Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

What’s a gezerah kashah when it’s at home?

Posted on: September 25, 2014

Harsh Decrees on this Scepter’d Isle


The prayer Avinu Malkenu is a petition to God, asking Him to give us and our children life, health, peace and forgiveness in the coming year, and also, to spare us from persecution:

Avinu Malkenu, batel me-alenu col gezerot kashot.
Our Father, Our King, abolish all oppressive laws against us.

Does this part of Avinu Malkenu belong only to our history or is it relevant also to the here and now?

It is related of R. Eliezer that once he stepped down before the Ark and recited the twenty-four benedictions for fast days and his prayer was not answered. R. Akiba stepped down after him and exclaimed: Our Father, our King, we have no King but Thee; our Father, our King, for Thy sake have mercy upon us; and rain fell. When the people saw that he was answered with this prayer, they added it to their supplications and petitions.
Ta’anit 25b

One of the questions I’d like us to consider is, Is it safe? That is to say, is the United Kingdom, as it’s still called, a safe place for Jews in 2014, 15, 20, 30?

On August 21st, the Jewish Chronicle published an article by David Aaronovitch titled ‘Now’s not the time to pack the suitcase and leave the UK.’ The article was moderate, tending to allay fears aroused by the backlash to the recent conflict of summer 2014. David Aaronovitch wrote on 21 August 2014 in the Jewish Chronicle:

…most Britons, as measured by all polls, believe Jews are OK. The younger generation, a tolerant lot, would sooner have their mobile phones confiscated than beat someone up because of their race or religion.
Second, however sensitive one might be to the odd Tonge and Galloway, the political classes have set their faces against Jew-hatred. If and when that begins to change (and I don’t think it will) I’ll be the first at the luggage department at John Lewis.

During the recent conflict with Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, there was much discussion, not just in the media but among ourselves and in our families, about a sense of danger, or threat or simply discomfort, in the face of an alleged rise in anti-semitic acts and an almost indisputable rise in anti-Israel sentiment.

Now the other question I would like to ask is connected with this particular day, Yom Kippur, this particular prayer, Avinu Malkenu and this particular supplication to God, ‘Annul all oppressive decrees against us.’

We saw that, in Talmudic times, to alleviate drought, the rabbis turned to God and prayed for rain.

In all the countless gezerot kashot of our history, Jews have turned to God and prayed ‘Hoshienu,’ ‘Save us,’ the last word of the Avinu Malkenu prayer.

Is this a matter for God, or so much between man and man that we hardly expect God to hear our petition?

Our society: British for most of us, and our community: Jewish, are more secular than ever before. Historically, when Jews were persecuted in the diaspora, they prayed – hence the petition in question, batel me-alenu… They recited psalms. There is evidence that they were not equipped to fight back against the pogroms, but meanwhile, there was the dawn of Socialism, Zionism, aliyah, the halutzim – pioneers. Prayer was perhaps not the priority of these ideologists. So, when you say this prayer, is it with hope for God’s intervention, that God will indeed abolish all oppressive laws against us? Is our fate in God’s hands? Can prayer change what happens in the world?

The Jewish Encyclopedia offers some background to Avinu Malkenu. The number and order of the verses vary according to the minhag of different communities. The Sephardi rite differs from the Ashkenazi which is itself heterogeneous. A Gaonic version from the ninth century consisted of 22 verses arranged in alphabetical order. It became the Ashkenazi custom to recite them each morning and evening during the Ten Days of Penitence after the Amidah. The prayer is not found in the prayer books of Saadiah Gaon and Maimonides. The origin of Avinu Malkenu is R. Akiva’s prayer on a fast day proclaimed because of a drought: “Avinu Malkenu, we have no King but Thee; Avinu Malkenu, for Thy sake have compassion upon us” (Ta’anit 25b). The orthodox practice is still that if the Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, Avinu Malkenu is recited only during the Ne’ilah service.

Anthony Julius, author of ‘Trials of the Diaspora’ distinguishes between enmities and defamations. The book was published in 2010 and it responded to a wave of anti-semitism following operation Cast Lead in 2009. He cites prevalent widespread notions which he calls ‘tropes’ – anti-semitic tropes; examples would be references to a powerful Jewish lobby and/or wealth and influence, and/or conspiracy. A common perception, or misperception, would be that Jews claim anti-Semitism where none exists or exploit Shoah. There is also the revival of the well-attested belief that Jews are childkillers, steeped in blood. No self-respecting, liberal critic of Israel would impute this directly to Jews, but it was commonly stated of Israel in the summer just gone.

It would have been very difficult to go through this summer without hearing the plight of the Palestinians likened to the Holocaust and the Israelis likened to Nazis. The word ‘Zionazi’ trended on Twitter. Swastikas appear on banners embedded in the Israeli flag which of course features the Star of David, a symbol for Jews in the diaspora as well as in Israel.

None of these attitudes are enshrined in the law of our land. On the contrary, we are in no small way protected by law.

How has law treated us since the readmission of Jews to England in 1656?

In 1753, a bill which allowed Jews to become naturalized by application to Parliament was passed, with strong Tory opposition, by a Whig majority who included religious toleration in their party agenda. The Board of Deputies was founded in 1760. The first half of the nineteenth century saw the establishment of The London Board for Shechita, the Jews’ Free School, the Jewish Blind Society, the Marriage Registration Act which recognized the authority of the Board of Deputies. University College London was founded in 1827, the first university in England to admit students regardless of race, class or religion although it was not until 1871 that Jewish students were admitted to Oxford and Cambridge.

Regarding civic life and parliament, it was a long haul between 1847 and 1858., Lionel de Rothschild got elected but couldn’t take his parliamentary seat until parliament dispensed with the requirement to take a Christian oath. David Salomons likewise was elected in the intervening years and was fined £500 for voting after refusing to take the oath. In the case of Disraeli, being a Christian convert made all the difference, though not, of course, where defamation was concerned.

By the time of the massive immigration of Jews from Tsarist Russia, from the 1880s to the 1910s, the nature of anti-Jewish oppression in Britain was not so much constitutional as defamatory. Anthony Julius makes a strong case that casual anti-semitism is endemic in English Literature. In the 1930s, there were the Blackshirts as well as informal, institutional anti-semitism in the Foreign Office and, it would seem, among the aristocracy.

Since the Second World War, numerous acts have been passed for the protection of social and racial minorities, for example the Race Relations Act of 1976.

In 2001, Holocaust Memorial Day was established in the UK and in 2004 The United Nations voted in favour of commemorating the Holocaust. Besides this, The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, a part of the Council of Europe, called on its member nations to ‘ensure that criminal law in the field of combating racism covers anti-Semitism” and to penalize intentional acts of public incitement to violence, hatred or discrimination, public insults and defamation, threats against a person or group, and the expression of antisemitic ideologies. It urged member nations to “prosecute people who deny, trivialize or justify the Holocaust’. According to the The Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006, it is an offence in England and Wales to incite hatred against a person on the grounds of their religion.

The 1999 McPherson report into the Stephen Lawrence case defines a racist incident as ‘… any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person,’ yet, when Jews construe a remark or an action as anti-semitic, they are often regarded as over-sensitive, paranoid or manipulative.

Meanwhile, there are social movements of an arguably oppressive nature.

The United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379, of November 1975 determined that Zionism was a form of racism and racial discrimination. In 1978, UNESCO organized the first World Conference Against Racism, where a resolution (3379) was passed, equating Zionism with racism.

At the 2001 meeting of the World Conference Against Racism, delegates from Israel, the US and Canada walked out over a draft resolution which singled out Israel for criticism and likened Zionism to racism.

At the 2009 WCAR, President Ahmadinejad made a provocative speech, combining holocaust denial with an attack on Israel as racist in concept and practice. The British ambassador to the UN was among those who walked out during this speech.

The critical position of the UN contributes to a perception of Israel as a pariah state, which is now so widespread that it is no longer exclusive to the extreme right wing, the extreme left wing or Islamist, jihadi groups. Opposition to Israel is sometimes taken as axiomatic in Academia, the Arts and Trade unions. The result is that many British Jews suffer some negative affect from such organizations as BDS, the PSC and the sloganizing of The Respect Party. Jewish students are liable to experience hostility within the Students’ organizations. The tendency of media to headline news from Israel is a source of anxiety for many Jews, as is the recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents.

The reason for the sense of danger which haunts many of us can be attributed, disputed, researched and surmised.

My question is, how does in enter into our lives as a community and a congregation and how does it affect the way we, as individuals, feel when we say the words Avinu Malkenu, batel me-alenu kol gezerot kashot, Our Father, Our King, abolish all repressive laws against us.?

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  • James Casserly: Unfortunately there seems to be no middle ground, no nuance and even less humanity on Twitter. Like you, there are people I have no time for, some I a
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  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: You're Nathan Hull, aren't you, an abusive troll who uses the alias Gerard O'Neill?
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