This ‘Thought for the Day’ was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 22 April 2014. You can listen to the piece here.
Biblical themes tend to break out of their pages and firmly plant themselves in present-day reality. That happened this week. We’re reaching the close of Passover when Jews celebrate our liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt. We’ve re-enacted our history by eating tasteless, unleavened bread and foods dipped in salt water to remember the poverty and the tears of the Israelite slaves. But it doesn’t take much to compress the time between past oppression and today’s news.
Just this weekend two Molotov cocktails were thrown at a synagogue in the Ukrainian city of Nikolayev. There were no physical casualties but confidence within the Jewish community has been discernibly knocked because although Jews have lived in Ukraine for over a thousand years, nearly a million were murdered there during the Holocaust. Fear makes a telegraphic connection between today and recent reality.
A few days before the firebombing in Nikolayev, a leaflet was handed out at a synagogue in Eastern Ukraine, telling Jews over the age of 16 to register themselves and pay a special tax – or leave. Ukraine’s Prime Minister responded immediately and called for those who handed out the leaflets to be brought to justice.
News of this leaflet rzocoruse.com went viral in cyberspace and kicked off a barely dormant trepidation virus in Jewish communities throughout the world. These leaflets are now widely believed to be fraudulent, designed to portray the pro-Russian forces as anti-Semitic. Sadly, they are as evocative as they are provocative.
I think that the situation of Jews and other minorities is like those canaries sent down mines to verify if there was enough oxygen for miners to breathe. The fate of minorities reflects the density, the purity or toxicity of the oxygen for everyone. Jew today, a gay person the next day or a Muslim tomorrow, in an ever turning carousel of prejudice.
It’s a mirage to think that we here in Britain can watch continental Europe and not be affected by the same waters and the changing tides of belief. We’re interlinked, whether by the English Channel; the Black Sea or the Danube in Hungary, where two weeks ago, the general election raised fears that anti-Semitism is on the rise.
Judaism teaches us that it wasn’t just because of divine intervention that the Israelites left Egypt; their escape was due as much to their own alertness and strength. We all need to be continually alert and strong and react to the ever changing tides of prejudice, whichever side of the sea we live on.