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.

December 04, 2014

Ferguson

The shooting of yet another young unarmed black man, this time in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, has ignited a firestorm in the United States over the issue of race, specifically black. The return of a Grand Jury decision that there was insufficient evidence and too many contradictory witness reports to charge the police officer has only made matters worse. And similarly the Grand Jury’s decision in New York not to prosecute the white officer whose chokehold led to the death of Eric Garner gives the impression that there is one law for whites and another for blacks. Once again the argument is polarized between two sides that put all the blame wholly upon each other. Then there are those like me, who see both angles.

In both cases the victim was not blameless. Brown was wanted as a suspect in a petty robbery and behaved aggressively. Garner was doing something illegal and resisting arrest. None of these warrants taking a life. Clearly something is wrong with police tactics. But the juries focused on whether there was malign intent to kill and decided, as in the case of Trayvon Martin, that there was not.

Regardless of what gun supporters claim, the prevalence of guns in American society means they are more likely to be used, and police officers feel more jittery about their being used against them. Almost every day on American streets police officers shoot first and ask questions afterwards. Eventually American society will have to decide what it prefers. It is true that far more black men are shot by police officers than white. But this might reflect the reality of crime statistics on the one hand and that too few blacks who graduate school and get into police forces as much as racism. The reality is that the overwhelming number of black deaths is caused by other blacks. If demonstrators really believe the issue is black deaths, why are they waving placards saying “Don't Shoot” at white policemen when they should be waving them at other blacks, those who do most of the killing, spreading the message that black lives are cheap.

Although the crime rate in the USA has dropped significantly in general, specifically in certain big cities, the evidence shows the link between poverty and violent death. If one is raised in certain high crime areas one is more likely to become a criminal and get killed by same race criminals too. There is a whole substratum of alienated and violent young men and women, predominantly black but also Latino and this was only underlined by the violence, looting, and wanton destruction that accompanied the demonstrations in Ferguson. The question is whether this is about poverty, poor values, poor education, poor parenting, and desperation, or only about race. Gangs of poorly educated unemployed white youths are just as intimidating.

America has improved racially a great deal over the past fifty years. There are black Americans at every level and in every area of American social, economic, and political life. Clearly to rise is possible. Yet much of the black community is still held back.

So what is the problem? The American judicial system is seriously flawed. On one level almost 90% of criminal cases are decided on the basis of plea-bargaining where often innocent people admit to guilt to avoid the possibility of a much longer prison term. This means that bullying and coercion too often decide a person’s guilt rather than merit.

The legal system has decided that non-violent drug crimes are the biggest threat to society and deserve incarceration. Overwhelmingly, poorer Americans get caught up in this. The result is that 40% of the massive prison population is made up of blacks, even though they only make up 12% of the population. One in three blacks is likely to spend time in jail. Blacks are three times more likely to go to jail for the same offence as a white man. And the three-strike laws in many states mean that for repeated non-violent drug offences a person could spend most of his life in prison.

The result of this is that hundreds of thousands of blacks come out from jail, brutalized and unable to find employment and become responsible citizens. Family life is further eroded--67% of all black children grow up in single-parent families. This affects education as well as stability. For most young poor blacks, if they cannot become sports stars, entertainers, drug dealers, or petty criminals, they have no way of making a living other than joining the army which produces its own disastrous after effects. All this breeds desperation and hopelessness, which in turn increases violence.

Another cause of holding poor people back is the culture of dependency and expectation. Once it was a European disease to rely on welfare. Now in the USA government support is the sinecure that the poor have come to rely on. The massive growth in lotteries and gambling and the huge sums the poor spend proportionally on them also underline the reliance on salvation coming from somewhere else. In addition, a culture of blaming others and failing to take responsibility is reinforced by the culture of litigation. The career agitators, the Al Sharptons are out in force and the lawyers looking for million dollar paydays. Making a noise does not necessarily mean you are helping.

The media is to blame too for encouraging notoriety, instant fame, and excessive rewards for no talent other than self-promotion (usually through violence or pornography). The worse you behave, the better you do.

I also blame the left as much as I excoriate the excessive greed of the right. They love to simplify the enemy, to blame the other and look for any excuse to further their agenda. The proof is that at these current demonstrations one is seeing pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel placards. It is the same pathology. Too many ideologues focus on perpetuating problems by playing the blame game. And then for all their good intentions they end up supporting those who refuse to support themselves peacefully, because the victims are encouraged to look to others to get them out of their mess.

There are grave problems that must be addressed. There is some good news. The school dropout rate amongst the black population has reduced from 21% in 1972 to 9% in 2012. Education is slowly improving if only because there are more alternatives, despite the opposition of the teachers’ unions. There is hope.

Where there are peaceful demonstrations, I believe all caring citizens ought to be joining them. If something is not just or right in the societies we live in, it is our religious and social obligation to protest and work towards a resolution. But we should not perpetuate the problems by indulging and pandering and pretending it is what it is not.

November 27, 2014

A Jewish State

Is Israel a Jewish state or not? If there are avowedly Christian and Muslim states, why shouldn’t Jews have a Jewish state? Clearly there are some people in Israel have not considered Israel to be enough of a Jewish state up to now, for they have pushed hard for a recent bill in the Knesset to declare that Israel is a Jewish state.

We are a funny lot. We can’t even agree on “who is a Jew”, let alone how to describe a Jewish state. The truth is that this bill is just another example of politicians putting politics above common sense. You know sometimes things are best left vague!

This bill will achieve nothing positive. It will neither help security nor make anyone more Jewish, and it will only create more tension. It will make no difference, either to life in Israel or to the implacable, irrational antagonism towards Israel. So what is it for?

We have been here before. In the past the Knesset passed a “Basic Law” declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel. Did anyone pay attention? Did it change anything? Are there any foreign embassies in Jerusalem today? Did it make the Palestinians any more inclined to negotiate? No. It was more than a completely pointless exercise, and the UN promptly adopted a resolution calling for its annulment (though frankly I am in favor of anything that pisses off the UN).

The 1948 Declaration of Independence describes Israel not as a Jewish state but as a state for all its citizens, regardless. But it also declares it a homeland for the Jews. The Law of Return opens the state's gates exclusively and of right to any one that Hitler would have described as a Jew. And there are the laws establishing the flag, emblem, and anthem enacted in 1949 immediately after the state's establishment. In addition there are laws allowing for Jewish legal courts, the state rabbinate, and laws of personal status and marriage according to Judaism.

This unnecessary declaration will not add or solve anything. It will not decide who is part of the Jewish people, or whether the state of Israel is also the state of a person born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother or of a person who underwent a Reform or Conservative conversion. Anyway it is the Supreme Court that will ultimately decide such issues, if ever we ourselves can agree on how to solve them.

In truth the law is aimed at explaining to the Arabs that Israel will never be their state. But wait, what about the Druze and the many Christian Israelis whose men and women serve in the army and the police? At the horrific “Massacre of the Innocents” in Har Nof, a Druze policeman gave his life protect Israel, as have many other non-Jews over the years. Can it not be their state, too?

In today's explosive situation, the law only has the power to cause damage and worsen our relations with minorities. If in the end Israel annexes the territories with all their residents, Israel will become a bi-national state and will probably concede to Arab areas autonomy regardless of what the current Knesset writes in one law or another. With this law we are regressing to nineteenth century Europe, where if you weren’t a Christian in a Christian country you were regarded as a second-class citizen. We know what that does to one. The greatness of Israel was that it tried to separate religion from state as far as the political negotiations would allow. Not enough in my opinion, but some.

The fact is that the USA separated the two but it still managed to evolve into a state where both religious and secular, Jewish and non-Jewish, communities and individuals could coexist and thrive. It has not been perfect and lot needs to be done. Where doesn’t it? But a separation of State and religion, individual freedom without coercion in matters of conscience, this is still my preferred vision for Israel. And yet Israel is a state where priority is given to Judaism. Just as in Britain priority is given to the Church of England, or in most of Europe to Catholicism.

I am not a big fan of democracy. I am with Winston Churchill when he said, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried." The reason is because in principle democracy upholds the rights of all citizens. Israel has its Supreme Court and, although some argue it is too protective of Israel’s security needs, it still protects the civil rights of all its citizens to the best of its ability.

The Torah is neither for nor against any political system, so long as it is just and fair to all its citizens and legal residents. There is nothing in Torah opposed to democracy for running civil affairs. As a religious Jew I would, in theory, like to see Israel run according to Jewish law, working with a democratic system (not that the present democratic system in Israel is so good, but then tell me please where it is any better or less dysfunctional). The trouble is I don't have confidence in much of our present religious leadership. I just don’t see the tolerance and broadmindedness to follow the spirit of Torah as opposed to its letter.

That is why such tokenism and tinkering does nothing for Judaism. It strikes me as simply one in the face to Abbas, who wants a Palestinian state free of Jews. Do we really have to descend to his level? (And I don’t even mention the abomination that is Hamas’s charter.)

Israel needs to focus on security and meeting the social needs of its people, whatever their religion. And if we Jews want Judaism to flourish, we must do it by persuasion not legislation. If I thought this would help all that in any way, I’d be for it. Otherwise it looks to me like little boys throwing stones at each other and trying to teach a lesson that no one wants to learn.

November 20, 2014

Conversion Law

On the face of it Judaism welcomes converts, regardless of race or background, if their motive is a sincere conviction that they would like to live a committed Jewish life. But there were always differing points of view. The well-known Talmudic story tells about a potential convert coming to the great Shammai and asking to be converted if he can teach him the Torah standing on one leg. Shammai, going by the book, told him to get lost. The even greater Hillel, on the other hand, converted him by giving him a general overview that Judaism is concerned with caring for human beings, and then told him to come back for more lessons.

Two thousand years ago converts were legion. But then both Christianity and Islam made conversion to Judaism a capital offence, and Jews turned inward to avoid trouble. Come the Enlightenment mores Jews converted out than in. At that stage there was no alternative to religious identification. But as society became more open and secular, liberal communities began to accept converts who wanted to marry Jews rather than to live an Orthodox way of life.

History and circumstances changed. Even within Orthodoxy, the desire to encourage new blood and the establishment of a Jewish State led to many rabbis becoming much more flexible, particularly for those living in Israel. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel was originally open and flexible. But in recent years, its hijacking by more right-wing rabbis or those more beholden to right-wing politics has led to complete chaos, with rabbi pitted against rabbi and community against community. Increasingly the right wing insists on no compromise of Orthodox demands, and the left wing insists on no restrictions at all. Caught in between are hundreds of thousands of Russian Israelis who are not legally Jewish but are full citizens of a Jewish State, thousands of Reform converts not recognized as Jewish and hundreds of Orthodox converts whose conversions are not now deemed kosher by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

Orthodoxy today is as divided as in Hillel’s day between those who stand for what they see as religious integrity and fewer numbers and those who want to open up Judaism to more people, and in the case of the State of Israel want to be inclusive rather than exclusive. This chaos is proof that when religion and politics intersect, the result is total desecration of every religious value. It only makes a laughingstock out of Judaism.

Despite all this I am just amazed at the number of wonderful committed young men and women I have met who have persevered and jumped through all the hoops to become amongst the most impressive, committed, and learned Jews I have come across. Although, yes, I admit I have also come across just as many who were not sincere and had other agendas.

This month conversion has been in the news in the USA and in Israel. In Washington a prominent Orthodox rabbi who had been a champion of centralizing and tightening up Orthodox conversions under the Rabbinical Council of America has himself been found falling short of the very moral and religious standards he claimed to and should have been upholding. What a shock it has been to those converted under his aegis. And coincidentally the Knesset in Israel, recognizing what a mess we have, has just passed some new laws trying to make the conversion process transparent and fairer there.

Israel’s marriage laws are an embarrassment. There is no civil marriage. You can only get married by a religious authority. You can marry across the faiths, but only if you agree to accept some religious authority of whichever religion. And hitherto one centralized authority controlled it all, and you had to go to the relevant clergyman in your district.

Under pressure, the Knesset last year opened up religious marriages in Israel to allow one to go to any recognized rabbi instead just one’s local poobah. Of course it still doesn’t help a secular Jew who wants nothing to do with his religion or any other. Travelling to Cyprus is his nearest option.

Now the Knesset has intervened to make conversions less hide bound and here too one can, in theory, go to any established rabbinical authority. The trouble is that the Chief Rabbinate was and remains so opposed to any compromise that, in the end, the political parties agreed to allow the Chief Rabbinate a veto as to who would be allowed to convert and who not.

So although in theory things have loosened up, a fat lot of good it has done because the Knesset Bill is not binding. The law was not passed as legislation but as a government directive. Legislation would have provided greater guarantees that the ability of municipal chief rabbis to conduct conversions would not be overturned. The government directive is subject to the unpredictability of coalition politics. A simple cabinet decision could overturn it. So in fact if the Chief Rabbinate proves to be bolshie, it can. Of course one can always pray for a miracle, but that is not always very reliable.

Because the more open national-religious rabbinic leadership has been losing ground to more the extremes, a backlash has developed, led mainly by the Tzohar rabbinical association, against the central authority of the Chief Rabbinate. It has succeeded in galvanizing less rigid and more Zionist inclined rabbis to make both marriage and conversion much more humane and personal. Despite all attempts to squash them, they are flourishing. But the situation still remains inconsistent.

Those who oppose the change argue, in my view not at all unreasonably, that the decentralization of conversion can lead to individual rabbis giving in to pressure and bribes. This has, in fact, been the case for many years, both in Israel and throughout the Jewish world. But I do not believe it is worth making life impossibly difficult just because some people take advantage. It’s like school rules. The tougher you make them, the more likely the efforts to circumvent them.

It’s all very well to complain about the abuses, but unless Orthodoxy can come up with a consistent, humane alternative, we remain in a state of chaos and moral deficiency. Torah, instead of being a light, is in danger of failing in its moral and spiritual mission.

I stand solidly on the side of compromise. I fear, however, that I will be on the losing side, as I have been so far within Orthodoxy. This will not discourage me, but it will be tough on the campaigners and bad for Judaism. Why, oh, why do we seem to go out of the way to appear rigid, uncompromising, and extreme? Do we really want to shoot ourselves in the foot every time? For what it’s worth, I gather the pope has similar problems!

November 13, 2014

Scotland the Brave

I have always loved Scotland.

When I was two years old, my father became the Communal Rabbi of Glasgow. The much missed author Chaim Bermant records that when Kopul Rosen had finished his induction address an elder of the community was seen to walk away shaking his head. "What's the matter?" he was asked. "Don't you think he's good?"

"Good? He's marvelous."

"Then why are you shaking your head?"

"Because a man like that will never stay here for long."

He was right, though for possibly the wrong reasons. The Rosen family's time in Glasgow was brief, just two years, because my father was called to London to become the Chief Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues. All I recall from that period was having my finger nibbled by a rabbit at Queens Park Zoo.

In 1968 I returned to Scotland as the rabbi of Giffnock, the largest Scottish Orthodox community, and spent some of the happiest years of my life. I loved the community. It was so warm, so Scottish. But they talked about leaving the country every time they went down to London. To me, Scotland and the work in the community was heaven. But I didn’t last long either. Not because I didn’t love it, but because I was called south to take over my late father’s school in England.

I was educated in England, and we were taught about the Great British Empire and Scotland’s essential part of it. Throughout the empire the Scots marched in their kilts and trews and blew their bagpipes. They fought bravely and provided skills, managerial and academic expertise. We English were proud of the Scots. But the feeling was not necessarily mutual.

One often sensed an abiding resentment of England that came from earlier battles and defeats. The competition between the two dominant soccer clubs of Glasgow in those days, Celtic and Rangers, often led to violent encounters and reflected the tensions between Catholics and the Protestants, the loyalists and the antiroyalists. The annual international between Scotland and “the auld enemie” England was often marred by violence.

Scotland had beauty, vibrant culture, and great universities, but also brutal poverty and drunkenness. The Church of Scotland was independent of the Church of England. Scotland had its own legal and educational systems. Political life in Scotland was for the past 150 years dominated by the unions, with their passionate Marxist orators and bullies. The leaders of the working masses along the Clyde, in heavy industries and shipbuilding, were amongst the founders of the Labour Party.

Over time the Conservative party lost any influence it once had North of the Border. Virtually all the Westminster members of Parliament from Scotland are socialists, and often extreme ones as well. The Scots liked to express their deep resentment that England was flourishing as Scotland declined. This resentment remained even after the North Sea oil boom brought wealth to Aberdeen and the North East. Then the Scottish National Party appeared and added a petty and anti-English form of nationalism to the mix. But it expanded and offered a serious alternative to the big parties from the south.

Massive financial support of the Scottish social system by English taxpayers was a sweetener, but not enough. So more money was poured out to build a Scottish Parliament and carry out devolution. In its turn this caused resentment in England because Members of Parliament from Scotland could vote in London on matters of English concern, but English MPs couldn't have a say in Scotland’s Parliament.

In British politics I am not a natural Conservative, but whereas once I was a strong Labour supporter, the way it has become increasingly unsympathetic (at best) towards Israel has inclined me against them. Perversely this was why I might have supported the idea of Scottish independence in theory! Because if the socialist politicians could be hived off the British body politic that way, their malign hard-left influence would be removed from a Westminster already coming more and more under antagonistic sway.

On the other hand, an independent Scotland without the moderation of the Conservatives would have been yet another violently anti-Israel vote in the UN and the EU. So on balance I am glad it went the way it did.

Interestingly, in the vote for Scottish independence Glasgow and Dundee areas were the ones with by far the largest vote in favor of breaking the union. They are also the most vociferously anti-Israel cities. And the younger generation voted overwhelmingly to split. As everywhere in the west nowadays, the young, educated activists see anti-Israelism as their default cause. Radicalism lashes out in predictable directions.

Now, with the breakup averted, one comfort is that the UK will remain ambivalent about Israel because the Conservatives do contain a pro-Israel element, regardless of the pressure from the Foreign Office. England now may well have its own parliament that excludes the Scottish MPs, who can now do as they please within their own borders. And England will continue to foot much of its bills. That was the carrot offered to try to win votes. That's tradition for you and the price of preserving the Union Jack and Balmoral as the Queen’s summer retreat!

The truth is I have doubts about more little ethnicities asking for independence. All this nationalism really goes back to the post-WWI misguided attempt to stop more conflict. The old empires fractured, and each part became more self-preoccupied and xenophobic. The EU has tried to rectify it, but the result has been a capitulation of its dominant ethnicities to external ones. All countries and most politicians are corrupt to varying degrees and waste money. Lots of little ones only end up increasing the pig trough and wasting even more.

The only good I could see in this whole episode was that it makes it harder to argue that if every little European ethnicity can have their state, then why should not Israel? But frankly, in the end, national identities tend to be bad things and cause more enmity rather than less. And anti-Semitism knows no logic. World peace is still a long way off, but Scotland the brave remains part of Great Britain and the Queen can now relax. At least she still has her “Sceptered Isle”.

November 06, 2014

The Assyrians

As the battles rage around Mosul, it is relevant to recall that what we now call Kurdistan was actually the core of the old Assyrian Empire, the one that carried off the Ten Lost Tribes. Indeed there is quite a lot of literature to suggest that the Kurds are descended from Israelites. Benjamin of Tudela (died 1173, in Castile), who visited them, thought that had not the Byzantines forcibly converted one half and the Muslims the other half, then they would still be Jewish. He detected, he said, several customs they all adhered to that could only have come from us. Now there’s a thought. Anyone volunteering to rescue Kobani?

Assyria looms large in the Bible. After it conquered the Arameans of Damascus who had ravaged the Northern Kingdom for years, it then turned its attention to the Kingdom of Israel. First they bullied King Jehu into submission and finally conquered it in 722. According to the Bible, they exiled all the population and replaced them with other victims from their empire who settled around Samaria, the Northern capital, and became known as Samaritans. They were plagued by wild animals and thought it was because they did not know the local gods. So the Assyrians commanded Judea in the south to send priests to teach and convert them. They became known as “Geyrei Arayot”, “Converts (out of fear) of lions.” In other words not genuine converts out of conviction. The struggle between Samaritans and Jews went on for quite a while. Needless to say, Samaritans dispute this story. But the story does indicate what a religiously tolerant sort of people the Assyrians were. They wanted your money, bodies, gold, and obedience, but really didn’t mind too much which god you worshipped.

They then turned their attention to the southern Kingdom of Judea and besieged King Hezekiah, “like a bird in a cage” according to Sennacherib’s stele. The Bible tells us that the Assyrians withdrew, but Hezekiah was forced to pay tribute nevertheless. Sennacherib, the one Byron describes as coming down “like the wolf on the fold”, retreated home and set about building a new capital called Nineveh (the ruins are to be found outside Mosul today, if you can avoid ISIS).

The Assyrians finally fell foul of the Babylonians, and they in turn capitulated to the Persians, whose king Cyrus let some Jews return. But they ran into trouble with the Samaritans, who said that this was their land now and the Israelites could jolly well go back to Persia and complain to the UN (or something like that). We keep on running into such problems, don’t we? But we persevered! We hung in there. Until, of course, the Romans decided otherwise.

But there’s an important lesson we learn from the Assyrians that we repeat every Yom Kipur when we read the book of Jonah. He was told to go to Nineveh to get them to repent their evil ways. He didn't want to go because he knew that if they did repent they would be used as a tool to destroy his country, Israel. So he fled to Tarshish a well known port that was in the hands of the Kittim, the enemies of the Assyrians, the Sea Peoples from Crete and islands around. Well, we know the story of the fish and that when Jonah eventually got to Nineveh and started preaching, the King listened. Hence the well known phrase, “There’s no prophet in his own country.” They repented. Then proceeded to destroy the Northern Kingdom. (Don’t ask too many questions about chronology.) The lesson is clear. God does not support Israel if they misbehave. He will use some other power to destroy her. So He must have thought reasonably highly of the Assyrians. At that stage, at any rate, they were not just brutal, greedy conquerors, but in fact had a higher standard of morality than the Northern Kingdom.

Why am I telling you this? Because at this moment there’s an excellent exhibition called “Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Anyone who would like to tour the exhibit with me and Dr. Michael Seymour, assistant curator in the museum’s Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, should just turn up at 10:00 AM at the Met on Thursday, December 4.

The exhibition is fascinating in many ways. First of all it includes the earliest archaeological artifact that refers to the “House of David”. It is an engraved stone, a fragment from an arch found at Tel Dan celebrating Hazael of Damascus’s destruction of the House of David. As you might expect the Palestinian archaeologists anxious to deny there were ever any Jews there claim it’s not the House of David, but the “House of Dod” (perhaps Dod’s your uncle). Given that there is no other evidence, record, or hint of such a house, it’s nonsense to suggest that it’s not what it obviously is. But hey, politics gets into archaeology too. And the Israeli archeologists made so sure we would not miss the reference that they chalked the words white against the black background for all to see. Politics cuts both ways.

Then there’s the ivory balustrade found in northern Israel on display. The Bible mentions Solomon’s use of ivory, but this was found in Samaria. Ahab’s son Ahaziah fell through one of the balustrades of the palace and died soon after. Ahab’s dynasty was done away with by Jehu, and here he is at the Met, in stone on the Black Obelisk from Nimrud, the Assyrian capital before Nineveh, bowing down low to Shalmaneser, and it looks as though those following him are wearing four tassels that might even be tzitzit!

The exhibition links Assyria to Spain through the Sea Peoples. They were what we now call the Phoenicians or the Philistines. Some suggest the Canaanites are their descendants too. The competition between them and Assyria was fierce. But it was often one of mutually beneficial trade. In the different artifacts you can clearly the connection between the Phoenician alphabet and the early Hebrew script. That was before the Jews of Babylon adopted the square letters we still use today. But it was that earlier one that Moses would have used.

It is very moving, and it goes to show that the Bible is not just a collection of fairy stories. The events it mentions come alive. They remind us of the immense achievements of our ancestors and their failures too. It is both a source of pride and a warning, that like Ozymandias, great kings end up in the dust and are remembered only by their epitaphs. But ideas live on.