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The Modern Day Babel Fable

Posted on Monday, October 19th, 2020

By Dr. Sheldon Stone, René Cassin Fellow and Campaign Associate, Advisory Group to STOPUYGHURGENOCIDE, World Uyghur Congress, London Office

“Have you reserved?”

“No!”

 I was prepared to do anything.  Take my trousers down. Stand on one leg and recite the shema. Anything to get past security and into the shul.

It was Erev Shabbat/Shemini Atzeret. Running too late for my own synagogue, I decided to try the Chabad shul near my house.

“I’ll have to ask the Rabbi,” says the guard.

He returns. “The Rabbi says, do you know anyone davening here?”

“Johnny Walker”

Big grin! He opens the gate.

Would I have got the same response if I’d said “Glen Fiddich”?

After Tefilah (prayer), I thank the Chabad Rav.

He points to the mask I am wearing (bright red, with yellow letters saying ‘STOP UYGHUR GENOCIDE) and rasps, “Very good work you’re doing! Very important to us all!”, waving his hand round the shul.

My! How things change. A year ago, I felt only a few of us knew about the Uyghurs’ persecution in China. Now, it’s mainstream news. There are legal cases, motions in parliament and many campaigners.

However, it was the rabbi’s use of the words “very important to us all” that struck me. Perhaps one reason he described it so lies in this week’s puzzling tale of the Tower of Babel.  A group of people in a place called Shinar gathers bricks, builds a tower to reach heaven and make a name for themselves. Hashem (God) comes down to earth and frustrates the project.  The commentators Rambam (13thC, Spanish), Sforno (16thC, Italian), Hirsch (19thC ,German) and the Ntziv (19thC, Russian) in different ways describe Babel as an intolerant  society seeking world domination, establishing a false religion  that brooks no intellectual enquiry or challenge, where individuals’ dignity and very lives are entirely subordinate to the state. The midrash (Pirkei d’ Eliezer) tells how people wept if a brick fell from the tower but not if a man fell and died. Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Bible recounts how women gave birth, whilst working on the tower, then wrapped the baby in their clothing and continued to work.

Hirsch contemporizes his account by referring to Napoleon. The Ntziv wrote under pressure of the Russian Empire. The commentators make it clear that this society is not what Hashem wants for mankind, a view so deeply rooted in Jewish historical experience and morality that the Jewish community’s leadership and most influential organisations, more than any other community’s, have spoken out against  China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. The president of the Board of Deputies wrote to the Chinese Ambassador, ex Chief Rabbi Sacks and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust each issued  a strong statement, as did 75 Faith leaders, of whom 20 were Jewish. The Jewish News, working with Rene Cassin, persuaded 152 MPs to petition Downing Street.

On Rosh Hashanah we pray for the day when “the righteous rejoice… as all wickedness fades away like smoke… and Hashem makes the rule of arrogance pass from the earth”.

As the Chabad Rav said, “It’s very important to us all”