Racists keep hating: my shame at my moment of cowardice

Today I took a cab back to my office. In all my years of taking cabs, often listening to them more than they ever find out about me, I’ve never had this experience.

Driving through Regents Park, as we drew near to St Johns Wood Road, the taxi driver asked me outright about who I had voted for. It was a legitimate question, on the back of discussing how the economic climate was affecting his work. The taxi driver said he had voted UKIP, not because he was “a racialist” but that he was  interested in protecting the British.

Because of that, I started to feel a bit edgy about him. I didn’t think he was threatening, I just felt very unsure about him and that coupled with his ‘effing and blinding I felt uncomfortable. So I asked him to drop me off at the block of flats, I quote, “next to the synagogue”.

As we drove past some of the very lovely blocks of flats in St Johns Wood he said, “Be nice to live round here wouldn’t it?”  I agreed.

He then told me, “It’s not as if any of the flats are lived in by anyone from around here. It’s not is it. You know what I’m saying. All the property is lived in by Arabs and others…[giving me a knowing glance] you know.”

I wished I had the wherewithal to take his hackney number, but actually it made me grateful to get out and it was all sly deniable insinuation anyway. It seems to me that this is the type of discourse that has been normalised and made acceptable in the lead up to the election. In particular, for all the energetic work of different groups, their efforts to change the way we speak of people has not really changed those hard to reach parts of society.

Indeed, invited to give my opinion, I wrote a private letter to one supporter of UKIP about the normalisation of this kind of discourse:

The other reason I worry is, whilst they [UKIP] are trying to ensure they have no problems with racism and antisemitism which is commendable, the number of instances of having to use the disciplinary policy is demonstration enough of some of the people attracted to them. It won’t just be members voting in May. A party with a repeated emphasis on British values, British culture, borders and jobs will always be problematic from this point of view – in my opinion.

It reminded me of a story 15 years ago:

It was 15 years ago I went for a local walk. Joined by a ‘charming’ chap who happened to be passing me and my companion, somehow he got stuck talking to us. The simple exchange of pleasantries led into a longer conversation which somehow ended up with him telling me how “The Jews are a shrewd lot.” (I hadn’t mentioned being Jewish).

He continued, obviously he figured we were in need of some of his wisdom about how clever the Jews are with money.  They’re great in business.  We run the country and manage all the politics of the world.

I was deeply uncomfortable with the situation. Without saying who I was, I tried to explain the origins of the stereotypes that he was spouting and his ill founded preconceptions, but it was to no avail. And so it went on – he seemed intellectually incapable of understanding that he was talking a load of drivel.

Eventually, I could stand it no longer.  I turned to him and said, “You should know that I am Jewish.  Not only that I am training to become a Rabbi.  What you are saying I find deeply offensive and perhaps in future you should be a little more circumspect about sharing your views with strangers.”

The man looked at me and said, “Oh, it’s nothing personal.  My wife was half Jewish.  It’s not that I don’t like Jews, it’s just that they’re clever with money.”

I repeated my opposition to what he was saying, to which he replied, “look, I didn’t mean to cause offence, I was just saying.  Anyway, nevermind the Jews.  The Blacks and the Asians…”

So, what to do???

Jewish Communal Architecture in Transition in the UK: the price of security

I’m not an architect and I’m not an anthropologist, this post is a personal reflection of what it means to experience architectural transition.

‘If Esau come to the one camp, and smite it, then the camp which is left shall escape.’ (Genesis 32:9)

When I first lived in Israel in 2003-4 the Second Intifada was a part of life. Though the number of attacks was dropping, murder through suicide bombing was not infrequent – on bus and in café. At the same time, the ‘separation barrier’ was gradually being built and critics and supporters discussed at length its implications on safety, cohesion and its function. My college had requested that I didn’t take buses in Jerusalem and the centre where I was studying briefed us calmly about how to make judgements for personal safety. But it became second nature when going to cafes that you would sit at the back of the café – if someone did try and blow it up at least you weren’t near the door where the security guard might stop them. The constant fear and threat of conflict is not something that I have ever witnessed again and I know I barely experienced it. But it was an adjustment to a reality that was already part of day to day life for everyone living permanently in Israel. The architecture of security was in place in some ways and being built in others. I was brought back to my memories as I reflect on the transition we’re undergoing as a Jewish community in the UK at the moment.

“Your wedding canopy (chuppah) is open on all sides, like Abraham and Sarah’s tent, to welcome everyone”

In my first congregational position the words above the door read, “For my house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). It was a community that imagined, at its heart, they were a local place for everyone. The hall was to be a hall for everyone, regardless of race or religion, to take advantage of – whether the religious services or the lettings activities like Karate and Ballet. Proudly the community would welcome everyone through its doors. As every rabbi encourages a couple to build a home on the ideals of ‘welcoming strangers’, as symbolised by their chuppah, so too did the synagogue seek to welcome the stranger. Religion did not control encounter and relationships – on the contrary, all peoples could come into the Beit Knesset – house of gathering. Religion enabled encounters and the forming of relationships. In that community, as with many communities, we had an on going dilemma about ensuring that the level of security was appropriate – ensuring that the advice from the CST and the police was taken to heart. On the other hand, volunteers were also aware that a barrier to entry – whether human or building – could be a permanent barrier to entry. Most visitors understood the need to have bags checked or being asked to provide ID, but we wanted to be welcoming, to present as few obstacles as possible to entering the community (literally and figuratively). To their credit, the CST and volunteers struck the balance – usually very well.

The guard of the House of Learning would not permit Hillel to enter (bYoma 35b)

There is a famous story in rabbinic literature that features a guard on the outside of the study hall. In the famous story he keeps Hillel (one of the most important sages of the turn of the common era) out of the study hall when he cannot afford to pay the entry fee. Hillel’s strong desire to hear the words of his teachers that he risks his life sitting on the skylight in the freezing snow that buries him alive. The other reference to door guards is on bBerakhot 28a, where they are removed to let all students enter the study hall. Our time is completely different, guards on the door are not keeping out well meaning but impoverished students seeking to learn. These days, in the 21st century, they are saving lives.

When King Solomon built the Holy Temple he made the windows narrow within and wide without, so that its light should emanate to the outside (Bemidbar Rabbah 15:2)

What I’m interested in is the transition in architecture. What are the consequences, the pay off we accept for the benefit of security, when we begin to reinforce existing structures, obscure views, place increased sentries at doors and gates. We have communities which pride themselves on looking outwards to the world beyond, organisations which seek to welcome ‘in’, and architectural structures that seek to embody permeability between the world inside with the world outside. This is how I  feel – psychologically we are shutting the world out. The natural flow of ideas, of people and of pathos is harmed. Of course, it’s the price we pay for being alive. The same argument on the national scale was made with regards the separation barrier in Israel. But how do we mitigate the cost?

We know, rationally, that not everyone is a potential threat – right? Is the scale of anxiety matched by the scale of threat? What happens to our anxiety about the ‘other’ – people and ideas – as we brick up the openings to the outside world?