I was moved by the speakers at the Campaign Against Antisemitism demonstrations in March and April.
Some of the most moving words were delivered by a survivor of the Shoah, Agnes Grunwald-Spier. Born in Budapest in 1944, she survived and has been a witness in writing and speaking of the horrors of the Holocaust. She quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the noted Christian theologian and scholar and one of the few church leaders to speak out against Nazi antisemitism in Germany during the 1930s. He was eventually arrested and sent to a concentration camp, where he was hanged in April 1945, a month before the end of war.
Bonhoeffer said: “Not to speak is to speak; not to act is to act.” In other words, silence and apathy, “the bystanders”, as Elie Wiesel labelled those who let the forces of evil overwhelm Germany and Europe, bear the greatest responsibility for the unfolding of the greatest murder of a people, the Jewish people, in the history of civilisation.
Not only do these words ring true in so many ways in the historical and political realms, they also resonate in our daily lives. Without the commitment of action, of standing by what we believe in, our ideals fade, our principles wither, our lives stand for little.
The lesson to us is not only to stand up and react to the virulent antisemitism spreading in many sections of the Labour Party but also to support those in the Labour Party who are working hard to protect the dignity of both party and country in combatting this grotesque antisemitism and hatred.
It is now May and this is the point when we, too, can make a stand. The secular date of Israel’s 70th anniversary is 14 May. Be proud of your Jewish state, even with its imperfections. It is ours and, had there been a Jewish state in 1938, six million Jews would probably not have been murdered before the eyes of a silent, apathetic world, the bystanders who let this catastrophe happen.
We are going to Warsaw and Vilnius from 10 to 15 May, when the celebration of Israel’s 70th anniversary will take place around the world. We are going to Poland and Lithuania at a most interesting time, when we read almost daily comments such as those from Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister, who said that “Jews were worse than animals.”
This is Poland, where my father’s maternal family resided for centuries. The Shelabovs of Pinsk, then in south Poland, all disappeared off the planet because of the silence of the world, immobilised by the sadism and violence of Nazi Germany reaching across the whole of Europe.
Their story is now mine. I can never be silent, I can never let what happened during World War Two ever happen again to our people or to any other people. But as our member and tour leader, Professor Antony Polonsky, an expert on Polish-Jewish history, told us at an advance meeting, East European antisemitism has moved Jewish guilt on from capitalist exploitation to Communist oppression.
Shavuot, the celebration of Matan Torateinu, the Giving of the Torah at Sinai, begins Saturday night 19 May. Stand up and be counted by coming to our annual Tikkun Leyl Shavuot which begins after our 6.45 pm service. Sitting on the sidelines of the adventure of Jewish learning, feeling that the evening belongs to “them” and not to “me”, is not the way to perpetuate Jewish life. Not to study is to study – but study nothing.
The theme of our sessions this year is War and Peace and we will look at different aspects of this topic in five sessions led by Antony Polonsky who will examine the role of Jews in the First World War, while Cantor Paul Heller will look at the Sim Shalom (Make Peace) prayer in the Amidah.
Jonathan Paris, academic researcher and specialist on regional political, security and development issues, will talk about Jewish ethics in international relations. He is our only outside speaker.
Susan Storring and Claire Walford will concentrate on heroines in battle, and I will wind up with Jewish law and ethics when it comes to making war and peace.
There will be plenty of cheesecake, coffee, tea and excellent company. Don’t stand on the sidelines. Engage in the journey of Jewish learning, one of the greatest journeys you will ever make. It will change your life.
My wishes to all of you for a Chag Shavuot Sameach and for lives that make a difference to the rest of the world.
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler