Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

This is too long to tweet but perhaps too short to blog.

Scene: Sainsbury’s, Winchmore Hill

Gillian, standing by the newspaper rack, reaches up for the Jewish Chronicle on the top shelf. She usually reads it online but wants a hard copy of an article of particular interest. Noticing a headline about kashrut, she realizes that this is last Friday’s edition.

‘Not very good for animal rights, is it?’

Gillian turns to see a small, fifty-something woman, smiling with her teeth but not her eyes.

Gillian (face has frozen into G-d knows what expression): Why do you say that?

Woman: You know they cut their throats and hang them upside down?

Pinteresque pause

Woman: Like with halal.

Gillian: Would you want to prevent halal slaughter?

Woman: (no longer smiling) No…you can’t stop people doing what they want, can you?’

Gillian: No

Resume first person. I swept past her, without taking the Jewish Chronicle, walking quickly. I did not linger by the grapefruit to see if they had pink or only red and yellow; I felt for some reason a need to put distance between myself and that woman. In fact, I felt a wish to complete the shopping and leave the store, to go home.

Even in  the car, my foot went down harder than usual, bearing in mind that I’m a senior citizen who has only once been done for speeding.

On the way to Sainsbury’s, I’d been thinking about my cousin who, at the age of seventy-five, has decided to make  aliyah, ‘to live my remaining years in Israel,’ were his words.

When I reached for the Jewish Chronicle, the thought was in my subconscious that a stranger would comment, yet when I heard the woman speaking to me, I half expected her to say ‘Price of a kosher fowl is something shocking these days.’

But no. It was ‘They cut their throats and hang them upside down.’

Look. I eat meat once, maybe twice a year so I’m de facto vegetarian most of the time. When I do eat meat, it does indeed have the hechsher of the London Board for Shechita.

Maybe the woman was being friendly. If I’d reached for today’s Financial Times, would she have said ‘Private equity is going great guns today’? If it were the Radio Times, would she have commented ‘So Judi Dench is 84? Looks marvelous doesn’t she?’

I don’t know. I just know that if it had been the FT or Radio Times, it would have been a whole different scenario. I didn’t buy the JC today because I remembered that this week’s edition would be out tomorrow. Maybe I’ll buy it in Sainsbury’s in Winchmore Hill.  It seems to be a bit of an ice-breaker. Lol.

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At the time of writing I am displeased but intrigued by the fact that someone on Twitter has created an unfriendly parody of me. The avatar is a cartoon of a thin faced blonde woman with enormous breasts radiating lasers. The tweets are sexualised with mildly pornographic imagery but, worse than this, they target other accounts which are friendly to me and which are active against online antisemitism.

This morning in my synagogue, my thoughts turned to the person – likely a woman – who runs the parody. I imagined myself reaching out to her via a tweet, along the lines of ‘I expect you’re motivated by loyalty to a friend who you think has been badly treated.’ The ‘friend’ in question is an equally aggressive account.

I then reflected further on the projected reaching out. It would be disloyal to my own friends who are also targeted by this account, which goes under the name of – I have to check – GillianRazorLaserBoobs. Furthermore it would be passive-aggressive virtue-signalling, which is not a good option.

For so long, the topics of this blog were biblical prophets, reflections on Kings Hezekiah and Josiah and three separate posts about the books of Enoch, categorized as Old Testament pseudepigrapha. It comes as a surprise to me, to find myself writing about a pop-up Twitter account called ‘Laser boobs’.  By contrast with my scribblings on Enoch, where there was not much likelihood that Enoch himself would be paying attention, these words may well be read by the author of ‘Laser Boobs’ who may even parody this very blog post in her ribald Twitter account; again so unlike Enoch.

Home from synagogue, I read her tweets of today and was struck again by the malice towards people I esteem, so any thoughts I had of reaching out dissolved in her steamy ill will.

Do I feel personally threatened? Not at all. Do I feel that the Laser Boobs account is threatening? Yes. I think her intention is to threaten and to intimidate.

There are problems arising from anonymity. I use my own name as, when I opened my Twitter account ten (is it really ten?) years ago, I expected to engage in conversations about Shakespeare, John Le Carré and the Pre-Raphaelites. If I were opening an account now, I would choose anonymity as a matter of security. However, anonymity causes speculation about true identity. There is guesswork and hubristic false identification. Gender is not revealed. The power of penetrating anonymity becomes an end in itself, in these Twitter wars of attrition.

Due to prolific reporting, the hostile account is likely, I hope, to be suspended by Twitter before long, but another will pop up, an ad hoc parody from the same stable of someone I know or of someone I don’t know.

Rarely, but sometimes, an intense argument on Twitter can be closed with civility. At such times, it seems to me, both parties want to be free, to walk away and resume their own affairs, put the kettle on, watch Line of Duty, compose an email about a council tax miscalculation, take the dog for a walk or maybe even – though less likely – phone a friend. Then one types the words ‘We aren’t going to agree on this.’ Occasionally one or other participant will say ‘Thanks for being civil.’ Once these words are exchanged, one feels a degree of goodwill towards the antagonist: gratitude that the altercation didn’t become worse and that they departed in peace. I have even had this resolution from time to time with people I considered antisemitic.

Yet still I don’t know, do we want our adversaries to go in peace, leaving us to pursue our work and our leisure, to give some attention to our families and our friends? One can be pacific or one can appease and there can be no doubt that Chamberlain gave appeasement a bad name.

One can hold out a conciliatory hand, but we only have two hands and I do not want to let go of the hands already holding mine.

 

June 2019

 

The name of a poor child killed this week is known to us here in the UK. She was Seba Abu Arar, a baby not yet two years. Some output from Palestine Islamic Jihad and Gaza News seem to indicate that the death resulted from friendly fire, that a Hamas rocket, whose intended target was as many Israeli civilians as possible, exploded at the wrong time or in the wrong place. Here in the UK, suppporters of Mr Corbyn are dismissing this as Israeli propaganda. In the fog of war it may not be certain either way.

Supporters of Hamas in the UK will not doubt that it was an Israeli rocket and none more sure than Tommy Corbyn, son of the Labour leader. Such is his certainty that he has posted a picture of the dead child on Twitter and said that this is Israel’s doing. His timeline has been swamped with replies, some quoting sources from the PIJ and Gaza News to show that this was not, after all, Israel’s doing, but the argument can never end there. ‘These news sources are secret Israeli operations,  the hasbara machine’ explain those who want to stand up for Tommy.

So there is not much certainty. Meanwhile Tommy continues to fly his controversial tweet, although it has been reported in the news and criticized by many as a blood libel.

The nature of blood libels was always about usage, not criminal investigation. The purpose always was to disseminate an idea of Jews being other than human, diabolical, existing to do evil.

I’m sure Tommy would think his tweet is a long way away from blood libel. He would cite Jewish friends – because there must be a few young people in JVL or Jewdas who would be acceptable companions – who are as sure as he is that the reports of friendly fire can be discounted.

It is hard work insisting on a state of affairs of which one has no direct knowledge. Nevertheless Tommy had not taken down his tweet last time I looked, just before writing this post. I am not aware that he posts images of children killed in any other conflicts where, tragically, the numbers are so great that the names of victims never reach us. Without certainty, he accuses Israel and only Israel, a procedure which, it goes without saying, he will have learned from his father, the Leader of the Oposition.

In a still more recent tweet, the boy asks for contributions to a Palestinian  medical charity, using his forthcoming birthday as a fundraising opportunity. If the money he raises goes towards a new rocket launcher for Hamas, let us hope and pray that the rockets land in an empty field.

 

 

 

I

england flag

There are some who think Leon Uris punched above his literary weight with Exodus, his 1958 novel, recounting the journey to Mandate Palestine undertaken by holocaust survivors.

The refugees sail to Haifa aboard a ship renamed Exodus and enter Israel illegally according to the terms of the British Mandate. Within a year, the United Nations vote for partition and the State of Israel is created. The book tells of the lives of the characters, in the ghettos and camps during the war, on the difficult voyage and after settlement in Israel. There is also a back story about two brothers who make their way from Tsarist Russia to Ottoman Palestine before World War One.

Otto Preminger made a film of Exodus in 1960. The book and film were enormously influential, depicting horrors of the holocaust through the experiences of sympathetic characters, the significance of Israel as a place of refuge and the hostility of Israel’s neighbours to the Jewish State.

I just watched the film again, in connection with this blog post which has the working title ‘Flags’. I wanted to see if a certain scene, memorable since 1960, was still affecting, given that the film is imbued with some of the sentiment and stereotype of its time.

The setting is 1947, before the United Nations voted for the partition of the territory.  The Haganah – Israel Defence – has organized the escape of 611 Jewish survivors of the Shoah, being held in a detention camp in British Cyprus. They have acquired a down at heel ship called the Olympia and brought the refugees aboard with a view to sailing to Palestine – and the name Palestine is used by all in the film to designate the homeland to which Jews and Arabs both lay claim. When the British blockade the harbour to prevent the ship from sailing, the Haganah and the refugees  aboard theOlympia/ Exodus commence a hunger strike.

The flag of the Star of David is raised and flutters from the flagpole, while a non-diegetic orchestra plays Hatikvah. Within the narrative of  survivors of genocide struggling to reach a place of greater safety which they can call home, it is as affecting now as it was then in 1960. The film goes on to depict both amity and violent hostility between Jews and Arabs in post war Mandate Palestine. It does not gloss over the violence of the Irgun against British army personnel, killed when the Irgun blew up the King David Hotel. Characters are depicted with broad brush strokes: the saintly, the heroic, the well-meaning, the stupid, the broken and the adamantine.

flag exodus

The script of Exodus was written by Dalton Trumbo, towards the end of his years on the  Hollywood blacklist. The film appeared the same year as Trumbo’s other great epic, Spartacus. Otto Preminger, Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas all played a part in restoring Dalton Trumbo’s reputation under his own name in the American film industry

I set out in this blog post to write about the emotive potency of flag flying. I was going to mention the famous photo at Iwo Jima and the triumphant fluttering of the Seven Samurai’s banner in Kurosawa’s film.

samurai

The Star Spangled Banner depicts love of the flag as love of country.

Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight

O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?

Any questions you might want to raise about the displacement of the indigenous population, the global role of the United States or the incumbent President are legitimate but the human response to a flag is under the jurisdiction of the heart. iwo jima

The office of the Communist Refoundation Party in the Castello district of Venice displays the words 7 Martiri, referring to seven hostages killed by the German occupiers in 1944, as a reprisal for the death of a German soldier. The hammer and sickle is displayed to this day on the door of the building as well as on the red flag – the Soviet flag – which flies from a flag pole to the left of the entrance. Just a metre further left is an altar, depicting the Sacred Heart.

The juxtaposition of Communist flag and Catholic altar interested me and I painted it.7 martiri

Flag waving is not restricted to nationality, politics and ideology. A flag is often above eye level, causing the raising of the eyes. In the Passover song Adir Hu, God is likened to a flag or banner, ‘Dagul hu,’ meaning to say ‘He is exalted’. In the book of Numbers, each of the tribes has their own banner, their degel.

We know – at the very least, from films we have watched – that enemy flags strike fear and detestation. Thus it is with the swastika.

It was reported in The Times today that a Labour party candidate posted on social media that she wanted to vomit on seeing the Israeli flag.

Indeed, Labour is so partisan at the present time on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that a mass of Palestinian flags was unfurled at the Labour Party Conference in 2018. Did those present feel the exaltation of looking upwards at a symbol of their ardent beliefs and identification? Or were they just experiencing jouissance in showing us Jews that our time in Labour was done, unless we renounce the Star of David, our chosen symbol since – and this is the terminus ante quem – an eleventh century manuscript of the Hebrew bible, known as the Leningrad Codex. labour pal flags

When I was born, here in London, my aunt in Australia sent over a tiny gold Star of David for me to wear in due course, as a necklace. I wore it often, including under the wedding canopy, but later it was lost; I do not know how.

I have not so far said a word about the Union Jack, which I like to see on display at the Last Night of the Proms, or the England flag which I find inspirational at the time of international football fixtures, or the European flag, which is visible every day outside Parliament as long as this Brexit crisis persists.

proms

One may be roused by many flags, including those of other countries, especially when we want to show solidarity with them. The impact is always visual but there is often an aural accompaniment such as a national or political anthem, a band or an orchestra.

I have sometimes posted images of flags of other countries when they come under terrorist attack: France, Belgium and possibly more.

There must be a roaring trade in enemy flags in those countries where public flag burnings are customary. It does seem a pity to obtain flags with a view to igniting and trampling.

burning flags

As a general but not invariable rule, it is better for multiple flags to fly alongside each other. That way we can look up at our civic buildings and see the precious symbols of our own and other communities, flying side by side.

all flags

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.
** https://labourlist.org/2016/03/leaked-list-ranks-labour-mps-by-hostility-to-corbyn/

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  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: Wow, that's amazing Keith. If it was you who marched me out, you did me a favour! I don't think the Mosleyites would have handled me with care! I'm gl
  • Keith Lewcock: Dear Gillian. I have been recently been very moved by a book about the anti-fascist movements courageous resistance to Mussolini by a Jewish family. C
  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: Thank you Dave. Very nice of you to say so.