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Sermon by Rabbi Miriam Berger: 10 January 2015

This sermon was given by Rabbi Miriam Berger at Finchley Reform Synagogue.

I am sad and confused. Every time I tried to articulate it, to comment on it and make sense of it, something else comes to light or another atrocity is perpetrated and I am plunged back into a blank piece of paper again with no words to express what happened this week and what it says about the world. Luckily Jonathan Freedland came to my rescue to begin to order my thoughts on my first confusion; he writes:

“When terror strikes, we all become mind-readers. With no words to accompany the violence, it’s left to us to supply the motive. We insert our own guess, ventriloquising the killers who remain enigmatically mute. It happened again this week, following the slaying of 12 people at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine with little more than an “Allahu Akbar” to go on. They hated the cartoons, we say. Free speech was the target, we declare. They wanted to silence satire and gag dissent.

Then on Friday, a siege at a kosher supermarket, four hostages confirmed dead, the murderers apparently linked to those behind Wednesday’s carnage. Oh, we say. So perhaps the killers’ problem was not with ugly cartoons or vicious depictions of Muhammad after all. Maybe their motive is of a different order, one we find much harder to comprehend. Perhaps the murderers are bent on killing people not only for what they do, but for who they are.

It’s hard to live in a senseless world so people, even well-intentioned people, will try to make sense of this latest, desperate twist in Paris. So far there have been mercifully few attempts to make the usual, kneejerk move, insisting that the animating grievance must be western foreign policy. It is hard to draw that conclusion when the targets have been a satirical magazine and a shop selling salt beef and pickles. Some will doubtless talk about Muslim antagonism to Israel, as if an infant in a kosher deli is somehow responsible for the conduct of a government 2,000 miles away.

Others might note the curious kink in the ultra-Islamist mindset that has anointed Jews as a kind of ultimate symbol of the west. Witness the Iranian newspaper that in 2006 responded to the Danish cartoons affair with a competition for “the best Holocaust caricatures”, as if the most efficient way to hit back at Europe was by attacking … Jews.

Or maybe that is to overthink it. Perhaps we should simply see the perpetrators as the latest in a long line of murderous fascists, defined as such by their choice of targets. They hate dissent, they hate satire and, as fascist tradition demands, they loathe Jews.

Whatever else comes out of this bleak week, perhaps now there can at least be some clarity. There can surely be no doubt now as to what we’re up against. It is a murderous cult. And, at the risk of mind-reading, it seems bent on fusing itself with Islam, claiming to act in the name, and on the authority, of that faith.”

But my confusion is not only based in the why of ‘why did they do such a thing?’ but also in the responses that come from such atrocities.

On Thursday Adam Wagner, a human rights lawyer, tweeted that none of the UK newspapers has dared to show a single cartoon from the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine on their front pages. This had been retweeted over 1,500 times by Thursday evening and I’m sure that number continues to climb. The Times journalist David Aaronovitch almost gives an answer to his question when he says that a “reason why Charlie Hebdo could be singled out for attack is because the rest of us have been cowards”. Fear, says Aaronovitch, has caused us to surrender to the terrorists by refusing to ridicule Islam. Because of a longstanding failure to print images which might cause offence or violence, publications like Charlie Hebdo became outliers which were easily singled out and targeted.

A campaign begins where everyone allies themselves with the publication. Je Suis Charlie. I am Charlie. What they mean is they believe in free speech and of course so do I but Je suis Charlie – you might be, but I hope I’m not.

When our French colleague emailed the Assembly of Rabbis with his initial response to the tragedy he saw unfolding, a rabbinic colleague replied saying that if the publication was available here he would be suggesting everyone went out and bought a copy as a sign of solidarity. Twelve lives were lost, families torn apart, all while they sat at work. I am not for a second defending the actions of these brutal killers or saying that they had any kind of legitimate motive but it doesn’t detract from the fact that Charlie Hebdo is a magazine of which I can’t believe many rabbis at any point have been finding cause to praise: its content is crass at best and certainly highly offensive even if amusing at times too and part of a genre of humour in a secularised society. Charlie Hebdo didn’t just skewer Islam, as it did with its notorious and much-discussed depictions of the Prophet Mohammed. Christianity and Judaism were also targets of the magazine, along with many other groups and I just don’t think the argument “well they were rude about everyone” is a defence.

A CNN article reviews that: “One cartoon portrayed France’s black Justice Minister Christiane Taubira as a monkey. Another mocked the sex slaves of the militant group Boko Haram. An issue that followed the death of Michael Jackson depicted the pop star as a skeleton with a caption suggesting he realized a dream to be a white man.”

Let me reiterate none of this comes anywhere close to condoning the actions of the gunmen, I’m merely pointing out society’s need to have a right with every wrong. Perhaps it’s just too nuanced to try to have two wrongs when on a scale of wrongdoing they are in different leagues altogether.

Free speech is not the same as not perpetuating hate and ridicule. I don’t think Aaronovitch is right. I don’t think the answer to why the mainstream British press is not reprinting the work of Hebdo or wasn’t printing equivalents before the atrocity is simply a case of fear and I hope it is trying to combat the cycle of meeting hate with hate.

Writing for Jacobin Magazine, the author Richard Seymour drew a distinction between mourning the deceased and extolling Charlie Hebdo’s satire: “Now, I think there’s a critical difference between solidarity with the journalists who were attacked, refusing to concede anything to the idea that journalists are somehow ‘legitimate targets,’ and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication.” wrote Seymour.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald said “When did it become true that to defend someone’s free speech rights, one has to publish & even embrace their ideas?”

Yet there is still another question raised for me this week – has the world changed? Has our world changed? Is this the tipping point where I finally succumb to the section of the community who think me naïve because I don’t buy into the narrative that they are once again coming for us. What if it had been a kosher supermarket in Temple Fortune, then would I believe we are unsafe? Would I have needed to be in the supermarket or lost a loved one, then would I admit our vulnerability?

No, and mostly because I’m not sure what good it does us. Who wins when a community in Paris is so terrified they cancel their Friday night service? We cannot allow this culture of fear to seep back into our psyche. Not only does it damage the strength of the community but it paralyses us from doing what is right.

I was frustrated this morning by the BBC journalist reporting from Paris talking about needing to work to reconcile the Muslim and Jewish communities. I heard it as if he was suggesting we were at war. As far as I know it wasn’t Jews perpetrating the hate crimes against Muslim homes, mosques and businesses in retaliation for Wednesday but it was Jews going about their shopping who were murdered. While we have to have an expectation of society around us to realise the Jewish community shouldn’t have to live like this and to stress a message that no one’s truth can be grounds for murder, we also have to continue to reach out and find dialogue partners, and if we let fear seep in we will meet those partners with distrust. We must be a source of hope, a force to repair this hatred endemic in society which is sadly not even reserved for a wing of fundamentalist Muslims.

As Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner wrote, “The Book of Proverbs insists that iron sharpens iron as one person sharpens another. So our views are shaped and sharpened by the other.

When we avoid engaging with other people or recognising difference, our ideas become blunt, weakened. They become obsolete and disconnected from reality and rely on claims of absolute truth and divine endorsement. Extremists isolate themselves from debate and when it threatens them, they eventually try to destroy it through violence.

The symbol the world saw on Thursday night was far from one of difference and division. Lights were turned off at the Eiffel Tower, and then at mosques, to mark the pain and sorrow that the nation was feeling. When the lights are turned back on tonight, as we light candles in our synagogues and homes on Shabbat, we remember those victims.”

Atrocities like this can only change us and change the world if we allow them too. Let us maintain our values, our decency, our respect for difference and diversity. We will not live in fear, but with the comfort brought about by feeling ourselves sharpened by those we stand in solidarity with.

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