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Thursday, 23 October 2014

From Highest – to Lowest - the Jewish Week that Was!

A week that began on an emotional high for the Anglo-Jewish community with the public broadcast of a Holocaust survivor’s testimony,  plunged into ever-accelerating free-fall, then crashed to earth on Thursday with the terrorist murder of a three-month-old baby in Jerusalem.

Chaim.FersterThus is the Jewish experience encapsulated.

So as the days slid between the rousing speech of Polish-born Chaim Ferster at the Manchester, U.K. North West Friends of Israel Rally Against Antisemitism and the death of US-born Chaya Zissel Braun, there was news of grossly crude antisemitism on US student campuses and the jailing of a man who sent an antisemitic message to Liverpool Jewish Member of Parliament, Luciana Berger. Then her counterparts in the UK Independence Party (UKIP) were forced to defend their alliance by association with European racists and Holocaust deniers. Luciana.Berger




But let’s return to the top where an estimated 1,200 people, stretching from Israel to Brazil, enjoyed an online, grandstand view of the Manchester rally  as  each event occurred.

But those of us abroad were merely the off-stage crew for a cast of more than 2,500 people who gathered physically at the  city-centre  Cathedral Gardens, representing a wide cross-section of UK Jewry, along with Kurdish, Christian and  Muslim friends.

There were many Israeli flags on display at the rally but the event was not about Israel. It was designed as a firm response to the spike in antisemitism that peaked during Israel’s summer  Operation Protective Edge in Gaza and was never more evident than at the demonstrations staged outside the Israel-owned Kedem cosmetics store in Manchester.

So next I give you a verbatim account of the speech of nonagenarian  Mr Ferster, whose  testimony, also available here online, is likely to be lodged at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.


“My name is Chaim Ferster. I am 92 years old and I survived the horrors of the Holocaust.

“I was 17 when the Nazis came to my hometown in Poland, and by the time I was 21, I had been through 7 concentration camps. In that time, I witnessed the true depths to which man can sink and the speed with which others can rush to join him there.

“In Sosnowiec, where I was born, I was given a yellow star to wear, and later in Auschwitz I was given a number (reveal tattoo and read number B10924).

“Why, because I was Jewish – a problem that needed a solution, a final solution!!

“It is easy to think that this was a more primitive time, that it was not a surprise to a people used to pogroms and forced migrations, but Poland was my home, as Britain is now, and the idea of the Holocaust was as unfathomable to us then as it is now.

“Nobody can tell me that anti-Semitism is imagined or a product of our own paranoia.

“I am not here to scare you, or to suggest that the recent upsurge in anti-Semitism means we are headed for the same fate. I do not think that we are.

“Our government and those of France, Germany, and Italy, have been quick to denounce the abhorrent events that we have read about. The burning of synagogues, physical attacks on religious Jews, and chanting of “Jews to the gas chambers” in the streets.

“I am grateful to the leaders of Europe, for their leadership, but we must never be complacent. We need to stand up for ourselves, and that is what we are doing today in a way that could not be imagined in my youth.

“This country has been good to me, to my children, my grandchildren, and by the grace of G-d my great-grandchildren. Its people are liberal and tolerant, and the vast majority see anti-Semitism and racism for what they truly are.

“But anti-Semitism has evolved, it now has Israel firmly in its sinister cross-hairs. Zionism has become a dirty word used to beat us with. We need to reclaim it. Zionism is simply the belief that Jews have the right to self-determination in Israel.

“As all of us here know, Israel is a vibrant and modern democracy, in which self-criticism is a crucial and important part of the political process, indeed of Zionism. Criticism of Israeli policy does not frighten me, it engages me. But to demonize and delegitimize Israel is to let in an old and dangerous foe.

“In the words of the historian Simon Schama, ‘Israel does not cause anti-Semitism, Israel was caused by anti-Semitism’.

“We need to speak out, and educate others about the darkest days of our past, to ensure that anti-Semitism, racism and discrimination have no place in the modern world. Education is the only way to beat ignorance.

“My name is Chaim Ferster, not B10924.

“Our name is B’nei Yisrael, the Children of Israel, and we must not let anyone replace it with a number, a daubing on a wall, or an insult chanted in the streets”.  

Other speakers  included MPs Ivan Lewis, Jim Murphy and Graham Evans. Indeed, it was long-serving Bury Labour MP Mr Lewis who read a speech condemning antisemitism on behalf of Conservative Chancellor George Osborne, so confirming that all efforts to combat anti-Jewish sentiment have strong cross-party support.

But the heat from this heart-warming event has sparked debate about the many troubles facing the Jewish community worldwide.

As someone who worked in and for the Manchester Jewish community for  21 years, it was extraordinary to watch the tables being turned. After all that time writing about Mancunians fighting for and supporting Israel, it felt eerie, even surreal to sit at my computer here in Israel, watching the folks back home attempting to douse the unquenchable flames of Jew hatred. One must experience the feeling to describe it.

Paradox aside, the new phenomenon of  social networking has granted these public occasions an immense, immediate impact. The Internet has not only created an unprecedented democracy in general communication but given voice to the great mass of people within the Jewish community, pushing aside the traditional, old-fashioned leadership  in favour of grass roots workers who act with speedy spontaneity. 

Until recently, communal leadership largely comprised a self-appointed, self-perpetuating if well- meaning oligarchy whose members saw themselves as heirs to  the ‘cousinhood’ – the almost moribund  Jewish aristocracy. The idea of  ad hoc groups of rank and file activists taking leading public roles would have been laughable. But this smug complacency has been trounced -literally booed off-stage.

But nothing else changes. Not the empty calls for communal ‘unity’; nor the unseemly rows over religious practice or yet the discord caused by  personal  perception of a homeland for the Jewish people.

Chaim.Weizmann.PlaqueResearching for this piece I read Chaim Weizmann – A Biography By Several Hands. It’s all there: Dr Weizmann’s long stay in Manchester; the arguments over the ‘Uganda’, ‘Argentine’ and ‘Russia’ proposals; the split between ‘philosophical’ and ‘practical’ Zionists – even the laugh-out-loud moment when Weizmann had the chutzpah to tell Lord Balfour that he had been talking to “the wrong sort of Jews”.

But to return to the present: My own week included attending a lecture by US-Israeli military analyst, Major Elliot Chodoff. Don’t be persuaded by political opinion polls he counselled an ESRA Karmiel audience. They’re unreliable. Anyway, he confirmed more baldly, the terrorists with whom Israel deals are single-minded – bent solely on death and destruction. This, I maintain, is not only what we face in Israel but is the same ideology that now sweeps the entire West. 

There can be no argument about that.

© Natalie Wood (24 October 2014)







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