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U3A Writing: What Have The Jews Done For Us?

...Judaism teaches that to help others is a privilege and an obligation, a sacred duty embodied in the unique Hebrew word, “Mitzvah”. That duty has been performed down the centuries by countless Jews in their quest for truth, justice, peace and human happiness and their desire to build a better life and to contribute to the well-being of their fellow citizens in whatever countries they have adopted as their home...

Stanley Solomons, with words that come from both the head and the heart, tells of the immense - almost immeasurable - contribution Jews have made to the advancement of civilisation.

Remembering the amusing “What have the Romans done for us” scene in that irreverent film The Life of Brian I thought it would be interesting to pose the question,”What have the Jews done for us?”

I ask the question because I never cease to be amazed that despite the huge debt the world owes Judaism, and which can never be repaid, anti-semitism is still on the increase, that despite the tremendous contribution made by Jews to whichever country they settled in over the centuries and the unswerving loyalty they gave to their host nations, they were nearly always treated as inferior aliens.

Judaism and individual Jews have played an astonishing part in the history of mankind over a period of more than five thousand years, despite persistent persecution, and they continue to play a vital role today in the world of art, music, drama, comedy,films, television, medicine, science and commerce. The list is unending.

So just how big a debt do we owe the Jews? Difficult to know where to begin, so let’s begin at the beginning.

The late Rabbi Doctor Rudi Brasch, in his book The Star of David, first published in 1955, lists the achievments of Jewish thinkers, philosophers, inventors, scientists and many others who have shaped world events. It makes fascinating reading for Jews and Gentiles alike. Dr. Brasch was Chief Minister of Temple Emanuel in Sydney, Australia, from 1949 to 1979 and co-author with his wife Li of 37 books.

He begins by pointing out the obvious, that the Jews’ most outstanding contribution of all time was the Bible (or if you prefer it the Old Testament), from which the world received the conception of a single God and the idea of a personal religion.(Though to be fair Akhneton and his wife Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt, in the same period preached monetheism and worshipped one deity, the Sun God).

“Okay,'' I can almost hear John Cleese exclaiming, “Well apart from giving us the bible, and teaching us about God and religion, what have the Jews done for us?”

Well, they gave us Jesus Christ. He was a Jew.

“Well apart from giving us the bible and teaching us about God and religion and giving us Jesus Christ what have the Jews done for us?”

They gave us the Virgin Mary. She was Jewish.

“Alright. Well apart from giving us the bible, teaching us about God and religion, giving us Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, what have the Jews done for us?”

Well, Judaism laid the foundation for Christianity and Islam. Without Judaism, Christianity and Islam would not exist.

“Alright. Well apart from giving us the bible, teaching us about God and religion, giving us Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary and laying the foundation for Christianity and Islam, what have the Jews done for us?”

And so we could go on. I am indebted to Dr. Brasch, who died in 2004, for reminding us about Jewish achievements, though I must point out that he did not make any link between them and anti-semitism.

He points out that the New Testament was mainly written by Jews and nearly all the eariest Christians were Jews. Paul, who moulded Christianity, was a Jew. The Church evolved from the Synagogue and many of the traditions, prayers, readings and rituals in churches and mosques originated in the synagogue.

It was the Jew who disseminated knowledge and advanced science in Eurpope in the Middle Ages and his research and zeal contributed largely to the success of the great voyages of discovery at the beginning of the modern era. For example Rabbi Levi Ben Gershom in the 14th Century invented the camera obscura and the navigational instrument called “Jacob’s staff” which remained in use for more than 400 years and Columbus and Vasco da Gama, on their voyages of discovery, used nautical instruments and maps made by Spanish Jews.

There isn’t room to list all the Jews who have had a massive influence on the way the world has evolved. They include Benjamin Disraeli, Britain’s only Jewish Prime Minister, Karl Marx, Rufus Isaacs, later Lord Reading, who became Viceroy of India, thinkers and philosophers such as Philo of Alexandria who was studied all over the ancient world, Moses Maimonides, who wrote Guide to the Perplexed in the 12th Century, Baruch Spinoza, who wrote the Five Books of Ethics in the 18th Century and Nobel prize winners Henri Bergson, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein.

Jewish poets, playwrights, novelists, historians, artists, musicians, actors include Marcel Proust, Siegried Sassoon, Max Beehohm, Germany’s greatest lyric poet Heinrich Heine, publisher Victor Gollancz, sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein, composers Jacques Offenbach, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, violinist Yehdi Menuhin, pianist Myra Hess and actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Among the Jewish doctors and scientists who have made a huge impact are Waldemar Haffkine who discovered serums against cholera and bubonic plague and Ferdinand Cohen and Moritz Romberg, the fathers of modern bacteriology and neurology.

Jews have left their mark on just about every area of progress made in the modern world, providing an extraordinary number of Nobel prize winners out of all proportion to the size of the world’s Jewish population. For example, Jews invented the michrophone, sewing machine, amplifier and safety match. They designed the calculating machine and the keyless watch and created colour photography.

In 1860 Philipp Reiss constructed the first electric telephone, seventeen years before Bell claimed the credit. Siegfried Marcus built the first benzine automobile in 1875. David Schwartz made the first rigid airship. Ludovic Zamenhof invented Esperanto and Casmir Funk discovered vitamins.

And still it goes on today with Jews making vital contributions in art, music, film making and acting, television, medicine and science and in research being carried out in the Hebrew University in Israel, the only democracy in the Middle-East, and in universities throughout the world.

All of which makes a mockery of attempts by a number of organisations to boycott Israeli goods and their academic institutions. Yes, I know they say it’s because of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, that they are not anti-semitic, only anti-Zionist.

Sorry, but I don’t believe them. They are using the middle-east situation as a cover for their hatred of Jews, a hatred which was in existence long before Herzl conceived the idea of a Jewish state, a homeland for Jews where they would no longer have to live as “inferior and alien”.

Jews and Arabs are both semitic races, stemming from the same backgrounds and yet in his recently published book, Those Origins, Those Claims, Sidney Merry, points out that the term “anti-semitism” has never been applied to the Arabs and that for example the Nazi regime had found no problem in courting the Arab who hardly fitted the mould of Hitler’s master race.

Merry also expresses the original idea that it was strange that Christianity had never been questioned as an alien religion stemming from inferiors. Now there’s an interesting thought. It was these “inferior” people who over the past 2,000 years in Europe and in lands controlled by Islam were slaughtered, robbed, deprived of their possessions and driven from their homes by rulers such as England’s Richard I.

Among the many examples of persecution cited by Merry is Richard’s treatment of the Jews who he expelled in 1290 having “sucked them dry” and reneging on repaying the money he owed them. He mentions what probably few know that York Minster and other churches were built with “borrowed” Jewish money – contributions which we can add to our list of “What have the Jews done for us” along with many other similar happenings in other European countries.

Year after year from the 12th century onwards, particularly at the time of the Jewish Passover, hatred of Jews was preached from the pulpits of churches throughout the Christian world often resulting in Jews being accused of using Christian blood in the making of unleavened bread or for other purposes connected with the festival, leading to the massacre of thousands of Jews in Europe by armed mobs. On the eve of the Passover in 1190 the whole of the Jewish community in York, who had taken refuge in the city’s castle, died by their own hand rather than be massacred by the bloodthirsty mob which had imprisoned them there.

Naturally because we do not have any contemporary documentation at the time (the four gospels which form a big part of the New Testament were written many years after Jesus’ death by writers who were anti-Jewish and pro Roman), there must always remain some doubt about events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus.

Much has been said about the part played by the High Priest Caiaphus in that it is claimed he initiated the process which led to Jesus being taken to Pilate and therefore must share some of the blame for his execution. There is no evidence that Caiaphus presided over some kind of trial of Jesus before handing him over to Pilate, but even if he did it must be remembered that Caiaphus had been appointed by the Romans and was in a difficult position. There was considerable unrest against the Roman occupiers (don’t forget that seventy years later there was a general uprising which resulted in the Romans destroying the temple and killing many thousands of Jews) and Jesus who could be considered a revolutionary had broken Roman law by throwing out the traders and the money men from the temple grounds. It could be argued that as a servant of Rome Caiaphus had little option but to hand Jesus over to Pilate to prevent trouble.

Pilate who had crucified thousands of Jews for alleged misdemeanours – even his cruelty was too much for the Senate in Rome who dismissed him from office – would not have given a moment’s thought as to whether Jesus was guilty or innocent of sedition before ordering his execution

Incidentally,there is no record that at special times of the year a custom existed whereby the populace could vote for a criminal to be set free and so there must be doubt over whether the crowd were given the choice between Jesus and Barabas or whether Barabas even existed bearing in mind that barabas is Hebrew for Son of God.

But of course a more compelling reason for anti-semitism is the so-called betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariat. I’ve never understood why it was necessary for anyone to point out to the arresting soldiers who Jesus was among a small group of men. They would merely have had to say, “Which one of you is Jesus?''

Be that as it may it would appear that there is now evidence of a gospel of Judas which casts him in a new light and that he was asked by Jesus to betray him, turning him from the villain of the piece to hero. Without trying to appear flippant perhaps Judas’s contribution in helping to fulfil what Christians believe was Jesus’ aspiration to die on the Cross, could also be added to the list of “What have the Jews done for us?” At the same time it is reasonable to ask if Jesus knew he was going to die why did he cry out, “God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

In looking for further reasons for anti-semitism it should be noted that about a hundred years after the death of Jesus there was much competition for converts between two Jewish sects – those who believed that Jesus was the Messiah and the son of God and those who rejected him. Around 300 AD the Christians got the upper hand and not unnaturally spread the message that the non-believers had been complicit in the death of Jesus. The role played by the Romans was played down for obvious reasons. It would hardly be sensible when trying to convert them to Christianity to remind them that it was their predecessors who actually killed Jesus.

The references to violence in the Holy books of Christianity, Judaism and Islam are unacceptable in today’s society and far from helpful and also play their part, slight though it may be, in the continuation of anti-semitism. In a recently published article in The Times, Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Romain, Minister of the Maidenhead Reform Synagogue, points out that in religious texts there are passages that preach ill-will, cause offence or belittle entire groups.

He cites, for example, the assertion in Genesis that men shall rule over women, the references in the New Testament to the First-Century rabbis, the Pharisees, as “a generation of vipers”, the description of Jews in the Koran as “monkeys”, the passage in Exodus of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, John’s accusation in the New Testament against the Jews that “you are of your father, the Devil… a murderer from the beginning” and a “synagogue of Satan”, and the sura in the Koran which states that husbands whose wives are disobedient can beat them. Modern day scholars of the major religions argue that these passages should not read as literally meaning what they say but should have a more liberal interpretation in today’s more enlightened society. But the fact remains that they are read by many in a literal way, causing problems for Judaism and Islam.

Much of the blame for this gross injustice to the Jewish people and which has had a direct bearing on their terrible suffering since the middle-ages must rest at the door of the Roman Catholic Church which spread accusations against the Jews which it knew to be false. Until fairly recently it claimed that the death of Jesus was the collective responsibility of all Jews, past and present – a claim which might well have resulted from the statement in Matthew, and which does not figure in the other three gospels, that the crowd, baying for Jesus to be crucified, shouted that his blood should be on their hands and on the hands of their children.

To blame the Jewish people for the death of Jesus is as ludicrous as laying the blame at the door of the present day population of Italy. After all it was the Romans who crucified him and isn’t there more than a touch of irony in that the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church is in the very city which was once the power house of the powerful Roman Empire?

So if that mistaken belief is only partly to blame then what are we left with? Could it be the much-quoted conspiracy theory, the master plan of the Jews for world domination inspired by that fake document, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Some plan! Some conspiracy! One wonders just where the holocaust fitted into the plot. Or maybe there are people out there who actually believe that Jews killed Christian children in mediaeval England and drank their blood.
The story was reported as fact recently on Arab television and no doubt thousands of Arab children will now believe it to be true, despite the fact as Merry points out “the blood libel involving Christian children could not be in greater contrast to Jewish religious law which requires the removal of all blood as far as possible from food before it was permissible to eat it.”

Could it be jealousy? Of course there are many rich Jews, just as there are many rich non-Jews. There are many Jews who are captains of industry, just as there are many who are not. There are Jews who serve in governments but they are vastly outweighed by the number of non-Jews who are in positions of government authority.

And I can assure you that the world is inhabited by many thousands of poor Jews,particularly in Eastern Europe where they eke out a miserable existence still persecuted by their neighbours. And believe it or not there are many poor Jews in Israel, and beggars too.

Mr Shakespeare and Mr Dickens I suppose must take some of the blame with Shylock and Fagin perpetuating the image of the villainous Jew and the fact that the rabid anti-semitic Wagner was a major influence on Hitler only served to heap more suffering on the Jews. Added to that is the fact that much of the world’s media still portrays Judaism in an unfavourable light. (Is that because so many newspapers and television companies are controlled by Jews?)

Part of the answer may be found in the fact that Judaism rejects Jesus as the son of God or the Messiah and that Judaism also refused to accept Mohammed as even a prophet which not surprisingly turned him against the Jews. In a recent television documentary Melvin Bragg pointed out that Islam, although rejecting the divinity of Jesus, regarded him as a major prophet along with other Jewish figures such as Abraham and Moses, though they believe that Jesus was not crucified and that his place was taken on the cross by someone else. However Islam, like Christianity believe that the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus and both religions believe in the second coming of Jesus, which of course also sets them apart from Judaism.

For many years now, leading Christian theologians have acknowledged that Judaism has been mistakenly blamed for the death of Jesus, but surely that mistaken belief and the other reasons I have outlined, cannot excuse hundreds of years of persecution and the rise of anti-semitism since the last war. It must be remembered that over the centuries when they have been allowed to enter the social, artistic and scientific milieu of the country they have lived in Jews have generally used their skill to help those in power without exercising power themselves.(Ignore crude anti-semitic literature which says falsely that Jews control Governments and the media).

Judaism teaches that to help others is a privilege and an obligation, a sacred duty embodied in the unique Hebrew word, “Mitzvah”. That duty has been performed down the centuries by countless Jews in their quest for truth, justice, peace and human happiness and their desire to build a better life and to contribute to the well-being of their fellow citizens in whatever countries they have adopted as their home.

Their achievements have been astronomical. Just think how much more they could have done had they not suffered so much privation and persecution and had been allowed to take their rightful place among the nations of the world.


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