The neighbors got together for drinks and carols at the weekend. As an English Jew, I love the carols — all those old-time bangers from the time when midwinter really was bleak, all those Zionist lyrics about ‘royal David’s city’ and kings in Israel. I consider it a mitzvah, a religious obligation, to spread the joy, because there’s not enough joy to the world these days, so I play the piano, this year in an impromptu trio with an Irish American fiddler and an English literary critic who, it transpires, toots a mean descant on the trumpet. We spread the joy as a farmer spreads muck, but it’s the spirit that counts. Without rehearsal or premeditation, we turned ‘Silent Night’ into a Dean Martin drunk song.
Two nights later, it was the first night of Chanukah. My three daughters lit three menorahs and we sang Ma’oz Tzur (Rock of Ages):
‘Furiously they assailed us
But Thine arm availed us
And Thy word broke their sword
When our strength failed us’
The song has become associated with the Maccabean Revolt of 167 BC — the first nationalist movement in history — but it was written, like many of the carols, in the Middle Ages. It’s impossible not to read those words without thinking of those who fought for their religious freedom against the Syrian tyrant Antiochus IV and those who died for it — in medieval and modern Europe as in a kosher market in Jersey City.
It may come as a surprise, but Jews don’t spend most of their time thinking about anti-Semitism. Or rather, we spend as little time as safely possible thinking about it. We are obliged to ‘choose life’, and life and the making of joy and children mean we must refuse to be defined by a morbid shadow-play of other people’s projections. The tide of hate and violence is rising, however.
It has become acceptable to say appalling things about Jews — some of them calumnies carrying the stale flavor of the Middle Ages, some of them more recent and carrying the Germanic taste of blood and iron — things that remain unsayable about any other people. Especially online, which for reasons that elude me is considered to be a Casablanca of the media, where anything goes and no one is accountable.
It also appears to have become acceptable, in New York City in particular, for Orthodox Jews to be assaulted without the police or mayor doing much about it. And it appears that the strength of many Jewish organizations, the Anti-Defamation League among them, is more devoted to sustaining the Democratic party’s coalition than to doing their job of defending Jews. The same goes for many assimilated Jews, who keep their own heads down and complain that religious Jews make it hard for themselves and everyone else. But there are also many, including many people who are not Jewish, who do stand up for what is right and fair, and who fight against lies and incitement.
Furiously they assail us. This year was the first year I received anti-Semitic tweets, anonymous physical threats, notifications that my name was on a list for future punishment, Holocaust denial (on one impressively sick occasion in rhyming couplets) and, in an unneeded further proof of the collapse of our public discourse, images of the alt-right fetish object Pepe the Frog. This year, while the dimwitted online world argued about ‘tropes’, my younger daughters learnt to read ‘trope’, the ancient cantillation that they will perform when the elder of them has her bat mitzvah in May. ‘Rock of Ages, let our song / Praise thy saving power.’
So I refuse to give up hope, and I know that we will be here, and there too, for as long as we have the faith to do so. In many ways, we are living in an age of miracles. The United States, despite its balkanized society and demented politics, remains an island of tolerance between religions, despite the perverse hostility of the Democratic left, street thugs and a few college professors. The state of Israel, which did not exist when my grandparents’ families were murdered, is thriving and has never had such good diplomatic relations with some many states and peoples. This year, work began on the Abrahamic Family House, in the United Arab Emirates’ capital Abu Dhabi, a development whose centerpiece is a common religious space, with a mosque, a church and a synagogue.
The year ended with what, for an English Jew living in the United States, was an almost overwhelming double gift. On December 11, President Trump extended the protections of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (1964) to Jews, as the George W. Bush administration’s Department of Education had decreed in 2004 for Sikhs, Muslims and Jews, and the Obama administration’s Department of Justice had confirmed in 2010.
On December 12, Jeremy Corbyn and a hard-left Labour party were demolished in Britain’s general elections. The elections were about many things — Brexit, the National Health Service, the prospect of punitive taxation — but a crucial factor was Corbyn’s foul politics, including his defense of the murderers of the IRA, Hamas and Hezbollah, and his seeking out of the company of Holocaust deniers and those who rationalize a selective and obsessive hatred as ‘anti-Zionism’.
On the first night of Chanukah, Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson sent a message to Britain’s Jews: ‘When the Maccabees drove the forces of darkness out of Jerusalem, they had to do so on their own. Today, as Britain’s Jews seek to drive back the darkness of resurgent anti-Semitism, you have every decent person in this country fighting by your side.’
From darkness to light: from the prospect of a Labour government that promised to drive ‘Zionists’ — almost all Jews, in fact —from public life, to a Conservative government whose leader sends a clear and moral message, albeit one in which Johnson, an Oxford-educated Classicist, mixed Antiochus III with Antiochus IV.
President Trump’s Executive Order and the British public’s rejection of Corbyn show that the Jews are not alone in these difficult times. They show that, for all the experts who complain about populism, decency is not inimical to democracy. They show that, despite everything, we should look forward in hope.
I pray that the coming year will be a better one for all of us, including the Kurds of Syria, the Muslims of China and the people of Iran, hundreds of whom have been killed in recent weeks for demanding their freedom. The Abrahamic family house has many mansions. I wish all my friends and readers a Happy Christmas and a Chag Chanukah Sameach.