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I went to a synagogue twice in one day: Struggling against fear and ignorance

Saturday November 3 2018

Unprovoked attack on a neighbour at a place of worship is repugnant and reeks of ignorance. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

Unprovoked attack on a neighbour at a place of worship is repugnant and reeks of ignorance. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

AUSTIN BUKENYA
By AUSTIN BUKENYA
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We in the business world of “knowledge” and ideas, live and thrive on hypotheses. A hypothesis is an intelligent guess, a “hunch” about the way things are, and why, in view of the observable facts. Hypotheses are starting points in the process of generating ideas and theories.

Thinkers systematically test hypotheses to see if they are implausible, improvable or tenable. If they are proved to be plausible, viable and tenable, they are recommended to the “consumers”, the decision-makers and implementers, as well as the general well-informed public, as theories to guide them in their lives.

Anyway, that was a simple introduction to my hypothesis on the Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre. What makes a person like Robert Bowers arm himself to the teeth, invade a holy place of worship and gun down a dozen people quietly communing with their God?

The man-beast himself had his own explanation, which he is said to have yelled out as he mowed down his victims: “All Jews must die!”

Horrendous, is it not, and totally unconvincing.

To begin with, it is totally absurd to think or say that any human being should die just because of what they are, Jews, Caucasians or Luo development.

WELL-INFORMED

Secondly, anyone reasonably well-informed must know that Jews have been around for quite a while. Indeed they are one of the communities with the longest fully-documented history of existence and development in the world.

Any imagination that a senseless and murderous one-man rampage can significantly contribute to their extinction is a pathetic manifestation of abysmal ignorance.

I mean, these are guys who, over the millennia, have survived slave-driving Pharaohs, mass-exiling Nebuchadnezzar, city-sacking Roman Emperors, European pogroms, the Nazi-engineered Holocaust and a myriad other past and present challenges.

It certainly has not been plain sailing, but apparently they “ain’t goin’ nowhere near extinction no time soon.”

A further reason that Mr Bowers is supposed to have given for his outrageous act is that “they (the Jews) want to destroy my people.” It is difficult to understand what this man means by “my people”.

The suspect is described as “a 46-year old White American male”, and, in the American context, his claim may be presumed to refer to members of his race. Indeed, he is officially accused of a racist “hate crime”.

This is where the element of blind fear comes in. Once you start dividing the citizens of a nation into compartments of “them” and “us”, whether on the basis of race, tribe or religion, you are on the tragic path of hate crimes.

PRAYER SESSION

In any case, it will not be easy for Mr Bowers to produce evidence for his claims against the poor people he massacred at their prayer session.

Let me pause here and make a categorical statement. I am not an apologist for Jews, Judaism, Zion or Israel. I could not even remotely begin to claim any right to speak for any of these entities, even if I knew anything near enough about them, which I do not.

Nor am I enamoured of or amused by a lot of the goings-on in the Middle East, where the state of Israel is a major player.

But there are two points which should be made. First, unprovoked aggression, whether verbal or armed, against our neighbours is repugnant. When it degenerates to the point of attacking and killing people in their places of worship, it becomes absolutely intolerable.

Secondly, we should not blindly generalise and stigmatise a whole community, especially one as diverse and as complex as the Jewish one.

This is where the problem of ignorance comes in. We fear what we do not know. Why can’t we start casting out fear by trying to inform ourselves?

Hardly anyone of us in the modern world can convincingly claim to have nothing to do with Judaism.

The case of Christians and Muslims is obvious. The three monotheistic faiths, relying on revealed scriptures, are so closely related that the sanest sages of Islam, for example, have described them as “ahl-al-kitab”, the congregation of revealed writings.

Should we not, instead of suspecting and persecuting one another, not aim rather at understanding each other better and seeking how we can cooperate?

My visit to the Synagogue, in Nairobi, was somewhere in the mid-1990s. Some researchers from a British university were investigating the extent of Jewish influence in Africa and they were directed to me as a possible useful local contact.

I confess I was not much help, partly because of my ignorance and partly because of the distractions I was under in the process of my relocation from Kenyatta University to Makerere.

One thing we did, however, was to visit the Synagogue, just across the narrow filter road from the University of Nairobi Main Campus. It was not on the Sabbath, but we were cordially welcomed by the attendants and invited to have a look inside the prayer house. One condition we had to observe was that we should wear skullcaps, given to us by the attendants.

I will, maybe, share with you some day the insights we were given into our own Jewish community and their activities in the City in the Sun.

But my most memorable part of the visit is that, as I was driving back to KU, I suddenly remembered that I had forgotten to remove my skullcap and hand it back to the attendants.

I had to drive back to the Synagogue and do the needful, occasioning my second visit to the Synagogue that day.

Anyway, see if you can read our beloved Marjorie Macgoye’s novel, A Farm Called Kishinev. It is a scintillating narrative of a Jewish “pioneer” family in Uasin Gishu, where a Jewish homeland was once supposed to be established.

Incidentally, do you, like Benjamin Kiplagat Wilder in the novel, and me, have some Jewish relatives? Shalom!

 

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]

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