Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Archive for September 2021

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.



  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: The Conference has kicked off and the new EHRC rules have been passed, 73% - 27% I think. It's good but one thinks about the 27% who opposed them.
  • keithmarr: Familiar sentiments to me. Saddened I am too. In addition to antisemitism Starmer’s reluctance to make Labour the natural home of the Remainer is fr
  • keithmarr: Thank you once again for perspicacious comment. There is an element of social media, one’s potential anonymity perhaps, that leads to behaviour that