January 22, 2015

Gun Culture

For a long time I have believed that the gun culture of the United States is dangerous and frankly stupid. So many people are killed by firearms going off accidentally or because they fall into the hands of children or madmen. Their easy availability is not just because they are a transportable and smugglable commodity, but also because there is a myth of American culture that claims that only by possessing guns were the American rebels able to defeat the British and gain independence. Even if that were so, and it is not, what might have been true 300 years ago is not necessarily the right answer for today. The NRA spends billions buying votes (as is the American way) to ensure that anti-gun legislation is blocked. Regardless of the massacres, casualties, abuses, and misuses, almost all attempts to restrict guns in the US fails. As a result its gun death statistics are the highest in the world per capita, and they insist on believing that guns help protect people.

The other lobby, of course, is the hunting lobby. I hate hunting. I think it is cruel. Shots often miss or injure without killing. Often enough an innocent bystander or passerby gets wounded or killed. But I know I will not convince anyone because I will be dismissed as a culturally inhibited Englishman corrupted by my upbringing and I will be only preaching to the “amen chorus”. And yes, I do believe that the meat industry is cruel too and needs much tighter control. Frankly I’d like to see it banned altogether, but that’s another argument.

However, all this depends on the police forces around the world being able to protect their citizens. If you live in the Wild West then, I agree, not having a gun would be crazy, even if it might not save your life, even if having a gun and being able to use it well meant that you were more likely to be a target yourself.

There has been a lot of debate about whether the police in the US and elsewhere are over-armed. But since crooks, drug dealers, and ordinary citizens can acquire the most sophisticated and powerful killing machines, it would be ridiculous and insane not to allow the police to be able to match the fire they come up against. We have all seen this week how the Islamic fanatics in Paris were so well armed that they could force the police into retreat by completely outgunning them. They were, thankfully, eventually cornered, outnumbered, and put out of their miserable lives.

What happened in Paris, however, has now led me to modify my opposition. What happens when the state does not protect its citizens? There have now been repeated murderous assaults on Jews in France and elsewhere. Isn’t it time for them to be armed? It is the principle of the English philosopher Hobbes that we relinquish some of our freedoms to the state in exchange for its protection. Where they fail, the contract is void. Europe has a strong tradition of restricting individuals from having access to firearms, even the police under normal conditions. As a result its citizens are far less likely to be killed. But if assaults on Jews are increasing in France, I believe those Jews who remain must be prepared to arm themselves.

Israel is a country where citizens have access to guns and where they are constantly under threat. Yet you might argue that having guns did not stop the massacre in Har Nof. But the proximity of civilian arms did help limit the damage. Had the Hyper Cacher store had armed protection, the initial assault might have been avoided. Clearly the French police have not done enough hitherto, despite the repeated assaults on Jewish targets. We must not be afraid of taking the initiative. If the French authorities object, they know that the answer is for them to do more to deal with the problem. Yet for all the fine words, we know they have abandoned area after area in France to Muslim self-control and have allowed the hatred to fester without response. This situation is now being repeated right across the European community. I would not want to be in France today without self-defense. And the instructions of the US State Department to Jews traveling to Europe not to show any outward signs of Jewish identity in public is simply crass appeasement, capitulation, and defeatism. Just as the refusal in Britain and the US to print the cover of this week’s Charlie Hebdo uncensored, because it contains a cartoon of Mohammad, is a sign that we have lost the battle for freedom already.

We need a debate about the values of modern societies. Throughout the world what exacerbates alienation is a sense of inequality, financial and political. If one puts wealth and accumulation above providing a meaningful occupation, one will be breeding discontent. This is as true in western states as it is in eastern states. Even where there is a generous welfare system, this alienation festers. There has been a consistent governmental failure to find work, to create public infrastructure projects, or to use tools such as micro-lending to encourage the poor and unemployed to find some pride, regardless of color, religion, or race.

There is a constant flow of refugees and immigrants. In Europe every year some 300,000 come in from Muslim countries around the Mediterranean. In the US there are just as many illegals crossing the borders. Most are peaceful and want only to find a better life. But inevitably amongst them, as with all such waves in history, there are gangsters and fanatics. Most societies have failed to integrate immigrants or the socially deprived. The problems are both social and, increasingly, religious. Muslim countries send thousands of primitive, hate-mongering imams around the world to cater to the spiritual needs of these disadvantaged and vulnerable wanderers.

On one level a society is to be judged by how it treats its weakest and poorest citizens. The Left believes that only a strong welfare system can help solve the problems of inequality. The Right believes that only by encouraging people to take care of themselves and find ways of creating wealth can the poor and disadvantaged raise themselves out of their disadvantages.

To be fair, most western societies seek some sort of compromise between the two extremes. But clearly generous welfare in Europe has done nothing to ameliorate this. It is argued that American Muslims are less alienated than European Muslims because they feel better integrated. But this is so in Europe too--those Muslims and other immigrant minorities who do well are better integrated. Those who are not are the breeders of violence. The European way has been to ignore the problem or simply throw money at it. Until this changes I see no alternative other than for us to strengthen our defenses. Because the jihadis are only showing that they can get more and better means of attacking what they regard as their eternal enemy.

January 16, 2015

France and Islam

I hope and pray the massive demonstration in France against the barbarians who attacked Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher market will mark a sea change in European attitudes. I hope, but I am not convinced. Hollande is still stuck in the same old orthodoxies of the left, which was why he invited Abbas, of all people, to join his march.

What is the biggest threat to our freedom? It is the arrogance of the assumption that all reasonable human beings will agree with a basic value system and that if one avoids confrontation one will be able to achieve one's ends. It is what we call appeasement. The European reaction to Hitler was to do nothing and hope the danger would pass. It did not. Inaction was taken as weakness. In the end the fight came at a catastrophic price.

It was the great achievement of the French Revolution to proclaim the theoretical values of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. But we know it soon deteriorated into mass murder and chaos. Britain achieved its freedoms and human rights through evolution rather than revolution. In both cases beautiful sentiments proved useless in the face of power and vested interests. Even in the USA, whose revolution and noble aims predated the French, discrimination, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia have continued to flourish. The reality has been that exhortations and slogans all collapse in the face of human selfishness, ever since “Love your neighbor as yourself." Every ideal falls apart or fails when people are unwilling to fight to preserve what they value.

We are experiencing a stage in history in which one part of the universe is fighting for its insane, barbaric, medieval values and another part is all but sitting back and expecting that its value system will prevail by appeasing at home while using its militarily abroad. Across Europe there are no-go areas where immigrant extremists, more often than not of Muslim extraction, control whole swathes of territory. Every year hundreds of thousands of poorly educated Muslim refugees flood into Europe: 100,000 from Tunisia, 100,000 from Syria, and 100,000 from other Muslim countries, from Afghanistan to Somalia. If they were being integrated into European society, it would benefit everyone. But they are not. The laissez faire liberal policies have backfired and Europe is lost.

The apologists argue that the West is to blame for imperialism, for invading other countries, for supporting Israel. The West is responsible for causing alienation, for failing to integrate immigrants, and for not providing jobs; much of this may be true. But this sounds like a child blaming his parents for everything, besides it does not excuse random violence. It does not excuse singling out opponents for assassination with the now familiar, blood-curdling cry “Allahu Akbar.” Alienation inevitably seeks scapegoats. But some ideologies seem more prone to violent responses, to spreading extreme hatred towards the outside as well as internally. Our world is choc-a-bloc full of people who blame someone else instead of taking responsibility.

But the French problem is particular. Napoleon was the first European to give the Jews equal rights. Yet a hundred years later, France was awash with anti-Semitism as the Dreyfus Affair released the virus of prejudice and hatred against innocent human beings. You might argue it was the freedom of expression that allowed this hatred to fester. But I believe it was the tolerance of hatred, by government, church, and society and the refusal to denounce and react to it that was to blame. This also explains the craven attitude of France to the Nazis. You might have thought that the morally indignant Voltaire secularism of France would have achieved a better result. Instead it seems to hate all religions and not care until it itself is attacked.

For years now in France the mood of hatred toward Jews and Israel has been allowed to fester. There has been no corrective in the face of repeated abuse and violence. There was no serious response in France, no outrage when hundreds of thousands of its citizens bought books claiming 9/11 was a Mossad plot. No reaction to universities refusing to teach the holocaust for fear of giving offense. Anti-Semitic comedians like Dieudonné are massively popular. French media, like the British continues to vilify Israel, and in so doing it only encourages public demonstrations that place all the blame for the conflict in the Middle East exclusively on Jews and encourages and support those who not only fail to negotiate but whip up hatred and honor child murderers. This is why so many Jews no longer feel safe in France. Meanwhile, failure to act only plays into the hands of right-wing neo-fascists. If we do not marginalize and reject hatemongers, worse ones will only emerge. France needs a Zola to write a new “J’Accuse”. Manuel Valls, the Prime Minister, has taken such a stand. He has courageously and strongly, far more so than the President, condemned the rabid hatred and called on France to reject anti-Semitism. But, as you might expect, support for his call has been polite and muted.

The refusal to confront Islamic fascism ideologically and recognize its encroachment on our culture is responsible for the fact that it has its metastasized. Just consider: Hollande, Clinton, and Obama all declare that this is not a problem within Islam. That is the western world’s trope. But it takes the Egyptian President al-Sisi to tell the clerics of Al-Azhar, the premier Sunni theological college, that there is indeed a problem with Islam that the clerics must address before it destroys Islam itself. Even Nasrallah of Hezbollah, the last person I would expect to, says the same. Every day Sunnis kill Shi'a and Shi'a kill Sunnis. Don't tell me this is a problem within Christianity. The Arab world is a sewer of current anti-Semitic literature and media. Yet much of Europe says nothing and turns a blind eye.

The official policy is that to criticize Islam is to promote Islamophobia. But I did not hear anyone in the West object that to criticize Catholic priests who sexually abused their charges would cause anti-Catholicism. If I attack the problems and myopia of Jewish fundamentalism, does that mean I am inciting Jew-hatred? Yet for some reason the liberal world refuses to recognize the threat for what it is. Europe and even America tolerate hate preachers and others inciting their audiences to despise the “other”. But very rarely is action taken.

You can hear preachers attack Jews and infidels every week in some British and European mosques. Indeed in France some Muslim schools and Imams refused to participate in the moment’s silence and the demonstrations. Yet it must be reiterated that not all Muslims buy into this hatred. Indeed in Paris there were heroic Muslims who came to the defense of Jews under attack and moderate Imams who expressed solidarity.

All religions are subject to interpretation; some interpretations are jingoistic, self-serving, and exclusionary. Others are open and inclusive. But they are both products of the religion and must be addressed as such.

Despite my religious conviction, I strongly believe that religions need to be subjected to scrutiny, criticism, and, yes, satire. All systems need it. It is the best way of getting one to see what is wrong or what needs addressing, because all systems tend to resist change, to decay and to become paralytic. Uncomfortable as I am to see American comedians like Jon Stewart poke fun of my religion, I think it is healthy. That is why I object most strongly that there exists in the USA and Britain a tacit understanding in the media not to provoke, or make fun of, or show cartoons of Islam. Charlie Hebdo's anodyne post-massacre cover was not shown by the press in either country.

Meanwhile it is perfectly OK to make fun of Mormons and other Christian sects on Broadway. It cannot be right. If one wants a fundamentalist approach to religion one should live in that world, not the free world. The West must not capitulate. It must allow the freedom to disagree and to ridicule as much as the freedom to practice whatever weird religion one chooses (so long as you do not harm others). I might even add that one of the reasons for Jews’ success in rising in the West was that they simply had to cope with ridicule and become stronger to prove themselves. This is a lesson new immigrants of other religions would do well to learn instead of expecting to be mollycoddled.

It is one thing to be a civil or secular state, which I applaud (in no small measure because I just do not have the confidence in any religious leadership). And such a state must act to preserve its values. But if it does not respond other than with social payouts to those who preach hatred and undermine liberty, in time the secular or civil state will be overcome with hatred of all kinds or collapse altogether. That is something I believe neither Jew nor gentile would welcome. “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to remain silent.”

January 08, 2015

Chief Rabbis

The British Jewish community, like all communities, reflects the ethos of its host society. British conservatism, with its deference towards hierarchies and establishments, has certainly influenced the excessive respect that Anglo-Jewry has for authority and in particular for the position of Chief Rabbi. However, this characteristic has also been blamed for restricting freedom of thought and creativity far more than in communities like the United States that do not have Chief Rabbis. I have just read Britain's Chief Rabbis and the Religious Character of Anglo-Jewry 1880-1970 by Benjamin Elton, which I heartily recommend.

There have been several attempts to analyze the impact of successive Chief Rabbis on Anglo-Jewry. Most notably Meir Persoff’s Faith Against Reason: Religious Reform and the British Chief Rabbinate, 1840-1990, Todd Endelman's The Jews of Britain, 1656 to 2000, and Miri Freud-Kandel's Orthodox Judaism in Britain since 1913: An Ideology Forsaken. Benjamin Elton’s major contribution to the field is a thoroughly researched comparison of the ways Chief Rabbis over a century have dealt with challenges to their authority. He comes to the conclusion that they all acted consistently with their religious beliefs.

For much of the period that Elton covers, the United Synagogue, as the Orthodox umbrella of Anglo-Jewry is known, tolerated standards that in practice allowed for a great deal of laxity and leeway. Most members did not keep Shabbat and drove to synagogue before going off after Saturday services to soccer matches or their businesses. Mixed choirs sang in several synagogues. Its Ministers of Religion dressed like Anglican churchmen. The mikvah was all but abandoned. It was not until Sir Isaac Wolfson in 1962 that the United Synagogue had a traditional Orthodox lay president. The supervision of kashrut in butcher shops and at functions was much more lenient then.

The arrival of survivors from Eastern Europe began to exert far more Orthodox pressure on the community. The enclaves of genuine Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy began to assert themselves and over time expanded beyond the confines of their ghettos in Gateshead and Stamford Hill. Whereas once the Chief Rabbi set the tone, increasingly it was the Beth Din, made up of men from far stricter backgrounds, who came to be the arbiters of United Synagogue practice. Chief Rabbi Hertz did invite the magisterial Dayan Abramsky to head the Beth Din in between the World Wars. But it was not until many years later that the Beth Din felt strong enough and had a large enough base of support to slowly but surely suborn the authority of the Chief Rabbi. From being the Court of the Chief Rabbi, appointed by him, it turned into a self-perpetuating oligarchy.

The effect over time was that the United began to drift to the right halachically and is doing so lost much of its constituency. Some have argued that this was a good and healthy development but it has certainly been at the expense of intellectual openness.

What was the role of the Chief Rabbi? Was it to reflect the mood of his community or to try to change it? Was he the religious executive or the representative of everyone within the community? Perhaps the Chief Rabbi’s role was purely a diplomatic one, looking towards the non-Jewish world as much as the Jewish?

If the aim of the Chief Rabbinate under Adler and Hertz was primarily to halt Anglo-Jewry’s slide towards Reform or assimilation, under Brodie it was increasingly a struggle to accommodate the growing pressure from right-wing Orthodoxy. The Jacobs Affair is often regarded as the turning point when Anglo-Orthodoxy took a decisive lurch to the right. Rabbi Louis Jacobs, an Orthodox rabbi who had studied in the Gateshead Kollel before becoming a pulpit rabbi and then lecturer at Jews College, had suggested that the dogma that every word of the Torah was dictated on Sinai, need not necessarily be taken literally. Brodie then blocked him from advancement at Jews' College and subsequently from the United Synagogue rabbinate itself. Was this because he himself disagreed with his theology, or was it because of pressure from the right? Elton suggests it was because Brodie himself did not agree with Jacobs. I am not convinced of this from my personal knowledge of Brodie.

I incline to the view that Brodie, like all Chief Rabbis I have known, was zealous for the position and felt he had to hold the line. He saw his role as that of chairman of a company or headmaster of a school, constantly having to weigh the right decision to take when there were conflicting interests and to decide which battles were worth fighting and which were not. Invariably the safe solution was to compromise, to fudge the issue, or to take the decision that would do less damage. Brodie was a good man. He chose to accede to the pressures from the right and probably believed them to be in the long-term interest of Anglo-Jewry. He might well have been right, with hindsight but it came at a price.

Immanuel Jakobovits was, in my opinion, the most religious and humane of the Chief Rabbis I encountered. But he too saw his executive role as requiring him to “do the right thing” for the US. The rulings of the Beth Din on all sorts of wider issues were never challenged until the present Chief Rabbi of the UK, Rabbi Mirvis, chose to publicly ignore their advice on the issue of Limmud. (He capitulated on other issues subsequently.)

Only a rampant Beth Din can explain Chief Rabbi Sacks' obedience in refusing to attend Limmud and his acquiescence in forbidding Louis Jacobs from being called up for his grandson’s bar mitzvah on the grounds that he couldn't recite a blessing over the Torah that he claimed did not come from Heaven. If that were the real criterion, then 90% of all those called up to the Torah in United Synagogues should never have been.

I have a problem with the mixture of power, religion, and appointed authority. Inevitably the interests of institutions come at the expense of individuals and individuality. Power diminishes soul. I cannot begin to number the men and women I have encountered who have been rejected and rebuffed by religious authority sticking to a rigid line and an uncompromising stance. I look to great rabbis to moderate such positions, to set spiritual examples rather than executive ones. It is for that reason that I have been so disappointed with the performance of so many Chief Rabbis, wherever they have functioned. No one is perfect, certainly not me, but if one takes on a position of leadership then one must be prepared to lead and stand up for what one really believes in.

December 31, 2014

Fukuyama and Dirty Politics

Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy is a follow up to his earlier The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. For someone as jaded and mistrustful of politics, establishments and power as I am, it is a breath of fresh air and realism. Though sadly, it gives no cause for optimism.

Fukuyama tempted fate with his The End of History and the Last Man in which he stated that:

"What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

It is true that Communism has manifestly failed, as have the world’s dictatorships and theocracies. The proof is that so many of the people who inhabit such benighted states, even if they excoriate the decadence of Western democracies, simply cannot wait to emigrate to them. On the other hand, the financial collapses caused by the greed and incompetence of Western liberal democracies can hardly justify the claim that this is as far as we can get in improving forms of government.

Wherever you look democracies are incompetent, corrupt, or deadlocked to the point of dysfunction. America, Britain, and Israel are all examples of states that we might love for their freedoms but at the same time are dominated by a small percentage of rich and powerful, run by bureaucracies, hamstrung by incompetence, fraud, and vested interests. Politics is populated by ambitious, concupiscent, corrupt, ideologically straightjacketed, second-rate egos. So-called democratic systems are still full of gerrymandering, dubious varieties of proportional representation that disenfranchise huge portions of the population or allow a minority to hold them to ransom. And politicians are generally held up to ridicule. “Don't play politics with me” is another way of saying, “Don’t lie to me.” The result is that at each election fewer and fewer people seem to care enough to vote.

Fukuyama identifies the essential ingredients of successful government; the State, Rule of Law, and Mechanisms of Accountability. In his analysis of systems historical and current, he identifies the examples of failure in one or more of these crucial elements. Even where the first two exist, the absence of accountability leads to decay. He writes:

“Human beings are social animals...this takes the specific form of altruism towards family and friends...it is universal to all cultures…humans are also norm creating and norm following and make possible the collective action of groups…which tend to be highly conservative and resistant to change…they start with band and tribal societies and then advance to state level societies.

“Natural human sociability is based on kin selection and reciprocal altruism, the preference for family and friends. While modern political orders seek to promote impersonal rule, elites in most societies fall back on networks of families and friends... and when they succeed are said to capture the state...which makes it less accountable”

Fukuyama qualifies his earlier writing:

“All liberal democracies are no less subject to political decay than other types of regimes. Some have argued that accountable political systems have self-correcting mechanisms to prevent decay…but there is no guarantee that this self correction will occur.”

Most significant is the replacement of nepotism or tribalism with patronage or clientelism. Patronage is usually face-to-face, whereas clientelism is more a matter of mobilizing voters and involves mass party organizations distributing favors through complex hierarchical political machines. This is so obvious nowadays in the way left-wing cabals or unions influence politicians through their numbers. Similarly the other side, the Tea Party or anti-immigration groups, mobilize the right wing. Wealthy patrons on both sides invest vast sums of money in the expectation of reciprocity. The battle lines are drawn in the West between those who apply group blackmail and those who use money and influence to countermand ideologies or policies they see as detrimental or immoral.

The USA is a dysfunctional system in which checks and balances make it all but impossible to reform taxation or immigration, let alone curb excessive expenditure. Like two aging boxers, the two sides batter each other into a state of paralysis. “Pork barrel politics” means that you can mobilize large blocks of votes; be they unions, churches, minorities, or sexes, as well as Chasidic dynasties. You can demand a quid pro quo for your support on one issue, which will often contradict your own strongly held ideals on others.

So, for example, Obama wants to help underprivileged black children but cannot support charter schools, which evidently help them, because he is in hock to the teachers' unions who oppose them. New York City has passed a law requiring that before performing circumcision in the Chasidic manner one must have written parental approval, because of the risks of infection. But because certain Chasidic dynasties command such big blocks of votes in New York, the authorities dare not enforce the law. Similarly, a Brooklyn district attorney avoided prosecuting cases of Chasidic child abuse for fear of offending Chasidic backers. Examples such as these are replicated across the country.

The saving grace of corrupt Western liberal democracies is that there is a better chance of the common man having a say or rising to a position of influence than there is in oligarchies or dictatorships, where it is the man at the top and his cronies who make the decisions and filter out opposition. The situation in China and Russia seems to indicate that so long as people have the opportunity to better themselves financially politics matter less. It is when things turn economically for the worse that the illusion begins to crack.

The challenging question is what can be done. The obvious answer is to move to a state one thinks is less evil or corrupt than the others, or to a state with whose religious or cultural ethos one is more in tune. But this may not always be possible. The second option is to go into politics to try to change it. However, all the evidence is that such moral individuals get compromised or crushed by the system, and the party machinery always wins out, sometimes with beneficial results, sometimes not. In the end one can only try to ensure one's own bubble is an ethical one and to do as much good for others as one possibly can. Humans are corruptible animals, and clearly some are more corruptible than others.

Fukuyama’s analysis and scholarship are a good way to start the new civil year!

December 25, 2014

Frenemies: Judaism and Islam

I always used to regard Islam as a religion much closer to Judaism than Christianity was. Its passionate Orientalism resonated much more with my experience of Judaism--less impersonally theological, instead more behavioral and warm. The Muslim centrality of Shariah, is akin to our wider use of the term Torah, with its emphasis on behavior. Maimonides said that according to Jewish law one may take an oath by Allah. According to him the word Allah and our names for God were one and the same, something one could not say about the Trinity.

The Muslim veneration of Mohammad goes way beyond our respect for Moses, who was revered less as a quasi-miraculous person and more as the vehicle of transmitting the Torah. Maimonides also pointed out that Christianity accepted the same Old Testament as we did, even if it thought it had been superseded by the New. Islam, on the other hand, claims we had forged and distorted the original text. A rather difficult claim to take seriously, given the prior existence of our text long before Islam ever appeared on earth. But since when have theological assertions ever been subject to logic or history?

I have always had a bias towards Orientalism and its mood. But there were other aspects of Orientalism I did not like: its attitudes to minorities, its male chauvinism, its more autocratic, less progressive mentality, and the tendency to violence that Jihadism seemed to encourage (yes, I do know there are rival concepts). But many of those elements can be found in the West, too. As a result I always felt a far greater affinity to Islam and a much closer personal connection with those Muslims I encountered in my youth and my career in the rabbinate.

However, once one leaves the theoretical regions of religious interaction there is an altogether different reality. The elephant in the room of course, is Israel and the presumption that this is what has soured relations. But the fact is that Jews were not treated that well under Islam. Jewish communities were assaulted, forced to convert and often killed just as often as Muslim powers tolerated them as second-class citizens, dhimmis. It was worse under the Shia than the Sunnis (and, of course, much worse under much of Christianity). But even then it was often random and unpredictable. This was the state of affairs even before modern nationalism appeared on the scene.

Jews had always been migrating to the Land of Israel. It is arrant nonsense to link Jewish settlement in the Middle East to the Holocaust. The religious connection with the Land had always been powerful. Three times a day we have prayed for Zion for two thousand years. Just think of Yehuda HaLevi’s famous poem written in medieval Spain, “My heart is in the east, and I am at the edge of the west.” The Ottomans positively welcomed Jews escaping from Spain. But now two nationalisms have clashed in what has become a case of two families wanting to possess the same house, not being willing to share it, and two religions each supporting their own (more or less).

I once used to try to avoid tension with Muslim friends by asserting that I was not an admirer of Zionism as a secular movement, that I was a Jew by religion. But the truth was that my religion’s connection with the Land of Israel was so powerful, even essential, that I did indeed want us to have a space of our own, and if that meant defending it, so be it. Given that everything is now measured in terms of National Identity and if Serbs and Croats can have their own states regardless of reluctant movements of population, to deny this to Jews, given the record of doors closed against them, could only be explained in terms of anti-Semitism.

Still, to this day I try to avoid awkward subjects. I never really liked nationalism. It always struck me as bordering dangerously on jingoism. I toyed with the idea of a return to a variation of the millet system under the Ottomans, where each religion ran its own affairs under a centralized bureaucracy. There is no way I could see that working now in the Middle East, where even internal Muslim factions are murderously engaged against each other.

Everywhere in the Middle East, the religious voice is growing and increasing in power at the popular level. We really are in the midst of a Kulturkampf, a battle of religion against religion, sect against sect, and all of them against the secularists. Tom Friedman argued recently in the New York Times that the voices of secularists are rising in the Middle East. I hope so, but I am skeptical. A few swallows do not make a spring.

Here’s the problem. Judaism is a priority for me. More so than for many Jews. If I care about the survival of Judaism, I will inevitably care about Jews, wherever they are. If I hear about Jews being attacked or oppressed, I do want to help them to respond. Just as when the Jews of Damascus were attacked and killed in 1840 (long before Zionism), or the Jews of Mashad were forcibly converted to Islam in 1839. The whole of the Jewish world rose to their defense. That is how I feel to this day.

Now if I care this way about other Jews, why should not Muslims feel the same way about other Muslims they see mistreated by Jews or Christians or anyone else? Cannot I maintain contact and friendship with people who have different priorities to me, so long as we respect each other’s differences?

Once I thought that people with a certain kind of education would incline to think for themselves. But nowadays whole nations and communities are so infected with deep anti-Semitism that it is almost true to say that a Muslim anywhere in the world is likely to be preconditioned to dislike Jews. In the same way that there are Jews who believe every single Muslim wants to kill them. I wonder nowadays when I see people in Muslim dress whether I should assume they hate me. In Abu Dhabi airport last month I wondered if someone might want to stab me. Even in New York I often notice black looks at my kipa from Muslims. But then Charedi New Yorkers tell me they often get black looks from almost everyone.

So what are we to do? Try to maintain a friendship by never speaking about the unspeakable? The fact is that everywhere one can find a distinction between the view of the masses, the prevailing orthodoxy, and the views of individuals. Arab Muslims are very different than Indian Muslims, who are different than Indonesians. Everywhere there is a majority that hates and discriminates, and a minority that cares and thinks for itself. Jews vary in their attitudes depending on religious affiliation, education, and degree of acculturation. Just because some, even many, of the “other” do hate or dislike us, should we allow that to deny ourselves the benefits of sharing common interests and the richness of other cultures with those willing to share?

The fact is that despite the whipped up frenzy of hatred that supporters of Hamas indulged in this past summer, there are so many examples of Jews still trying to build bridges with Muslims and plenty of examples of Muslims responding positively.

An editorial in the London Jewish News last week highlighted all the positive moves that are being made between Jews and Muslims in the UK. In Stamford Hill both religions combine forces on social issues. Similar green shoots can be found in New York. We must not let the hatemongers control the agenda, and neither must we fall back on a default position of antagonism.

These are the hardest times I can remember for interreligious relations, with many Christian groups too. Just as in the world of the sixties an understanding emerged to avoid theological issues that divided religions, so now I believe we can agree to avoid political ones if we wish to speak to each other. We can feel a person’s pain without agreeing about the political circumstances, whether it is race, religion, or politics. Just because secular politicians seem incapable of civility, we who claim religious inspiration must not descend into that black hole. I am more convinced than ever that we must persevere. I hope this coming secular year will be a better one for peace and understanding. We are not all barbarians.

December 18, 2014

Paul Celan

There are Jews who think, write, paint, and compose. But are they Jewish artists? To be an example of a bicultural person I believe one needs to have a degree of knowledge and respect for both cultures. Is it possible to draw any line that is not arbitrary?

A random selection will illustrate what a fool’s errand it is. Spinoza was born Jewish, but he rejected Judaism and thought Christianity was the only true religion. Felix Mendelssohn’s parents converted to Christianity; so did Karl Marx’s.

In contrast I would argue that Kafka and Freud would be examples of cultural icons, who contributed enormously to Western literature and thought, who were born Jewish but did not live a Jewish life or express any overtly Jewish ideas in their writings. They tried in different ways to articulate both an interest in and a commitment to Judaism in its widest sense--something that the others mentioned above did not.

Husserl was a philosopher who had a profound influence on me, but he says nothing of significance about Judaism or Jewish thought. Emil Fackenheim and Emmanuel Levinas, in particular, come to mind as Jewish philosophers. I should confess that Levinas’ philosophy does not resonate with me. However he certainly combined the rational with the use of Talmudic themes and narratives. On the other hand, I can find nothing Jewish in Derrida at all.

If I were to look for an example of a Jew who said something innovative about Judaism and contributed to mainstream of Western culture, Martin Buber comes to mind. Indeed, aside from him I cannot think of a modern Jewish philosopher who, regardless of other talents and contributions, has come up with any really innovative ideas. Those I have read might be good apologists or commentators, but they are either derivative or still use Maimonides as their starting point (which is like trying to fly with an Aristotelian cannonball attached to one’s foot). But that's a pet peeve to develop some other time. Harold Pinter would be an example of a Jew who repudiated anything Jewish, and the great American triumvirate of Bellow, Malamud, and Roth were Jewish only in reaction.

These thoughts on biculturalism have been occasioned by reading “Western Art and Jewish presence in the work of Paul Celan” by Esther Cameron. He and she deserve to be more widely known and read. Her book is an exciting discourse on the interaction of western culture with Jewish experience. Where does Paul Celan fit into my matrix? He was born in a deeply Jewish German-speaking Czernowitz. His parents and the rest of his family were murdered by the Nazis. He survived. After the war he moved to France and turned his back on Jewish life.

He chose to write in the language used by the most evil and debased of peoples as they murdered while professing commitment to western culture. It was his way of engaging directly with them, confronting them in their own language. His repeated refrain is “Damen und Herren”, “Ladies and Gentlemen”, addressed to those who are not. Just as the Orthodox world has defied Hitler by refusing to disappear and reproduces in greater numbers, so Celan faces his audiences in German and defies them with his very voice and existence.

His Jewishness is unavoidable throughout his work. In one of his poems he mentions Vitebsk, the Star of David, the letters Aleph and Yud, the Ghetto, and Eden. His range is incredible. But the real power of his poetry is his anger and pain. His howl of agony against the Almighty reflects the ancient Jewish struggle with God and the cruelty and incomprehensibility of life. He rejects the concept of resurrection for humans or humanity, as well anything that offers false comfort or hope. He struggles with everything around him and tries, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, to engage his audience in his odyssey of agony.

Incidentally, I do not understand why he chose to meet Heidegger. Esther Cameron suggests a comparison with Jacob’s struggle with the Angel who stands in for Esau as the emblem of the eternal hatred that Jews have and always will have to contend with. That is our fate.

This is not an easy book to read. But it is worth the struggle. It pays tribute to a tragic but brilliant multi-cultured Jew whose life was intertwined with his love of ideas and of culture despite the failure of so many to rise to the moral standards that they were called to. Their failure might have been too much for him to bear, but his legacy remains.

December 11, 2014

Heavenly Justice

As we celebrate the miracles of Chanukah, we are bound to ask why sometimes some people are saved and at other times not. A month ago four men, all pious, learned, charitable and altruistic, were hacked to death in a Jerusalem synagogue as they prayed to God in tallit and tefillin. They were not ideologues or fighters. Just Jews who wanted to be good human beings and practice their religion in what they believed was their Holy Land. And we must not forget the death of the valiant Druze policeman who intervened.

If religion tells us that repentance, prayer, and charity averts evil decrees or that those performing a good deed are protected, why were they not protected particularly at that moment?

Why did Heaven decree hundreds of years of painful servitude before the Israelites were freed from Egypt? Why have two temples destroyed and the innocent as well as the guilty raped, sold into slavery, or killed? Why go through thousands of years of exile, oppression, torture, and death at the hands of Christianity and Islam or the Holocaust of innocents before being able to return home? Or why, simply, in the words of the Talmud, does a good person suffer?

Abraham asked the question first and we have been repeating it ever since. The answers fall into different categories. Peoples, nations rise and fall, succeed and fail as groups, not individuals. Individuals get caught up in wider conflicts and crises, to quote Proverbs, “like birds in snares.” If good people die as their nation slides into periodic decline, is it because they failed to alert or to change or to persuade their contemporaries to be better people? Unlike other cultures thousands of years ago, we recorded our errors and failures. Two temples were destroyed because good people failed, because we brought it all upon ourselves, says the Talmud. So, yes, we are often the authors of our own obituaries; but is that the whole story?

The legend goes that when Rebbi Akivah was being tortured to death the angels challenged God and He replied: ”Silence! It’s my decision.” That’s one answer. We cannot know the mind of God. A different opinion in the Talmud is that “the world functions according to its own rules”, although that avoids the issue of who made the rules in the first place. And there were great rabbis who honestly admitted that they had no explanation at all.

We are told that there is no justice in this world altogether, it is all in the Next. But even this position is modified by the opinion that no one has ever seen the Next World or knows very much about it. So why then do so many of us think that rabbis, mystics, Shamans and mind readers can really know or guarantee us anything? Is it just our need for certainty that gulls us into believing what we want to?

I want to suggest an alternative narrative. The function of religion is not, as is often stated, to answer all our questions. It cannot and does not. That is, after all, why the Talmud said its better not to enquire too much about things we cannot know. Rather its function is to help us cope. By giving us a framework for living that incorporates the unknown and the unknowable, it forces us to think, instead, of our own daily behavior. Having a framework enables us to deal with tragedy and loss because it’s when one has no distractions that one can dwell on what has gone wrong and why, and depression can so easily set in. That's the meaning of the sentence in Proverbs about the person who takes to his bed claiming there’s a lion outside. Too much abstracting and not enough doing has been the downfall or religions as well as individuals.

In addition, focusing on a Divine non-physical being enables us to think beyond our immediate physical world. In a way it's also a kind of distraction. It enables us to handle pain in the way we try to think of other, nicer, more comforting things. Exercises such as deep breathing and relaxing, which help us cope with physical pain, also help us cope with mental pain, with the unthinkable.

The Biblical Hebrew word for faith is “Emunah”. But Emunah has a root of being firm, strong, reliable. In other words having the strength to persevere and survive. Belief in God does not necessarily mean everything will be taken care of or put right. Rather it means that we have something to hold on to, a good friend or a transcendental experience that can take us out of our physical world and give us an alternative to an intolerable present.

Indeed that’s exactly what so many expect from our rabbis and gurus and magicians, too. I just find it strange to rely on fallible humans for certainty when it is clear that they themselves cannot have all the answers.

The widow of one of the slain in Har Nof said it happened because of rivalry and hatred within the Orthodox community. Not unlike the tradition that Rabbi Akivah’s pupils all died because they did not show each other respect. This does not mean that that really was the reason. I take it to mean that when a tragedy happens, any tragedy, we must use it as an opportunity for self-examination and repentance and to think that “there but for the grace of God go I.” And if I have been spared I must use the gift of life well and fully.

Hanuka (however you spell it), precisely for this reason, gives two narratives: the proactive one of taking responsibility, defeating enemies, and getting a second chance, and the passive miracle of the oil, of things we don’t understand. We must embrace the inexplicable. Much as I respect and admire scholars who are also good human beings and would trust them before most others, I know that throughout our history our good and our great have disagreed, argued, and often made what were with hindsight clearly the wrong decisions. Infallibility is a Catholic concept and one that emerged in response to the challenges of modernity. That is not the example that we should be following. Acceptance and appreciation of life is the gift of Heaven. So is trying to do our best.