In memory of Jerry Gotel, z’l

Jerry and aid Dr RosenfeldJerold ‘Jerry’ Gotel, who died in London in October, was a pioneering Jewish educator and historian, who, among other things, helped to return Jewish learning and Jewish culture to the place of its destruction in eastern Europe, and almost single-handedly created Jewish studies in China.

He was born in January 1946 to Holocaust survivors in New York City. He received a Yeshiva education before studying at Brooklyn College, and later at Pembroke College, Oxford, and the Sorbonne in Paris.

It was an unusual path to take for a man raised in the Orthodox world of Yiddishkeit, but Jerold was unusual, and he took New York City with him to Europe; in the 1980s he established an American restaurant on what was then the wasteland of London’s south bank. Visitors to this gloomy area were surprised to see, twinkling from the window of a converted Victorian house, a neon sign: American Bar and Grill. This was Studio Six, the first of his successful restaurants, although East of the Sun, West of the Moon, whose menu was based on a fusion of Asian and eastern European cuisine, inspired by an historical Jewish community living in China – which only he had heard of – was not the success he hoped. But if Jerry dreamt and lost, he laughed; he knew too much history to be hurt by small things.

If restaurants were his business, scholarship was where his heart lay. In the early 1980s, his passion for Jewish history led to his becoming involved with the nascent Spiro Institute, later the London Jewish Cultural Centre (LJCC). His encyclopedic knowledge of traditional Judaism and Jewish history, and his electric personality, made him a superb teacher. As the Spiro Institute developed a Modern Jewish History program at schools such as Eton, Harrow and St Paul’s Boys School, Jerry became integral to its teaching. He taught adults and students all over the country.

Besides teaching British children and adults, Jerold and his colleagues were asked by Sir Martin Gilbert, whose visa had been revoked, if a dozen teachers, each going once a year, could go to Russia and to teach Jewish history to refuseniks. Jerry’s allocated subject was Zionism. He gave lectures in Moscow and St Petersburg in private homes. But he was betrayed and hauled into KGB headquarters where, after an uncomfortable interview, he was told to be a tourist. Jerry’s charisma was often effective in thwarting the bureaucrats of the former Soviet Union. He was proud that his exploits were written up in a Russian newspaper, where he was accused of propagating nationalism amongst the minorities.  He also took children from deprived backgrounds to the death camps, to teach them about prejudice.

As the LJCC developed an overseas program, Jerry was perfectly positioned to become its director. He began to mastermind teacher training about the Shoah in Poland. When the International Task Force for Holocaust Education was created (now known as IHRA), the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office asked Jerry to be part of the British delegation. He pioneered the first ever Task Force seminar. The object was to train teachers in those countries where the Shoah had occurred, but had little education around the subject. This was phenomenally successful; and it took a man of great resilience and optimism to do it. Some of today’s members of the Polish delegation were originally trained by Jerry.

The success of Jerry’s work led to further seminars in the Ukraine and Belarus. The LJCC would bring in experts from the Holocaust Museum in Washington, Yad Vashem, the Wansee House in Berlin, and the Anne Frank House in Holland. Jerry also helped to pioneer the very successful tours program, taking adult students of Jewish history to sites throughout Europe.

There was nobody quite like him, and he was a man to whom strange things happened. In Bialystok, just after the fall of Communism, Jerry was approached by an old man. He had seen that the men of the group were wearing kippot, and began speaking to Jerry in Yiddish. The man told Jerold that he was a Ko’hen, that he had married the Catholic woman who hid him during the war, and insisted that all thirty of the group visit his apartment. In his tiny, modest home, this Jewish man, who had not spoken to another Jew since the war, pronounced the priestly blessing, beneath a portrait of the Pope.

Fifteen years ago, the Hong Kong expatriate Jewish community decided to commemorate Yom Ha’Shoah. They had borrowed exhibits from the Sydney Holocaust Museum, but had no educator. Jerry stepped up, and was surprised to discover that a thousand Chinese people a day were coming to see the exhibition. It was at that time that he met Xu Xin, Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Nanjing. This marked the beginning of Jerry’s last great work.

In the past 17 years, he was at the forefront of Jewish education in China. His legacy at Henan University, where he was an associate professor at the Centre for Jewish Studies, includes more than thirty students with PhDs in Jewish history; twelve with jobs in Chinese universities; the Shalom Library, the biggest collection of books in China on Jewish history; study of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust; and the institution’s Centre for Jewish and Israel Studies, which has become the research base for Israel Studies designated by the Chinese Ministry of Education. Jerry was very proud of his Chinese students, and exceptionally fond of them.

Jerry was a founder trustee of the International Centre for Jewish Studies, created in 2016 to continue and develop this work in China and the wider East Asian region, following the merger of the LJCC into JW3.

Jerry adored his children Jared and Natalie, and was very close to them. Natalie describes her father as “larger than life. He left a powerful impression on everyone who met him.  His passion for knowledge and living made him outspoken, energetic, magnanimous, bold, defiant, inspiring, argumentative and, of course, he was always right. He was never a spectator, always impatient and could not help being the life and soul of many occasions”.

His background had made him a wanderer, but he loved London, where he died, in October.

 

 

 

What is antisemitism?

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Many have grappled with understanding and defining antisemitism and its various manifestations. The latest effort comes from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) – the intergovernmental body whose purpose is to place political and social leaders’ support behind the need for Holocaust education, remembrance and research both nationally and internationally.

In May 2016, IHRA adopted the following definition of antisemitism:

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

To guide IHRA in its work, the following examples may serve as illustrations:

Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for ‘why things go wrong’.

It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits. Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to:

  • Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion. Making mendacious, dehumanising, demonising, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective – such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.
  • Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.
  • Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).
  • Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
  • Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.
  • Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
  • Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g. claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterise Israel or Israelis.
  • Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
  • Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

Antisemitic acts are criminal when they are so defined by law (for example, denial of the Holocaust or distribution of antisemitic materials in some countries).

Criminal acts are antisemitic when the targets of attacks, whether they are people or property – such as buildings, schools, places of worship and cemeteries – are selected because they are, or are perceived to be, Jewish or linked to Jews.

Antisemitic discrimination is the denial to Jews of opportunities or services available to others and is illegal in many countries.

Why ICJS? – a short film

“Our work in China has produced concrete results, because it’s reached hundreds of Chinese teachers and academics”, says ICJS founder trustee, the late Jerry Gotel, in a short film about the aims and work of the International Centre for Jewish Studies.

“The main focus”, explains Joanna Millan, ICJS’s chair, is currently to “run conferences in Chinese universities about Jewish studies, history and culture, including the Nazi Holocaust.”

Herself a survivor of the Holocaust, Joanna observes that, as a result of learning about the Holocaust, Chinese teachers feel better equipped to speak about traumas that their own people have endured: “The fact that I talk about what happened to me gives them permission to talk about what happened to them”, she says.

Trudy Gold, also a trustee says that: “As a result of our conferences, we’ve created a whole cadre of Chinese academics and intellectuals who feel incredibly positive towards the Jews.”

For Jerry, the connection between Jews and Chinese occurs in the insights they gain from a deeper understanding of each other’s culture: “The Chinese are looking for answers as to how they can function in the modern world without losing touch with their traditions”.

 

Good friends for difficult times

Joanna and students

ICJS chair Joanna Millan, chatting with students: Kaifeng 2013

The International Centre for Jewish Studies (ICJS) was formed after the merger of the London Jewish Cultural Centre with JW3.  The LJCC had been organising many conferences in China over a number of years which have been a tremendous success.

So many students, from different parts of China, have benefited from the insightful lectures and workshops given by eminent international scholars in Jewish history and culture – not least because the experience deepened their understanding and tolerance is fundamental to peace and prosperity.

It was felt essential that this work continue. The Chinese are one of the greatest friends of the Jewish people and they have a high regard for their history, culture and their creative abilities. We need such good friends in these very difficult times, and the Chinese themselves realise that links with Jews and Israel is of great benefit to them.

It is our intention to reach a wider audience both in China and other countries and forge links with academics in those countries so that we can continually improve the quality and quantity of our conferences.

China: ‘hunger for Jewish knowledge’

Jerry and aid Dr Rosenfeld

ICJS trustee Jerold Gotel, with the former aide to Dr Jacob Rosenfeld, surgeon general of the Chinese 4th root army – and one of two Jewish generals in the Chinese army during WWII

Bound for China, where he is running the latest seminar on Holocaust studies and Jewish history, ICJS trustee Jerold Gotel explains how the China education programme first got off the ground.

Gotel, who was previously director of the overseas division of the London Jewish Cultural Centre, explains: “My brief at the LJCC was to develop Holocaust education in Eastern Europe.”

“But at the same time as this was getting off the ground, in 2001, I was asked to lead a Holocaust education conference in Hong Kong. It turned into a tremendous success, and the following year I was invited by the academic Xu Xin, whom I had met in Hong Kong, to a conference he was running about the Jews of China – the history of Harbin, Shanghai and Kaifeng.”

Working with a group of programme directors and teachers at the LJCC, Gotel pioneered the first ever teaching programme on Jewish, Holocaust and genocide studies in China. Over the decade that followed, the LJCC team provided lectures and seminars at various top-tier Chinese universities, such as Kunming, Nanjing, Kaifeng, Xian and Shanghai, at the same time making teaching materials available for these and other Chinese universities.

They started up an annual week-long summer conference, run at various Chinese universities – which over the years has reached over 1,500 students and teachers from all over China. They also introduced British, Israeli, French, German and American lecturers to Chinese audiences through the support of the LJCC and the International Task Force and Claims Conference, now known as IHRA.

“I fell in love with China on that first trip,” recalls Gotel.

“I came back and started to read Chinese history, to study Mandarin at SOAS in London. Then one day, the penny dropped. We were teaching the Holocaust in places where there was still endemic antisemitism. But there had never been antisemitism in China. The Chinese don’t think that way. In China, I discovered a hunger for knowledge of matters Jewish, as well as for European history.”

In an uncertain world, education can bind people together

Joanna Millan and students

The position and security of the Jewish people in the world today remains as uncertain and vulnerable as it has ever done in the modern era. Antisemitism is on the rise across the world, especially in Europe, the US and the Middle East.

At the same time, we’re witnessing the 21st century world tilt towards Asia – and East Asia in particular. China’s current troubles notwithstanding, the country is still predicted to rise to the global economic number 1 spot within the next few years.

In recognition of these power shifts eastwards, the International Centre for Jewish Studies was founded in 2015 to build strong, positive and sustainable relationships between the nations of East Asia and the Jewish people.

Educational programmes are a proven and effective way of building and strengthening such relationships. Experience has shown that when academics, teachers, students, government officials and others in China and wider East Asia have been exposed to Jewish and Holocaust history, there has been a direct and positive impact on their sentiment towards Jewish people.

Experience has also demonstrated that there is a significant benefit to the recipients of such education. When people learn how to relate their own national history and traumas to those of the Jewish nation, they discover new insights and develop their understanding of how best to identify and counter racial and religious prejudice – wherever they find it.