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Sermon by Rabbi Dr Andrea Zanardo: 15 October 2016

During the time of the Soviet Union, there was a story about the Internationalist Orchestra, established by Comrade Stalin, to encourage brotherhood among all the peoples of the Soviet Union. Because such a brotherhood was obviously a reality in the Soviet Union, the Internationalist Orchestra used to tour the most important theatres of the world. And at the end of every performance, the Soviet ambassador used to introduce each member of the Internationalist Orchestra to the audience.

“Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Igor Kuzekov, the Russian member of our Internationalist Orchestra.” “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Anton Malenko, the Ukrainian member of our Internationalist Orchestra.” “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Georgy Sarayan, the Armenian member of our Internationalist Orchestra” And of course: “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Isaac Rabinovitch, the violinist of our Internationalist Orchestra.”

In those days, anti-Semites used to express their hate through denial. In the Soviet Union Jews could be classified by the legislation as members of a religion: but the practice of every religion was forbidden. Or we could be classified as an ethnic minority, which was equally not easy, because in a totalitarian regime, such as Soviet Communism, members of minorities were generally suspected of double loyalty. So Jews, plainly and simply, did not exist.

This joke, and the gloomy cultural atmosphere of those days, came to my mind over the last couple of days, after I learnt that another Nobel Prize went to a Jew. It is a sort of a tradition; we are one of the smallest minorities in the world, by the receivers of the largest number of Nobel Prizes in the world. I am of course talking about Robert Allen Zimmerman, also known as Bob Dylan, winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for literature.

Now, Bob Dylan is Jewish, and this is a fact that no one can deny. His Jewish name (see Wikipedia) is Shabtai Zisl ben Avraham. Both of his parents were children of immigrants from Eastern Europe. He grew up in the close knit Jewish community of a small rural centre in Minnesota. As a teenager he spent the school holidays at a Zionist Summer camp named after Theodor Herzl.

True, in the 70s Bob Dylan went a bit off the derech and schmoozed with the movement of the “born again”, evangelical Christians, which by the way are good supporters of Israel. Here in Brighton, most of the members of Sussex Friends of Israel are indeed born evangelicals of that kind: I would call them “Jewish friendly” kind of Christians.

But then in the 80s Dylan had his son bar mitzvahed with a ceremony, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, nonetheless: only the crazy nutters at UNESCO can deny the connection between that site and the Jewish people.

There is certainly a strong Jewish influence in Bob Dylan’s protest songs, with all these references to the prophetic ideals of social justice. Loyalty to the Jewish tradition motivated the participation of Bob Dylan to the civil rights movement, together with many, many other American Jews of his generation. Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize in consideration of his contribution to the great tradition of American song, and that literary tradition, the re-discovery of American folk songs and ballads is one of the great contributions of the Jewish community to the American culture.

Nonetheless, the fact that Bob Dylan is Jewish went more or less unmentioned in the British media when the news of the Nobel Prize was announced.

That is strange, right? I mean, our media, the Guardian, the BBC, the Independent, always remind their readers that Israel is a Jewish State, especially when it behaves badly for their standards, that means: always. They never fail to remind us of the connection to the Jewish community of this or that magnate (especially when they go bankrupt, or do something questionable), not to mention of those politicians who dare to oppose the leadership of the Labour party.

Think about it. For our media, a Unitarian tax dodger is a tax dodger, while a Jewish tax dodger is generally “a prominent member of the Jewish community”. But then, when they have to mention the highest achievement of the career of a Jewish artist, whose talent is universally acknowledged and praised, those same media who are always so keen of cultural diversity, they forget that the artist is Jewish, even when his life and his art are deeply influenced by his Jewish education, his Jewish origin. What a strange, strange phenomenon. As in the joke of the Soviet era: Isaac Rabinovitz is not Jewish. He’s a violinist.

And so it has happened with Bob Dylan. He is a great American songwriter, but not a Jewish songwriter. I have been told that Radio Teheran has informed its listeners of the Nobel Prize awarded to Bob Dylan and they even played some of his songs from the 60s. Which is priceless: these guys are getting ready to move war against Israel, and they play an anti-militarist song written by a Jew. Maybe, really times are a-changing (sorry, could not resist).

But anyway, Radio Teheran is no different from the BBC: they both accurately avoid informing their audience that the winner of the Nobel Prize is Jewish. God forbid, their audience may start thinking that Jews give some positive contribution to cultural life.

It certainly does not help that Bob Dylan is, how shall I put it, the wrong kind of Jew. Dylan is, as I have said, a staunch Zionist, and has expressed his support for Israel a number of times. I don’t think he has begun this Jewish year with a prayer for the Palestinian State. He’s not the kind of a Jew who is used to blame Israel when things go wrong in the Middle East. Neither he is the kind of the Jew who feels compelled to mentions “peace with Palestine” every time he mentions “Israel”. And I don’t think that for Bob Dylan is really such a terrible problem being embarrassed during cocktail parties because of Israel and, you know, the Occupation.

Bob Dylan is the kind of Jew who has no problem in taking Israel’s side, exactly for the same reason because he took side with the Afro-American community in the 60s. Because of justice. Because opposing the right of the Jewish people to self-determination is, plainly and simply, wrong. Just like denying the right to vote to an Afro American.

I’d like to remember a song: Neighborhood Bully.

“The neighborhood bully he just lives to survive / He’s criticized and condemned for being alive / He’s not supposed to fight back; he’s supposed to have thick skin / He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in /The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land / He’s wandered the earth an exiled man / Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn / He’s always on trial for just being born / Well, he’s surrounded by pacifists who all want peace / They pray for it nightly that the bloodshed must cease /Now, they wouldn’t hurt a fly / To hurt one they would weep / They lay and they wait for this bully to fall asleep He’s the neighborhood bully”.

These are only a few verses, the song is really powerful. It is probably the most Zionist song ever written in American history. I highly recommend you listen to it, and also have a look at the lyrics, which can be found here.

Then think for a moment: Bob Dylan wrote these lyrics in 1983. But things haven’t changed that much. Still Israel is criticised and condemned for being alive; still we are supposed not to fight back; still we are always on trial for just being born; and yes, still we are surrounded by self-called pacifists who merely want the Jewish State to disappear and the Jewish people return in exile.

Yet, it is very difficult to express things openly as they are, even if you are a Nobel Prize. Which, of course, is not a reason to stay silent, or -as Bob Dylan would undoubtedly say – to keep shtum.

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