Twenty-five years ago, on a Shabbat morning on a quiet south Jerusalem street, a small group of black-coated men gathered outside a restaurant and began shouting “Shabbes! and “gevalt!” A common sight in other parts of Jerusalem, where businesses opening on the day of rest were targeted by rioters, but not in that particular neighborhood.
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There were only a few employees in the restaurant, which had yet to start serving lunch, and the local residents who shouted back at the protesters were mainly religious men walking back from morning prayers. They weren’t that pleased themselves with the non-kosher restaurant opening on Emek Refaim Street on Shabbat, but they were even more determined not to allow the place to become a scene of religious strife. The shouting quickly developed into an awkward shoving match and, outnumbered, the ultra-Orthodox men beat a hasty retreat towards the Ohel Shimon Yeshiva down Rachel Imenu Street. Their departure did little to dispel the heavy feeling that one of the city’s more peaceful areas was about to become yet another battleground between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Enter the rebbe
The episode, however, had a rather unorthodox ending. On Sunday morning, Rabbi Yochanan Sofer, the rebbe of the Erlau (known by all under its Yiddish name Erloy) Hasidic court, whose center was the yeshiva he founded in the neighborhood in 1953, sent messengers to business owners on Emek Refaim to apologize for the disturbance and assure them that the men who had gathered outside the restaurant had not been his Hasidim, but Shabbat guests who had been rebuked for their action. Two weeks ago, the Erloyer rebbe passed away at 93. The Haredi media naturally has been full of wondrous stories of Sofer’s life, his survival of the Holocaust in Hungary and the rebuilding of his Hasidic dynasty after the destruction. For me and many others who grew up in that neighborhood, however, Rabbi Sofer and Erloy was a miracle of coexistence.
While in just about every other part of Jerusalem, different religious groups cannot live side by side without fighting over buildings, resources and their perceived rights, the little Erloy community never sought to change the atmosphere of the neighborhood. When they grew over the years, Sofer sent the newly married couples to live in predominantly Haredi areas, rather than try and take over housing blocks in the yeshiva’s vicinity. He didn’t lack political influence at the local and national level, and could certainly have secured more real estate than the yeshiva, a handful of apartment buildings and a kindergarten his followers occupied in the nearby streets, but he gave more value to living at peace with his neighbors.
Whatever it was, he had it
I only ever shook his hand and never really got to talk to him, so I can’t say what made him so different to most of Jerusalem’s power-hungry pastors. Perhaps it was his experiences in the war, or the way Erloy was always a less sectarian group, blending Hasidic and Lithuanian customs, more likely it was simply something in his character. Whatever it was, it worked. I’m not aware of any other altercation involving his hundreds of followers and yeshiva students and secular neighbors, and neither are any other residents I’ve asked. If there ever was any incident or disagreement, it was swiftly reconciled. I want to believe that under Sofer’s son and successor this will remain the case. It would have been so easy, under a different rabbi, for the German Colony/Baka/Katamon area to have turned into another patchwork of hostile enclaves.
What an influence one charismatic person can have in keeping the peace between potentially hostile communities. Four thousand kilometers from Jerusalem, a British Muslim politician is emerging as a surprising figure of coexistence as well.
I wrote eight months ago that the forthcoming mayoral election campaign in London could become a very tense period for the city’s Jews and other minorities. There were good reasons for this fear. The entrance into the campaign of George Galloway, a notorious exploiter of racial hatred, who had already won one parliamentary campaign before in London in which the incumbent, Oona King, a courageous black MP who is also half-Jewish, was the subject of a vicious anti-Semitic smear campaign. Galloway went on to win another election in northern England where he played rival British-Pakistani clans against each other. (He lost the next election, when this time smearing his female challenger, who was accused of trying to “defame Islam,” backfired.)
Another reason for this fear was the evil wind blowing through parts of the dominant political party on London’s local scene, Labour, which last year overwhelmingly voted in as leader Jeremy Corbyn, its members unperturbed at his endorsement of and friendship with terrorists, anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers. Labour’s previous mayoral candidate, Ken Livingstone, had already said in 2012 that he wasn’t expecting Jews to vote for the party as they were too wealthy to be Labour supporters anyway.
In Britain, which is already struggling with issues of identity, immigration and tensions between minority communities, both within the United Kingdom and in its relationship with Europe, the London election could easily have been dragged to a very ugly place. Galloway certainly tried to do so when he accused Labour’s candidate, Sadiq Khan, of “turning his own people into scapegoats for votes.” The right-wing media have been trying to do the same to Khan from the other side, by portraying him as an extremist over his work as a human-rights lawyer and on behalf of his own constituents, and over the ancient involvement of his family in Islamic organizations. But these accusations haven’t stuck, for the basic reason that Khan seems to be totally uninterested in winning an election on communal tensions.
Despite Galloway’s efforts and the right-wing smears, Khan is running a campaign of deep and serious engagement with all of multiracial London’s communities, with a special emphasis on the Jews. He doesn’t have to, and it probably isn’t going to garner many votes. Many Jews will vote for the Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith, and not because of his own Jewish roots, but because they understandably want to punish Labour for electing Corbyn as its leader. Khan would probably be much better off electorally by spending his time shoring up the networks in the Muslim community that Livingstone built, and, like him, maintaining little more than a cordial relationship with the Jews. Khan may still go down that road; some Londoners I’ve spoken to think he’s just another cynical bastard and the mask will fall before long, but so far he is doing the opposite and what could have been a tense and divisive election period in London is surprisingly calm.
Whether it’s a small neighborhood or a great city or a nation, sometimes all it needs is a leader who prefers to appeal to people’s better nature than to their fears and prejudices. Just as it only takes one charismatic fear-monger to bring the worst out of us.
It’s not about politics necessarily. Those saying that the rise of Donald Trump in America is just an ugly manifestation of the Republican Party are willfully ignoring the ample evidence of how xenophobic and particularly anti-immigration politicians and parties are just as successful in attracting working-class voters who previously leaned to the left than they are on the mainstream right.
Trumpism cuts both ways
There is no lack of historical precedent to suggest that a nation which elected an Obama can now turn around and elevate a Trump. And when it comes to particular brands of intolerance and racism, including but not limited to anti-Semitism, the left of late is just as if not more vulnerable than the right. Susceptibility to clever charlatans skilled at playing on our baser instincts is a uniform human weakness, which doesn’t stop at borders or ideological divides, and what has changed is only that most Western politicians and religious leaders have become more adept at hiding their cynical tendencies. A rabbi or a candidate who sincerely is not trying to extract political capital by preying on our fears remains a rare and valuable thing.