Neviim Tovim/TheHaftarah Circle Gillian Gould Lazarus

We need to talk about Ken

Posted on: April 29, 2016

 

Sermon to Sha’arei-Tsedek North London Reform Synagogue on 30 April 2016

When I heard Ken Livingstone yesterday, doing the rounds of the news channels, I thought he must have gone too far, even for his admirers, and that he was bringing himself and his party into disrepute.

I underestimated the number of people seeking to justify Ken’s loose assertion that Hitler promoted Zionism in the early 1930s.

Like thousands of others, pro Ken and anti, I started googling the Haavara Agreement, which is readily found on Wikipedia and therefore cited by Livingstone’s online supporters, especially if they want to say – and they often do – that there is a natural affinity between Nazism and Zionism.

I wanted to get an idea from Jewish and Israeli historians of the alleged collaboration with the Nazis, and whether it was used for the purpose of aliyah, immigration to Palestine. I read that the Haavara Agreement allowed Jews to escape from Germany to Palestine in return for paying a ransom to the Reich. I read also that there were some in the Yishuv movement, which aimed at Jewish settlement in the land, who prioritized emigration from Germany rather than supporting an anti-Nazi boycott. They made choices which were either pragmatic or collaborationist, depending on how you look at it, but Jews who got to Palestine were much more likely to survive.

In a comparable way, the Jewish leaders of the wartime Judenräte, the Jewish Councils in the ghettoes, were forced to have dealings with the Nazis governors. How this worked varied from ghetto to ghetto. In Warsaw, the Chairman of the Judenrat committed suicide, rather than fulfil quotas for deportation, whereas the Chairman in Lodz strove to fulfil the quotas, arguing that those remaining in the ghetto would be allowed to live. With the advantage of hindsight, we know he was wrong.

It’s widely observed that at the present time, if someone wants to discredit Jews, the first and least controversial move is to discredit Zionism. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was the fashion to use racist pseudo-science against Jews and, then, in the twentieth century, Bolshevism, Capitalism and World Domination. Bolshevism has bitten the dust, but we are still accused of global domination through international banking and conspiracies. When I read about these Jewish conspiracies, I feel like asking why I’ve never been invited to one.

I must admit to using the key word Talmud in a Twitter search, which is asking for trouble. What comes up? Nothing about the kashrut of certain ovens for Passover use, you can be sure ( Bava Metzia 59b). Instead, antisemitic geeks cite passages from the Talmud which appear to promote all kinds of criminality and perversion. They sometimes show the text in Hebrew, which is a marvel since they often have inadequate command of English. Hard work goes into their posts and sometimes hard work goes into refuting them.

I am uncomfortable with the idea of hard work being necessary to refute Ken Livingstone or those others, who never admit that they or anyone is being antisemitic.

Yet I know that all history and all scriptures are in some way compromising. When violent passages in the Qur’an are cited to indicate the inherent violence of Islam, it cuts no ice. We have, and tend to reject, unenlightened passages in our own holy books. Even in our sidra today, Acharei Mot, there are far too many animal sacrifices for comfort.

For me, the crux of the matter is how to respond when moral ambiguities of Judaism or Zionism are highlighted by those who seek our harm, if indeed we should respond at all. It seems as if being well-informed about our own history and our literature ought to help, but information never seems to settle the questions.

I don’t have an answer but I think we can usually discern when somebody means us harm. If somebody hates a Jew because of the alleged massacre at Deir Yassin, or a Muslim because of ISIS or a Christian because of the Inquisition, then it isn’t because they’re well-informed. When Ken Livingstone cited the Haavara agreement, it was to put Zionism in the same ball park as Nazism, and not to disseminate knowledge.

Reading this through a year later, on 4 April 2017, I think I was too mild about Ken. Possibly I imagined that he might row back from his provocative statements. During the last year, he has made a crusade of voicing opinions about Hitler’s alleged sympathy for Zionism. It hardly needs to be said that Hitler first wanted Jews out and very quickly wanted them dead. Zionists wanted Jews out and alive, which, b’ezrat Hashem, we are.

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