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Sermon by Rabbi Colin Eimer: 10 January 2015

This sermon was given by Rabbi Colin Eimer at Sha’arei Tsedek North London Reform Synagogue.

Yesterday, a friend of mine from France sent me a series of quotes from some of the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, murdered so senselessly this week. One, attributed to Stephane Charbonnier, the editor, read “the humourist, the cartoonist, is seldom a salaud” – excuse the word – “seldom a bastard, but is, rather, somebody without illusions.”

Georges Wisloski, one of the Jewish cartoonists killed, said, “to be scandalous is to say today what everybody will be saying in 10 years.”

Another one said, “humour is a language I’ve always loved. Our motivation is to expose stupidity by making people laugh.”

My colleague Howard Cooper reminded me of something the poet Shelley wrote in an essay on poetry. “It acts on us,” he wrote, “in a way that awakens and enlarges the mind.” Religious texts, from whatever religious tradition, can also ‘awaken and enlarge the mind.’ But they can also have the opposite effect: far from awakening and enlarging, they can deaden and reduce the mind. We don’t need to go to other religious traditions to see that at work – we have our home-grown version of that closing down of the mind in certain parts of the Jewish world, where the leaders want to restrict what their followers may see, read, listen to, watch or even think.

What has been happening in France over the past few days has gripped our attention, and been deeply, profoundly, shocking and disturbing. The idea that people can be so full of hatred that they feel justified in filling a crowded office with Kalashnikov fire is almost impossible to get our heads around.

We arrived back last Monday from two weeks in South Africa, primarily in Johannesburg. We rented a house in a fairly middle-class area. All houses are walled, with electrified wire strung along the tops of the walls. They have sliding gate entry, and armed response units patrol the streets 24 hours a day. No cars are parked on the streets and you see few pedestrians. We hired a car. Virtually the minute I drove off, the doors locked automatically. You are advised to ride with windows up and doors locked; try to time your arrival at traffic lights (curiously called ‘robots’ in SA) as they are changing to green to obviate having to sit at a red light in certain areas. Given the crime rate there, all of this might be justified – and it is a society where, barely a quarter of a century ago, terrible, appalling injustices and inequalities were enshrined in the law of the land.

But France, the supposed cradle of Enlightenment and liberty – a different matter, surely? As Jews we have a slightly cynical take on all this Equality, Liberty and Fraternity stuff. Barely a century after the Revolution embodying those values, the Dreyfus Affair provoked serious antisemitism; yesterday’s attack on the kosher supermarket seems like just another episode in a saga that has been running for centuries.

One of my colleagues reflected on Thursday, somewhat cynically and world-wearily, that the terrorist attacks on a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 or on the Jewish Museum in Brussels last year, provoked less anger than did the attack on Charlie Hebdo. Maybe.

I fear that this will just fuel fears and anxieties that no Jew can be safe on any European street. I fear that what happened this week in France will be used as a justification for further curtailment of our liberties in the name of protecting democracy. Last Wednesday, perhaps even as the Charlie Hebdo attack was taking place, I was reading an article entitled “Must counterterrorism cancel democracy?” from the New York Review of Books. It was by David Cole, Professor of Law and Public Policy at Georgetown University in Washington DC. Every terrorist attack confronts us with the question: it might be sad but is it not necessary to curtail some of our civil liberties in order to guarantee a wider freedom? Yet democracy dies behind closed doors. He was exploring how we might find some sort of balance between individual rights and security?

Charlie Hebdo has been one of those satirical magazines that is prepared to lampoon anything, any ideology, political or religious belief. Are there limits to this? Should the law step in to protect you or me from feeling offended? The problem is that we can all think of things that offend us. Injustice, perhaps, or the increasing wealth gap between rich and poor in this country; or inordinate bonuses even to those who have failed in their jobs; corruption and so on. The difference, obviously, is that none of us take a machine gun to kill those we believe are responsible for having done something highly offensive.

Two years ago, in the Independent, the author Howard Jacobson, wrote: ‘the giving of offence might be a fundamental right. But it is not a duty. It is no less fundamental to a civilised society that we take one another’s sensitivities seriously.’

So did the cartoons Charlie Hebdo regularly prints transgress some boundary? Did they not, in Howard Jacobson’s words, “take somebody else’s sensitivities seriously”? I started trying to think what would constitute stepping over the line in Jewish terms had the cartoons concerned Jewish beliefs and practices?

Of course Jews are not strangers to that: be it the obscene cartoons in Der Stürmer in Nazi Germany; in a 1000 years of anti-Semitic Christian cartoons or in the anti-Semitic cartoons in the Soviet Press until the 1980s.

Maybe the question boils down, in the end, to what is it that constitutes ‘a fanatic’? The OED says that the word comes from the Latin ‘fanum,’ ‘Temple,’ which suggests that fanaticism operates automatically in a context of religion and belief. Aviva Gottlieb-Zornberg defined a fanatic as ‘somebody who has nothing in their experience which embarrasses them.’ I like that – a reminder that fanatic have lost their capacity to be self-critical. You can only do what those guys did on Wednesday if you are absolutely, 150% convinced and certain that what you are doing is right and correct. There’s no room for self-doubt, which leaves things wide open for the most appalling violence against those with whom you disagree or who you feel have offended you or your beliefs.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg didn’t define fanaticism as such, but suggested it by saying, “I don’t care what branch of Judaism you belong to, as long as you are ashamed of some of the things it says and does.” It also removes that possibility of absolute certainty in the rightness of your action and it is that which acts as a curb on fanaticism.

How, then, are we to react to the events of this week?

Protect ourselves as best we can. Be particularly vigilant. Make sure our public Jewish institutions are protected. But don’t turn them into impenetrable fortresses where we have to run the gauntlet of concerned but overzealous security men. To do that would of course be to accord some sort of victory to the forces of hatred and darkness.

I resent, deeply and viscerally, every such attack because I know how they can arouse within me deep feelings of hatred, of Islamophobia. That’s a reaction out of fear, for I know that the majority of Muslims are not like these guys; just as I also know that the majority of Muslims do not think these people represent what Islam is about, or that they speak out of a true understanding of their tradition. But it is easy to get sucked into some very nasty and dark emotions. That is why I resent these men so much, resent so much what they stand for, but also what they induce in me. That’s part of our task – to resist giving in to those feelings.

Finally, the best way to resist such acts is by more Jewish life, not less. These attacks rachet up our fear and anxiety levels. Let us not use them as ways of shutting down the values of integrity and decency.

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