London Burning

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In regards to the 2011 UK riots:

We Jews don’t believe in coincidences. So seeing the plumes of smoke only a few miles away from me on Tisha B’Av, spoke to me in a very tangible way.

Watching animals in human form act in the most base and immoral of ways in the streets of my city was a wakeup call that had everything to do with Tisha B’av itself – the day on which we turn our attention to the suffering that we Jews have been through at the hands of numerous nations in which we have lived. These riots were a clear reminder to me of the potential violence that remains within our society. Clearly, human beings have the ability to turn into animals at the blink of an eye. Who would have believed that the Germany of the early 20th Century could so easily have turned into the Germany of the early 1940s? The Rabbis tell us that the Jewish People are like a lamb surrounded by 70 wolves. As long as the wolves are well fed, we have nothing to worry about. But once the wolves get hungry, things can change very rapidly. These riots were a reminder to me as to what exactly hungry wolves look like. The catalyst in the 1930s? A world economic downturn. What would it take today?

But there’s something else we remind ourselves of on Tisha B’av, something of much greater significance. Yes, we remember our history. Yes, we share the pain of Jewish suffering throughout the generations. But more importantly than remembering our past, we remember our future. We remember that as we stood on Mt Sinai over 3000 years ago, we undertook to be a ‘holy nation’, a ‘light unto all nations’. We undertook to set an example for all to follow, a moral example – to set up a nation that embodied values and ideals that would inspire the world. On Tisha B’av, we remember that as long as we have not accomplished this undertaking (and we most certainly have not), we remain exposed to a world that, when it becomes hungry, can lose all sense of moral perspective.

The riots are a timely reminder that the veneer of civilization in our society, can peel away very quickly given the right, or rather the wrong, circumstances. 

The urgent message to me, as a Jew, is that we still have a very long way to go. We live in a seemingly comfortable world and we indeed have a very great deal to be grateful for. But values don’t seem to have penetrated deeply. These UK riots might have been fuelled by an ‘underprivileged’ class, but as time goes on we are seeing that a cross section of society participated – young and middle aged, lower and middle class, male and female, Asian, black and white. The UK is waking up to the fact that we might know how to teach people to be great doctors, lawyers and accountants, but we do not necessarily yet know how to teach them to be great human beings. 

Yes, there is the heart warming side also. On Tisha BAv, my organisation, Tikun, put out a call for the Jewish community to donate clothes and bedding for those who have been made homeless. And within 24 hours, we were running out of space to store all that had been donated. But more than that, when we contacted the local council for Tottenham today, the epicentre of the riots, they told us that they had already given way more than they actually needed – less than 48 hours after the riots happened. And it was incredible to see the armies of people turning up, brooms in hand, to assist in a neighbourhood that was not theirs, making good the destruction that had been wrought. It’s deeply touching to see so much positive also.

But on the wall of our educational centre, we have a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. It says that ‘the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.’ Unfortunately, at a time of challenge and controversy, those few nights of the riots themselves, the UK was found lacking. And that is not something that we can ignore. 

As a Jew and a Rabbi, I feel a unique responsibility; we must reach out more, we must educate more, we must set higher standards for ourselves and lead by example. If not us, then who, and if not now, then when? The riots gradually moved closer and closer to my neighbourhood, but, thank God, finished 6 miles away. Do I need to wait until they are on my doorstep until I wake up to the fact that our world is my responsibility? I know that I must contribute meaningfully to the solution or I will have no one to blame but myself if I am swallowed whole by the problem. The police may have gained control of the streets but the problem has not gone away. When the excitement of the riots has died down, I pray that the call to action for all of us will remain. 

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