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Season of painful memories – and hope

This is a unique time in the Jewish calendar, with such a variety of emotions, memories and experiences. During these next two months we will be marking Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha’atzma’ut and Shavuot.

Yom Hashoah, 2 May – the oldest established day for remembering the Shoah and the memory of the six million. It is 74 years since the end of World War Two when we began to count the numbers of Jews murdered. As our survivors disappear from among us, we have an ever-growing obligation to keep their memory alive so that such a Shoah never happens again.

It is almost incomprehensible that within so short a time since the greatest mass murder in world history, the first attempt to exterminate an entire group of people – men, women and children, all Jews – no matter where or how they lived, today, before our very eyes, over the last year and more we have seen a vast increase in Shoah denial and massive ignorance about the fate of Europe’s Jews. That phenomenon, in addition to the appalling increase in antisemitism in this country and throughout Europe, should make us all aware of the need to let the world know what happened only a few decades ago.

That is our sacred obligation to those who have no one to narrate their horrific story, and to honour those non-Jews who sacrificed their own lives for the sake of saving Jews during the Shoah. Their heroism must never be forgotten.

Those memories lead to the second major calendar event of the coming months, Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day, 8 May) which precedes Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Independence Day) the following day. Yom Hazikaron commemorates over 25,000 Israelis who gave their lives in combat or were victims of terrorist attacks. Yom Ha’atzma’ut on 9 May marks Israel’s 71st anniversary.

With declining Shoah memory and an increase in vile antisemitism, our support and love of the State of Israel and what it means to every Jew in the world must never be forgotten. Israel is our beacon of sanity in an insane world, a place of hope for every Jew seeking his or her home, a miraculous prosperous Jewish state that rose literally from the ashes of the Shoah.

No matter what our political views are regarding Israel and her recent election,we all know that Israel’s viability and safety is vital not only to Israel’s future but to our own security, safety and future living in the Diaspora. May this bea year of celebration for what Israel has accomplished, its wonderfully creative population and its diversity of peoples, with Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, Druze, Circassians and students from all over the world, who come to study in Israel, to live and be a part of the greatest miracle of the 20th and 21st centuries, a tikvah, a hope for everyone.

We will continue our solidarity with the State of Israel at our annual Israel Dinner at the Synagogue on Thursday 9May. Thanks to everyone who makes this celebration possible each year.

Then comes Shavuot (9-10 June) the celebration of matan Torateinu, the giving of our Torah at Har Sinai, starting this year with evening service on Saturday 8 June. I hope you will join us for our successful annual Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, our evening study sessions. It will begin at 7:30 pm after our ma’ariv (evening) service that ushers in the festival.

This year our theme is Relationships and, as I write this address to you, the schedule is still being finalised. But we will be covering the relationship of Diaspora Jewry to Israel, past and present; our relationship to Judaism’s sacred texts (Midrash, Talmud and Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah); our relationship with other religions; our relationship today to the Jewish past; our relationship to music on Shabbat; our relationship between Jewish law and secular national law….and more!

Certainly, Shavuot is a reminder of the preciousness of study, of discovering each day more of our Jewish heritage and compelling tradition. Pick up a good Jewish book and share it with others! And kol hakavod to all our many Sunday morning attendees at the Discussion Class. This year we have delved into the history of Ancient Israel and made the Bible come alive.
To remember, to learn, to think, to commit, to act – all these components form part of our months ahead. May they be fruitful and uplifting months for each and every one of us.

My wishes for Shalom and Brachah as always,

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Purim and Passover: two festivals confronting antisemitism

In the coming months we celebrate Purim and Passover, two very different chagim (holidays) but with common themes and lessons. Both point to two real challenges to the continued existence of the Jewish people. Both tellus that Jewish history contains real and brutal efforts to destroy our people, pointing to a constant aim in the arc of Jewish history – the attempt to hurt us, destroy us, wipe us off the map.

The book of Esther, which contains the story of Purim, reminds us of Haman’s attempt some 2,500 years ago to annihilate every Jewish man, woman and child. It is the first description of the existential threat that springs up periodically, reminding us that Jew hatred can arise at any juncture, often without much of a coherent ideology. As scholars of antisemitism have correctly suggested, it is also a barometer of society, an indication of an inherent weakness in the society from which it originates.

Perhaps that is why we are so troubled today because we know that the dramatic rise in antisemitism across Continental Europe, the Arab Middle East and even in Britain as well as the USA, indicates fundamental weaknesses at the core of our society. Going after the Jews never ends well for anyone – certainly not for the Jews, but not for the rest of society, either.

What saved the Jews in ancient Persia, before the rule of Ayatollahs? The drama of Esther points to the heroic behaviour of the Queen who, with the support and direction of her cousin Mordechai, went straight to the King, Ahasuerus, and demanded freedom for the Jews of Shushan. When she realised what was really afoot, she was not afraid to speak out and expose Haman’s murderous plot. In other words, the message of Megillat Esther is that cowardice and fear of exposing antisemitism allows Jew haters to succeed. Stand up and speak out, yesterday, today and tomorrow!

At Passover the Jewish people, as we read in the Haggadah, faced excruciating bondage in Egypt, whips and burdens that constituted our people’s unbearable suffering at the hand of others. But through Moses’ courageous leadership and his challenge, together with his brother Aaron, to the Pharaoh of Egypt, the Israelites, precursors of the Jewish people, were liberated from bondage and found the gift of freedom that enabled them to create a nation state based on Torah and the word of God.

One of the most startling facts of the Exodus is that the Israelites celebrated Passover, the Seder, BEFORE they left Egypt, not after liberation. The reason, according to our Sages, is that the value of freedom had to be articulated first, assimilated inside every member of Israel, before they could be truly free. In other words, freedom begins from inside. No external enemy can defeat us or destroy us if we are free inside, if we stay loyal to our religious values and heritage. No enemy can destroy us if we remain true to ourselves.

So, to Jeremy Corbyn and all his antisemitic followers,to so many in the Arab Middle East, to supporters of the rising BDS movement, we must affirm our commitment to pride in ourselves, to combat assimilation and rampant acculturation, the breakup of the Jewish family, and the scourge of Jewish selfhatred. The internal struggle against all thosefactors that weaken Jewish observance and understanding of who we are and what we represent to the rest of the world, will be the test as to whether antisemites succeed in weakening us. From Esther and Mordechai, Moses and Aaron, and the resolve of all those Jews who knew who and what they were, we are here today, under orders to keep our Judaism and Jewish identity strong and mighty, impenetrable to attack.

The argument as to which factor is more important, freedom from external threats or from internal weakness and assimilation, is clearly spelled out in the Haggadah. Shmuel (2nd century rabbi) argues that the greatest threat to the Jewish people is the external enemy (“We were slaves in the land of Egypt”). Rav claims it is idolatry or, in modern terms, our abandonment of Judaism, our exit from Jewish life (“My father was an Aramean”, meaning an idolator, as Abraham was brought up to be).

What do you think is the greater threat to Jewish existence? Enemies bent on destroying us or the enemy within us? There is ample material here for a good discussion in synagogue when we celebrate Purim in March, and at your Seder tables in April.

I extend my warm wishes to you and your loved ones for a joyful celebration of Purim and a meaningful and blessed Passover.
Mo’adim l’simcha (times for joy)

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Our struggle for 5779

Anti-Semitism surrounding Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, continued threats to Israel from Gaza’s border with increased hostility to the State of Israel,the wild antics of President Donald Trump which, like them or not, are changing our world each day, and the failure to see light in the Brexit negotiations.

All this has us living with great uncertainty about the future, and then the usual blights on civilisation – disease, hunger, poverty, oppression, homelessness. It all adds up to the world we live in today. Yet we return to the shul to restore the seeds of our strength, resolve and faith, which enable us to combat the challenges of despair and anguish.

There are personal struggles as well. Some of us have lived through financial uncertainty this past year, loss of job and security, failed relationships and marriages, illness or death. No one evesaid life would be easy and that is why we need a spiritual response to all thesethings that have weighed upon us during the past year. We all know that our Judaism and Jewish tradition are virtual treasure chests of wisdom and strength. Our people have been there before and have always risen to new heights of strength. We will be calling upon ourselves to do the same.

During these Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) ahead of us, I will be speaking on my usual themes: God (on first day Rosh Hashanah), Israel (on second day), Judaism and Jewish identity (on Kol Nidrei), existential truths (on Yom Kippur), life and death (at Mazkir/Yizkor) through the prism of people. Not all the individuals I will be speaking about are well known. Some are, some are known only by a few. But I hope that their stories will inspire us to rise to new heights and understanding of ourselves.

At Selichot on 1 September our shiur at 9.00 pm, to which you are all invited prior to the service which starts at 10.00 pm, will explore how individuals, teachers, parents, relatives and friends have influenced our views of ourselves, our Jewish identities and life itself. So, think about which people through your years have inspired you the most and shaped your destiny, your thoughts, your lives, your faith.

A prayer for the Yamim Noraim:

May we hold lovingly in our thoughts and prayers this 5779, those who still suffer in this world from tyranny, who are subjugated to live in cruelty and injustice. Let us resolve to work every day towards the alleviation of suffering wherever we see it and experience it.

May we pursue the biblical prophets’ vision of peace that implores us to live harmoniously with each other, to respect the differences of opinions and beliefs that exist among us, to be forgiving of those whom we believe have hurt us. May we always cherish diversity, respect all forms of Jewish life, work continuously for the unity of the people of Israel and always seek to find the Divinity that resides in the human soul.

May we struggle against injustice against our people, in this country and in Israel, fighting hard for the dignity of our people and making it clear that we will never again tolerate the hatred and anti-semitism of previous generations or today’s willingness to destroy our only Jewish state. May our commitments to Israel, our Judaism and our fellow Jews increase this year.

May we disdain gossip and realise again and again how thoughtless rumours and words can destroy good people and distort truth.

May we act with greater purity of heart and mind this coming 5779, despising none and loving all.
May the Jewish people and this Belsize Square Congregation be beacons of light to the world, to our community and to the State of Israel.

May we all have the honour of fulfilling the words of the Torah and of our rabbis to pursue peace in all our actions, loving our neighbour as ourselves, cherishing the gift of life that God has given to us and never taking for granted our health, our will, our spirit or our love.
May God bring peace to us and to all humanity this new year, 5779.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Exodus: from Egypt or the USSR

Looking back at my own experiences, the events that led to my deep appreciation for our religious tradition, law, narrative and faith that make up Judaism, I would say that despite my many trips to Israel and the incredible times I had travelling, studying, living there and marvelling at the rebirth of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, nevertheless, the trips I made to the former Soviet Union were the most significant Jewish experiences in my life.

I went numerous times between 1984 and 1992, some visits more successful than others: visiting refuseniks, teaching Judaism, Hebrew and Jewish history to young and old, dissidents and students, and smuggling dissertations, books and photos, which have become part of the legacy of our people’s freedom movement for Soviet Jewry.

Between 1988 and 1992, almost 1½ million Jews found their way to freedom in Israel and outside it. As I said in the introduction to my book, From Exodus to Freedom, the liberation of Soviet Jewry will rank as one of the greatest miracles of our people’s history, second only to the founding of the modern state of Israel. Israel absorbed almost a million Jews, the equivalent of the United States absorbing the entire population of France into its borders, and within just four years!

My many visits to the USSR enabled me to understand what it is like to live in a nation of oppression, of suppression of basic human rights. They could not study, speak the language of their choice or learn about their religious faith without fear of arrest and imprisonment. The bravery of the Jews I met, from Sharansky to Begun to Edelstein to Astrakhan, is forever emblazoned in my heart and soul. They taught me what the struggle for freedom is all about, the strength that comes from a deeply rooted faith in right versus wrong, and the sacrifice necessary to protect the freedom of Jewish life today.

It is an amazing narrative we are about to tell once again to ourselves and to our children and grandchildren, how 3,300 years ago, a small slave people, powerless, without territory or army, left the mightiest empire in the world, Egypt, strengthened by hope and faith in an unseen God and unseen virtues, taught in our Torah.

We learn from the story of the Exodus from Egypt that the strength of our people which has enabled us to outlive every mighty empire since the beginning of time is based not on chariots, arms or armies, not on statues or monuments, power or wealth, but founded upon the humility of belief in the power of God, a God of redemption, history and vision who has taught the world that the sanctity of human life is non-negotiable, and that human beings are destined to be free, not slaves. This is the story of a God who has maintained this special relationship with the people of Israel, to be His eyes and ears to the rest of humanity until our world is redeemed for all.

And we tell the story of Passover around our dinner tables, focusing on the future, on our children. We parents and grandparents teach them that our memories will not be held in monuments but carried through the generations in words, values and hope. This is a faith greater than anything on earth, that binds the past and future, forever a witness to the human spirit and its connection to a God Who is the greatest Power on earth, the unseen force of life as we know it. Our task is to build a world of human freedom, based upon responsibility and the dignity of all.

When we open the Ark in readiness for the Torah reading, we sing, “Vayehi binsoa ha’aron vayomer Moshe, kumahAdonai, v’yafutzu oyvecha, v’yanusu m’sanecha mipanecha.” (Whenever the Ark set out, Moses said: Arise, O Lord, and may Your enemies be scattered and those who hate You flee before You.”)

I never understood what that verse from the book of Numbers (10:35) meant until I went to the Soviet Union. How can the Torah scroll “scatter our enemies, cause those who hate us to flee from us?” On all my trips to the USSR, I brought siddurim, tallitot, Bibles, sacred Jewish texts. And on almost every entry into the country I was grilled, at times for hours, asking me what I was bringing and told how “dangerous” these books and items were to the mighty Soviet Empire. I wondered how that was possible. How could an empire with nuclear weaponry be afraid of any book, especially a prayer book or chumash?

But then I understood the fear. Authoritarian regimes are paranoid about “ideas”, about values that challenge the supremacy of might and power. And then I knew the power of my Judaism, the power of the word, the spirit, of God, without armies and nuclear bombs. The fear was palpable, the fear that Jewish ideas might destroy the basis of oppression.

What has changed in 3,300 years? Virtually nothing. Our religious tradition stands as strong as ever today, our mission the same: to bring about a world based upon God’s might and not the ephemeral power of weapons and war. Some day, Elijah will come and the Jewish people will be free, and then all humanity will be free, under God. Next year in Jerusalem!

My wishes to all of you and your loved ones for a blessed, joyous and meaningful Passover 5778.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

The Essence of Judaism

I have often been asked if Judaism has an essence, a central doctrine that runs through from Orthodox to Liberal?” The answer is yes and is spelled out in a text from the Babylonian Talmud: In the hour when a person is brought before the heavenly court for judgment, he is asked:

  • Did you conduct your business affairs honestly?
  • Did you set aside regular time for Torah study?
  • Did you involve yourself in your children’s upbringing?
  • Did you look forward to the world’s redemption?

Note that the first question on “arriving in heaven” is not “Did you believe in God?” or “Did you observe the ritual commandments?” but “Were you honest in your conduct of business?” In other words, the essence of Judaism is behaviouristic and, specifically, the primacy of ethical action. Our Jewish understanding of religion is that without the quest for moral life, a Jew cannot truly be “religious”. We are defined not solely by our synagogue attendance or observance of Shabbat or kashrut. Commitment to the core values those rituals represent is indeed important but ultimately they prod us towards a more sanctified and ethical life. The goal is decency, as I have stressed many times from the bimah, quoting the great psychologist, Dr Viktor Frankl, who taught that the world is divided into just two groups, “decent” and “indecent”.

The second question asks about our commitment to Jewish study. Rabbinic wisdom holds that study is critical because it leads us to greater selfawareness and a more moral life. Two recent books well worth reading are Martin Goodman’s A History of Judaism and Simon Schama’s Belonging, the second part of his trilogy on the Jewish people. Study, learn, come to our Sunday morning and Monday evening classes and our four-part series in March with St Peter’s Church and our Muslim neighbours.

The third question asks whether we have devoted our lives to children, fulfilling our covenantal obligation to pass on our Jewish values and dreams to the next generation. For those unable to have their own children, our tradition teaches that this duty can still be fulfilled by assisting the children of our community and beyond. Plant those seeds in the next generation. A Jew can never be oblivious to the need to pay attention to the future.

The fourth question challenges us in an extraordinary way, asking whether we worked and hoped for a better world than today’s world. In other words, a Jew is not allowed to stand aloof as the world bleeds. The world is fractured in so many ways and we must ask ourselves what we are doing to improve things. The threat of global terror, global warming, world hunger, crime on our streets, the struggle for Israel to survive, the challenge for freedom (the list goes on), is not “their” struggle, it is “our” struggle.

Rabbi Tarfon, of the 2nd century CE, taught: “It is not your obligation to complete the task of perfecting the world but neither are you free to desist from doing all you can.” We are also guided by Rabbi Hillel (1st century BCE), who wrote that the greatest principle of the Torah is “Love your neighbour as yourself” and Moses Maimonides (12th century): “The purpose of the laws of the Torah…is to bring mercy, loving-kindness and peace upon the world.”

I wish you all a good start to the new secular year 2018. May it be a time for growth, education, and goodness, the core of our Jewish commitments.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Looking back 100 years to November 1917

This month of November 2017 is historic, for it was on 2 November 1917, one hundred years ago that the Balfour Declaration was delivered to Lord Rothschild, committing the British government to the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

On 7 and 8 of November of that same year, 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution led by Vladimir Lenin overthrew the Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky and changed the world in a dramatic sweep of power.

On 9 November 1938, the Nazi regime led a nationwide pogrom against every Jewish community and Jew in Germany and Austria, in a horrific foreboding of the coming Shoah.

These three watershed events affected us all. The Balfour Declaration set in motion the realisation of 2,000 years of Jewish dreams, the return of our people to the Land of Israel, and recognised the nationalist aspirations of the Zionist movement. It cemented international recognition of the plight of the Jewish people, as confirmed by all the leading Western nations at the San Remo Conference, held in 1922.

The British government accepted a mandate to lead the Jewish people to statehood. The government also made promises to the Saud and Husseini families, leaders of the Arab world at the time, which created much of the tensions that ensued in the region. Jewish history and life was never the same after 2 November 1917. Zionism, the sanction for a future Jewish state, became embedded in the hearts of the Jewish people.

The Bolshevik Revolution marked the end of Russia’s brief experiment with liberal democracy, the end of its tsarist monarchic rule and beginning of the profound experiment of Communism.

The Bolsheviks, who seized power without much popular consent (a littleknown fact), took over the apparatus of government and the media by force and bloodshed. The country lost millions in a civil war lasting till 1924.

The Jews, mostly still in the Pale of Settlement in poverty-stricken rural areas, were caught between the White and Red Armies. They suffered from both sides, which viewed the Jewish population with equal contempt.

I should know. My maternal grandparents left Ukraine in 1924, young and fit enough to leave pogrom-filled Russia, walking across Ukraine and the rest of Europe to arrive in America on a rat-infested ship in 1924.

The ultimate failure of the Soviet Union experiment, the outrageous years of famine and terror during Stalin’s long reign, the decimation of so much of Russian life and lives, the economic failure, the virtual imprisonment of its people, had an enormous impact on our own development: the nuclear arsenals, clashes of economic systems and the demise of religion, especially the practice of Judaism.

And then there is Kristallnacht, the events of November 1938, when the Jewish world was set on fire. We know the details: arrests, destruction of Jewish property, street gangs, imprisonment in vile conditions, and the announcement to the world that Jews were facing a war of destruction. All became clear in November 1938, 79 years ago.

We are honoured to welcome Ambassador Peter Ammon, Germany’s Ambassador to the UK. He is a true friend of our community and looks forward to addressing us at our synagogue. Not only has he turned down many other invitations, he is missing the major Germany-England football match at Wembley, all just to be at our Kristallnacht Service on Friday evening 10 November!

Do come to welcome the Ambassador. He is a fine speaker, but, most importantly, a true friend of ours. This is a historic event for our congregation.

My best wishes to all of you for a month filled with historic memory and reflection.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

2017: year of anniversaries

We are headed into our quiet summer months, a time for reflection, reading, travel and enjoying this time of year.

On Monday night 31 July we will be here to remember the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, in 586 BCE and 70 CE respectively. As an astonished Napoleon commented on arriving in Jaffa in 1800 to find Jews remembering the Temples and Jerusalem: “A people still weeping over their holy places after so many years will be a people that will indeed return to their holy places and regain sovereignty in their national and historic homeland.” Napoleon was no prophet, he was simply observing the inexplicable. The Jewish people never forgot its ties to Jerusalem, to Eretz Yisrael.

This is the year of special anniversaries and a good time to reflect on them, as we will at the High Holydays. What do we remember this year?

1897: 120 years ago in Switzerland, against all the naysayers, Theodor Herzl assembled the First Zionist Congress in Basle. Over 200 delegates attended and the gathering received good media coverage, to the surprise of most, since no one expected to see a Zionist movement started.
It was due to Herzl’s organisational and promotional genius that two powerful emblems were introduced: a Magen David painted onto a tallit unfurled at the Congress and the singing of an inspiring Hebrew poem, Hatikvah (The Hope), written in longer form in 1878 by the Central European-born wandering writer, Naftali Herz Imber, and set to music 10 years later in the new religious agricultural settlement of Rishon LeZion in Palestine by Romanian-born Samuel Cohen, using a tune he remembered from childhood (as did Smetana in Bohemia around the same time).

It was at Basle that the Jewish state began, together with its flag and national anthem and Herzl’s promise that there would be an independent Jewish state in Palestine “in 50 years”. Almost to the exact date of the prophecy, Israel came into being on 14 May 1948.

1917: Besides being the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution which forever changed the 20th century (not for the best, with its slaughter of millions), 2 November 1917 was the date of the Balfour Declaration proclaiming the creation of a homeland for the Jewish people on its historic soil without prejudicing “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities”.

That Balfour Declaration was confirmed by the Allied victors of the First World War at the San Remo Conference in Italy in 1920, the forerunner to the granting of a mandate over Palestine in 1922 by the newly created League of Nations, which again confirmed Britain’s promise. The sanction of the nations of the world paved the way for the realisation of the “hope” of the restoration of the Jewish people.

1947: 29 November 1947, 70 years ago,when the United Nations voted to create a Jewish state in Palestine together with an Arab state, giving a future Jewish state yet another sanction from the international body of nations. The British were to leave on 14 May 1948 and a Jewish state would be resurrected on its ancient soil after a hiatus of sovereignty from 63 BCE when the last Jewish state came to an end under the Roman general, Pompey.

We know the rest of the tragic story. The Arab nations rejected the creation of their own state in order to destroy the Jewish entity and, until this day, Israel’s recognition and acceptance in the region is still not a certainty.

1967: 5 June 1967, the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War when Israel’s existence was again called into question by Arab nations, led by President Nasser of Egypt calling for the destruction of the 20-year old Jewish state. The story is a heroic one. Israel, fighting for its survival, defeated the Arab armies in six days, in the process occupying the Sinai Desert, Golan Heights and West Bank, and unifying Jerusalem on 7 June. This brought to an end the barbed wire and artillery pointed at civilians in Jerusalem, and liberated the occupied Jewish Quarter, including the Kotel, the Western Wall which forms the ancient remains of Beit Hamikdash, the Temple and Temple Mount.

It’s all in our memory. We do not forget what has happened and we never will. I do hope that all of you will draw strength from our Jewish memories because, despite all the odds against our survival, we have proved wrong every prognosticator of our demise. Our religious truths have survived to bless the world and Israel remains a shining light to the entire world.

Enjoy the summer months ahead and we will be back in September, ready to prepare for the coming of another New Year 5778.

Blessings and peace

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

“Settlements” and the history of conflict

Shalom Chaverim,

I have been asked by several congregants to explain the Israeli “settlements”. What are they? Why are they an international problem? Why are Jewish organisations so upset with the recent United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 declaring all Israeli “settlements” beyond the borders of 4 June 1967 to be “illegal”.

I particularly recommend Alan Dershowitz’s brilliant legal analysis for those following these aspects of events (look it up on Google). But my concern is broader. I worry about what it means for the future of our people as antiSemitism increasingly takes the form of attacking our institutions as “Zionist”. What happens at the UN or in Jerusalem affects us all.

Israel itself contains divergent views on settlements. Are they out of control, an obstacle to peace, a mistake, illegal? Or, as many believe, do Jews have a right to live anywhere in Eretz Yisrael, so long as their presence is legal. In fact, many cases of disputed legal rights have come before the Israeli Supreme Court. So here is a brief history.

“Palestine”, covering most of today’s Jordan and part of today’s Iraq, was governed by pagan, Christian and Muslim rulers, starting from the Romans’ destruction of Judea in 74 CE. Apart from the Crusaders’ Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem from 1099-1187, no group ever claimed Jerusalem as its capital. “Palestina” was mainly governed from Damascus as a province. Its population was sparse, mostly Bedouin nomads who lived off the land. Landholdings belonged to absentee landlords.

The Zionist movement brought Jews to settle in the area from the late 19th century, starting the process that led to the Jewish State of Israel. In 1917, as an ally of Germany in the First World War, the Ottomans lost their empire and Britain took over colonial oversight of Palestine, while France took Syria and Lebanon, under the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement.

To accommodate Jewish aspirations in Palestine, Lord Balfour declared on 2 November 1917 that Britain supported a Jewish homeland in Palestine, meaning both sides of the Jordan. That plan was altered in 1922 by Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill to enable Britain to create a further Arab state in addition to Iraq and the future Saudi Arabia (formed 1932), in fulfilment of promises made during the war to tribal chieftains, including the Bedouin Husseini family.

Thus we had the arbitrary creation of Transjordan while Palestine was officially shrunk down to west of the Jordan. During the British Mandate of Palestine, granted by the League of Nations in 1921, Jews settled throughout Palestine, including in today’s “disputed” areas. Huge pockets of Jews lived around Jerusalem, in Gush Etzion and Hebron as well as other areas.

Arab opposition to growing Jewish immigration, especially from central Europe after Hitler came to power in 1933, resulted in the 1936 general strike, which turned into a three-year revolt. Britain responded with a Royal Commission of Inquiry, headed by Lord Peel. In 1937 the Peel Commission recommended partition. The Jews were offered 20% of mandatory Palestine, a compromise they accepted. The Arabs rejected their much larger share.

The outbreak of the Second World War put the issue on hold. On 29 November 1947, the two-year-old United Nations voted for the creation of a Jewish and an Arab state. The Arab nations quickly prepared for war to destroy a new Jewish state.

On 14 May 1948 the British left and Ben-Gurion declared the State of Israel. The very next day seven Arab nations attacked Israel, vowing to destroy the Jews and drive them into the Mediterranean. That effort failed and, in talks in Rhodes from February to July 1949, Israel and her Arab neighbours signed a series of General Armistice Agreements. These armistice lines have never been formally recognised as borders.

After 1948 Jews were driven out of the “West Bank” and the Old City of Jerusalem. Jewish holy sites and synagogues were completely destroyed. The Kotel (Western Wall) was turned into a donkey latrine, the cemetery at the Mount of Olives destroyed and desecrated. Not one UN resolution ever called upon the “occupier”, Jordan, to allow Jews to worship in Jerusalem, a supposedly international city. Not a single one.

All Jewish settlements in the West Bank were illegally occupied by Jordan (only two nations recognised that occupation, Pakistan and the UK). Jerusalem was divided by barbed wire, no-man’s land and artillery fire. Jews were not allowed even to visit the Old City – all Jews, not just Israeli Jews.

In 1967, Nasser and the allied Arab nations were again bent on destroying Israel, cutting off its southern port, Eilat, to choke its economy. Not one UN resolution condemned this barbarism. On 5 June 1967, in a war that lasted six days, Israel made its pre-emptive strike, resulting in the capture of the Sinai, Golan Heights and West Bank. Levi Eshkol’s government warned Jordan not to enter the conflict but King Hussein rejected the advice. Responding to Jordanian fire, Israel liberated Jerusalem and returned Jews to the Old City, Jewish Quarter and Mount Scopus.

We know the rest of the story: terrorist attacks, the emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, repeated threats to wipe out Jews, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic extremism, Hamas and Hezbollah.

In the early 1970s, Israel’s Labour government decided to react to the Arab world’s “Three Noes” passed at their Khartoum conference some two weeks after the Six Day War (No Peace with Israel, No Negotiations with Israel, No Recognition of Israel). They asserted the right of Jews to settle in areas whose status needed resolution but technically and legally belonged to no one.

Since then, two sets of negotiations, offering to return over 98% of the disputed territories for the creation of a Palestinian state, have been turned down: by Arafat in 2000 (involving Israeli Prime Minister Barak and US President Clinton) and by Abbas in 2005 (Sharon and George W Bush). The result is the stalemate we see today.

Israel’s peace movement was shattered by the Palestinian rejections. Israelis increasingly feel that Jews have as much a right as anyone else to live in “disputed” territories. Almost all Israelis feel that resolution can only come through direct negotiations and recognition of two peoples and two states. Abbas and the Hamas organisation have clearly rejected that essential path to peace. They have
attempted to isolate and delegitimise the Jewish State under the aegis of international bodies.
Abbas and other Palestinian leaders have frequently stated that no Jewish Israelis would be permitted in the West Bank, including the pre-1949 Jewish areas. Sadly, that was the sentiment expressed in last December’s UN Resolution 2334.

In my view, there is no reason why Jews cannot live anywhere in the world, even in a future State of Palestine, just as Arabs should and do live in the Jewish State of Israel. I see the vehement and violent rejection of Israel, not the “settlements”, as the heart of the conflict. Israel dismantled settlements in Sinai and Gaza in order to open up negotiations. She was met with increased violence and terror.

I hope this brief review helps. It is a complicated situation, where passions run high on all sides. Whatever your thoughts, the facts of history are crucial for understanding the difficulty of creating peace for all.

God bless the State of Israel, one day, with real shalom, peace, as we also pray for the peace of Israel’s neighbours. Dignity, peace, security and freedom for all.

B’shalom, Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Up and down, in and out, Why we need our Jewish faith and values

Shalom Chaverim,

Some of the conversation surrounding the Brexit vote (shock) in the UK, followed by the Presidential vote (further shock) in the United States, has been quite startling. There’s been a significant questioning of democracy, of stability, of our values with a not so subtle dose of uncertainty and anxiety about our collective future.

My own view is that we have not even come close to reaching catastrophic results in either country. However, this is as good a time as any to take stock and be aware that history can change dramatically, unexpectedly, and catch us all off guard.

We Jews know that reality more than any other people. Safe in Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE, suddenly there arose a Babylonian Empire to destroy the Temple and exile two thirds of our people.

A Jewish state, Judea, the last sovereign Jewish state until 1948, existed in strength and in peace until the expanding power of Rome in the west eroded Jewish independence, leading to the outbreak of the doomed Jewish revolt in 66CE and destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE.

Our entire history since those debacles, while living in galut (exile) or diaspora (dispersion), has been a story of “security and safe haven” one day, only to be eventually shocked into disarray.

Jews lived in Baghdad for centuries until they were caught up in its gradual decline and finally invasion by Mongol invaders in the 13th century.

The Jews of Spain, who lived in relative comfort for centuries, bouncing between Muslim and Christian overlords, found themselves cut off by the rise of fundamentalist Christianity, culminating in their expulsion from the entire Iberian peninsula, Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497. Jewish havens in Poland and Ukraine also came to a sudden end.

In our own lifetime, Jews who had lived in Germany since the 9th century and by the 20th century had reached positions of influence, creativity and even power, became the centre of Nazi extermination designs.Then came the virtual end of Russian Jewry.

And that is a major reason why we should remember the lessons of the coming festival of Chanukah. Before Antiochus Epiphanes IV began his religious persecution, his Seleucid predecessor, Antiochus III, followed up his victory over the Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt in 198 BCE by giving the Jews freedom of worship and relief from heavy taxation.

Antiochus IV continued this policy for the first seven years of his reign. But in a complete reversal, in 167 he initiated the first major pagan persecution of any Jewish community, forbade the study of Torah, prohibited circumcision and forcibly imposed emperor- worship on the Temple in Jerusalem.

What happened in so short a period of time? There are all kinds of explanations – unrest in Egypt following his incursions, leading to fear of another war there; souring of the economy; and most importantly, a growing intolerance towards the “differing practices” of the Jews

Hence, the first religious persecutions in history, the three-year Maccabean revolt and the subsequent cleansing of the Temple, leading to our holiday of Chanukah.

So, what does this all mean for us? To me, it means that there are no guarantees in history; that things can change rapidly; that we need to be ever alert and ready to check any emergence of anti-Semitism.

We must always be mindful that the countries we love so much and which have given us abundant freedom, hold no rock-solid guarantee that this will last forever.

What is forever is God, Torah and the people of Israel. We must never forget that reality. So light those Chanukah candles, cherish our current freedom, implant in our children the resolve to resist any onslaught on our people and faith. Let them know that our spiritual strength and vision will last for eternity.

My wishes to all of you for a festival of light and hope, of lots of oily food (latkes, sufganiyot) and the joy of freedom.

Chag Chanukah Sameach!

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Kristallnacht onwards – how anti-semitism continues

9 November 1938 will forever remain indelibly etched into the consciousness of world Jewry. For on that day the “night of broken glass”, Kristallnacht, was launched throughout Germany and Austria. Synagogues were burned to the ground, thousands of Jews arrested, many more beaten in the streets and humiliated. But most of the world, witness to the destruction of Jewish life, did nothing to alleviate the violence.

“It is an internal affair of the German government” was the mantra of the day. With the world’s passiveness and inability to respond to the impending demise of German and Austrian Jewry, the tools were put in place for the first steps towards the Final Solution.

Belsize Square Synagogue will not forget that night. Our guest for Friday night’s service on 11 November will be Jonathan Arkush, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Jonathan has been a courageous and visionary leader, almost single-handedly taking on the anti-Semitic outrages of the Labour Party, unafraid to address attacks against our Jewish past and attachment
to Israel, and challenging Mr Jeremy Corbyn on his failure to understand the stain of anti-Semitism. We are honoured to have him join us and I look forward to welcoming him. Our thanks to Robert Sacks and Eric Moonman, our Board representatives, for arranging this.

The onslaught against Jewry has not gone away. It is just repackaged differently, centred round Zionism and Israel. The BDS boycott movement and UNESCO’s resolution on 13 October denying any Jewish link to Jerusalem, especially the Temple area, was frightening and hateful. I hope you will all protest to your neighbours and MPs that erasing Jewish history is just the latest example of the 3,500-year-old obsession with Jew hatred. It’s real.

Only six countries voted against it: Estonia, Germany, Holland, Lithuania, the UK and USA. We should express our gratitude to them for their sanity and resistance to base anti-Semitism in the United Nations. There were 33 in favour, including France, Russia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden, and 17 abstentions. Many other countries not on the governing board, including the Czech Republic, solidly denounced the vote.

Two other points of interest: Irina Bokava, UNESCO’s director, disavowed the vote and called it a disgrace to the world’s nations and the UN. And a Jewish member of Mexico’s UNESCO delegation, on the point of resigning in protest at his government’s support for the resolution, stayed on to fight at the urging of Israel’s delegate. Oddly, Mexico renounced its earlier support but fired its courageous Jewish delegate.

There is so much else going on this month, notably the US Presidential election, where we pray the winner will help our troubled world. But we still have a full programme with Shabbat UK, Adult Discussion on philosophy and Bar Mitzvah services. Come to our services and activities and become part of the Belsize miracle! Wishes for a joyous month of learning, goodness, mitzvot, reading and friendship.

B’shalom
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler