The Anne Frank Trust and the cities of refuge

The Anne Frank Trust has been through the mangle in recent weeks.

They were attacked for commissioning a poem by well-known Jewish poet Michael Rosen. Then they were attacked for not mentioning that Anne Frank was Jewish (even though they do, very prominently, mention that Anne Frank is Jewish). Then they were attacked for using exclamation marks to refer to the Holocaust. Then they were attacked for allowing a Quaker to be their chief executive because Quakers all hate Jews (apparently there’s nothing remotely ironic about trying to defend the memory of Anne Frank by inciting religious hatred).

These increasingly hysterical complaints are actually masking two more serious issues, both of which are worthy of being, and both of which need to be, discussed:

Firstly, the Anne Frank Trust invited Nasima Begum, an antisemitic poet, to deliver some of its educational sessions. This was a clear and unacceptable failure; the Trust’s omission to carry out a basic Google search, which would have revealed that Ms Begum had a history of posting tweets calling for “death to you Zionist scum”, was unprofessional and simply should not have happened. The Trust’s unreserved apology and commitment to update its due diligence procedures is welcome.

Secondly, there is an interesting wider conversation to be had about the extent to which the Trust’s mission – which is to use Anne Frank’s diary as a tool to educate against all forms of prejudice, rather than restricting its significance to antisemitism alone. Personally I don’t have a problem with that in principle, provided of course that Anne Frank’s Judaism isn’t erased: after all, the Torah tells us to universalise our own experiences of racial oppression. But I absolutely accept that there’s a valid debate here.

However, that debate is not able to take place, because the fanatical and obsessive reaction is taking up the airwaves. There is no opportunity for any trace of nuance while people are screaming for resignations, for the charity to be shut down, and nonsense about misplaced exclamation marks.

In this Shabbat’s parashah, we will read about the cities of refuge. These were six towns in ancient Israel which God commanded be set aside for unintentional manslaughterers to live in: if somebody accidentally killed another, for example in a construction accident, they would move to a city of refuge so as to be safe from their victim’s traumatised and angry next-of-kin (referred to, biblically, as a blood-avenger).

There is an enormously important message here.

People who make a mistake – even a negligent mistake which suggests that they severely disregarded their responsibilities – have to be allowed a safe space to put it right without being attacked and pursued by blood-avengers. We understand the blood-avenger’s concerns: they lost a family member in unspeakable circumstances. But nonetheless we don’t let them carry out their desire for revenge, because that is not how a civilised society works.

There were, though, some very important words in the previous paragraph: ‘to put it right’. The city of refuge is not just a comfy place of sanctuary where the wrongdoer can live in peace. There is a flipside as well: this is a bargain with two parts. The wrongdoer is expected to take their rabbi with them, and continue learning and developing themselves as a person.

If we offer this safe space to those whose error led to the loss of a human life, how much more so should we offer it to those whose blunders were nowhere near as severe.

The Anne Frank Trust has, accidentally but negligently, done wrong. That wrong has caused harm. They have a duty to resolve that harm, and to engage in reflection and introspection to make sure that it does not recur. But they also have a right to do so in a space free from fanatical bullies who, while motivated by an understandable sense of hurt, are seemingly blind to the need to prioritise teshuvah – repentance – and growth over revenge and retribution.

May this Shabbat be a time for peaceful reflection and contemplation, for deep breaths and the release of tension. And may we return to the world of the mundane with a renewed sense of calm, composure and nuance, ready to confront the real issues.

And the only way to end this drash is with an exclamation mark!

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