had been provoked by an incursion of Israeli police into the Al Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Israeli police said this took place as the mosque was being used to accumulate weapons and rocks, to attack Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall below. On the Corbynist forums, inevitably Hamas received full support as it did also in street demonstrations and in some trade unions.

During the current crisis in Afghanistan, it is inevitable that the comrades should stick to their guns regarding the singular evil of Israel. Their response to negative press about the Taliban is to be especially emphatic about Israel being ‘worse than the Taliban’. The only comments about ISIS speak of the allegedly cordial relations between the Islamic State and the western powers. The continued hesitancy is opining about the Taliban is understandable. They are not sure if there is anything like a ‘party line’ and they would not wish to diverge from it, if there is one.

I sometimes think that if the UK was at war, whosoever was the enemy, these people would be on their side, but if the British casualties mounted up, they would say it was the work of Tony Blair and the Board of Deputies of British Jews. This is not even hypothetical. It is their take on all wars.

Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows what to expect: a tedious, apparently never-ending stream of screen shots from Corbynist groups on Facebook, exhibiting characteristics usually associated with the far right, of anti-Jewish racism, occasional Holocaust denial, 9/11 revisionism and incitement to hatred.

Invariably, those who take issue with me tell me that I need to learn the difference between antisemitism and criticism of Israel.

When I look at the social media footprint of individuals who post the most offensively anti Jewish material, I find that in most cases they are ordinary, well meaning individuals, most certainly with a tenderness for children, animals, NHS workers, as well as all Palestinians, en masse. It may be because their weapon of choice is Facebook, but they are almost always advanced in years. Carelessly in their rants against the State of Israel, they refer to the incriminating Jewishness of British philanthropists, politicians and celebrities.

Yesterday, I was in an extended Twitter spat with someone called Kevin, also active in the Facebook group, The Left Fights the Media. He used the phrase ‘Jewish billionaire masters’ in most of his tweets and insisted that Jews caused Oliver Cromwell to enforce the Irish potato famine. He accused me of complicity with Cromwell and I replied with this image:

Despite his fixation with Jewish power, I got the impression that Kevin was not altogether a bad person. He was not rude, did not do personal abuse and apologized once for a misspelling. He was strongly in favour of Proportional Representation, which is a legitimate point of view. However, his statements about Jews became increasingly wild and emphatic. He then started on the freemasons which, while equally irrational, gave us Jews a respite, except for Jewish freemasons, of whom I know several.

My feeling about the left wing Facebook forums, the aspect of social media I know most intimately, is that they radicalise. They promote Jew hate, making it the only accepted position, and the members, usually middle aged, or elderly, gain approval commensurate with the intensity of their expressed hatred.

I do not think the octogenarians who call so often for revolution are going to march up Whitehall singing ‘Ça ira’ – for one thing, some of them have lived in Spain since their retirement; many others have limited mobility.

What has happened to these people, to make them assert that the horrors in Afghanistan are a diversionary tactic to turn attention away from Israel, or that Israel is behind all wars, including those predating the creation of the State of Israel? Everything said in the past about ‘the Elders of Zion’ is revived on Corbynist forums when they speak of The Board of Deputies of British Jews. Trevor Chinn is mentioned almost daily as an agent of Israel; Lord Rothschild weekly, and Keir Starmer (who isn’t Jewish but is considered by the comrades to be working for Israel), hourly.

Taking a leaf out of their book, I have started wondering about the powerful hands of less naive agents pulling their strings. There are politicians, journalists and some celebrities who stir the pot continuously, too sophisticated to use the word Jew when Israel or Zionism may be substituted. The denial of antisemitism invariably accompanies even the most extreme tropes. I cannot remember how many times I’ve read that the Jews, sorry, Zionists, are the real antisemites. This is one of the axioms of the forums. The evidence – in their eyes, proof – is that JVL and Neturei Karta exist so the rest of us are lying for Israel.

They seem impervious to reason. Some of my friends have joined the Corbynist groups to confront the antisemites in their lair but they get ejected before long. You can see them sometimes in my screen shots, accused of being Zionist trolls.

Even finding fault with Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi or Syria’s Bashar Al Assad is enough to get one written off as a Zionist troll.

It isn’t a matter of not wanting Jews marrying their daughters or joining their golf club. June wants us deported and Anthony wants Israel wiped off the face of the earth. I’m not sure where they want us to be.

JVL – the oddly named Jewish Voice for Labour – is problematic in a slightly different way. The items posted by JVL, while intensely anti Israel, are not necessarily antisemitic but they specialize in defending anyone who has been accused of antisemitism, if they have been associated with Labour or with Mr Corbyn. Their non-Jewish followers post material as extreme as that on any other forum. If this is confronted by some interloper, the JVL moderators tend to delete the dissident posts; thus, friends of mine who argue against overtly anti Jewish comments find that their replies disappear, censored by JVL.

I have not uploaded any images from Truthers Against Zionist Lobbies. They were removed from Facebook and returned after a hiatus of four months, without their cover picture of Jeremy Corbyn. Instead, they have a parody of the Israeli flag with the words: ‘Israel has no history, only a criminal record.’

I limit the number of left wing forums I follow, mainly to those featured below. Anyone rash enough to read the contents of my screen shots will soon see the dreary repetitiveness and unoriginality of the comments.

I have much admiration for those who engage and fight back on the forums. I refrain from naming them only because my commendation is not likely to help them get on in life.

From The Left Fights the Media

From Jeremy Corbyn Should Have Been Prime Minister

From Recognising Jeremy corbyn’s Dedication to a Just Society

From We Support Jeremy Corbyn

From Jeremy Corbyn’s Socialist Forum

Two or three years ago, satirical ‘bingo cards’ started to appear on social media, displaying the repetitive and predictable phrases used in political arguments. Entering the key word ‘bingo’ on a Twitter search this morning, an example appears, posted two hours ago, a send up of Priti Patel, harmless and amusing enough.

Friends of mine made some witty bingo cards comprising favourite phrases of anti-Zionists and the anti-Zionists made their own bingo cards displaying what they though of as pro-Israel apologetics. One of the phrases they included was ‘Why do you only talk about Israel?’

This certainly is a question to be asked. The answer is generally that we who ask it are deflecting from the issue of what is happening in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Among anti-Zionists, it is increasingly common to attribute to Israel global influence, to the extent of ruling western governments, and the Corbynist rump, deeply antipathetic to Keir Starmer insist daily that the Likud Party now owns Labour. This is odd because the Likud was not able to hold on to government in Israel after Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid formed a coalition in June 2021.

Most certainly, discussions about Israel, Zionism and Jews dominate the left wing Facebook forums where foreign affairs are concerned. Regarding UK politics, the posts concern mostly the wrongdoings of Boris Johnson and Tory Ministers and the alleged treacheries and failures of Keir Starmer. The Starmer threads almost invariably make reference to the influence of either Israel or the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

It has reached a point when I am glad to see a post about Boris Johnson as it is less likely to include assertions about Jewish interference than a thread about Keir Starmer.

Posts about Mr Corbyn are as reverential as ever, almost inevitably with Christological language in which the former Labour leader appears as one who would have been our saviour but was crucified – essentially by the Board of Deputies- yet continues to evince beneficence and integrity beyond any other human being.

I note that as dire events unfold in Afghanistan, the subject simply does not arise on Corbynist forums.

Anyone referring to the persecution of the Uyghar Muslims in China is likely to be called a Zionist troll, deflecting from the ‘crimes of Israel’.

News about Lukashenko of Belarus is dismissed as western propaganda.

The government of Iran is depicted as peace-loving but maligned by Israeli hasbara.

Below are screen shots from various forums on Facebook. The earliest shown here is, I believe, from the end of July 2021 and the most recent is from yesterday, 10 August 2021. The quantity is too great to include anything beyond the last two weeks.

They appear by group:

The Left Fights the Media

Jeremy Corbyn should Have Been Prime Minister

Recognising Jeremy Corbyn’s Dedication to a Just Society

The following groups:

Jeremy Corbyn’s Socialist Forum

We Support Jeremy Corbyn

Jewish Voice for Labour (an ardently anti-Zionist group, defending left-wingers accused of antisemitism)

are included in some of the ‘mixed’ screen shots. Truthers Against Zionist Lobbies originally used a cover photo of Jeremy Corbyn but they have changed this to a Star of David with the superscription ‘Israel has no history, only a criminal record’. I have not included their work among the screen shots below, except in one of the mixed collages.

The comments shown below are repeated with minor variations day after day. The level of vituperation is constant. I often think it is getting worse but when I look at earlier records, I see there is little change.

I have folders of screen shots going back some years now, too bulky for me to handle systematically.

Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

I suppose some lies are mistakes.

I suppose I’ve lied but forgotten about it.

I suppose others have lied, intentionally or forgetfully, stating what they remember as fact. I suppose I have done this too.

Malicious discourse on social media and elsewhere works like this. You select a person you consider worthy of opprobrium: celebrity, politician, journalist or someone whose tweet you don’t like and consider yourself entitled to say or repeat anything negative about them. Even if it isn’t true, it conveys the negative attributes which you think are true, notionally if not in actuality.

Instead of saying ‘I disagree’ or ‘You’re wrong,’ the antagonist says ‘You’re lying’.

I often see a hypothesis that the putative liar is paid to lie by a more powerful agency or that a network of lies serves as the opium of the masses, to keep them subjugated.

Someone rebuked me this week for tweeting that the journalist Owen Jones is twelve when I know full well that he is thirty-seven. I wanted to convey that he remains an enfant terrible of the left, courting controversy yet expressing vulnerability, his years of experience belied by his preternaturally youthful appearance.

There is hyperbole. There is lying. There is polemicizing.

I read this phrase today on social media: ‘the Zionist baby killers of Golders Green.’ One might assume that the person wants to say the following: diaspora Jews are complicit with Israel unless they repudiate it; children have been killed when Israel is at war, handling conflict situations and even misfiring so we – even I to the north of Golders Green – have a hand in the tragic death of these children. Putting it this way, I can almost see the blood on my hands, as if in some cartoon by Carlos Latuff.

Suppose the reports from Hamas or Press TV or Skwawkbox are unreliable, based perhaps on inaccurate sources?  Why should their reports be believable and other, contradictory reports not believable? And, if they have been economical with the truth, am I still a baby killer? How could I know?

On social media, conjectures may be stated as facts, worse, as subordinate clauses. To say ‘Keir Starmer is paid by Israel’ sounds like a lie dressed up as a hypothesis but in the sentence, ‘Due to the money Starmer receives from Israel, Labour is not short of cash,’ the false charge, that he is paid by Israel, is used as if it is consensual and established. The thrust of the proposition follows it: ‘Labour is not short of cash’ which may or may not be true.

For those who adhere to this view, their belief is based on the existence of Jewish donors, among others supporting the Labour party and Labour MPs. If the Jewish donors support Israel, goes the argument, they act as a proxy for Israel. Thus ‘Keir is in the pay of a foreign power’ is by far one of the most popular assertions on Corbynist social media, with the advantage that the foreign power is not named and, if you substitute Keith for Keir, neither is the Leader of the Opposition.

Dawn Butler MP made headlines by calling the Prime Minister a liar and was temporarily ordered out of the House of Commons. Today, #BorisTheLiar is or was a trending hashtag on Twitter. There is always a commotion when a politician is found to be lying but it dissipatess before long. It would be difficult for anyone in public life to speak nothing but the truth. They say so many more words than most other people. There is expediency; there is self-interest; there is utilitarianism, when the public is shielded from a disruptive truth, there is not knowing and there is forgetting.

I have heard estranged couples give almost identical accounts of an incident except that they reverse the roles, to favour the speaker and put the absent ex in a bad light. The stories are mutually exclusive but there is common ground: they agree that something happened, but who did it to whom? If one is lying, why would they both agree so closely to the details of the incident, disagreeing only about agency? Forgetfulness hovers like a mist around the story but the edges are indistinct.

If this happens in personal relationships, how much more so, a fortiori, in wars, in politics and in the high profile disputes between members of the Royal Family.

Truth is a fundamental virtue, mentioned often in liturgy.

True and firm, established and enduring…is thy word unto us for ever and ever.

We who are neither gods nor beasts are untruthful, by error, by intention, for advantage, through forgetfulness, due to shame or kindness or for the greater good, through credulity and through scepticism.

Being lied to makes us angry.

Being lied about makes us angry. We have laws to deal with this, but not everyone has the wherewithal to bring matters to the courts.

Personally, I resist calling another person a liar. If I want to go on the offensive, I am more likely to call them stupid or foolish, or to say someone is twelve when I know he won’t see thirty-five again.

Truth is an aspiration. We use ‘aspire’ in the sense of striving but the Latin aspirare is to breath or blow, related to spiritus. We breathe the truth even if we do not speak it.


  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: Than you Gary. I also think the words of the angel are very special, even for angelic discourse.
  • Garry Maddocks: Thanks Gillian ,vy informative and I always appreciate your humour too. I like the words of the angel at the end.
  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: Thank you Keith. Not sure why the Pharisees get such a bad press in the NT. The Sadducees do too, but they were the priestly cast, so you expect it.