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September 2008 bulletin articles

Chairman's message - Simon Goldhill

It's Chanuka. Here are two stories.

The first is trivial but telling. I wrote a piece this year for the THES - the Times Higher Education Supplement - a magazine designed for educators in the Higher Education sector - on the subject of hair. I had wanted to write about this for ages. I wanted to explore in a light hearted way the connections between growing up when I did in the 1970s, when long hair was a constant battle ground between parents and children, and today, when I find myself a parent, trying to tell my son not to get his hair cut short, all the time conscious of my Jewish commitment to not cutting the corner of my beard - that is, to the deeply symbolic role of the big beard for Jews (and hippies and mathematicians). The piece itself doesn't much matter now and here (though I did get a lot of letters, all from men...). But in it, I wrote that although I had a beard, I didn't think of myself as a hairy man like Esau, though no one would mistake me for a smooth man like Jacob. The editor wrote to me and asked if I could explain this comment for readers. I was amused - well, shocked, actually - that the editor of the THES thought that I needed to explain the story of Jacob and Esau, but allowed my remark about Hagrid, a character in Harry Potter, in the next sentence, to pass without comment. Could it really be the readers of the THES were more familiar with a children's story than the Bible? I fear the answer is yes...

The second story is still unfurling as I write. I am sitting watching the news about Mumbai and the latest terrorist atrocity. No doubt by the time this comes out more news and more information will have emerged, but as I see things, more detailed understanding of this operation will not effect what I am about to say. A group of heavily armed men have attacked various sites in Mumbai, including the Chabad House. There will be very many dead, and in every case there will be the awfulness of the chance shooting: all sorts of people go to those two hotels, the station is a crossing point for all ranks and classes of society: beyond the horror of the deaths themselves, there will be hundreds of Hindi, Muslim, and Westerners whose lives will be ruined by the loss of the nearest and dearest. At one level, this was a violent attempt to disrupt Mumbai society at its most general. I was in each of these sites last December, as I attended the wedding of a dear friend there with my family. I heard the Chabadnik give a drash in shul, and chatted with him and his wife afterwards. One always, rather parochially, feels more attached to any terrible event if one has a personal connection, however tenuous - which is perhaps just a failure of the imagination. But in the case of Mumbai, it is, I think, particularly significant that the first attack was on the Chabad House. The initial news reports have the familiar rather overheated tone. Westerners have been picked out. This is an attack on democracy. This is "an attack on all of us" (that was David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary). This is callous and indiscriminate violence. And so forth, not without reason.

What no-one has said yet - and maybe the JC will come through - is that this is very far from an indiscriminate attack. "I was just passing Chabad House with a bunch of automatic weapons and thought 'Hey, this looks like a good place - out of all Mumbai - for a bit of terrorism'". Why is it so hard for the news reporters to say what appears to be self-evident? Namely, that this was an attack for sure on Western values and democracy, but it was also and integrally an anti-Semitic attack. A carefully selected and pointed act of violence against Jews solely because they are Jews. The anti-Semitism word has been greatly devalued by idiotic claims often of highly self-interested Jews, and that does make everyone rather embarrassed about it. But here there has been an attack on a Chabad House, not presumably as an "indiscriminate" attack, not as a comment on "Western Values - as if Chabad stood for modern Western values! - but because Chabad are visibly, patently and explicitly Jewish. How much clearer would it have to be for the Western press to say it loud and clear: this was anti-Semitism in its most brutal, crass and direct form.

So what is the connection between my two stories of the press? It would be easy enough to throw up one's hands and cry "oy veh, o tempora, o mores", as we Jewish classicists say. Isn't it terrible that no one knows the Torah, and not only are there anti-Semitic attacks across the world but the press isn't even willing to acknowledge the fact when it stares them in the face?! And that would be one way of seeing the connection between the failure of the editor of the THES and the failure of the BBC. In both cases, we see a blindness about religion, both about what makes terrorists violent and about what non-terrorists value: it is no more or less than the dangerous and unaware imperialism of the secular. Just as at Chanukah, as the story is usually told, Judaism needs to stand out against the cultural threat of "Hellenism" as a political and cultural force.

But I don't think things are quite so simple. Because we are not, like the terrorists, simply fighting against Western Secular Values. Even Chabadniks are not going to give up their mobile phones, their Volvos, or modern medicine. Nor are Jews opposed to democracy, liberalism, education and so forth. We should happily make education available to all. And so forth. The freedom of the press should also matter to us. We are intricately involved with and committed to the values and institutions of modern society, and should care passionately about them even when they do not treat us with the understanding we crave. We are not cultural terrorists. We should certainly condemn the attack on Chabad House in Mumbai, and we should certainly point out how unsatisfactory the news reporting (so far) has been. But if Chanukah is to mean something more than doughnuts and Ma'oz Tzur, we have to think a little harder about what we do fight for and fight against in modern culture as contemporary Jews. That, I suggest, is what a festival of re-dedication should involve.

Professor Simon Goldhill Chairman, CTJC