Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

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I’ve written several Purim spiels which were performed on previous years, within the confines of my synagogue, at this season around 14th Adar. One was a full length play called The Persian Scroll; another took the form of SMS texts and emails between the characters, one was based on Fiddler on the Roof, another on the films of Hitchcock and the last one on the Harry Potter books. One of the rabbis dressed up as Hedwig.

With that, I came to the end of my inventiveness in turning that disturbing and quite violent scriptural text into PG certificate comedies.

This year I thought of telling the Purim story in a series of tweets with a political resonance but it seemed like a gratuitous insult to cast anyone as Haman, even though some contemporary names did occur to me.

The problem with Megillat Esther, the biblical book which is read at Purim, is that it includes a massacre. No wonder we are urged to get drunk at Purim. How else can we read of a massacre and not get melancholy? The first drunk in the bible was Noah, after the waters of the flood abated. Who could blame him? Noah wasn’t partying, on the contrary; not one but two black dogs from the ark were at his heels.

The book of Esther is a court tale, from the time of the Persian Empire, about 500 BCE. King Ahasuerus, Achashverosh in Hebrew, may be based on a Xerxes or an Artaxerxes. These names were as popular among Achaemenid rulers as Henry and Edward among the Kings of England.

The story in brief: Ahasuerus has a disobedient wife, Vashti, and replaces her with a Jewish girl called Esther, without knowing that Esther is Jewish. He then appoints a prime minister called Haman who has an atavistic grudge against Jews, based on some pentateuchal and prophetic passages. Haman persuades the king that the Jews should be exterminated. Esther’s uncle Mordechai prevails on her to speak up on behalf of her people and this she does. The king is  angry with Haman and orders his execution. There are some Hamanite uprisings at outposts of the Persian Empire but these are overcome by ad hoc Jewish militia. Mordechai is promoted to government and Queen Esther institutes the holiday of Purim.

Esther is almost the only book of the Old Testament which uses the name Yehudim to mean ‘Jews’. In the others books, Yehudim refers to the inhabitants of the territory of the tribe of Judah.   Biblically, the Israelites are designated as the Children of Israel (Israel being Jacob’s other name), the People of Israel or the Hebrews. The exception is Jeremiah 34:9.

The traditional celebration of Purim involves reading the book of Esther aloud in the synagogue, giving edible presents, wearing fancy dress, devising humorous entertainments and – for the adults – drinking, although surprisingly I don’t recall ever seeing a single person drunk at a Purim celebration. There are parties and activities for the children who come dressed up as Esther or Mordechai or Super Mario or Elsa from Frozen – any fancy dress at all, depending on preference, availability, dexterity and funds.

Over the years, I’ve heard a significant number of adults say that they don’t enjoy Purim, that they avoid coming to Purim services, finding the gaiety overcooked and the noise fortissimo.

Purim 1994 was a bleak time as an Israeli Jew massacred Palestinian worshipers at a Hebron mosque. Since then, Purim appears to many with the indelible stain of this contemporary slaughter perpetrated on that date as homage to an ancient massacre. The bloody ninth chapter of the book is held by some in revulsion. It is normally included in the Megillah reading but one does not linger over it.

Acts of terror against Israelis continued after the Hebron murders, year after year and I would have to look them up for dates and places, but I remember very well  the details and the horror of Baruch Goldstein’s lethal violence.

When the canon of the Hebrew bible was fixed, the inclusion of the book of Esther was disputed because its tone is so secular that God is barely mentioned. There is however an allusion to the deity when Mordechai tells Esther,

For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another quarter.

Purim is considered to have greater religious significance than the minor festival of Chanukah as, unlike the latter, it is based on scripture and is also the subject of a tractate in the Mishnah, date estimated at around 200 CE. The tractate is called Megillah, referring to the scroll on which Esther is written.

Purim resonates because every generation has its Hamans but many of us approach it cautiously,  because of the violence intended and the violence executed.

The sense of existential danger to Jews is greater now than it has been in my lifetime because antisemitism has become either respectable or unrecognizable to the kind of people who would have rejected it in years gone by.

As I mentioned, I thought about writing a humorous and seasonal Twitter thread, by way of a Purim spiel. I am now quite relieved to abandon that project.

When Mordecai knew all that was done, Mordechai rent his clothes and put on sackcloth with ashes and went out into the midst of the city and cried with a loud and a bitter cry. (Esther 4:1)

The ‘loud and bitter cry’  recalls Esau who, on hearing that his father had given his birthright to his brother,

…cried with a great and exceedingly bitter cry. (Genesis 27:34)

Esau’s descendant Haman, from the tribe of Esau’s grandson Amalek, might consider it karma that Jacob’s descendant Mordechai, from the tribe of Benjamin, cries out, on learning of Haman’s genocidal ambition, just as Esau cried out on being disinherited.

Finally Haman is thwarted and this is why Purim is a celebration not a fast.

It is said that antisemites through the ages are Haman’s spiritual descendants. There are a lot of them about at the moment.

This Purim I have no spiel but may have a drink and I may cry out with a loud and bitter cry. We never bow to Haman. We do what we can to avert catastrophe, with words, keyboards, votes, demos, whatever comes to hand. Help may come, as before, from another quarter.



It was my father’s yahrzeit recently and his name was read out in the synagogue, before recitation of the kaddish, with the names of others who died at this time in years past.

I sat there in shul, thinking about him, his religion and his politics and the time he encouraged me – possibly irresponsibly – to punch a school bully on the nose. I’ll get that out of the way first. It was primary school and there was a boy who used his fists against us girls. When I mentioned it to my Dad, he said I should strike back, going straight for the nose.

I was doubtful and said ‘Suppose he ends up having to have his adenoids taken out?’

‘Maybe you’ll knock them out,’ said my Dad.

Occasionally he had a gung-ho way of talking but he was a kind man, well-liked at the secondary modern school where he taught English and bookkeeping.

My sister and I seemed to be the only ones whose parents were atheists. They didn’t observe Passover or fast on Yom Kippur. My father’s mother, who lived with us, would put on a black lace shawl on Friday nights when she said the blessing over the shabbat candles, but she died when I was thirteen and the berachos stopped. Nevertheless, my father sat up all night beside her coffin in our lounge, keeping the mitzvah of shemira.

My mother said that, when he was a rebellious young man, he used scandalize the worshipers standing outside the local synagogue on shabbat by lighting up a cigarette as he passed.

They married early in World War II, while he was in the army, then after the war, he went back to teaching.

I remember my parents being political in the early 1960s and my father was  arrested once for sitting in the road with Bertrand Russell’s anti-war Committee of 100. He was fined a pound. I went with my parents to hear Mr Gaitskell addressing a huge anti-apartheid rally in Trafalgar Square. I learned the word boycott. Dad told me that it came from Captain Boycott, a County Mayo land agent, ostracized for malpractice. At the greengrocers, I heard my mother ask if the fruit came from South Africa. If it did, she wouldn’t buy it.

She also approached General Moshe Dayan on seeing him in London and insisted on shaking his hand. Those who boycott Israel might consider that an anomaly. My parents loved Israel. Everyone did,  back then, even the left.

Eichmann was captured and taken to Jerusalem for trial. Details of the Shoah became known all over the world. My parents took me to see the film Judgment at Nuremberg and to an exhibition at Hackney Town Hall about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I saw photos of the Treblinka camp. They took me to see Otto Preminger’s film of Leon Uris’s best-selling novel Exodus and remarked that it wasn’t as good as the book, so I read the book.

Then, early 1960s, Oswald Mosley tried to hold a fascist rally in Ridley Road and protesters vastly outnumbered the fascists. We were there as a family, the Fighting Pressmans. Mosley beat a retreat from the crowds, getting into a car driven away by his son Max.  His arms were crossed over his face in a defensive gesture and as their car passed us, my father aimed a kick at the bonnet.

‘Did you see that?’ he asked no one in particular. ‘He was cowering.’

At about the same time, Colin Jordan came to prominence with his National Socialist Movement, later the British Movement. They were undisguised nazis. We protested against them too, my twelve year old self coming to blows with one of Jordan’s female supporters in Trafalgar Square.

Everyone in the wider family hated the blackshirts. I’ve written about how the fizzy drink Tizer was embargoed for us children, as Mosley was believed to be a shareholder. My uncle’s brother was a communist councillor in Tower Hamlets. Members of the family who left Russia before the revolution now identified with both Khruschev’s Soviet Union and Ben Gurion’s Israel.

My parents explained that they were socialists not communists. I wasn’t sure of the difference, but it meant supporting Hugh Gaitskell rather than Harry Pollitt. Nevertheless, I heard the Ballad of Harry Pollitt sung sometimes by my sisters’ friends in CND.

Harry was a bolshie and one of Lenin’s lads
Till he was foully murdered by reactionary cads
They dressed him in a nightie, put a harp into his hand
And he played the Internationale in the hallelujah band

They put him in the choir, the hymns he did not like
So he organized the angels and brought them out on strike
One day as God was walking around the heavenly estate
He came across old Harry chalking slogans on the gate

They put him up for trial before the Holy Ghost
For spreading disaffection among the heavenly host
The verdict it was guilty. Said Harry, ‘Very well,’
He wrapped his nightie round his legs and floated down to hell

A few more years have ended and Harry’s doing swell
And all the little devils have joined the YCL.

We were not religious but my Booba on my mother’s side kept separate cutlery for milk and meat. One year she and my grandfather made a big Passover seder. It was great fun, the only seder I attended as a child. People would speak of a ‘cider night’ and I had no idea what that was. As bagel was pronounced beigel, it followed that seder would be pronounced seider.

After my sister got married, I started attending Passover seders at the house of my brother-in-law’s parents. His father led the seder charismatically. There was the reading of the haggadah, the dinner and lots of songs and jokes.

I went to university to study Philosophy. My Dad had said that most philosophers were atheists, being men of reason (Women of reason? Who thought of it back then?) but this was not the case. In a formless, irregular way, I tried prayer and the answer to my prayers, quite distinctly, was liturgy, specifically, the Hebrew liturgy of my forebears.

When I was about to get married, my parents and I became members of a synagogue so that my marriage could take place under a chuppah. I went seldom to services and my parents didn’t go at all.

It was Passover when my second baby was born and my parents came round to the flat to help out. They wanted to cook and were startled to find my cupboards prepared for Passover as I had removed the prohibited chametz – foods made of or mixed with leaven.

For many years, my parents were faintly disapproving of my kosher habits, as if waiting for the fad to pass, but eventually, some years, another husband and two more children later, they accepted it as a matter of course.

My brother-in-law’s father had died and my sister and brother-in-law kept up his family tradition of holding a Passover seder every year. It was a wonderful event. They invited parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, about twenty-five of us round a long hired table. My children would play there with my cousin’s children and our parents and aunts sat at the end of the table, reminiscing and singing songs. Most attentive to the reading of the Haggadah  were the thirty-somethings, our middle generation, but the older people seemed more interested in chatting among themselves and were occasionally called to order.

There is a traditional prayer during the seder which people nowadays often choose to omit. When the door has been opened for Elijah, the leader of the seder recites this prayer.

Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations that know thee not and upon the kingdoms that call not upon thy name, for they have consumed Jacob and laid waste his habitation. Pour out thy rage upon them and let Thy fury overtake them.

Dad used to shout ‘Amen!’ at that point. Year after year, his cultured voice rang out at the moment when we call for retribution on our enemies: ‘Amen!’ The name Jacob is synecdoche here for the Jewish people and also, it was my father’s name.

I should explain that Dad feared that nazis would regroup and come after us again. As he got older, this became a bit of a preoccupation; not neurotically so but, as my brother-in-law pointed out, all Dad’s library books had covers displaying either a Star of David or a swastika. They were history books, swastikas when the subject was the rise of the Third Reich and Stars of David for everything else.

Terrorist attacks on diaspora Jews and Israeli citizens were ongoing during that time. The years when even the Soviet Union approved of Israel were long past and the Left was beginning to assume its current position.

After my husband died of cancer, my father’s relationship with religion seemed to change. Both my parents joined me in shul at Yom Kippur and my father wept during the memorial prayer.

A person who turns eighty-three may, if they wish, have something called a ‘second bar/bat mitzvah’ based on the premise that our allotted span is three-score years and ten, so if you survive another thirteen, it’s something to celebrate. In point of fact, it is usually bar (son), not bat (daughter), as bnei mitzvah were usually boys in times gone by. My father’s eighty-third birthday occurred at the turn of the millennium and he was called to the reading of the Torah in the synagogue, to mark the significant date. Kirk Douglas did the same, being exactly my Dad’s age, but his synagogue was in Los Angeles, ours in North London.

About three years later, an atrophy of bones in the spinal column resulted in my father being paralysed and confined to a wheelchair. The house was sold and he and my mother went to live in one of the Jewish Care residential homes. My mother, who survived him, lived there for fourteen years, but for eight years, they were both there. In 2010, they celebrated their seventieth wedding anniversary.

Jewish Care homes are kosher, so my parents were now, perforce, religiously observant in what they had to eat. My father used to attend a minyan on Saturday mornings, when a rabbi visited the home and held prayer services in the little synagogue on the first floor. On Friday nights, my mother lit the shabbat candles in the dining room, saying the appropriate prayer on behalf of the residents, the same prayer that Booba Malka used to say when she donned her black lace shawl.

One year, my father was honoured on the festival of Simchat Torah with the mitzvah of being Chatan Torah, ‘bridegroom of the law.’ I won’t go into details, but it involves saying some blessings and reading Hebrew verses to the congregation, either from Genesis or Deuteronomy.

In the days before he died, my father’s blood sugar dropped so low that he became unconscious. He was taken to hospital, where he was resuscitated and then an ambulance brought him home on the Friday night. He was given some chicken soup which he enjoyed and in the morning, he was wheeled up to the synagogue so that he could take part in the shabbat service.

On the Tuesday, he had a heart attack and was taken back to hospital where he died.

Sometimes it seems to me very hard that I won’t see him again. I don’t totally discount the possibility of a meet-up in Gan Eden, the realm of souls in the life to come, because impossible things can happen (who ever thought he would be Chatan Torah for example?) and are even more frequently believed as Lewis Carroll showed. I’m no scientist but quantum physics appears to be one impossible thing after another. You will know more than I do about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle; that, at least, is certain.. As for the cat which can be in a box and not in a box at the same time, if we give that credence, it seems a small matter to believe that we shall see our loved ones again in Paradise.

These days no one wants to be the witchfinder and everyone wants to be the witch.

How rightly Arthur Miller compared the anti-communist investigation of Senator Joseph McCarthy to the Salem witch trials. He highlighted the appalling absence of logic in 1690s Salem, where an accusatory word could get an enemy or rival hanged. Accusing on the grounds of insufficient evidence seems to be a characteristic of every kind of witch hunt.

On social media, one may accuse and be heard by many. The hashtag can be a finger, pointing to the witch.

A teenager claimed recently to have suffered unwanted attention from two Jewish women in the public eye and became a cause célèbre among a handful of Twitter accounts which essentially target Jews while disavowing antisemitism. When a teenager accuses, one does well to listen, as they knew in Salem.

Labour has been sluggish but not quite immobilized* in dealing with antisemitism. Ken Livingstone, a hero of the Facebook Labour forums, was suspended until he left of his own accord and Jacqueline Walker continues to be suspended. Tony Greenstein however was expelled for abusive behaviour and now heads an organization of refusés called Labour Against the Witch-Hunt. The group is administrated by Mr Greenstein and Ms Walker and their group statement is ‘We demand the Labour Party ends the practice of automatic, instant, expulsion or suspension of pro-Corbyn, left-wing members.’

In Stalin’s great purges and in Mao’s cultural revolution, dissidents paid the ultimate penalty in upwards of a million cases. There is always widespread cooperation with an authoritarian status quo. People not willing to sacrifice their livelihood or their lives may name names and the experience of hardships from previous regimes may make them loyal. The oppressive power of the Second Estate in France, the autocratic rule of the Tsars, the instability of Weimar, the purges of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek were all replaced by their antidotes and new outcasts were created, a different set of witches.

Lists are useful mnemonics creating taxonomies and values but one can find oneself on a good list or a bad list. A few days ago, a person on Twitter compiled lists of Labour MPs who follow certain accounts either Jewish or active against antisemitism. One of the accounts was mine. The two Labour MPs who are kind enough to follow me were already deemed persona non grata by the author of the lists so it was a case of ‘It would be them!’ Following me and others more industrious and active than me was taken to be a sign of disloyalty to the Leader and of – even worse – Zionism. The author of the lists – call him Keith – was defended by his own followers, who pointed out that we Jews also make lists as nearly everything between commas is a list in a manner of speaking. These friends of Keith, for want of a better phrase, make screen shots of those tweets where we highlight their antisemitic posts, as proof that they are being stalked. We could make screenshots of their screenshots of our tweets but there would be the likelihood of an infinite regress.

At an early phase of Mr Corbyn’s leadership, a list appeared, classifying Labour MPs according to their hostility or loyalty to the Leader.** There would certainly be changes if the list were revised today. Ed Miliband might still be ‘Core Group Negative’ but Ruth Smeeth would be be tranferred from the ‘Core Negative’ column to join Luciana Berger and Margaret Hodge in ‘Hostile’.

Of course, that was then and now nearly everyone is a lot more hostile than anyone could have imagined. It works both ways. Those in the hostile column were believed by the author of the list to have a persecutory attitude to Mr Corbyn. They were the hunters, he the witch, as the author of the list saw it.

Who is the victim of who’s witch hunt? Everyone’s enemy is a bully, whether by force or by stealth. We Jews are attributed by our enemies with a stealthy power which they say holds sway over governments and finance. Of course finance.

‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,’ we are told in the King James version of Exodus 22:18 [17]. The Hebrew word, mekhashefa, could be translated as magician but no doubt, a magician can be a scapegoat just as well as a witch. In Harry Potter, ‘mudbloods’ who have Muggle parentage are despised by the fascistic Death Eaters, at once a reflection and an inversion of the principle of witch hunting.

In their different ways, the witch and the witch hunter are both the dangerous Other. Witchcraft may not be real but the danger is always real and the Other is always you and I.

* I began this article more than a week ago and, in the light of this week’s events, I am more inclined to say that Labour is immobilized in dealing with antisemitism or worse, mobilized in its favour.

I was in Crete with my seventeen year old daughter, just the two of us. The sun was going down behind the awning of a Chinese restaurant where we sat outside, eyeing the menu for bean curd and vegetables.

At the next table, three or four British boys aged twenty or so were chatting, eating and casting discreet glances at my daughter. If I remember rightly, one of them approached our table and asked her out.

The boys were Jewish. How did I know that? Perhaps I heard some reference in their conversation to BBYO or RSY or Alyth Gardens or Solly’s falafels. Later, when my daughter went for a drink (coffee I presume) with the young man, he told her, ‘We were saying “Is she G or is she J?”’

‘Ah. Well I’m J,’ she answered.

Takes one to know one. Some of the local people assumed she was Greek and only the presence of the blonde English looking mama indicated otherwise. A woman spoke to her in Greek and she replied ‘I don’t understand.’

‘Well you ought to, it’s your language,’ said the woman in English.

My two other daughters also have been taken for Greek, Italian or Spanish; I, never. In Israel, they can tell I’m from England and I can’t think how that works.

When I was a child, we had a family holiday in France. My parents met a Jewish couple and, as my mother didn’t speak French, Yiddish was the language of communication. The new friends looked at me running around the shop with a toy monkey and said ‘She doesn’t look Jewish.’ You can read Howard Jacobson’s ‘Shylock is My Name’ if you think possessing a monkey is a negative indication of Jewishness, but it was probably the fair complexion which swung it.

What does it mean, to look Jewish, when Israel is a melting pot of Ethiopian, Mizrachi, Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews and the latter look like Israelis while the Diaspora Ashkenazim don’t? Why do the haredim in Israel look like the haredim in Upper Clapton?

Sartre said that different nations have different stereotypes ‘…Each country has its Jews and our picture of an Israelite hardly corresponds at all to our neighbour’s picture.’ (Antisemite and Jew, Jean-Paul Sartre, 1945)

Perhaps different political tendencies also have variant stereotypes of Jews. The far right supplies antisemitic cartoons taken from nineteenth and twentieth century literature, such as the Protocols and Der Stürmer. I recognize the images from books I’ve read about the rise of Nazism and also, unfortunately, because the online world shows me that they still have currency. The far left is as likely to supply a caricature of a brutal soldier with an enlarged fist, stamped with a Star of David.

Socially, I encountered very little antisemitism as a child and only very slightly more at university. Occasionally, someone would complain, in affable tones, about the excessive number of Jews in this, that or the other milieu. I would then say, ‘I’m Jewish’ and invariably they replied ‘Oh! I’m not antisemitic!’ I should add that during such conversations, I had the sensation of being on an out of control roundabout, my head spinning and a ringing in the ears. It’s just one of those things, when someone doesn’t know you’re Jewish and says something they wouldn’t venture, if they knew.

Interviewing Rachel Riley for Channel 4, Krishnan Guru-Murthi asked Rachel about her Jewish identity. Part of her reply got her into trouble with Mr Corbyn’s praetorian guard.

‘You wouldn’t know – I don’t look like a typical Jew or anything like that,’ she said. I understood. There are many kinds of solidarity among blondes.

Michael Rosen tweeted: ‘Hello @RachelRileyRR you said that you “don’t look like a typical Jew or anything like that”. Can you give a quick rundown of what a “typical Jew” looks like (as distinct from you) and “anything like” what? What is the “that”, here? Thanks.’

There were many delighted responses, hostile both to Rachel Riley and to the notion that the left might have a problem with Jews. As put-down of the Countdown presenter followed put-down, some familiar names appeared, journalists vocal for Mr Corbyn and some accounts familiar to me, due to their volubly expressed antipathy to Israel. Michael Rosen’s tweet was ostensibly civil and palpably popular.

One person replied ‘Whilst her comment is unmistakably anti-Semitic, she is not.’ [sic]

Michael Rosen replied quite severely: ‘What? What does this even mean? We’ve had a year in which single comments have been pored over as evidence of antisemitism. Along comes a line out of Alfred Rosenberg’s Nazi textbook and you say this?’

The person’s response had been hostile to Rachel Riley, but not hostile enough to satisfy Michael Rosen. He wanted Rachel to be comparable to Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi theoretician.

Of course it made me wonder. The people who told me that I don’t look Jewish – were they being like Alfred Rosenberg? And am I like Alfred Rosenberg, given the countless times that I’ve looked in the mirror when young and now I’m old, and thought that, notwithstanding the light hair and eyes, I definitely look Jewish?

In April 1990, my husband David was in the Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton, enduring a course of chemotherapy called interleukin 2. According to the consultant oncologist, it was an expensive treatment. The NHS was willing to invest in saving a young man of forty-one but IL2 was aggressive and David was becoming increasingly frail.

It was the first night of Passover. I made my way from North London to the Marsden, carrying an old-fashioned picnic basket in which I had packed some hard-boiled eggs, matzot, a shank bone, which features on a Passover table and a haggadah, the Passover seder prayer book.

In those days, I conceived a fear of traveling by underground, so I took a bus to Victoria Station, the overground to Sutton and then a taxi to the hospital.

David was in a cubicle in the Bud Flanagan ward. I saw at once that he looked yet weaker, depressed, in the valley of the shadow.

I told him about the picnic basket. He sighed. It was not of interest to him. So I sat beside his bed and after a while took the contents out of the basket. I began to read from the Haggadah. It included some psalms and I read aloud Psalm 130, which is known to Christians as De Profundis, in English ‘Out of the depths’and in Hebrew, Mi-ma’amakim.

My soul waits for the Lord
more than watchman for the morning

David stirred irritably and then sat up.

‘Is there any meat on that shank bone?’ he asked. I handed it to him and he began to chew on the mutton adhering to the bone.

‘It’s good,’ he said. He looked quite bright-eyed. We talked, I can’t remember of what, perhaps of our children or our plans for when David came home.

By ten-o-clock that night, I was in a taxi to Sutton Station which took me to Victoria and there, I made my way to the bus stop.

A burly, middle-aged man was sitting on the pavement, leaning against the outer wall of Victoria Station. I gave him a pound but he called out, in an agitated voice, ‘I haven’t got anywhere to go!’

His urgency reached me so I checked my purse and turned back.

‘If you give me back that pound, I’ll give you a fiver,’ I said.

Willingly he held out the pound coin and we did the exchange. Then I said ‘Would you eat some hard boiled eggs?’ and he nodded, so I gave him the eggs, the Passover beitzot from my basket.

Then my bus arrived.

Towards the end of Passover, David was still in hospital. I went to the synagogue and, in the sermon, the rabbi told a folk tale about the prophet Elijah, who is said to visit earth from time to time in the guise of a beggar. In the story, an old couple who showed generosity to Elijah were rewarded with a beautiful house. Elijah has a special relevance to Passover, and a glass of wine stands ready for him on the Seder table. The door is opened so that he may enter and drink the wine, to presage the coming of the Messiah. So far, Elijah has abstained, despite, I suppose, millions of earnest invitations.

I went to the hospital and found David looking much brighter. He said ‘I dreamed that I was home and you’d prepared a beautiful house for me.’

He did come home after a week or so and the hospital ceased chemotherapy, the illness being managed with morphine and much help from the North London Hospice.

I always remember that beggar, named in my mind as Elijah and if a homeless person calls out to me, I try to give them something. I used to have direct debits for a couple of charities, Great Ormond Street being one and the other, I forget; then there was a time when I was strapped for cash and stopped my charitable direct debits. I preferred to make an ad hoc contribution to something like Children in Need or Red Nose Day, something that you didn’t have to keep up on a monthly basis.

Last year, there was a scandal involving some major UK charities which may have put off some donors. There is also a well known charity which is so partisan against Israel that they organize events on campuses for something they are pleased to call ‘Israel Apartheid Week.’

I am a little suspicious now of some large charities, unsure whether the money is used to feed the hungry or to provide toy rifles so that the students of Orcshire Metropolitan University can role play being bad Israelis and good Palestinians.

If a friend or relation does a run for charity – and they do, constantly – I make a small donation, out of respect for their efforts.

Meanwhile, I give my small change to Elijah, more visible on our streets than ever.

David died in July 1990. The number of his grave in the Western Synagogue Cemetery is 130.

More than the watchman for the morning,
More than the watchman for the morning.

I was bad at maths, but the maths teacher, Mrs Rosenberg, was sympathique, always good humoured and I’d seeen her on CND marches. She showed an interest in my oil painting, which was kind of her, considering that she was artistic herself, her sculpture later exhibited at the Royal Academy.

I was fifteen. She asked if I would paint a portrait of her little boy and invited me to her house in Stoke Newington. It was a sunny day and we went into the garden where her husband was sitting in a deck chair.

‘This is Cliff,’ she said, which was disconcerting as I was expecting to call him Mr Rosenberg. Furthermore, she called him what sounded like ‘Glixon’ and I found it best to avoid using any name at all. I set up my easel in the garden and the three year old sat patiently while I painted his portrait and his brother, a bright ten-year-old, kept up a sociable chatter. They were a charming family. Mrs Rosenberg made lunch, boiled chicken wings, and ‘Cliff’ made me a present of a book he’d written, ‘State Capitalism’.

Mrs Rosenberg drove me home when I’d finished painting, I in the back, Cliff in the passenger seat.

‘Are you religious?’ she asked me.

‘I’m an agnostic’ I said.

‘An agnostic is either a shame-faced believer or a shame-faced atheist,’ said Cliff.

In subsequent weeks, I persevered with ‘State Capitalism,’ as it was polite to read a book someone gave you, especially if they were the author, but it was impenetrable and I gave up, having gleaned the message that the Soviet Union was not even communist any more.

When I was sixteen, I went to CND meetings and, in due course, had a boyfriend who was a member of the International Socialism group. I learned from him that Cliff was a famous Trotskyist and found myself back at the house in N16 for an IS meeting.

Everyone who spoke was impressively, dauntingly, intellectual although nothing was quite as unfathomable as ‘State Capitalism’. My boyfriend, aged eighteen, smoked his pipe. I was in love with him, which may seem irrelevant as far as International Socialism is concerned, but probably had something to do with my readiness to become involved.

I started going to the meetings regularly. . Due to lack of space in their living room, a lot of people sat on the floor. Cliff was quite a personality.

Someone asked him about the brutality used by Lenin in suppressing rebellions against the new Bolshevik government.

Cliff said ‘Listen. On the Queen Mary, the Captain allows the crew to play soccer on deck but, on a little rubber dinghy, you open your blooming mouth, you’ve had it.’ He spoke in parables. He meant that Soviet Russia under Lenin had been too fragile to permit rebellion.

When my boyfriend broke off with me, I carried on going to IS meetings. I could tell if the ex-boyfriend was there as soon as I entered the house, because I could smell his pipe.

I went on picket lines and sold Socialist Worker. Somehow I wound up on the editorial board of a louche, short-lived journal called Rebel. I didn’t say a word at any of the board meetings.

The Six Day War happened. I had never heard anyone question Israel’s right to exist but Cliff, a Jew born in Mandate Palestine, was very anti-Israel. He said that as a teenager he’d attended a talk about workers’ rights and called out ‘Arab-Jewish unity!’ An Israeli bouncer came and broke his little finger.

A woman who was somewhat supportive of Israel said, ‘Cliff, I think your little finger is affecting your judgment about this.’ Yes. There were a lot of Jews in IS and I believe not all of them were against Israel at that time. Cliff was anti- Israel but he wasn’t like JVL. As far as I recall, he didn’t deny the existence of  left antisemitism.

My parents were not pleased when I went home from meetings talking about the rights of Palestinians whom they thought of as Jordanian Arabs, complicit in trying to destroy Israel. My parents were not right-wing. They attended anti apartheid rallies and CND marches but they disliked my association with IS, later renamed – in about 1976, I have been reminded – as the Socialist Workers’ Party.

It was the late sixties and I was in Grosvenor Square, as often as not, protesting against the Vietnam War. Membership of all the Trotskyist factions – the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, Militant, Tariq Ali’s International Marxist Group – had quadrupled and more, and the SWP more than any of them..

In a pub, a comrade who’d recently joined the group assured me that all Jews were rich capitalists. I couldn’t believe that I was hearing it from a comrade. I hadn’t thought that I would meet antisemitism on the left. It was of course very much milder than the left’s utterances about Jews in this year of grace 2019.

The SWP espoused the cause of Al Fatah and I heard that some comrades had gone to training camps in Jordan, preparing to fight Israel. I was shocked by this and resolved to leave the group.

I penned a letter to the chairman of my local branch, which was no longer in Hackney but in a London suburb closer to the North Pole. He was Ian B, a teacher at a college of Further Education and subsequently Cliff’s biographer. I wrote of my attachment to Israel and pointed out that the SWP took a very one-sided view of the conflict, which was not, in my view, a third world struggle against colonialism.

Ian wrote back, telling me that the SWP was a broad church and that there was room in it for members like me, who held a favourable view of Israel. It was a nice letter, and I can’t imagine anyone in the SWP speaking that way today. Indeed, I wish I still had the letter, so that I could check my memory of it.

Nevertheless, I left ‘The Group’ as it was sometimes called. I was nineteen. I went to university and joined the Socialist Society but kept clear of all Marxist factions. I was very interested in my degree course, philosophy and – I don’t know why now – I avoided a module in political philosophy in my second year and opted for medieval: Aquinas instead of Hobbes, Anselm instead of Adorno. I went on some anti-apartheid demos and participated half-heartedly in a students’ sit-in in the Whitworth Hall.

I spent a summer in Israel and worked on a kibbutz for a few weeks. I didn’t care for the American volunteer who said Israelis were superior persons and I hung out with the French contingent, of Algerian origins. I loved Jerusalem with its golden sky and stone buildings and I prayed at the Western Wall where prayer was a local call.

I returned to England, went back to University, got married, had a baby; then there was a general election and Harold Wilson was Prime Minister again. I wore a red rosette on election day and so did the baby. There was a Labour government all the way until Margaret Thatcher.

On and off, I was a member of the Labour Party. At elections I stuffed envelopes with Labour leaflets and delivered them to voters. Mrs Thatcher got returned in 1983 and 1987. There was Spitting Image to cheer us up. My children watched it and learned the names of all the government ministers. Mrs Thatcher went and John Major became Prime Minister. The Conservatives won another General election in 1992. I cried as the results came in.

Then it was 1997 and Labour won, with Tony Blair. I drank champagne with like-minded friends. How happy we were.

One day, Mrs Rosenberg came into the bookshop where I worked. Twenty – no, thirty years had passed and made a difference but she was recognizable. I called her by her name and told her I had been a pupil.

‘Were you…with us?’ she asked, eyeing me with something of her former, twinkling expression.

I told her that I was, but had left over Israel.

She said ‘You think Israel will save Jews but only Arab-Israeli workers’ unity can save Jews.’

I thought it was a point worth considering, except that it sounded more like pie-in-the-sky optimism than a serious prediction.

In 2000, I heard that Tony Cliff had died, at the age of eighty-three. I knew his age as he was born the same year as my father.

The left seemed to have hardened. Disturbing reports hit the media, about sexism, bullying and worse in the various Trotskyist factions. Their obsessive hatred of Israel was impossible to miss and some of the left-wing discourse about Jews began to resemble that of the far right. After 9/11, it became more emphatic and many on the left embraced an urban myth about Israel being behind the attack.

The Iraq war happened and Tony Blair fell from grace in the eyes of very many. I let my membership lapse, not that I blamed Blair, but in 2003 and the years following, it was difficult to know the full nature and extent of errors which had undoubtedly occurred under his watch.

The new Prime Minister Gordon Brown soon got a bad press and Vince Cable called him a mixture of Stalin and Mr Bean. As a one-liner it was quite funny but it seemed to damage Gordon Brown’s standing and of course there was the crash of 2008, which would have been more effective even than Vince Cable in influencing the electorate. So in 2010, we got the Coalition, from which the LibDems have not, to this day, recovered.

One day, on the 253 bus on my way home from work, I saw a sprightly old woman standing among the passengers, immersed in reading some kind of pamphlet. I thought she might be Mrs Rosenberg, now ninety plus, and her t-shirt emblazoned with a left wing logo seemed to confirm this. Her pamphlet was font size 10, and, from where I was standing, I was unable to glean the subject matter. The upshot is that I made myself known, we got seats on the bus and traveled some way together. She told me she had just written an autobiography called ‘Fighting Fit’. She still struck me as a likeable and impressive woman. Again we spoke of Israel without bitter disagreement. I was not anti-Palestinian and she was not antisemitic. I didn’t refer to the troubling antisemitism which seemed to have become embedded in the far left.

After the next General Election, Mr Cameron was still Prime Minister but without the Coalition. Ed Miliband resigned as Leader of the Opposition and the surprise winner was Jeremy Corbyn. Believing that his anti-Zionist record bordered on antisemitism, I left the Labour Party which I had rejoined before the 2015 General Election.

I didn’t expect the avalanche of antisemitism which I have witnessed in the Labour Party since, as if all manner of ex BNP and National Front supporters had joined forces with the most charmless elements of the Trotskyist and Stalinist left. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I encounter a new kind of enmity when I express my opinions online.

I sometimes wonder, do left wing people who are not antisemitic see what’s happened to the left? Those who deny that it’s happening and attribute the narrative to Zionist smears are probably not free of bigotry,  undiscerning at best in matters of racism; at worst, so wedded to furthering the socialist agenda that any harm to Jewish communities seems a small price to play. And certainly, for many on the left, Israel and Palestine symbolize the struggle of bourgeois and proletarian, evil and good, imperialism and revolution, heresy and orthodoxy.

Often, an adversary on Twitter will ask, ‘Why don’t you ever talk about right-wing antisemitism?’

Well I’ve talked all my life about right-wing antisemitism but now the left is nudging the far right, in that horseshoe where the extremities almost touch. Not unrelated are the terms I have seen on Labour forums, excoriating black or Asian Conservatives and  ‘Blairites’ with dehumanizing words which I’m not inclined to cite.

Was it I who changed, or the Left, or the world?

It’s always the world. It makes changes to religion too and science and every kind of belief. Generally, something can be salvaged from former belief.

The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.

Who said that? It was Hubert Humphrey. I can’t believe that I’m quoting Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President. I don’t much like the word handicapped, but the quotation speaks of government’s obligations towards the least privileged in society. And I think one should add, a government has obligations to those who come to their shores or cross their borders, seeking a refuge from conflict, poverty or persecution. That’s how my grandparents settled here, in ‘this other Eden’.

That Aristotelian, rationalistic, medieval philosopher Maimonides produced thirteen principles of the Jewish faith. Number twelve states with patient tenacity:

I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and, though he tarry, daily I await his coming.

Secular Jews who opted for revolution also had messianic expectations. And the national anthem of Israel is called ‘The Hope’.  With difference degrees of patience, we all wait while the Messiah tarries.

I used to open the book of Psalms at random, looking for inspiration, and was often disappointed to find the author, usually King David, calling on the Almighty to vanquish his, David’s, numerous enemies.

They swarmed about me like bees, but in the name of the Lord I cut them down.(Psalm 118:12)

This wasn’t the verse I was looking for. Generally, I was seeking something to help with a little mild depression. If Saul had written psalms, they probably would have suited my purpose.

Even now, this minute, I open Psalms just to see what will come up, and find:

Thou hast been a refuge for me, a tower of strength in the face of the enemy. (Psalm 61:4)

I follow a Twitter account which quotes ‘They swarmed about me like bees’ in his or her Twitter bio. I can’t remember the name of the account but, like mine, it’s one of those active against online antisemitism. If you mention antisemitism on Twitter, they will swarm about you like bees, make no mistake. If you link antisemitism with Corbyn’s Labour, they will sting if they can.

A journalist from the Jewish Chronicle was kind enough to mention me in an article about fighting antisemitism. The next time I saw my rabbi, the first thing he said was ‘Have there been any repercussions from that article?’ There had not, but a little time has elapsed and I find it is sometimes mentioned in unfriendly accounts.

Twitter is a rough playground. Prior to my activity on Twitter, I wasn’t accused of anything worse than being unworthy of my driving licence. Nowadays, angry tweeters sometimes call me a murderer or a mass murderer, an apologist for infanticide and, more frequently, the paid agent of a foreign power (one whose national anthem starts with the words ‘Kol od balevav’).

My own experiences of hostile reaction on Twitter are a microcosm – a nanocosm – of those who are prominent in the fields of entertainment, journalism, and politics; celebrities in other words. This month, a young Jewish woman, famous for her television appearances, is the victim of the usual accusations, insults and gibes, because she has spoken about the problem of antisemitism on the left. It makes me inexpressibly sad to see the torrents of ill will which have come her way.

A Jewish lawyer who happens to have a debilitating physical illness received tweets wishing for his death. He replied in kind and was penalized by the Law Society. On Twitter, an enemy will ‘dox’ (or is it ‘doxx’?) you if they can, contacting your employers, especially if you are a professional or hold a position of responsibility.

This is not something I personally have to worry about, as a retired Waterstones grunt, but I worry a great deal about the possible injury to others who fight the good fight.

Rabbi Lord Sacks, esteemed for his scholarly books promoting interfaith harmony,  last year accused Jeremy Corbyn of antisemitism, following the ‘English irony’ video.  The obloquy from some of  Mr Corbyn’s supporters was eye-wateringly vindictive. Rabbi Sacks had made a provocative and courageous statement and it gave comfort to some who were afraid to say as much openly. I thought, ‘Now that Rabbi Sacks has spoken about it, they’ll understand.’ That was very far from the truth.

I have seen my own name and profile photo, like a Wanted poster, on the Twitter timelines of people who block me. They warn others about my account and say I am in league with their most feared adversaries.

There is a comfort in online solidarity – being ‘in league’ – for all of us, on all sides. This is true for me and true for those who post about me from behind a block. Yes, one feels friendship for a supportive group – for any support at all, because the fact is, they do now swarm about us like bees. I understand that these ‘enemies’ see us likewise as swarming around them and around Jeremy Corbyn. I can imagine what that feels like and the anxiety they suffer is not to anyone’s advantage. These people who call us ‘Chosenites,’ ‘Khazars’ and ‘Zionazis’ nevertheless are the enemies I have now acquired.

Post Script

We are now in the year 2019; Mrs May’s deal for Brexit has been defeated and her government has survived a vote of no confidence. Social and political divisions are increasingly acrid and I am immersed in Twitter wars of attrition where, as I tweeted a day or so ago, the enemy faints not nor faileth. I received a little more attention than usual, positive and negative and some prominent British Jews are being bombarded with negative attention, because they have taken up a position against Labour antisemitism. Mr Corbyn continues to enjoy the support of some Jewish individuals who devote themselves to discrediting those who oppose him. This is not a division of orthodox and Reform, nor even of Zionist and ‘meh about Israel,’ nor of Brexit and Remain nor of Labour and Conservative. The divisive notion is Jeremy Corbyn, generally perceived as very good or very bad and not much in between. Myself, I have no doubt that he is very bad.

Those who’worship the trousers that cling to him’ use invective such as ‘fascists’ ‘supremacists’ ‘smear merchants’ ‘shills’ and, recently, ‘child-groomers’ and some of  Corbyn’s Jewish supporters participate vigorously in derogating the anti-Corbyn Jews, brushing shoulders with hardcore antisemites in their earnest defence of the Labour Leader. The forum ‘Truthers Against Zionists Lobbies’ which I archive on this blog includes one or two contributions from Jewish bloggers.

Each side claims to be representative, either of the ruakh, the spirit of Judaism or of the Jewish community. People in the circles in which I move are anxious and speak of Corbyn as a threat, so to my mind, his Jewish supporters are a small minority.

Each side knows the arguments of the other side so well that bingo cards are devised, citing the expected arguments of the opposing Z group or the J group, where J is for Jeremy and Z, I don’t need to say.

When I began this blog post, a couple of weeks ago, I was remembering the Jewish tradition, in desperate times, zog tehilim – say psalms when all else fails.

I open my book of Psalms and am awed to find that that the Psalmist seems to have knowledge of Twitter.

64 Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint; 

preserve my life from dread of the enemy.
Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked,
    from the throng of evildoers,
who whet their tongues like swords,
    who aim bitter words like arrows,
shooting from ambush at the blameless,
    shooting at him suddenly and without fear.
They hold fast to their evil purpose;
    they talk of laying snares secretly,
thinking, “Who can see them?”
    They search out injustice,
saying, “We have accomplished a diligent search.”
    For the inward mind and heart of a man are deep.

Yes, I know there are some who think of me as the secret plotter, whetting my tongue like a sword. All of us are all this to our enemies. Can there be a time when our own Jewish community in the UK are not at loggerheads, whether over the ordination of women, over Israel and the Palestinians, or over Jeremy Corbyn? Bechayeichon uveyomeichon: in our lifetime and in our days, speedily may it come.

  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: I've approved your comment Jones, rather than trashing it. It seems to me a snapshot of contemporary online exegesis. Can you say something about you
  • Jones: You're just a typical white racist tory who has no problems with Windrush deportations or tory Islamaphobia. You get no support from the BAME communit
  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: Thank you Joanne!