February 23, 2017

Benjamin Disraeli

We may think that current political discourse is crude and vicious. But believe me, beneath a veneer of gentility, politics in the British Empire was worse. As Hobbes put “nasty and brutish.” If he were alive today Benjamin Disraeli would agree with me!

Benjamin Disraeli, 1804 –1881 was born in London. His family came to England from an Italy. Although his father held membership in the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, he never attended. He was expected, as a member to join the board which he did for a time. But he officially resigned over whether he could be compelled to continue and left the community altogether. Benjamin and his sister were converted to Anglicanism as children, and brought up in the Church of England. He had hardly any knowledge of Judaism and its practices and came to believe that Judaism was a purely racial phenomenon. He even saw it as a barbaric faith that had been superseded by Christianity, and he believed that all Jews should abandon the Old Testament for the New. He rebuked his friends the Rothschilds for hanging onto their Jewish identities. But when it suited him, he played up his supposed Jewish aristocratic lineage.

He was attracted to journalism, and throughout his life he wrote popular novels. He entered politics on the side of Reform but switched to the party of the Aristocratic landowners, the conservatives, supporting the monarchy, the Church of England, and the protectionism of the landed aristocracy. In 1868 he became Prime Minister for the first time, briefly, before leading the party to a majority in the 1874 election. He developed a very close friendship with Queen Victoria. He was quite a ladies man and accused of using his wiles to win her over. He was proudly British and he fought for its imperial interests, supporting the declining Ottoman Empire to thwart Russian expansion and buying the Suez Canal (with the help of the Rothschilds) to facilitate British access to its Eastern colonies.

He tried to distance himself from Judaism. Rather like Henry Kissinger in his prime. He avoided getting involved in the long struggle to allow a Jew to become a member of parliament if he would not swear by the Christian faith. When he visited the Middle East and Jerusalem, he spoke to no Jews and visited no synagogues. He refused to support Sir Moses Montefiore and Albert Cremieux in coming to the aid of the Syrian Jews imprisoned and tortured over the Damascus Blood Libel in 1840 or the kidnapping by the Catholic Church of the Jewish child Edgardo Mortara in 1858. Neither did he support Laurence Oliphant, the Christian Zionist who came to him asking for support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine in 1879.

Yet for all that Disraeli tried to escape his Jewish identity, he was hounded and reviled throughout his life and beyond as an oily, devious, dishonest Jew, typical of all those who shared his history.

The late lamented and talented David Cesarani who passed away too soon, was commissioned to write a short life of Disraeli for the Yale University series called “Jewish Lives.” As paradoxical and inconsistent a selection of subjects as one could dream up if one tried. The mere fact of including Disraeli as one shows how loosely the net has been drawn.The book is not an easy read, but very worthwhile. If only to remind us how deeply the virus of anti-Semitism was embedded in British society from the eighteenth century onwards, even exceeding in its virulence that of France and Germany (which is saying something).

Such was the hatred that the Jew Bill of 1753, granting Jews civil rights, had been passed by Parliament, signed by King George, but then revoked because of the outcry from the church, commerce, aristocracy, and the middle classes. It would take another hundred years until Lionel de Rothschild was finally allowed to take his seat in Parliament, because he was finally allowed to take an oath on the Old Testament only. There were philo-Semites too, of course, like George Eliot and indeed Laurence Oliphant. But they were few and far between and overwhelmed by the primitive hatred of the English upper and middle classes in general (educated and ignorant alike).

Cesarani’s thesis is that Disraeli was excoriated and despised and mistrusted so much precisely because of his Jewish birth. Yet he came to acknowledge his Jewish birth with pride. Why? The source of his pride was his belief that the Jewish race has bequeathed nobility and talent to humanity through its inspiration of Christianity and Islam. His novels were sprinkled with Jewish heroes and noble examples of Jewish wisdom and generosity. But they were all without an iota of Jewish religious commitment or identity, and on the few occasions he tried to insert something of the Jewish religion, he got it completely wrong. Yet his famous reply to an anti-Semitic attack was “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.” To him, the fact that he had Jewish blood defined him racially, if not religiously. Such views were eagerly adopted by the evil pantheon of European Jew-haters. As Cesarani says:
“Ultimately he fits squarely into modern Jewish history for the worst reasons: he played a formative part in the construction of anti-Semitic discourse. Within a few years of his demise his words were being cited by Baurer, Marr, Drumont, Chamberlain, Hillaire Belloc, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, even Hitler, to justify their insane and pathological hatred of Jews.”
All his early biographies were written by anti-Semites like Edward Freeman, Goldwin Smith, and Thomas O’Connor, who all demeaned him and betrayed their own crude anti-Semitism.

In 1877 the Turks had reacted to a Christian rebellion in Serbia and Bulgaria with barbaric force and cruelty. Disraeli took steps to block the Russian military assault on the Ottomans. The lords of his Conservative Party and public opinion insisted that Disraeli punish the Turks. But, he refused to. Together with Germany and France, he blocked Russian advance in the Middle East and at the Treaty of Berlin was rewarded with the island of Cyprus. For his pains, he was scurrilously attacked as a Jew who undermined Christianity in favor of the Turks because they were more sympathetic to the Jews than the Christians.

Disraeli desperately wanted to escape Judaism and be accepted by the British aristocracy. But in the end he was, in Bismarck’s words, just considered “the Old Jew.” His success in the end was ability to use the system to his advantage. If anything he proved that you don’t have to be loved to be successful. Some of the most effective politicians have been the least likable.Times have not changed as much as we like to think they have.

February 16, 2017

Apartheid in Israel

Benjamin Pogrund was born in South Africa. As a journalist, he fought the apartheid regime, most notably through his work for The Rand Daily Mail. When the government closed it down and exiled him, he moved to London, where he joined The Independent and The Sunday Times. In his latest book, Drawing Fire: Investigating the Accusations of Apartheid in Israel, he completely demolishes the spurious, not to say libelous, claim that Israel is an apartheid state.

I became an opponent of apartheid when my father took me with him to South Africa on one of his lecture tours, in 1955. While he was busy lecturing, I was handed into the charge of some lovely Jewish ladies who turned out to be radical opponents of the system. They took me around some of the townships and made sure I saw the evils of the system at first hand. In my student days, I joined the Anti-Apartheid Movement and eventually rose to become honorary president of the Scottish Anti-Apartheid Movement.

In 1985 I was approached by the late chief rabbi of South Africa, Bernard Casper, to consider succeeding him. I went out and spent a month in Johannesburg to explore the possibilities. I wanted to know the inside story of South Africa—whether there was anything I could do, if the position became a reality, to mitigate or even to combat the apartheid government. It was through Benjamin’s good offices that I could get to meet many of the ANC and COSATU underground leadership, to get a feel for the situation. It was not easy to get to meet them. Only Benjamin’s reputation and the enormous respect they had for him got me through. They all advised me not to come. They told me that if I did take a stand, I would be put on the next plane out. That the situation was hopeless, and a bloodbath was imminent. Of course, things did not work out that way, fortunately, due overwhelmingly to the greatness of Nelson Mandela and the realism of President de Klerk. And the late Rabbi Cyril Harris did an excellent job shepherding the Jewish community through the transition.

Benjamin and his family subsequently moved to Israel, where he joined my late brother Mickey in setting up the Centre for Social Concern at YAKAR in Jerusalem to try to bring Israelis and Palestinians together.

Unlike most people, he actually knows and has experienced apartheid firsthand. Hence he is better able than most to deal with the charges that Israel is an apartheid state. He can state categorically that applying the term apartheid to Israel is simply ignorance, if not malice. To call Israel genocidal when its Arab population has doubled is a joke. Even the population of the Palestinian territories has mushroomed. Which means that Israelis must be the most incompetent genocidists ever!

In his balanced, detailed, and honest book, he completely demolishes the comparison, based entirely on objective facts. Under apartheid no black South African was allowed to vote or take up residence in white areas. In contrast, Israeli Arabs sit in the Knesset, the Supreme Court, and hold senior positions never, ever accorded to blacks in South Africa under the old regime. The areas currently occupied by Israel are indeed in a state of limbo awaiting a final peace settlement. The only people wanting the area to be occupied by only one race are the Palestinians. In a very different situation than South Africa. The Afrikaaner whites never intended to give any sovereignty to blacks, regardless of any settlement of their differences. Theirs was an ideology of racial superiority, not an unfortunate political accommodation awaiting a peace treaty, in which peace was being pursued in principle, if not always in reality. This book is an excellent overview of the present struggle between two competing claims, both of the past and the present. It is possibly the fairest book on the market for a balanced, objective viewpoint.

It is all the more important because, in examining the charges, he pulls no punches in criticizing Israel both within the green line and on the occupied West Bank and Gaza. He has no patience for extremism on either side. He points out Israel’s mistakes, failures, and shortcomings without trying in any way to disguise or minimize them. This book is an important source of facts, arguments, and replies that will help anyone on the frontline defending Israel against the lies, half-truths, and mendacious libels that one hears all the time and in almost every sector of the media, the glitterati, the NGOs, the charities, and academia. That lying should be the case in polemics and politics, of course, is a given. It’s politics. But that people professing honesty, objectivity, and ethics do so simply illustrates the amount of prejudice, hypocrisy, and mendacity that stalks the world we live in, and in fact actually prevents and postpones any chance of a settlement.

This is the issue. Sadly, no matter what Benjamin, or anyone else for that matter, writes, it will make absolutely no difference, any more than a Marxist can be objective about a capitalist. Ideological blindness is played out on university campuses where the ideological leanings of professors become the only point of view acceptable if one wants to pass exams or gain promotion in weighted, self-perpetuating faculties. Or where aggressive, bullying student cadres look to disrupt and silence any other points of view. All this at a time when most of the nations who berate Israel as a colonial interloper and aggressor are themselves the most corrupt offenders against human rights and civilized behavior on earth.

Israel will survive. But the awful side effect of exaggerated and prejudiced anti-Israel propaganda is that it further empowers right-wing refusal to compromise. It reinforces a siege mentality, imperviousness to self-analysis. One despairs of a solution when exceptional, fair, and experienced people like Benjamin will simply not be listened to, because they will be dismissed as tools of colonialism, regardless of their record. At the same time, he will be dismissed by the Israeli right wing as being too liberal. Such is the mad, mad world we live in. It is only by encountering good, honest people like Benjamin Pogrund that we can retain some faith in humanity and its prospects.

February 09, 2017

Jack Lunzer

Jack Lunzer, who died this past December, was famous for his Valmadonna collection of Jewish books, texts, and incunabula. It was the largest collection of Judaica in private hands, and Sotheby’s described it as “quite simply the finest private collection of Hebrew books and manuscripts in the world.”

But to those us who knew him, Jack, the man, was one of the most interesting, multifaceted persons one could ever come across. When you met him, you would never know which persona you might encounter. The international diamond dealer, the Orthodox Jewish follower of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in Frankfort, the generous philanthropist, the Yekke, the English gentleman, the Yiddish-speaking Belgian, the Italian count, the African diplomat, the opera buff, philatelist, horse breeder, skier, horticulturalist, man-about-town, bon viveur, joker, pious Jew and scholar. He was all of those, and more. Not to mention the doting father of five special girls.

We were connected indirectly. His brother Henry had married my mother’s cousin. I first met him when I was eleven. I was invited for tea one Shabbat at his elegant home in Hampstead Garden Suburb in London. The long table was laid impeccably with the finest china and silver above the starched white lace tablecloth. His elegant, perfectionist Italian wife Ruth and he always made sure everything was of the best and most fashionable. We were seated, and tea was poured by uniformed staff. As I reached out for the strawberry confiture to spread on my scone, I dropped the spoon, and its contents stained the tablecloth bright red. I was mortified. Jack saw how embarrassed I was. He reached out, picked up the jar, and turned it upside down, spilling all its contents onto the table. “There you are young man,” he said, smiling, “no need to feel bad about it.” What a generous and thoughtful act. But of course, it made me feel even more embarrassed, despite his good intentions.

My aunt and uncle who also lived in the Suburb were very close friends with the Lunzers. They often went skiing together in Switzerland. It was through them that I became a regular visitor whenever my parents brought me up to London from our Oxfordshire home. Everything about Jack was impressive—his home, his vintage Rolls Royce car that he said he needed to impress his clients. So was the flagpole in front of his house with the Guinea-Bissau flag, signifying that he was in fact their consul to the UK. One of the great coups of his life was when he cornered the Guinea-Bissau diamond production from under the noses of DeBeers.

Jack was born in Antwerp. His family had established itself in diamonds and had built the Eisenmann Synagogue, a little island of the Frankfort Jewish community, with its combination of deep commitment to traditional Judaism and a very Germanic openminded cultural outlook. When the family left Belgium for London, they joined and became prime movers of the Golders Green Beth Hamedrash, which used to be called “Munks” after its very cultured founding rabbi, Dr. Elie Munk. It too was an island of Germanic Judaism and held out for a long time before the wave of Charedi excess swept it firmly into the fundamentalist camp. Jack went to work in the family diamond business, and in due course took it over and expanded it well beyond its initial parameters.

Every time I visited Jack there would be another visitor there—an ancient rabbi from the east, a modern one from the west, a Zionist, an anti-Zionist, a duke, a count, a magnate, or a beggar. Jack spoke to each in his own language and as if they inhabited the very same world. And each time I visited, I would discover that Jack had a new passion. Of all of them in those early years, the opera was the most consuming. As with everything, he threw himself enthusiastically into it and became an expert, a patron, and an aficionado.

Somewhere along the line, he began to collect old Jewish books. What started off as a few shelves in his spacious home turned into a whole room, which then turned into an annex. Books took over his life, as he gathered around him experts and academics and became an expert in his own right. Of all his passions, beyond his family, this was the one that consumed him, and hardly anything else seemed to matter. Over the years I would see him occasionally, at family affairs or seated amongst his books, pointing out some unique feature of a particular volume. Or running off a list of all the Jewish books ever printed in, say, Venice.

He used to hold regular services in his home on Friday evenings, and his family expanded it into a small synagogue in the Suburb at which I was occasionally invited to officiate. One Rosh Hashana he was very agitated because that I wore a black kipa on my head instead of a white one. He assured me that my father would not have been so lacking in respect for tradition (in the nicest way, of course, with a smile on his face). He brought me a white crocheted kipa, which probably came from somewhere like Khartoum, to wear the next day (which I still have).

I doubt anyone knew everything about him. I once asked him if I could write his biography. He laughed and said he didn’t want anyone to know everything there was to know about him. The last time I saw him was in New York in 2009. It was at Sotheby’s. He was sitting like a king amongst his beloved books, enjoying being courted and consulted, greeting scholars, friends, and well-wishers with geniality and good humor. He was getting older, but the magic and the charisma, as well as the charm, were still there.

His world is gone, both the secular and the religious. Even his library is no longer completely intact. Nothing lasts forever. But I will always treasure his memory and so too will generations of bibliophiles.

February 02, 2017

Pray for the Welfare of the State

It is amusing and disturbing to see the demonstrations against an elected president, not so much for what he has done but for who he is. We rarely empathize with politicians. The bitterness this time in a change of power, seems to be coming from a deep sense of outrage felt by Democratic voters at having their sacred cows challenged, as well as the fact that Trump is a TV showman and not a typical president.

In Britain there is no point in demonstrating against the queen. She has no power, does not make laws. I am not a monarchist myself. In my childhood we used to make fun of the prayer for the queen that mentioned a list of minor royalty of doubtful quality. We would wonder who Heehoo was (as in the opening words “He Who Gives dominion unto princes”) or change “a spirit of wisdom and understanding” into “spirits of whisky and vodka.” Nevertheless, where I come from we just accepted whoever won a general election regardless of how much one disapproved of, or even despised, the political platform and personae. The winner, having abided by the rules, was the winner and exercised power in the way he or she decided. Though we knew that parliament or the House of Lords often emasculated the strongest of policies.

And this even though for the past 50 years the most successful party in the UK has rarely got much more than 40% of the popular vote. No one tries claiming they are illegitimate. So perhaps it just the difference between “new” democracies and old established, mature, worldly-wise ones. There are, it is true, always major issues at stake. But that is what democracy allows for. For swings, for change, and for differences.

There are many different types of democracies. The British constituency system is different than Israel’s proportional representation, which is different than the USA’s specific feature of an electoral college designed to prevent populous states monopolizing power. No system is perfect yet they are all democracies and as the great Jewish Persian authority Shmuel said, “The law of the land is the law.”

Some liberal-minded rabbis in the USA have decided not to recite what has been regarded as the norm in America, a prayer for the president. Does it matter? The prophets insisted that the Jews going into exile should pray for the protection of the regimes they were exiled to. The Mishna in Avot says, “You should pray for the welfare (peace) of the government, for without it people would swallow each other up alive.” There are lots of things one ought to pray for. But this does not imply a formal public prayer in a synagogue. It more likely meant that we as individuals should worry about the state of our society and try our best to support and encourage law and order.

But in Spain it became the custom in medieval times to indeed pray formally in the synagogues for the monarch to protect the Jews. Ironically, such public prayers fell on very deaf ears. Despite them, the Jews were attacked, discriminated against, and finally expelled from Spain.

Prayers for the monarch were common in Europe, asking God to protect the monarch and guide him or her to be kind to their Jewish subjects. But as we know from Tuvia in Fiddler on the Roof, the prayer was often to “Protect and keep the Czar…as far away from us as possible.”

Texts varied from country to country. In Britain such prayers mentioned the monarch by name. In the USA they prefer praying for the position (given that the incumbent changes every four or eight years). Some preferred prayers for the health of the monarch. Others implored them to “deal wisely and truly with all Israel.”

Such prayers often imitated Christian liturgies to show how loyal the Jews were. During times when they were persecuted as outsiders, fifth columns, and agents of the Devil, Jewish communities depended on the king to protect them from zealous Christian fanatics, both in the clergy and the populace. In many countries the national flag was displayed in synagogues. But increasingly they are falling out of fashion, just as we stand less and less often for national anthems.

In Israel, bless us (or not as the case may be), the Charedi world has long refused to pray for the state of Israel or its presidents or Zahal, to salute the flag, stand or join in when the national anthem is being played, or even celebrate Independence Day. Most people just look on them as daft and pathetic. After all, they do benefit from the state, even if they seem incapable of accepting it. I don’t see the fuss, and besides, whenever one says any prayer, one adds one’s own layers of meaning, intention, and significance.

But there’s another issue, perhaps dearer to my heart. Why add more prayers to services which are long enough anyway? I know some Modern Orthodox communities like them because they are not obligatory, and therefore you can ask a woman to recite them! Some like the idea of expressing loyalty, even gratitude that we won the war! Others love the pomposity. But do we need them altogether? I am a great believer in short services, in cutting out unnecessary padding and formality. Our liturgy is full of prayers asking for good governance and protection. Why add a specific one for the state we reside in? I can understand why under conditions of warfare or threats one would pray for one’s security and the protection of those who protect us. But again, if one is going to start including soldiers, police, security and spying agencies, the prayer will go on and on.

Of course, in our private prayers we express our hopes and anxieties. Once upon time we could not rely on states for protection or rights. We felt insecure. Now in Western democracies we can be more or less secure in our Jewish identities (although the Left and resurgent anti-Semitism is making this less of a given than it once was). We no longer need to profess loyalty. All the more so, since we know it is the law that protects us, rather than the whim of the head of state.

Once we had no choice. We needed to suck up to the authorities. Now we can live in a state with laws supposedly fair and applicable to all citizens of whatever religion. If anything, we should be praying for a fair and just system, rather than for its representatives.

I find such prayers rather empty, pompous expressions of formality. We have only one ruler and that is the Almighty, and we do spend rather a long time in every service praising and extolling Him and beseeching Him to protect us. But it is God we pray to and for, not human beings.

What is more, in Orthodox synagogues we recite on Shabbat the Kabbalistic declaration Brich Shmey De Marey Alma (Blessed is the Name of the Creator of the World). In it we say, “We are the servants of the Holy and Blessed One. We do not put our trust in men nor in princes, but only in God of Heaven.” So, let’s take the words we say to heart and scrap the prayer altogether. If we abide by the laws of the land, we should be good citizens like everyone else, even those who never go to synagogue or church at all.

January 26, 2017

Magda Goebbels

I am a fan of Professor Colin Shindler, celebrated historian of Zionism, the origins of the Right and the political rivalries of Israeli politics. He is an outspoken moral, intellectual voice against oppression and hypocrisy. He will shortly be publishing a collection of his reviews and essays under the title The Hebrew Republic: Israel’s Return to History, which I have been privileged to see an advance copy and I heartily recommend.

Amongst this treasure trove of Zionist history, I discovered a reference to Magda Goebbels, the wife of that revolting Nazi, Josef Goebbels. What is more, it says that she was once the mistress of Haim Arlosoroff, when he was a young man in Germany, known then as Viktor. Together they went to Zionist meetings, and she used to wear, in public, a necklace with the Star of David that he gave her as a love token.

Haim Arlosoroff was one of the most important Zionist leaders during the Palestine Mandate. He was born in Ukraine in 1899. His family settled in Königsberg, Germany, where he studied economics at the University of Berlin. He visited Palestine in 1921 and became actively involved in Zionism. In the 1923 Zionist Congress, Arlosoroff was elected to the Zionist Action Committee. In 1926 he was chosen to represent the Yishuv at the League of Nations in Geneva and became the Political Director of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, until his assassination in 1933.

It is not known who murdered him or why. The left wing and right wing of the Zionist movement both blamed each other for his death. Despite intense investigation and much controversy, the murder was never solved. All kinds of theories floated around. One was that he was blamed for initiating the Haavara, the agreement with the Nazis to permit Jews to leave Germany for Palestine, provided they deposited their money into a special bank account. This money was then used to purchase German goods for export to Palestine (and other countries). The proceeds of the sale of these goods were given to the Jews on their arrival in Palestine. Ultimately, over 60,000 German Jews escaped persecution by the Nazis directly or indirectly through Haavara. On 16 June 1933, just two days after his return from negotiations in Germany, Haim Arlosoroff was murdered. It was widely believed that right-wing activists in Palestine who objected to any deal with the Nazis were responsible. But there were bitter personal rivalries within the left of the Zionist movement too. Some suggested Arab nationalists were to blame.

In the mid-1970s another theory emerged. It was suggested in the Israeli press that Joseph Goebbels had sent two Nazi agents (Theo Korth and Heinz Geronda) to murder Arlosoroff in order to cover up the fact that he had been Magda’s lover.

Who was Magda? Magda had a Jewish stepfather, whose name (Friedländer) she adopted. But she was brought up as a Catholic. Magda led a colorful life. In 1920, while returning to university on a train, she met Günther Quandt, a rich German industrialist twice her age, whom she married the following year. He demanded that she change her name back to her mother’s and convert to Protestantism. She had a son, Harald. But she soon grew frustrated with her marriage, and in 1929 Quandt discovered that Magda was having an affair. He divorced her, with a generous settlement.

Young, attractive, and with no need to work, she attended a meeting of the Nazi Party on the advice of a friend. She was impressed by one of the speakers, Joseph Goebbels, then the Gauleiter of Berlin. Magda and Goebbels were married on December 19, 1931, with Hitler as a witness. Joseph and Magda Goebbels went on to have six children.

She had met Arlosoroff at the university. They became lovers, and she got involved with him in Zionist affairs. Years later he visited Berlin and discovered his old flame had married Goebbels. He even came across an opposition newspaper headline that read: Nazi Chief weds Jewess. Once the shock had subsided, Arlosoroff, so the theory went, began to view Magda as his conduit to Goebbels to secure a deal to transfer Jewish assets and people from Germany to Palestine. Their relationship proved to be an embarrassment to Goebbels and Magda, now very much part of the Nazi leadership. This, the theory goes, was why he was “terminated”. In truth we still don’t know.

In late April 1945, the Soviet Red Army entered Berlin, and the Goebbels family moved into the Hitler’s bunker. Magda wrote a farewell letter to her son Harald Quandt, who was in a POW camp in North Africa. She said that she saw no point in carrying on living after Hitler’s death and the end of his dream. Their charred corpses were found on the afternoon of May 2, 1945 by Russian troops.

Why did Magda become a Nazi? Was it simply because, like so many others, she took advantage of the circumstances to advance her own position in life, regardless of morality or ideology? Don’t most people? And how did she feel about Jews, having loved one in the past? Did she simply blot it out, or did she adopt the pathology of her second husband? Was she, in other words, a good-time girl hitching a ride, or did she turn into an ideologically committed racist? It seems to me the latter, and she deserved her fate.

Is her story anything more than coincidence and a strange quirk of fate? I wonder why I even bother to write about her. I guess it is only because it is interesting how life turns out. Arlosoroff is remembered as an intelligent, gifted, capable (if controversial) contributor to the foundation of the Jewish state. Goebbels is the apotheosis of evil, an apology for a human being. And Magda? She is not remembered at all, other than as the one-time mistress of a Zionist, thanks to Colin Shindler’s reference.

January 19, 2017

Children’s Cultural Identities

We all know about how much damage parents can do to children. But sometimes society, even when it means well, can do much worse. Yair Ronen trained as a lawyer specializing in the rights of children. Unhappy with the way the law seemed too impersonal, he studied counseling. Now he is a tenured senior lecturer at Ben Gurion University.

Ronen has just published Re-understanding the Child’s Right to Identity: On Belonging, Responsiveness and Hope. It raises fascinating issues. It contrasts Jewish spiritual perspectives, thinkers such as Levinas and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who place a lot of emphasis on a child’s sense of cultural and religious self, with the failures of doctrinaire secular societies to understand and respond to the cultural and identity needs of children. It is a short, academic work, but very stimulating and well worth reading.

The law claims to recognize the need to protect children. Western societies talk a lot about protecting rights and human dignity. But in their secular fundamentalism, they tend to overlook one of the most important elements in a child’s development, which is his cultural ( and that includes the spiritual) identity. Neither the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child nor the European convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms explicitly upholds the need to have and preserve a sense of identity.

Or, as Ronen puts it, “Legal protection of the child’s right to human dignity does not guarantee protection of an individualized identity…the child’s need “to be” his authentic self. This involves the need to be and to become…we need policies of difference or identity which see suppressing distinctness by a dominant or majority identity as the cardinal sin against authenticity.”

Ronen’s personal experience informs his work. He was born in Israel to Iranian Jewish parents. Like many immigrant families in the early years of Israel’s existence, he felt the prejudice of the European Ashkenazi Jews. The atmosphere in Israel in the first 30 years of the State was one in which the secular ideology of the elite looked down on religion and tried its best to impede or discourage it.

Ronen’s family moved to London for a few years, where he went to school. There he encountered a very different world, different ways of dealing with prejudice. Anglo-Jews tended to suppress their issues with identity and the prevailing anti-Semitism. They were expected to play down Jewish identity in public. In some this led to an aggressive reaction.

This is particularly relevant in Israel. Well over a million Jewish refugees from Arab lands came to Israel after 1948. Some were forced out of the countries where they had been living, others eagerly left persecution. Their culture was Arabic as well as Jewish. Their music, literature, language, mentalities, values, and passions were oriental, not occidental. They were more sympathetic to tradition than most Ashkenazi Jews. And they were made to feel less because of it.

The result was some disastrous social engineering. For example, in the early years unaccompanied immigrant minors were sent to Youth Aliyah villages where they were denied religious services by the secular agencies for immigration. The religious parties protested and negotiated a deal whereby 25% of unaccompanied minors would be sent to religious absorption centers.

In 1958, after the religious quota had been filled, a boat arrived from Morocco with religious children. They were packed off to a secular Youth Aliyah center near Haifa. The yeshiva where I was studying had been alerted to their plight, and we were encouraged to visit the village in support of the children. We were refused entry. Though the wire fences we spoke to them. Some were crying because they were denied all religious services, and the staff were constantly upbraiding and teasing them for being old fashioned. There was nothing we could do. The religious parties had to stand by their agreement. Incidentally, this was the beginning of my distaste for religious party politics. But nothing could better illustrate the cultural imperialism of doctrinaire socialism.

Israel has another problem validating the cultures of its Arab populations, both Muslim and Christian. It has not done enough to make these minorities, including the children, feel that their cultures are validated—even if under the law they are equal. Of course, those living in the Palestinian territories are under their own educational, social and political agencies. There the problems are magnified by their policy of incitement and intentional alienation.

But this problem of cultural identity is now much wider. It threatens to undermine European society and create tensions that could well destroy it. The reaction of liberal individualism damages in that it allows societies to demand that citizens should ideally abandon their group identities in order to be “rights bearing citizens” rather than culturally autonomous. Young disaffected Muslim immigrants react with anger and violence to a situation in which they feel undereducated, underemployed, and under-respected.

In Britain 20 years ago, all immigrants from east of the Mediterranean were regarded as part of the Asian racial minority. Social policy was that a parentless or at-risk child was placed with someone of a racial minority. This meant that a Muslim child from Bangladesh would be placed with a black Christian from Jamaica rather than a white Muslim from the UK. Minority had to go with minority, regardless of religion. Multiculturalism (however one defines it) had not yet become the buzzword.

Indeed, courts in the UK have defined Judaism as a racial minority rather than a religious one. Governments, NGOs, even movie stars are all too busy pursuing their own ideological or personal agendas. They fail to see the damage they often cause by pursuing human rights as they define them without considering cultural and religious identities.

Ronen refers a lot to Levinas, whereas I prefer to go further back to the Torah. There, with regard to the “other”, it insists on a contractual obligation, to abandon paganism in exchange for equal civil rights. But the Torah goes further. It insists on understanding the nature, the soul, the characteristic of the other, the stranger. “And you must surely understand the soul of the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9) It is the level of understanding that comes from experiencing alienation that compels one to recognize the similar state in others. Also, the repeated coupling in the Torah of the terms Mishpat, justice, with Tsedek, moral value, underlines the importance of tempering justice with understanding and empathy.

There is a complication, of course. Any of us involved in education knows that one of the biggest problems is weighing sympathy for the miscreant and his or her background against the negative impact such a person may have on others and, indeed, on the wider society. This has now become a major issue in Europe, where moral sensitivity toward refugees has created challenging conditions for society at large. It has certainly been at the root of the debate in Israel on how to balance self-protection with sensitivity towards the occupied. Who is dong greater harm, one might wonder. Those who occupy or those who train children to hate?

Ronen does us the great service of forcing us to recognize that the child is dependent on others and therefore vulnerable (in the best of societies, let alone the worst). His great contribution is to insist that we consider the child’s sense of identity within a framework of other rights. We need to appreciate the security that comes when identity is reinforced and validated. And the insecurity that follows from its being ignored. I must admit to having a very high personal regard for Yair. But on its own merits, his work deserves wide recognition.

January 12, 2017


Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale University has just published a book on empathy. Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion raises some excellent questions. To put it simply, he argues that empathy is not a very good basis for making ethical decisions. The book has been widely reviewed and attacked.

But as any thinking person recognizes, it all depends on what you mean by empathy. There is a distinction between empathy and sympathy. Dictionary definitions say something like “Empathy: The power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings.” Whereas sympathy might be defined as “Sharing another’s emotions. An affinity or harmony.” Diffen.com helpfully differentiates by saying, “Empathy is the ability to experience the feelings of another person. It goes beyond sympathy, which is caring and understanding for the suffering of others. Both words are used similarly and often interchangeably (incorrectly so) but differ subtly in their emotional meaning.”

Bloom is clearly following this distinction in which empathy goes much further than sympathy, and on the surface, he is right. Empathy only occurs in those moments when we share the emotional experience of another person. Empathy would cause a therapist treating a depressed person to also become depressed (even if a depressed person would probably empathize with another depressed person). Compassion is more appropriate than empathy. Compassion refers more to how one reacts to someone in pain or suffering, than how one actually feels. Bloom defines compassion as “concern for others, wanting their pain to go away, wanting their lives to improve—but without the shared emotional experience that's so central to empathy.” I may feel compassion for my torturer, sorry for him even. But I certainly will not empathize.

How often do we say, “I know exactly how you feel,” when we cannot possibly know unless we have experienced the same pain This is something we can rarely do because all we can do is extrapolate from our own feelings if we have suffered similarly. But that does not mean we are experiencing it in exactly the same way. We just can’t know because we cannot get inside another person to know what they feel.

But we say these things when we visit the sick or a house of mourning, because we want to be helpful, supportive, and emotionally present rather than scientifically or philosophically accurate and precise. Even if we have had similar experiences, we still can only extrapolate. We cannot know another’s feelings. Bloom argues that empathy is “biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism.” It is logic, rather, that helps us derive a moral code. Sympathy helps add an important layer of reinforcement that can also modify the extent to which we enforce the law. Sympathy for a poor man stealing to support his hungry family for example will lead his not approve of stealing but to try to find help for them.

Bloom wants us to be more analytical and accurate, and that is why he argues for sympathy or compassion rather than empathy. As a philosophy graduate, I am inclined to agree with him. The trouble is the Torah does not seem to. Commands to love, neighbors or strangers surely imply more than sympathy. The Torah adds a layer onto justice and the law. Mishpat is the law. Chesed is kindness. Chessed is often linked to Mishpat in order to reinforce the idea of sympathy. But again one might think this is beyond sympathy.

But then how do we explain Exodus 23:9 saying, “You shall know the feeling (nefesh) of the stranger because you were strangers.” We are specifically commanded to remember what the experience was like. Nefesh literally means the being, the very soul of a person. Doesn’t this sound like empathy? Except of course it was a command given to people who may never have experienced slavery and alienation in Egypt beyond the generation of the Exodus. So, it cannot mean having had the same experience. So perhaps Bloom was wrong from a Jewish point of view to suggest that such deep feeling ought to have no place in legal decisions.

It was a review by the Anglo-Jewish Simon Baron-Cohen in the New York Times Book Review on December 30, 2016 that helped me clarify the issue. He opens his review thus:
“When I read about what happened in the West Bank Village of Duma on July 31, 2015, I immediately felt empathy. …a firebomb was thrown inside the home of a Palestinian family…18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh…burned to death. Within weeks, both parents…succumbed to their wounds and died. … I empathized with that Palestinian family despite my being Jewish.”
It’s true that most Jews felt revulsion and sympathy. Indeed, from the President of Israel downward expressions of horror, sympathy, and support were overwhelming. I am very pleased the criminal was caught, prosecuted and convicted. But I cannot think of anyone using the word empathy or its equivalent. Was this because the situation is so fraught and so much pain is experienced on both sides? And was it because when there crime goes the other way, the response is to had out sweets in celebration?

How unlike this year when:
“A Palestinian man stabbed and killed an Israeli teenage girl as she slept inside her home on Thursday in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba. A civil security guard responding to the attack shot and killed the assailant at the scene. The terrorist, identified as Mohammad Tra'ayra, 19, from the nearby Palestinian village of Bani Na'im, jumped the settlement's perimeter fence and then broke into the isolated home, stabbing 13-year-old Hallel Yaffa Ariel in her sleep."
In this case the terrorist was applauded. He was given a hero’s burial, had a square named after him as a martyr, and his family received a generous pension from the Palestinian authority. Or last week when unarmed young Israelis were killed, the Palestinian authority encouraged celebration and promised a pension as a reward? So why, I ask, did not Simon Baron-Cohen close this one example out of the hundreds of thousands he might have chosen that consisted of say, Muslims killing Muslims? Or give that example from Syria where Assad’s gangsters have raped little children and castrated young boys?

Of course, I thought, here is another example of a Jews eager to burnish their Left-Wing credentials. Empathy here means more than sympathy. It is an assertion of political loyalties and priorities. That, to me, proves that Bloom is right. You see, I sympathize with suffering; I can want to see suffering assuaged and conflict resolved. But I cannot empathize with a cause that seeks to destroy mine. Although I do not support settlements, when a political argument is supported with violence, I cannot empathize, because I am a potential target too. Some might argue one should but my religious values do not.

When the Torah talks about understanding the soul of the stranger and insists that we treat the stranger as one of us, that is when he or she identifies and comes to live within the community. When we become partners in society. But when the stranger is positively trying to destroy your community, there is no such exhortation. That helps draw a line between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is not just recognizing that something awful has happened. It is when you can identify in almost every way with the object of your empathy and there is a reciprocal relationship.

I do not know what any particular Palestinian or ISIS sympathizer feels towards Jews. But as a group I know they are not favorably inclined. They have been indoctrinated to dislike Jews. I understand this. I understand their antipathy, and I sympathize with their predicament. But I cannot empathize, because they cannot empathize with me. Neither can I empathize with those on any side who behave inhumanly or dehumanize others.

I wonder if it isn’t precisely because Judaism emphasizes care, concern, and sympathy that so often some Jews have this tendency to go too far in expressing empathy and sympathy, even when it is to our detriment.