Speech given at Memorial Lecture for Clemens Nathan on a panel with Lord Williams and Dr Carla Ferstman
I would like to thank the Nathan family for asking me to speak here today. I am delighted to be here.
Clemens Nathan was a mentor and friend. He was the quiet man of the Jewish community: he got things done without a fanfare and in my opinion deserved more public recognition for his role in fighting for the rights of Holocaust survivors, of promoting human rights and for engaging in real diplomacy. His own history as a refugee from Nazi Germany helped shape his philosophy: a passion for both human rights and for the Jewish community. Clemens liked to engage in philosophical ideas and was interested in multi-disciplinary approaches to issues but most of all he liked to engage with people. My time with Clemens was always an adventure into the world of statesmen and women, of quiet diplomacy and of missions to right a wrong. He was always supportive of young people whether that was in his support of Shenker College or being our first patron and our mentoring when we established CCJO.Rene Cassin. In death, he has had many deserved tributes. As I said, in my view he deserved more plaudits in life too.
I have been asked to speak about the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is important to the Jewish community. That it is important without doubt. Borne out of the ashes of the Shoah, Clemens and I both believed that the Declaration was a global attempt to proclaim the imperative ‘never again’. (more…)
Next weekend Jews around the world commemorate Shabbat Ha-Gadol (the Great Sabbath). Traditionally, it was one of two Shabbats that the rabbi would give a sermon. Now we work them harder. The rabbis would speak about the laws of the upcoming Passover Festival, the story of the freeing of the Israelite Slaves and the Exodus from Egypt. They would reiterate the importance of the concept of freedom and how we should utilise it to chose a path of moral responsibility and do good in the world.
At a time when populist movements and extremist groups want to deny others who are different to them their liberty, their lives or both it is important to reiterate shared societal values that bind all of us together. Today these values are the right to life, liberty, the rule of law, social justice and democracy, of promoting equality of opportunity and good community relations,. They are the foundation stones of the society we have built together enabling economic, scientific and social advancement.
Indeed, we need to scrutinise the philosophy of those wishing to do away with these freedoms whether they are populist politicians or political or religious extremists – and WE need to find the confidence to celebrate our shared values and humanity with pride.
Twice a year, the rabbi would speak: and on one of those days he would do so before our festival of freedom. If you are only going to speak up once in a while I can’t think of too many better themes than that of on freedom.
This was first aired on LBC on 27th March 2016 and features myself, Stig Abell and Catholic Voices.
God spoke to Moses, saying: I have selected Bezalel of Judah. I have filled him with a wisdom, understanding and knowledge, and with all types of craftsmanship… I have also given him Oholiab of the tribe of Dan.
Why the need for Bezalel’s apprentice? Bezalel’s from the big tribe of Judah, his apprentice is from the small tribe of Dan. The two of them together represent a unity between the tribes to achieve a common purpose. The construction of the Tabernacle is no longer a project by a single dominant tribe but one in which all of Israel participate.
Some of humanity’s greatest achievements have happened through collaboration and unity: our greatest failures have occurred when one tribe has claimed supremacy over others.
In the last 100 years alone: the Somme, Auschwitz, Cambodia, Srbrenica, Rwanda stand testimony to this failure… At the same time some of our greatest scientific discoveries have been achieved when there has been collaboration and the political will to make progress. The last 70 years of peace in Western Europe is a miracle: unity between countries that came together to rebuild prosperity out of war ravaged continent: and in doing so created peace and security: from the fires of war to a relative Tabernacle of peace. We risk ignoring that achievement at our peril.
I have changed my mind. Until now I have stayed away from visiting the Jungle Refugee Camp in Calais. Many of my friends working in relief efforts have told me that visitors were not needed but food, trainers, tents and waterproofs would be useful.
So today I shall be travelling in a coach with a group of rabbis and imams (should that be a ‘bunch of rabbis and imams’???) to see the camp at first hand. They have been kind enough to extend an invite to a rabbinic student.
My reason for going is to hear from those in the camp their stories, hopes and aspirations: to show kindness to strangers and to understand more. I feel going with other religious leaders from our two faiths makes this a positive act of solidarity following the launch of World Interfaith Harmony Week. Furthermore, I have become increasingly shocked by the rhetoric from certain politicians and the media in an attempt to vilifying those in Calais.
135 years ago my great-grandparents walked out of Czarist Russia at the height of violence acted out against my people. They wanted to start their lives again and made sacrifices to ensure that their children and children’s children would not suffer from discrimination, oppression and persecution. They wanted a better life And faced similar criticism from politicians and the media of the day. They were no different in my opinion from those who have exited Syria or other war-torn parts of the world.
My friends in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have told me that the millions stuck in refugee camps there have no foreseeable future: no access to their homes, no access to jobs etc. And the mass migration into Europe has occurred as a result of young people wanting to get on with their lives and escape the inactivity and despair of the refugee camps on the border of Syria. For some of those with English it makes sense for them to try and come here: Germany is accepting migrants but the language barrier makes it difficult for them to get on the jobs ladder.
There are those who have attacked my position saying it is naive, that the migrants are somehow something else – that they are not who they say they are etc. The only way that I can verify this is by going there. 135 years ago we were accused of being economic migrants, of having Bolshevik Trojan horses in our midst, of being incompatible with the host society and worse. Plus ça change…
Still, I was reluctant to go until now because of accusations of voyeurism. Last month changed that as politicians ramped up the rhetoric back by an anti-immigration right wing press and the French authorities decided to bulldoze parts of the camp including a Church and a Mosque. This latter act seems to take away their dignity and their freedom of conscience. I simply do not understand why anyone would bulldoze even a makeshift place of worship.
As I sat in synagogue yesterday reading the weekly Torah portion there in black and white was the main reason to go: “And the stranger, you shall not oppress, for you know the heart of the stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt”…
And that is why I have changed my mind.
Chanukah is the Jewish festival of religious freedom. The festival is largely noted for a battle for Jewish religious freedom, a fight against Greek / Hellenistic oppression and the ability to rededicate the Temple. Throughout Jewish history the Chanukiah, the eight-branched candelabra was a symbol of hope and deliverance. The light that emanates from it gave us hope that when others denied us our basic freedoms.
There is a famous photo from Chanukah 1931 taken in the house of Rabbi Posner and his wife Rachel. Taken opposite the Nazi headquarters, Rachel snapped a photo (more…)
In Rabbi School we are exploring the sometime complex concept of pray and the views of leading 20th century rabbis on this topic. The course covers Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who is claimed by several traditions within Judaism. For me, Heschel is best remembered as the civil rights rabbi who went to Selma and marched alongside Dr Martin Luther King. He claimed at Selma he was ‘praying with his legs’.
In a number of his essays he expresses his concerns that 1950s American congregations had a disconnect from prayer. He paints a depressing portrait , perhaps for Heschel, of a generation who are forgetting how to pray: of synagogues turning into arenas rather than a community of full participants. He is critical of communities where the rabbi or cantor prefers to perform in front of his congregations rather than to lead pray amongst them For him you and leaning on his own Hassidic tradition have to put your whole self into prayer ‘in a complete turning of heart towards G-d” “in a yielding of the soul”.
Events always seem to takeover. Paris. Tragedy strikes again.I had accepted a few weeks back an invitation to attend the England v France match at Wembley with members of the FA’s Faith in Football group which I chair… what had been a run-of-the-mill friendly was now something far more.
Stepping out onto Olympic Way at Wembley with my son seemed like an act of defiance. It seemed that every fan walking down that road was sending a message and that every step was an act of faith.
The Wembley arch was lit up in red, white and blue. The words ‘liberté, egalité, fraternité’ emblazoned across the stadium.
We met my friends at the entrance. One of them had worn a hijab to the match said that although she had been nervous coming to the match dressed in religious attire she was surprised at how warm the England fans had been to her. There was a feeling of togetherness as 75,000 fans sang the Marseilaises: true that some did not know the meaning of the words “but they seemed to be completely turning their hearts to it” perhaps even “yielding their soul”. At half-time,we took a group photo. We decided to tweet and Facebook the photo: “Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Sikh at the footie. Most importantly friends together…”
As the match ended we took the long walk to Wembley Park. People were singing, embracing: french fans, england fans, football fans, humanity fans. We seemed to be walking with a common spirit. We had been part of something bigger than sport.
We stopped to queue before the tube station. My pocket was buzzing. Who was calling… I looked at it… Several hundred retweets… Our photo seemed to have captured something… It seemed just for a moment that our photo had captured a shared moment of hope… And the twitter sphere was responding accordingly…
As I walked on I thought to myself this is what Heschel meant when he said “Praying with his legs”…
Original BBC Broadcast below: