June 11, 2024
Close this search box.
Close this search box.
June 11, 2024
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Oxford, Site of My Saddest Tisha B’Av

In July 2000, I spent three weeks at Yad Vashem with a group of educators from Europe, England, Holland, Australia, Central and South America. Most were not Jewish, and Israel was a love-at-first sight experience for them. None had qualms about venturing out to the crowded streets, the plazas, parks and museums, or traveling within the country to see its historic and contemporary amazing sites.

Ehud Barak and Yassir Arafat were at Camp David with President Clinton. Many Israelis, weary of the never-ending attacks from their neighboring countries, supported the peace talks, some gathering with “Land for Peace” signs. The idea seemed ludicrous, and I predicted that the talks would not produce peace. I didn’t predict the war that erupted soon after—neither its extreme viciousness nor its long-term costs. Israel would be victorious militarily but not in the court of public opinion.

The antisemitism that had precipitated the Shoah had seemingly abated. The Holocaust was being taught in schools, museums and other venues on every continent except Antarctica. However, the Arabs had learned a lesson from the Holocaust that evaded too many Israelis: the crucial importance of Hitler’s hugely funded propaganda machine.

I never expected that in July of 2015, I would spend three weeks in Oxford, England, again studying antisemitism and how to teach against it. ISGAP, the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy, was established specifically for that purpose. ISGAP has headquarters in Manhattan and satellites in London, Rome and Israel.

I was invited to apply and was accepted to ISGAP’s first conference. I was excited at the prospect and arrived a few days ahead. Esther Gilbert, the wife of the late Sir Martin Gilbert, and I spent Shabbat eve with friends of hers, went to her synagogue the next morning and had lunch with the rabbi and his family. It was excellent preparation for the intense conference that was to begin Sunday, Tisha B’Av.

As the college couldn’t provide a meeting room that evening, ISGAP arranged for the local Chabad to host our opening session. Tisha B’Av was coming to a close. There weren’t many Jews in our group, and only a few of them attended the service. Our presence didn’t do much to fill the synagogue. I, one of only three women, was seated in the back.

After Maariv, the ISGAP associates moved to the larger adjoining space where the meeting would take place. ISGAP had scheduled a short program to follow. It was about a powerful Jewess in medieval England. Few if any of us had ever heard of Licoricia of Winchester.

She wed Abraham, son of Isaac of Winchester and Kent, and they had four children. After his death, she married David of Oxford and bore his son a year before his death in 1244. He had been one of England’s richest Jews, and his death taxes paid for a chapel in Westminster Abbey, as well as much of the construction of Winchester Cathedral.

For three decades following David’s demise, Licoricia continued to run his business, expanding it with the business she established. In 1277, Licoricia and her maid were stabbed to death, possibly during a robbery. No one was charged, tried or found guilty of the crimes. For all her enormous influence, she was a Jew in a land whose legal system penalized Jews.

I listened and contemplated Licoricia’s life and death, and the prior and following disasters inflicted on Jews. I could barely contain my tears. As exciting as it was to be in Oxford, amid eminent scholars, it was also enormously tragic. Would antisemitism have become a course of study had the first and second Temples not been destroyed? That devastation, like the more recent destruction of synagogues on Kristallnacht, the Munich Massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes and bombing of the Jewish center in Argentina, were all intended to destroy the soul of Judaism.

The antisemites failed, but the cost was enormous, and can never be paid. Throughout history, Jews were dispossessed of their spiritual home, collective and personal property, and portable wealth. They were forced to become wanderers subjected to robbery and violence on land. Sea voyages had their own set of trials and tribulations. If Jewish refugees survived their violent uprooting, they could settle in a new land, learn a new language, build a new home and family—only to eventually be used, abused and expelled.

Most historians contend that World War II was a continuation of World War I. It began on (or around) Tisha B’Av, as did the expulsions. Jews were expelled from England in 1290, on Tisha B’Av. The later expulsion from Spain also began on the Ninth of Av.

One can only wonder about these dates coordinating with a Jewish fast day. We know that Nazis often scheduled mass murders on Jewish holidays. All these thoughts ran through my head that evening in Oxford, and every Tisha B’Av since. Clearly, had we been allowed to live as Jews; to “be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth,” antisemitism would not have spread throughout the world.

The resultant assimilation and attrition in the course of more than 2,500 years is unimaginable and incalculable. How many Jews had the means, resilience and determination to remain Jews? How many Jews today, when global antisemitism has reached unprecedented proportions, abjure Judaism, and worse, support those who would destroy Israel?

And yet, Judaism lives; and the people of Israel live; and Israel, the sovereign nation, despite chronic problems that few nations are forced to face, lives and thrives. Territorially tiny with few natural resources, it has in less than a century blossomed from a wasteland to a beautiful garden. It has become a world leader in science and technology, culture and agriculture, education, medicine and the humanities, and a pilgrimage site for millions—most of whom cannot wait to return.

Moreover, people all over the world are now discovering their Jewish roots. Science, technology and the ability to trace genetic makeup have advanced from conjecture to proof. Miraculously, many descendants of Jews are seeking to return to the religion of their ancestors and to their ancient homeland.

It’s a remarkable phenomenon, given the number of Jews who have acquired distaste, even contempt, for their background to the point of abandoning it. Being part of a minority is a handicap, whereas joining the majority has distinct advantages. This has been made all the more dangerous by the rise of social media and influencers. Charismatic religious leaders, politicians and “stars” in the entertainment industry have undue effect on people.

The animus toward Jews is a very dangerous phenomenon. It is instructive to remember that what begins with Jews doesn’t end with them. Six million Jews were killed in the global conflagration that took the lives of 70 million. We become justifiably apoplectic when confronted by the threat of a pandemic. However the world forgets that the greatest threats come from baseless hatreds.

Of these hatreds, antisemitism is the oldest ongoing one. It is often predicated on feelings of envy and awe coupled with fear. That a people who suffered so much can lament but also continue to hold fast to their faith and culture, celebrating their traditions, is proof that for all the “oy,” Judaism is a religion and culture of joy.

As we left the synagogue that evening I had to remind myself, despite my terrible sorrow, that I had witnessed a miracle. Oxford University was established in 1096 as a seminary to train young men for the Church. Now, Jews attend and graduate from the various colleges, earning their degrees in a huge variety of disciplines unrelated to Christian theology. Some hold professorships there. The city has a vibrant and pluralistic Jewish community. And, thanks to ISGAP, groups of professors from all over the world gather each summer to learn about antisemitism and how to fight it through education. Because no one is born hating, and what can be learned can be unlearned.

Barbara Wind is a writer, speaker and Holocaust related independent scholar, curator and consultant.

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles