Singing at the Rabbi
One year ago it was day 16 of Operation Cast Lead, as Israeli generals had called it; the Gaza Massacre as history will surely remember it; 11 January 2009. Israeli ground forces were in the thick of combat. The sky over Gaza plumed with towering smoke. Palestinian civilians dead by this point: hundreds; injured: thousands. Supplies blocked, energy cut, hospitals and UN safe houses missiled, borders shut, no escape for refugees, that was Gaza. Palestinian militant fired rockets created craters and media circus’ in nearby Israeli towns which once had Arabic names. Ten Israeli soldiers had been killed in action, four in friendly fire, three Israeli civilians were dead. Around 1,400 Palestinians were to pay retribution with their lives. It all began on the sixth day of Chanukah, Kislev 30th 5769.
it was a piercingly frosty winter day in London. The day before saw a huge march in solidarity with the besieged Palestinians snake through the centre of the city. This day a much smaller crowd, though still thousands large, flew Israeli flags amongst blue and white placards which read ‘END HAMAS TERROR’, Israel’s catchphrase justification for its siege. The rally was called by the Board of Deputies of British Jewry and the Chief Rabbi – ie, it was called in the name of British Jewry. A blue and white sea floods Trafalgar Square in the centre of London. This was the scene Jewdas had infamously cancelled. Upon a stage in front of Nelson’s Column stands the British Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks.
See 6:20 in if you want to skip the speech
Sacks: Hamas! Just say three words: Yes. To. Peace.
The crowd cheers and applauds.
Sacks: And the day will come…
Crowd: YES TO PEACE! YES TO PEACE! YES TO PEACE! YES TO PEACE! YES TO PEACE! YES TO PEACE! YES TO PEACE!
Sacks: And the day will come… It will come…
A lone voice can be heard shouting through a megaphone: JONATHAN! Join me in a song!
The crowd falls absolutely silent.
Sacks: …when Israelis and Palestinians…
The loan voice continues: Join me in a song which we both sang not very long ago.
A Youtube poster, 1979seamaster, who had been recording the Chief Rabbi’s speech on his mobile phone, swings his aim towards who we now recognise as Dov Neumann, author of this article. He stands atop of the lip of a Trafalgar Square fountain, facing Rabbi Sacks with a red megaphone at his mouth.
Crowd: Shut up, shut up! Booooo! (and other loud forms of condemnation)
Dov: It’s a song from Chanu…
Suddenly a fist smacks Dov’s belly from the hand of the person standing beside him, a Jewish man of middle age, sending Dov falling backwards onto the frozen water fountain.
Sacks, in reference to Dov’s interruption: Don’t worry, don’t worry. I knew it was a Jewish event when someone started angrily! [sic.]
Dov sings the first two lines of the children’s Chanukah song: Sevivon, sov sov sov, Chanukah hu chag tov! (‘Spinning top, spin spin spin, Chanukah is a good festival’)
Sacks: We can handle a little…
Dov: Sevivon, sov sov sov, Chanukah hu chag tov!
The tremendously loud jeering of the crowd continues.
A shard of ice one foot square in size flies through the air towards Dov. It had been plucked from the frozen fountain and now sails from the direction of another rally participant. It hits Dov’s face with a loud crack.
Dov tries to persist on despite having collapsed through the ice of the fountain into the freezing water: …sov sov sov…
Sacks: And i want to tell you with your megaphone…
Another block of ice is thrown at Dov from another rally participant, a middle aged man. It narrowly misses him. The middle aged man turns awkwardly towards those around him. He bears a wide but vaguely defeated grin.
Sacks: …a day will come when Israelis and Palestinians…
Dov: One day! This is Operation Cast Lead Sevivon!
A stocky, yellow bibbed member of the Community Support Team, (CST) the UK’s Jewish security organisation whose origins lie in the militant anti-fascist struggles of post WWII London, moves behind the man who threw the second block of ice. He pauses.
Sacks: …Jews, Muslims and Christians; the people of Sderot and the people of Gaza…
The CST guard puts a hand on the shoulder of the second ice thrower, who nervously jerks around. In order to push himself up into the fountain, he uses the ice thrower’s shoulder for support. Slowly he wades through the icy fountain in the direction of Dov.
Dov jolts his megaphone aim from Rabbi Sacks to the approaching security guard and adjusts his kippah. (Jewish skullcap) He is recorded shouting “Why are you…”
Sacks: …will live together in peace; no longer fighting one another,…
Dov: Freedom to Pal…
Sacks: …helping one another to live in freedom and dignity!
The crowd cheers.
Sacks: That day will come!
The crowd roars on, animated by Sacks’ oration.
Sacks: It could be a hundred years away…
CNN footage shows Dov held in a two handed grip by the security guard. He lurches forward and kisses his interlocutors cheek, but with a sweep of the guards right hand, has his head shoved chest-wards. CNN shows the two talking strongly to one another. Meanwhile a second Jewish security guard cautiously begins his entry into the fountain.
Sacks: …or it could be today, it’s up to Hamas…
The CST guard raises his left arm to clutch Dov by the neck and Dov responds by trying for another kiss. (greeting kisses are best made once on each cheek, aren’t they?) The guard applies the palm of his hand to Dov’s face to halt the second kiss from nearing him.
Meanwhile, the second guard slips on the floor of the icy fountain though manages to hold himself up.
Sacks: …and the countries who give it arms.
Dov shouts: JONATHAN!
Sacks: And for the sake of the Palestinian children and the Israeli children: …
By this point Dov is tugged by the two security guards towards the periphery of the fountain. A member of which reaches for Dov’s megaphone and breaks off a vital element, disabling it. The surrounding crowd cheers.
Sacks: Let – it – be – to – day.
The crowd applauds tremendously and waves the flag of Israel.
Sacks: But in the meanwhile we say: Beloved G-d, the G-d we worship …
Dov: You do not represent me!
Sacks: … the G-d of life who told us to sanctify life …
Dov: You do not represent me!
Sacks: … Al-Rachman. The G-d of Abraham, Avraham, Ibrahim, father of our several faiths. Beloved G-d. Show us the way…
Dov: You do not …
Sacks: … your way, the way of salaam …
The two CST security guards pull Dov to the edge of the water fountain. Here, nearby members of the rally – middle aged with South African accents – help wrestle Dov out.
Sacks: …the way of shalom, the way of peace: Let it come today.
The crowd cheers and applauses.
Sacks: And friends, let us sing together, for the sake of peace.
Policemen arrive on scene, having been called by the security. They ask what the problem is. Dov responds that the Policemen don’t speak a common language as this crowd so they couldn’t understand what the problem might be.
Then he attempts to clamber back into the fountain.
Without success he is seized on all sides and dragged through and away from the rally. He is handcuffed and carried by his arms and legs, face-down, towards a Police van, screaming “Ani Gam Yehudit!” [I’m also Jewish], “Free Palestine!” and “Sevivon, sov sov sov“.
A Jewish prayer cantor leads the crowd in the Sabbath prayer of Oseh Shalom, which translates as, ‘May he who makes peace in high places, make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say, amen’.
I recognise that the point of my action wasn’t necessarily obvious nor my motives clear. But then again, I’m tired of always having a clear motive, demand and message to enlighten the world with. I simply felt the urge to stand up to the Chief Rabbi and a crowd of poshetn yidn, simple Jews like myself, and sing a Chanukah song which we all knew. I feel like the spirit in which that act was received reflected these peoples spirit towards Chanukah, and of Judaism more widely.
Israel invaded Gaza as we were all lighting the sixth candle of Chanukah, the festival of lights. Chanukah has always been the most tender of festivals for me. Candles, giant Grodinsky jam donuts blessed with the miracle of going stale if left overnight, latkes and apple sauce, family, a present here or there, songs and, crucially, sevivonim. (dreidls, spinning tops) Chanukah is the celebration of how a tiny miracle can take place within the greatest of violent acts: a flame of hope lasting longer than it should have within the ruins of the destroyed Jewish Temple. As a child, Chanukah was the festival I looked forward to the most.
On the TV the opening bombardment of Gaza looked like a firework display – Israel’s equivalent of Chanukah lights par excellence – from the peripheral vantage point of the worlds media who were blocked from entering Gaza itself.
Of the 1,400 Palestinians left dead by the invasion around 320 were children, not including those who must have died from secondary causes. The Israeli military named the invasion Operation Cast Lead after a line in Chaim Nachman Bialik’s poem Lichvod Hachanukkah, (In Honour of Chanukah) a childrens’ Chanukah song.
Teacher bought a big top for me,
Solid lead, the finest known.
In whose honour, for whose glory?
For Chanukah alone.
It’s a beautiful poem, written by one of the great Yiddish and Modern Hebrew poets, whose meaning has been perverted. Its a child’s song about receiving simple presents for Chanukah: the flicker of a candle from father, a pancake from mother, an old penny from uncle, a lead sevivon from teacher. In Bialik’s time lead wasn’t considered a poisonous metal. Now, of course, it is, and you wouldn’t intentionally give one cast from lead. Unless, that is, you had some kind of sick malicious intention. Couldn’t Lichvod Hachanukah have been left to be a charmingly anachronistic poem, instead of being played out so literally, so fatally? Like the spirit of Chanukah, it was never a song about suffering: It was one of great hopes cloaked in smallness and innocence.
Growing up I always sung a different sevivon song and that’s the one I sang to Rabbi Sacks. Sevivon, Sov sov sov: Spinning top, spin spin spin. It emphasises, the randomness of the sevivon’s path and landing. It’s a lesson in mazel – luck and fate. Will it land on ג (gadol – great), נ (nes – miracle), ה (haya – happened) or ש (sham – there)? It always falls on one side of the sentence, ‘A great miracle happened there’. That’s the spirit of Chanukah: to look towards the inextinguishable but delicate fire of humanity, not towards the darkness of revenge.
Israel rained upon the children of Gaza and their parents, poisonous sevivons with the נ, the miracle, missing. Perhaps they replaced it with a ט for טבח, massacre? Or is that the sevivon given to Israeli children, poisoning them with a cry of endless retribution, for deeds which their parents have themselves caused?
I wonder if Chanukah can ever be appreciated by on oppressing people, perversely convinced that the resistance of those under their dominance can be paralleled to the empire which destroyed the great Jewish Temple. It is no miracle that the State of Israel exists as it does when it is backed by the full militaristic support of the worlds only superpower: It is an endless miracle that the people of Palestine still find hope to carry on. Surely then most Gazans inherently comprehended the spirit of Chanukah whilst those supporting Israel, at least at this point, simply did not.
The little sevivon was never meant to cause suffering. Since it was, I was singing: singing a song of innocence, of children, a stolen song, a song I wanted back, a child’s anthem. Chanukah had to be reclaimed from those who confused the blaze of the Chanukiah (the Chanukah candelabra) with the fire over humanity which Israel created. The sevivon had to have its symbolism restored: not death, but hope. Chanukah’s honour and glory, which Bialik sung of, was stolen and forgotten. It had to be returned. That’s why I sung the song of the sevivon.
As I was being tussled out of the fountain by the guards and crowd I heard a young voice shouting at his father. I looked up and saw a teenage boy attempting to calm down his middle aged dad who was violently grappling me. Regardless, the father continued, he looked like a man possessed. Father and son came out on this frosty day to support Israel together: I wonder how they left.