Like the captain of a sinking ship appealing for calm at the lifeboats, Rabbi Lionel Rosenfeld tried in vain to impose order on the Kiddush; the meal celebrating the Jewish Sabbath. “Families first, families first!” he exhorted over the herring. He was either unheard or ignored: elbows were deployed with the speed of the tanks he had fought in during the 1982 war in Lebanon, children squeezed between ample bellies to snaffle crisps and the single malt was knocked over into the aubergine. The semi-organised chaos of the Western Marble Arch synagogue in central London contrasted with the peace of the Nirvana restaurant next door.
The animated and wiry rabbi blesses every day he is able to perform this duty. Three years ago he was warned by MI5 that, alongside Boris Johnson, the-then Mayor of London, his name was on a Hamas hit-list; “exalted company,” he smiles. Shabbat, Judaism’s Sabbath, the weekly day of rest and centerpiece of Jewish life, is always a special time for the faithful. The weekend of November 11th and 12th was especially significant. Hoping to promote community and identity by energising those whose participation had waned a tad, Ephraim Mirvis, Britain’s Chief Rabbi, had decreed it to be ‘Shabbat UK 2016’; the third annual jamboree of all things Jewish.
But as one community was united in celebration, so too was another in condemnation. Shabbat starts just before sunset each Friday, after which all work is to cease until Saturday night. In winter months this sees observant Jews knocking off around four o’clock in the afternoon; the Chief Rabbi hoped employers would respect this requirement. Most respondents shrugged in bemusement (it is not unusual to see Britain’s pubs heaving at this time on a Friday, regardless of season), but some expressed outrage at a perceived shoehorning of religion into the secular British workplace. The Chief Rabbi would be better to keep his nose out of such matters, they carped.
How confected is such peevishness? Britons consider themselves an undemonstrative and tolerant bunch who live and let live, mustn’t grumble and rub along well enough, thankyou very much. They wish not to offend, or be offended, in almost equal measure, but can’t remember which is more important. This ability to muddle through and accommodate disagreeable attitudes has served the country well and it is unusual for otherwise inconsequential issues to beget such chippiness. Ruddy cheeks are generally assumed to be the result of bracing walks and fireside whiskies, not grousing over largely irrelevant social mores.
Even the Labour party has had to exorcise the ghost of anti-Semitism, and the line between criticising Israeli government policy and Jews more generally is easily smudged. It is easy to see why, says James Sorene, CEO of the British Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), a think tank. He blames a lazy and complicit press for whipping up old prejudices. The complicated subject of Israel “makes good journalists better,” he believes, “and bad journalists worse”. One in five Britons think hating Israel and questioning its right to exist is not anti-Semitic says a BICOM poll released on November 4th.
Islam has suffered superfluous rage too. Louis Smith, Britain’s four-Olympic-medal winning gymnast, took a tumble recently after he appeared to mock the religion in a leaked video. His drunken antics resulted in a two-month ban from his sport’s governing body. It will not impact his career, but sends a dubious message. Did British Gymnastics get on its high horse because he insulted Islam or for being a ninny? (If the latter is now their responsibility, public bodies will be busy; not least in the Palace of Westminster.) Incitement to hatred is a criminal act; laughing at others’ religious beliefs is not and dictating what can and cannot be considered funny ultimately leads to the Charlie Hebdo attack. Concocted fury born of a fear of upsetting religious sensibilities helps nobody.
The worrying aspect of this trend for fabricated anger and knee-jerk rage is that it stifles productive debate – the one thing Britain is crying out for in this topsy-turvy 2016. Ridicule is a powerful de-motivator and who wants to offer opinions and receive a tongue-lashing in return? Social media hurl voices much further than they hitherto have reached and they land with added force; moderate views have consequently retreated from public discourse. Increasingly, the only views available are polarised. The majority of participants care little for tackling or winning the argument; the primary purpose is to vent spleen.
Reasons to be cheerless
Gisela Stuart, MP for Birmingham Edgbaston and Chair of Vote Leave for the EU referendum (now Chair of its successor: Change Britain), identifies three culprits for this coarsening of political discourse in recent years. First: the professionalisation of the politics of outrage. Epitomised by the “bloody scary” former Austrian politician Stefan Petzner, the trick is to play the underdog, capture headlines and be as shocking as possible, without letting public outrage turn to disgust. Second: the unhealthy manner by which political parties have courted race and religion. Distributing Eid cards for example, or targeting specific ethnicities might be considered vote-winners, but can backfire and highlight division. Third: the tribal nature of British politics, particularly since the Brexit vote. In Britain, winners are expected to demonstrate high-minded responsibility, losers to huddle together and seek solace. Brexit cut across these lines: Theresa May supported Remain but finds herself having to champion Leave. “And the losers are saying ‘how dare you win! Explain yourselves!” Mrs Stuart laughs, “actual ideas have gone out the window”.
When discussion becomes antipodal and mouths and minds open and close in toxic ying-yang relationships, society risks fracturing. Rabbi Rosenfeld remains hopeful and considers Britain a wonderful place to practice his religion. He longs for a return of traditional British balance. “After all,” he grins, “as Shimon Peres said: it is only anti-Semitic to hate Jews more than absolutely necessary.”