Category: Rabbi’s Monthly Message

Campaigning for Dignity, Truth, Action and Study

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

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

The gifts within us: what Rosh Hashanah tells us

We will be gathering again shortly to usher in a new year, 5778. The tone for our High Holy Days is set for challenging ourselves, heshbon hanefesh (account of the soul), and to find uplift in our special time together. The theme of this year’s sermons is about knowing who we are and recovering the gifts that are too often hidden right inside us!

This story says it all, The Apple Tree’s Discovery by Penina Schram. It’s a beautiful tale of how we keep searching for more and more and more, only to discover that what we want is within us.
In a great oak forest where the trees grew tall and majestic, was a little apple tree. It was the only apple tree in that forest, so it stood alone. Winter came and snow fell, covering the branches of the little apple tree. The forest was quiet and peaceful.

One night, the little apple tree looked up at the sky and saw a wonderful sight. Between the branches of all the trees, the little apple tree saw the stars in the sky. They seemed to be hanging on the branches of the oak trees.

“Oh God, oh God”, whispered the little apple tree, “How lucky those oak trees are to have such beautiful stars hanging on their branches. I want more than anything in the world to have stars on my branches. Then I would feel truly special.” God looked down at the little apple tree and said gently, “Have patience, little apple tree.”

Time passed. The snow melted and spring came to the land. Tiny white and pink apple blossoms appeared on the branches of the little apple tree. Birds came to rest on its branches. People walked by, admiring its blossom. All summer long the apple tree grew. Its branches formed a canopy overhead.

But night after night the little apple tree looked up at the sky with the millions of stars and cried out, “Oh God, I want stars on my leaves and branches, just like those oak trees.” And God looked down at the little apple tree and said, “You already have gifts. Isn’t it enough to offer shade to people and fragrant blossoms and branches for birds to rest on and sing to you?”

The apple tree sighed and answered, “Dear God, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful! I do appreciate how much pleasure I give to others but I really want stars, not blossoms, on my branches. Then I would be special!” God said, “Be patient, little apple tree.”

The seasons changed again. Soon the apple tree was full of beautiful apples. People walking in the forest reached to pick and eat them. And still, at night the apple tree looked at the stars in the oak tree and cried, “Oh God, I want stars on my branches to make me me feel truly special.”

And God asked, “But apple tree, aren’t your wonderful apples enough? Doesn’t that satisfy you? Doesn’t that give you pleasure and make you feel special?” Silently the apple tree shook its branches from side to side. At that moment, God caused a wind to blow. The oak trees began to sway and the apple tree began to shake. From the top of the apple tree, an apple fell. When it hit the ground it split open.

“Look,” commanded God, “Look inside yourself. What do you see?“ The little apple tree looked down and saw that right in the middle of the apple was a star. And the apple tree responded, “A star! I have a star!” And God laughed a gentle laugh and added, “So you do have stars on the branches. They’ve been there all along, you just did not know it.”

This season is a sacred season, a time to reflect on the meaning of our lives. How about rediscovering those gifts we know are embedded in all of us but we sometimes refuse to acknowledge?

We will explore our heritage, history, and contribution to the world as Jews. Why neglect the hidden treasures of Jewish life – our values and beliefs, rites and rituals, links to the State of Israel and to God that, like the little apple tree, we have not yet found? This is the theme of our services.
My warmest greetings to you as we prepare to usher in the new year, Rosh Hashanah 5778. May this be the year of blessing, joy, celebration, health and peace for you, your loved ones, the Jewish people and all humanity.

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

Israel, festivals and Sinai’s place in history

Early good wishes for a Yom Ha’atzma’ut Same’ach on Israel’s 69th anniversary and Chag Shavuot Same’ach for God’s revelation at Sinai, giving the Torah to Israel.

First, Israel’s Independence Day. This is also the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Six Day War from 5-10 June and of the liberation of Jerusalem. As a young teenager, I remember the tense days before that war, our fears when Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled the United Nations peacekeeping troops and mobilised his forces in Sinai, cuttingoff Israel’s access to the Red Sea. As Nasser threatened to end the Jewish State, war seemed imminent.

And then the miracle of Israel’s military victory, seemingly invincible and with theapparent promise that this would be the final war, that peace would at last descend on Israel and the entire region.

It did not happen that way. Jordan, though warned against attacking, did so under pressure from Nasser. Israel turned King Hussein’s blunder into the liberation of Jerusalem and Jewish holy sites, with control of the “West Bank” – or Judea and Samaria – in the hope of exchanging territory for peace (UN Resolution 242).

Well, Israel is still there and, as a result of “occupation”, Jews in Israel and outside are as divided as ever about how Israel should proceed without a negotiating partner for peace. Liberal Jews point to the seemingly irreversible poison of occupation that destroys Israel’s values and erodes each day the promise of peace.

The other side say: “Don’t be naive”. In every generation, as the Haggadah warns us, there are those out to destroy us. Look at Israel’s neighbours: Hezbollah and Assad to the north, Hamas to the south, ISIS to the northeast, Islamic extremism and terror threats everywhere. To the east a moribund Palestine Authority rewards terrorism and “martyrdom”, using its media, educational system and international apparatus to promote the demise of Israel, as it calls for boycotts and delegitimising of Israel at the UN.

Two sides of the coin, both with much truth. At Passover we are reminded there are enemies b’chol dor vador, in every generation, attempting to destroy us – a clear reference to anti-Semitism. Since the creation of the UN in 1945 only one nation, Iran, has uniquely and consistently called for the utter annihilation of another UN member state, which it terms the “Zionist entity”.

No other nation has been so threatened or consistently found so little support from other nations. Iran should have been immediately expelled from the UN for calling for the destruction of another nation. But…silence.

We have moved from Passover, the story of our liberation from oppression and bondage, fully aware of the threats that have historically hovered over the Jewish people and of the ongoing madness and evil that has taken so many innocent lives, especially in Syria. The Haggadah reminds us not to be naive. Evil exists.

Yet, despite so many battles for survival, we will celebrate Shavuot, the giving of the Torah. Sinai represents our spiritual inheritance, the laws, mitzvot, that remind us not to forget the environment we shed when accepting the new values of our ancestors: compassion coupled with love of justice and the sanctity of life. That is our calling which we affirm each year as, with Sefer Torah in hand, we travel towards a better tomorrow.

Let us use this sacred time to strengthen our purpose in our Jewish existence and destiny as we march through the timeless messages of our holy days and historic days between Passover and Shavuot, celebrating the gift of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

May you all have a joyous Shavuot and join us for our annual night of study, our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, on Tuesday evening 30 May, 6 Sivan 5777.

Shalom always,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Purim and Passover: the lessons of history

Over the next two months, we will celebrate Purim and Passover, both festivals laden with meaning relevant to us today. Yet, we often mark them without considering their importance to our collective being. Remembering what they mean to us is critical because we live in an age increasingly forgetful of the past. The new “histories” are mostly attempts to rewrite the past, often bypassing truth, especially regarding Holocaust denial.

For example, Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, billed as a “new history of the world”, completely eliminates the uniquely Jewish factors of the Holocaust and instead interprets what happened to the Jews as an unfortunate by-product of Germany’s food shortage in June 1941! I call this kind of “history” (one of many, all very trendy) attempts to turn history upside down and fabricate new truths to accommodate political or social agendas.

We know all about short memory. In the Torah, after Bnei Yisrael were liberated from bondage in Egypt and crossed miraculously into Sinai, they almost immediately complained about the lack of water, forgetting all they had overcome and achieved, through God’s help and Moses’ leadership. Such is human nature, as we learn from the Rabbis. We forget perspective, we forget what has only just happened.

Judaism has always attempted, through observance of our festivals and even in the weekly recounting of the Torah tale of our ancestors’ travel through Sinai, to preserve memory as the link to understanding. We have yahrzeit, we have yizkor. We try not to forget our loved ones’ lives. They may no longer be physically here but they remain preserved in our hearts and souls.

We do not let go. We remember. At Purim, we go back some 2,400 years to remember how the foreign minister of the Persian Empire, Haman, attempted to exterminate the Jewish people. The story of the Book of Esther is not the first or last time this has happened in the course of our people’s long history. We take seriously the episodic attempts to destroy us as a people. Purim celebrates a miraculous deliverance.

And is it not interesting that in today’s Iran, as in ancient Persia, the ruling theocratic regime continues to declare its desire to destroy the State of Israel? They are quite open about it. Iran is the only nation state since the Second World War to declare openly its desire to destroy another nation state.

What is our response to all this? Like Mordechai and Esther, the Jewish people today are ready to meet the challenge head on and to remind the world of the real danger of the rhetoric of hatred and destruction. Yet we celebrate raucously, to emphasise our will to live and outlive any tyrant’s or antiSemite’s ambition to stamp out the Jewish people.

From the story of Passover we learn the struggle for true freedom, which brings with it responsibility.We also learn how our ancestors viewed the importance of establishing a Jewish nation in Eretz Yisrael, the land promised by the Almighty.

The battles with hostile neighbours, the readiness to fight for our right to be free in our own Jewish land, all this is reflected today in Israel’s struggle for true security and peace in our ancient homeland.

The reminders of the past are current and real today. The Jewish people have survived because of our special relationship with the strength that comes from memory. May it long continue.
Please join us for yizkor/mazkir at the end of Pesach. When we remember our loved ones no longer with us, their souls remain as vibrant and real as ever.

May you and your loved ones enjoy the festivals. May they usher in a new understanding of our faith and values, signalling a new era of freedom, secure from hatred and accepting our obligationtowards our fellow man.

Mo’adim l’Simchah,
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