August 28, 2014

Prejudice

I am prejudiced. No doubt about that. My level of prejudice, of course, varies according to the criteria. I am prejudiced in general against all loud-mouthed aggressive human beings. But that is very different to my prejudice against anyone expresses anti-Jewish sentiments. I am prejudiced against people of any color or faith who do not obey the law of the land. I am prejudiced against fanatics and anyone who wants to impose his religion or views on others. To repeat a cliché I am intolerant of intolerance.

Even so, I try very hard to overcome such prejudices when I meet someone, regardless of appearance or loyalty, because I know that one should not judge a book by its cover, a man by his dress (though Shakespeare’s Polonius thinks I should) or a woman by her plastic surgeon. Above all I do not believe in being rude or unkind, and certainly not offensive or aggressive towards people I disagree with and may be prejudiced against. Despite my recognizing certain prejudices, I work hard to ensure they do not affect the way I interact with others until more information either confirms or removes the preconceived mindset. If my prejudice turns out to be valid, then I just walk away.

Prejudice usually means something more than just feeling one wants to avoid certain people. Prejudice has come to involve not just hate-crimes and abuse, but preventing people getting jobs, renting homes, or even entering certain places. In free western countries the law bans such prejudicial actions and behavior. In some countries the law reinforces them. Laws of course cannot control people’s thoughts or choices of company or where they choose to buy a house. Equally so, prejudice does not depend on where we live. Some of the most tolerant human beings I have met live in closed societies and some of the most intolerant live in open ones.

We can think nasty thoughts about others, but in general the law of the land forbids translating such thoughts into actions. Sadly enforcement is weak, almost everywhere. One should not be able to intimidate those one disagrees with though in practice this happens all the time in the so called free Western World and even in Universities supposedly paragons of open intellectual debate.

The current crisis in Ferguson, Missouri where an unarmed black man (regardless of whether he was a saint or a sinner) was shot dead by white police, illustrates the overlap between prejudice with cause and prejudice without (though I might add that I believe just as much a problem is a society where guns are so tolerated and encouraged). Prejudice against blacks simply because of skin pigmentation is as ridiculous as prejudice against someone because he is ugly or her hair is red. On the other hand, prejudice against people who seem threatening or dangerous is just a protective mechanism. It might just be self-defense.

One of our biggest problems now is a tendency to feel that most if not all Muslims are ill-disposed towards Jews. Even if in the past many Jews had good experiences with their Muslim neighbors. But look at how much hatred and murder there is between Sunni and Shia! Singling out Israel say the apologists is just because of Israel’s actions. But if the issue were just the dead, one would expect equal anger at Muslims killing Muslims. Is it because Israel is seen as a competing culture in the culture wars? Perhaps it is linked to the fact that until relatively recently Muslims were one of the most powerful groups, and they lived almost exclusively under Muslim rulers. Now they see the Imperial West as humiliating them, and Israel is identified with the imperialists (regardless of the fact that most Israelis originated in Muslim lands and identify with Arab culture).

If Muslim anti-Semitism is the major single cause of anti -Semitism around the world, fascism is not dead either. The Jobbik party in Hungary is violently anti-Semitic. So are skinheads in Germany. As is the left--how strange that it identifies with a fundamentalist, anti-humanist, anti-feminist, and anti-egalitarian brand of religion. But then it was a principle in Marxism that you could ally yourself with anyone if it helped your cause.

I grew up in a Britain, where anti-Semitism was common. It was lurking beneath the surface, but it was never as overt, as public or as threatening as it is now. But now even in New York we have seen thugs carrying Palestinian flags attacking Jews. So when I see a skinhead, or when I see a Muslim, should I not now assume the worst until I know differently? Should I not run for cover or cross over to the other side of the street? Or should I rather give humans the benefit of the doubt? And is that really prejudice?

Some of my Muslim correspondents can no longer speak to me civilly. But others still do rationally. Some have confessed that other Muslims, such as ISIS or Assad, are a far bigger danger than Israel, but they are reluctant to stand up against overwhelming public opinion. I know Muslims who do not hate me. But I am really worried that I am being dragged down into a cesspit of prejudice.

The Jewish answer is that although I must defend myself, I should try to judge each individual on his or her own merit. After all, on Rosh Hashanah we quote the Mishna that says that the Almighty evaluates every human being. Not all are found guilty! The Torah tells us to treat the stranger as one of us, even though the environment in which this was said was one of pagan hostility and a clash of cultures. But it is true this only applied where the stranger was willing to accept us and our moral code, not when he wanted to kill us or impose his laws instead.

A similar ambiguity occurs within the Jewish world. We have our full range of those for Judaism and Jews and those against or disaffected. Large numbers of young Jews with no firsthand experience of intolerance, expulsion, or insecurity, or of religious commitment, no longer see the need for a Jewish state or its right to defend itself. And I am very worried by the increasing prejudice I hear and see manifest in our own ranks against Muslims and Christians. “The goyim all hate us.” Any Jew who expresses reservations about Israel is “self-hating”.

Prejudice towards “the other” seems almost to be an evolutionary natural state. The whole point of religious morality is to combat “naturalism”, the animal aspect of our nature, and to try one’s best to elevate the better. If others cannot, we must still try. We are all prejudiced in different ways. We must not let it dictate to us.

There are good people everywhere, and there are thinking, considerate humans even amongst those who we assume are our enemies. We must seek them out and try to make common cause with them, however few, frightened, or battered they may be.

August 21, 2014

Israelis & Palestinians

Let’s start with the obvious.

We are caught up again the violent dance of death between Israel and Palestine. On both sides there are fanatics and politicians who revel in aggressive talk and belligerency. As usual the ordinary person is held hostage by superior forces whether they agree with them or not. And as usual human suffering ensues. Uninformed world opinion takes simplistic sides, as if this were a tragedy that can be blamed entirely on one party or the other.

Shall we play the blame game? The original Jewish sin, some claim, was not the fact of Jews returning to the Holy Land. That had never ceased, though it waned when circumstances made it impractical. No, it was the Zionist desire for a Jewish state. Something granted to others without question. The original Arab sins were those who fought the Jewish presence, incited the Hebron massacre, and refused Abdullah’s vision to share or accept the UN partition.

The second sin was a war the Arab states declared on Israel in 1948 that the Jews dared to win. That was the Arab tragedy, the Nakba. But unlike with any other such conflict, the UN perpetuated it by accepting an armistice but not insisting on a peace treaty and defined borders.

Since then repeated defeats have always resulted in Arab depression, helplessness and the delusion that they might win next time. But there was no imposition of peace or decision on borders because the nations of the world had agendas of their own that let them off the hook.

The rise of bloodcurdling, throat-slitting Jihadi fanatics right across the Arab world has led to genuine fear that concessions would only open the doors to an ISIS or al-Qaeda 15 kilometers from Ben Gurion Airport. This fear has led to Israeli isolationism, the Masada complex, and a sense that no matter what they did they would never be able to rely on anyone else for their security. What we are seeing around the Middle East now only reinforces this survival instinct. But fear is a limiting pathology.

After the 1967 war, the Arabs on the West Bank welcomed the Israelis for freeing them from Hashemite sovereignty. But then the Israelis squandered that goodwill and subjected the West Bank to Israeli occupation. Does it matter that after 1967 the Arab world refused to negotiate? Which side was to blame? Only one, or both? But if no negotiations have resolved this issue over the past seventy years, what crazy logic lays all the blame at one door? If the most popular voice is one that calls for Israel’s total destruction, why should Israel not take such threats seriously and put its own safety first?

Does it matter that Israel decided to settle the West Bank? Does it make sense for Israel to insist on demilitarization? Yes, it does. But this doesn’t mean it cannot take steps to rethink the occupation. The stalemate is one of ongoing lukewarm war. One side feeling weak and unloved wants to use violence as a tool of change. The other uses violence as a tool of continuity.

There are insecurities on both sides; the fear of rockets if Hamas gains power in the West Bank (tunnels under the Knesset?); the awareness of the older Israeli generation that experienced homelessness and insecurity never to be without a safety net; the Palestinian desire to be in charge of its own destiny, and the desire of the refugees not go on being dependent on charity and used as pawns. There seems to me no way this is going to be resolved. The antagonism of the Muslim world, the Left, and the anti-Semites only strengthen a resolve not to take risks by making concessions.

This is not an Imperialist one, where interlopers come in, impose themselves, and then retreat. There is no going back to Poland, Ukraine, Ethiopia, or Iraq. Israel is a Jewish homeland in which there are non-Jewish inhabitants with rights and protections.

Genuine peace will require a Palestinian state to incorporate Jews as much as Israel does Arabs, Palestinian or other. And refugees will have to be compensated. But Palestinian refugees will no more come back to a Jewish state than Jewish refugees would want to go back to a Muslim state. Everyone knows this but still there is no agreement.

Any solution is is far, far away. I doubt it will be in my lifetime. So what do we do?

A wise Israeli government would find ways to make life more tolerable for Palestinians in Israel and on the West Bank. Greater freedom and investment (free from Fatah corruption) would strengthen moderate opinion. It will take generations until the bitter anti-Semitism of the Arab world will be modulated. But a start must be made.

So after all this negative introduction, I want to sing the praises of efforts and attempts to make life better now, in the present, without waiting for the politicians to find a solution.

The trouble with the media is that bad news is news, and good news is boring. Pushing old ladies off buses gets more coverage than helping old ladies on to buses.

We read a lot about nationalist extremists, street mobs, hashtag psychotics. But in Israel there is a great deal of bridge building--of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who try their best to reach out to try to heal.

Israel has a very powerful secular, left-wing population, many of whom go to extremes to counteract the Right or to fight for civil rights and justice. But just as many use interpersonal channels to try to achieve good. I know of large numbers of academics, clerics, professionals, and ordinary human beings across the spectrum who feel the pain and want to try to heal it. They know this is too important to be left up to politicians. There are examples too on the Palestinian side. I only wish there were more.

I am not going to take up time singing the praises or the limitations of each one of these randomly picked examples (there are many and possibly worthier), and I welcome suggestions that I will disseminate later. If you really care about the situation and want to try to do something about it, check these sites out and see which ones might appeal to you:

Hand In Hand

The Citizens' Accord Forum between Jews & Arabs in Israel

Merchavim

The Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel

The Jerusalem Youth Chorus

The Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation – Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development

Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations

The Jerusalem Intercultural Center

One Voice

Soccer Stars for Peace
(Also see this YNET article.)

Palestine-Israel Journal

Save a Child's Heart

And here’s a book (on Kindle too) by an Israeli Arab friend of mine, Dr. Maher Dabbah: A Promising Middle East

You won’t all agree with some of my suggestions but it’s up to you to do due diligence. Even if you just pick one, you can say you are doing something, however small, to try to make a bad situation better.

There are good caring people on both sides, and in the end that’s going to be the better way of ensuring long-term peace, if not in our lifetime then at least for our children. Let us not leave it up to the extremists.

August 14, 2014

The Land of Israel

The Jewish attitude to the Land of Israel is completely missing from the current mood of antagonism in both Western and Muslim society to Jewish history and culture. The Sabbatical year of 5775, which starts this Rosh Hashana, illustrates the depth and complexity of the issue.

Every seven years, says the Bible, one must leave one’s fields and orchards fallow and not cultivate plants, vegetables and fruit. No reason is given in the Bible. One can guess it was an agricultural preservative system, like the rotation of crops that began in the Middle East some 6,000 years ago. But one could equally argue it was an opportunity for national education, to refresh and reinforce one’s connection with Torah.

Nachmanides (1194-1270), living in Catalonia, said in his Biblical commentary that all Biblical laws were intended primarily to be adhered to in the Land of Israel. Beyond its borders, in exile, we keep them so as not to forget them, so that if we were ever able to reestablish a Jewish community in Israel we would know what to do and how. But everyone agrees the laws of Shmitah only apply within the inhabited Biblical boundaries. Not surprisingly, there is much debate as to whether the laws of Shmitah still apply, whether they depend on the defunct institution of the Jubilee, are of Torah obligation or now simply rabbinic, to keep the memory alive. So just think, for 3,000 years the actual land has been part of our psyche and our law.

Like many Biblical laws that became impractical or anachronistic, the rabbis found ways to accommodate them to new conditions. The Shmitah also required cancelling all debts. What was a humanitarian act in early times, lending to the poor, became unworkable in more advanced commercial societies, so Hillel found a way of transferring the loans to the courts. As only personal loans were released, this way the loan remained “on the books.”

You might wonder why he didn’t just cancel the law altogether. It has always been a principle that we do not eradicate a law altogether. Even if unworkable in its principles, it remains an expression of a religious ideal. We rather try (at least the few adventurous and strong ones amongst our leaders) to find a way round it while preserving the concept. Times change, human society advances in cycles, and what was thought to be modern at one moment becomes medieval at another. Thousands of years later, we have now adopted the idea of an intellectual sabbatical. Even crop rotation is coming back into organic fashion. How shortsighted we would look now if we had written the law out altogether.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the land of Israel. When settlers began to arrive in the nineteenth century, the religious ones amongst them could not survive if they had had to leave their lands fallow and wait two years for another crop. The great Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor adapted a well tried device for getting round the law. Sell it notionally to a non-Jew and buy it back at the end of the year. Rather like the device on Passover for preserving large stocks of Chametz in grains or alcohol by selling it, and then buying it back afterwards. It looks like fiddle and it is. But at least the practical link between religion and the land was preserved. As the Jewish presence grew and agriculture flourished, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Rav Kook, made this the policy of the rabbinate, and it became automatic for many years. As with many such laws, individuals found other ways of circumventing it. One bought produce from Arabs. Then one imported it from Cyprus, and more recently Israeli enterprise and innovation in hydroponics has helped meet the need.

Times change. Once only the few religious Kibbutzim and Moshavim kept the Shmitah and relied on the fictional sale. The Charedi world does not accept the rabbinate loophole. More and more individuals in Israel see the Shmitah as a way of asserting their new piety and/or their ancient bond with the Promised Land. As one would expect, asking for financial support has now become a fundraising tool to help more people keep the rigors of these ancient laws. And why not, if modern methods and charity make it achievable? (Although feeding the poor seems to me to be a priority.)

But it is good in another way. As our connection to the land is being disavowed and delegitimized, it is a powerful reinforcement, to ourselves at least, that this is a land we care for and have loved for thousands of years. This, I insist, does not mean it cannot be shared as it often was.

Dr. Margaret Brearley, a medieval historian and former advisor to several Archbishops of Canterbury, has shown the difference between Jewish and Christian poems at the time of the Crusades in her research about the Holy Land. To the Crusaders it was an abstraction, a theological mission into alien territory. Jerusalem was a town somewhere beyond the sea. To the Jews it was the dust, the boulders, and the ruins that made the land not an abstraction but a reality, a place that existed in this world, not some other. After 2,000 years of such dreaming, from long before lslam was invented, it is hardly surprising that we Jews did not want a quiet plot in Africa or the Russian steppes. Instead we wanted to return to our ancient land. For that is what our religion is based on regardless of how well or otherwise we have adapted to exile.

August 07, 2014

Who is right to hate us?

The Palestinian conflict and the way it is perceived throughout Europe and in parts of the USA has put paid to this false messiah of normality once and for all. Even normal, secular, music-loving, technologically self-sufficient Jews are regarded as evil, in league with the devil.

No humane human being can possibly be immune to children dying. But hold on. Where are most children being killed in the world at this moment and by whom? In Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Sudan, Chechnya, China, Indonesia, and Myanmar--Muslim children all, hundreds of thousands in recent years. Yet there have been no calls for boycotts, no calls to kill the murderers, no Human Rights condemnations.

jew If I fire a rocket aimed at a human civilian target, and it fails to explode or is intercepted, am I not still guilty of intent? And if the world thinks that deserves no condemnation, is not the world crazy or sick?

I address this to my Muslim friends. If we were to concede that Israel was entirely to blame for the collapse of the peace talks, was wrong to attack Gaza, why can we not agree that Gaza was wrong to attack Israel? And if Israel was wrong to attack areas where there were civilians, was not Hamas wrong to fire rockets from schools, hospitals, and homes? Are we going to use population density as an argument for not hitting back if attacked? Who previously ever did? There is no objectivity here. Because Jews are whipping boys for any sick culture in decline, for any dictator clinging to power who needs a scapegoat, or for politicians desperate for votes. Israel, Zionism is now an excuse for attacking Jews, not for accepting them. We are heavily outnumbered. But so what?

In a way we must be grateful to Hamas for clarifying things. The fact is that there is no practical difference between most Zionists and most Jews anymore. “Kill the Jews” is now acceptable language across the globe. The myth of being anti-Zionist but not anti-Jewish is blown. And, yes, there always have been Jews who were anti-Jew. There were Jews who supported Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. There are some deluded religious Jews who think they will have a better life under the Hezbollah or Iran. There are Jews who believe in other religions. Jews support every political party across the spectrum. Jews are “the same as everyone else, only more so”. But nothing reinforces us Jews more than a sense that we are being treated unjustly. This whole issue, this whole scenario, is an issue of loyalty.

Zionism, or nationalism, or just wanting a refuge from hatred has united Jews more than any other ideology. We have always been a divided, fractious people. We certainly are not agreed today about the State of Israel, its political leadership, or its direction. We are divided socially between rich and poor, between countries of origin, and degrees of observance. Yet for all that, the vast majority want a homeland and are willing either to fight for it or support it.

So if we rally round our own, why would we not expect most Muslims to rally round other Muslims and care about their suffering, even if their own political leaders are responsible for it? If we try to ignore our own fanatics, why shouldn’t they? Is this conflict a matter of logic? No, it’s a matter of conflicting loyalties. Why are we so surprised? Except that they seem to care less about Muslims killing Muslims than they do about Jews killing Muslims, not for ideology, just in self defense.

I hate seeing children suffer. I hate seeing anyone killed. No matter what the cause. I cannot even bear to watch casualties on TV. I find war horrific, terrible, and to be avoided at almost all costs. But not at all costs. If I fear an existential threat (just imagine the toll if we had not had the Dome), my religion demands of me I respond, and my loyalty to my people demands of me I support them. If “the world” is against my people, why wouldn’t I want to support them? No one else will. All the more so if the world of our opponents is one filled with barbaric, oppressive extremism. Why shouldn’t one want reassurances and demilitarization before laying down one’s guard?

And who is refusing ceasefire extensions? Hamas. Because the only way they have of garnering support and money is by exaggerating their suffering. The only way the millionaire political leadership, living underground in its luxury shelters, has of growing richer on the backs and bodies of its own populace is by showing more fake photos of tragedies it has created for its own ends.

There are two kinds of enmity: the enmity of a cause one is passionately committed to, and the enmity of illogical prejudice. The first is understandable. The second is dishonest.

Yet my argument is not with Muslims who support Muslims. Of course they want what they want, and they will not give up before they get it any more than Israel will. I understand why Muslims want the Jews out of the Middle East, out of Dar al-Islam.

I can understand those who accuse Israel of not doing more for peace. But I cannot sympathize with neo-Nazis or with Jews who want to see the end of a secure homeland, or with anyone else who does. Neither do I understand a “turn the other cheek” mentality that says Israel should just suffer and bear bombs and missiles regardless. And I certainly don’t understand how liberal intellectuals can ally themselves with fundamentalists who would deny freedom and choice to any people unfortunate enough to be ruled by them.

Yet this irrational hatred is, ironically, beneficial, for it forces us to think about priorities and make choices. It actually helps us. The more we are attacked, demeaned, or delegitimized, the more we identify and the stronger we get. We are “a nation that dwells alone”. We are outliers. And it is precisely because we neither accept other religious myths nor abandon our individuality that we find ourselves so unpopular. But rather survival than popularity. If we few millions and our allies do not stand up for us, who will?

I hear the mantra that young American Jews no longer support Israel. I am not surprised. They have no experience of the helplessness in the face of Nazis and world abandonment. Most of them are Jewishly ignorant and uncommitted. Of course they do not stand by a Jewish homeland. They are who they are. But you go anywhere in the US to religious communities and schools and you will see dynamic committed support, if anything too blind. Because it is not based on anything but passionate loyalty. We have always relied on quality not quantity.

But I know full well that there is another truth. Peace comes only when both sides want it badly enough. If you have two punch-drunk boxers, only the referee can separate them. It seems there is no referee anyone trusts. I pray for peace, but sadly at this moment I neither trust the process nor the players. We are still only in the early rounds. This is a long battle. To adapt an old adage, a Chinese Emperor was once asked if he would like to be loved by all his subjects. He replied “No! Loved by the good ones, but hated by the bad ones.” It depends on which side you are on. I know where I stand.

July 31, 2014

Tisha B’Av (2014)

Tisha B’Av, the Ninth Day of the Month of Av, is the second most important fast day in the Jewish calendar, after Yom Kipur. All other so-called “minor fasts” run from dawn to dusk, like Ramadan. Unlike Ramadan, which lasts for a month, we have many fewer fast days, but we also have these two in the year that run for longer, over 24 hours. I would be interested to see a study as to the comparative impact, physical and mental of a month-long daytime fast as opposed to the four obligatory rabbinic fasts (leaving out the mystical and ascetic options).

I used not to understand how ordinary mortals could go about their daily business on minor fasts without the necessary fuel. I find it hard to concentrate when I fast. I feel weak. It’s not the food I miss as much as the liquid. If I could drink, I’d have no problem. I wonder if it isn’t the fact that they are normal working days that affects me psychologically. I am not a multitasker.

The spiritual function of fasts, I believe, is to encourage self-analysis. But if you are feeling physically weak it’s difficult. Though you might argue that at least you cannot get easily caught up in your daily, demanding physical tasks as a distraction. Surely fasting merely as an endurance test has no spiritual value, any more than doing it to diet has. On the contrary, it seems to me it is more likely to cause delusion.

Yet the fact is that I am able to handle Yom Kipur without too much difficulty. Is it just that psychologically I know I have to because it is so important religiously, whereas on the other days, because I know they are less important, my body tries persuading me I should not try or perhaps give up halfway through? Even if all the empirical evidence is that I CAN do it? Perhaps it’s autosuggestion trying to undermine me.

I have no doubt that this is why the rabbis said (Eiruvin 21b) that keeping a rabbinic command is even greater than keeping one from the Torah. One is inevitably inclined to want to treat what the rabbis say less strictly (they are, after all, only human) than something coming from a Higher Authority! What this indicates is a perfectly natural human tendency to seek the easy way out.

We who are religious seem much better at keeping the little things than we are at keeping the big ones. We are more inclined to bother about strictness in matters of food than we are in matters of personal relations. Yet if one were to weigh up the number of what we would call moral and ethical statements in the Torah, they by far outweigh the ritual ones (with the exception of two areas that are no longer applicable--sacrifice and priestly purity).

There are different traditions that seek to explain Tisha B’Av, the destruction of the two Temples, two Jewish states and Jerusalem. One is the collapse of the moral order. This is what the Prophets during the First Temple period focus on. The other is the collapse of the political order, and this emerges more from the destruction of the Second Temple in the Talmud in Gitin 55/56, which we study on Tisha B’Av. In both Temple periods, the actual rituals were being carried out all the time. But something fundamental, a moral compass, was missing.

I suggest it was and is the inability or the reluctance we have to go beyond our comfort zones. Someone who is ritually particular and disciplined finds it difficult to know when to bend the law towards humanity. Whereas someone who focusses on the broader human scheme of things finds it difficult to focus on the smaller, more mundane practices and community obligations.

This is typical of all humans. It is true that many of us are weak and we like immediate gratification. But if our vanity is at stake it is a strong factor in selecting the foods we know are better for us and minimizing those we know are not. It’s vanity that may drive us to find time for hours in a gym or on a yoga mat. And our vanity usually puts the needs of self before the needs of others. It is vanity to focus externality rather than internality.

If Yom Kipur takes us out of our comfort zone for spiritual matters, I suggest Tisha B’Av should take us out of our comfort zone on political issues. So much suffering and death in almost every generation has come from making the wrong political decisions. This has been as true (dare I say it) of our greatest rabbis as it has of ordinary simple folk. But unless we are prepared to step outside of ourselves every now and then, however difficult, we will never get a different perspective on our own limitations.

Experience tells me we may enter a fast with the best of intentions. But by the end it is all dissipated in the rush to eat!

July 24, 2014

Refugees

In the USA a debate rages over the thousands of refugees from Central America streaming across the porous southern border. The fact that in the past few months over 50,000 of them have been unaccompanied minors makes the situation particularly emotional and complicated. This year alone some 300,000 immigrants have crossed illegally into the USA. Among them is a significant number of drug dealers and criminals, not just from Latin America, but from around the world.

The issue is both the humanitarian one of wanting to assist those in trouble, and also an existential one. What happens when the flood of refugees threatens to radically change the character of the receiving nation? Is it relevant to distinguish between political, social, and simply economic refugees? And finally, there is a principle of whether breaking the law, coming into a country illegally, should be rewarded.

This is now a problem that affects the free world everywhere. Countries that are blessed with freedom and at least a semblance of democracy are seen as places to run to when living at home is no longer congenial. If you have money or good qualifications, you will be welcomed. If you are poor, you will not. And does it matter if you also have an agenda of replacing the culture of the host nation with your own?

The movement of millions of human beings from one country to another across the globe, these quasi-invasions, sounds almost like science fiction. It is a huge, illicit, corrupt business. Human trafficking has apparently overtaken drug smuggling in profitability. And of course, tragically, many die on the way. What can one do?

In Europe it is in many ways too late. The millions of North Africans now living in France have already changed the character of the nation. It is no longer a country where Jews feel comfortable. Mobs are massed regularly to attack synagogues and assault Jews. Anti-Semitic marches are now regular features. And still hundreds of thousands continue to come in from the Middle East and Africa, either by boat from North Africa or on land through Turkey and Greece. The European Union has dithered and completely failed to deal with the issue. Its passivity means that with the dislocated from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands are going to continue risking the journey to try to get into Europe. The character of the nations is already changing.

In Israel, too, thousands of refugees from Somalia and East African religious fanatics are heading through Egypt (where none of them want to stay) across Sinai towards Israel. They are often tortured, raped, and murdered on the way. If they do get in, Israel is not the most hospitable of destinations, given the security problem and Islam’s antipathy to the Jewish state. If Israel welcomed millions of Muslim refugees, it would completely lose what often tenuous Jewish identity it has.

Indeed, why would any country want to be swamped with desperate people, often unemployable, particularly if they belong to cultures and religions diametrically opposed to the values of the host society?

The simple answer is that there are laws and conventions that require it. The Convention relating to the status of Refugees was formalized at a special United Nations conference in 1951, where certain rules were established to protect European refugees who had no state after the upheavals of the Second World War. The numbers were limited. Much later it was expanded to include anyone “fleeing their countries because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.”

What started with a limited number of internal European refugees now applies to millions, who can claim that living conditions in their countries of birth are insufferable. The world population has expanded from the less than a billion then, to seven billion today. What should one do?

There are those who say that one should simply accept the reality and let the chips fall as they may. But, as we have seen in the USA, this is a matter of cost too in welfare and housing. Many governors who in principle approve of welcoming genuine refugees do not want to have to house and fund them. Either one simply opens the floodgates to all and sundry or one helps create this massive industry in human smuggling. It was the reasonable attempt to apply an amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants in to the USA that has caused this massive influx of desperate Hondurans eager to escape a country with the highest murder rate in the world. So is Honduras to transfer its population en masse to the USA, leaving a few gangster oligarchs to enjoy what’s left?

You might argue that rich countries should spend money trying to reform or prop up the failed regimes the refugees want to escape from. But America has tried that and notably failed in the Middle East, South America, and Near Asia. Europe tried pouring money into North Africa to stem the outflow. Not only did it fail, but refugees are now pouring in from farther afield. Regime change can only come when enough of its own people insist on it.

Australia has tried shipping its illegal immigrants off to island camps, with disastrous results. Logically the answer is to ship them home. But due legal processes in democratic countries often prevent that. In Britain, no matter how foul or lethal jihadi rabble-rousers are, they usually avoid being sent home by claiming they would be mistreated. And the courts usually agree.

The issue is now fodder for Hollywood. But we need to think seriously about what is to be done. If the original idea was to protect those without a state, and now millions are moving from states with passports, perhaps we should be taking action against the original states for creating the problem in the first place—whether through sanctions or boycotts or international pressure. Except that, given the current state of world politics, we know that will never be agreed upon.

Clearly the conventions on refugees are simply neither working nor any longer logical or practical. Even when refugees arrive somewhere, they are often treated as pariahs. It seems the only solution is for each state to determine for itself whether it wishes to commit cultural suicide or not and act accordingly. Or indeed whether it cares if its immigration laws are flouted. But it does seem ridiculous to help failed states by taking in the very people they want to drive out for political reasons. Because all that does is to reinforce the corrupt regimes that created the problem. Instead, by forcing people to stay (by not giving them refuge) they may act to change their evil rulers. Then we would be doing them a greater favor in the long run than by allowing our states to be overrun, diluted, and in due course become failed states themselves.

Think of Russian Jews. They benefitted and enriched other societies thanks to modern attitudes. But there it was indeed an issue of religious persecution, rather than political or economic disadvantage. And isn’t it significant that those Palestinians who emigrated have done far better than those who stayed? Where does self-interest end and humanity begin?

Anyone got a better idea?

July 17, 2014

Why America?

Once again I need distraction from the painful world we live in. Who asked Hamas to send salvos of rockets into Israel? Are they doing it intentionally to have casualties to win back public opinion? To prove they are as good jihadis as ISIS? Perhaps Israel should just pack up and ago. Perhaps Islam should never have been founded. Perhaps if we had been better Jews we would never have been exiled two thousand years ago. Perhaps Moses should have stayed in Egypt. The fact is we must deal with a world as it is. Hatred, prejudice and blame will solve nothing.

Let’s talk about something else. I was asked to participate in a documentary recently on why Jews have and continue to emigrate to the USA. This forced me to revisit how it is that I have left the country of my birth in the Old World for my present haven in the New.

They say that if you see someone drive by in a nice car in the USA, you are likely to think that if you really want one of those, you have to work hard and one day you will get one. In the Old World if you see someone drive a Bentley, you are more likely to think that come the revolution you will take it away from the bastard (or at the very least you will have an urgent desire to scratch the shiny exterior with a key as you walk by). In the US a problem is a challenge to overcome. In Europe it is an excuse for giving up. Like all such clichés, there is indeed an element of truth, but just as much untruth in both of them.

I used to think that New York was the most cosmopolitan of cities, where everyone was from somewhere else. Where everyone felt that one belonged every bit as much as one’s neighbor. But over the years I have realized that New York is not the USA. I can’t think of anywhere else in the USA I would rather live.

In Manhattan (and parts of Brooklyn) accessibility and public transport is good. You do not need a car. You have music of all kinds, theaters, museums, libraries, universities, and public amenities like no other place. Some say it is a city only for the wealthy or the lucky. Some poorer minorities have a strong sense of alienation, of creeping gentrification that is pushing them out. This is still a world in which you have to become one to swim with the sharks. Except of course if you would rather swim with the bottom feeders, or just not swim altogether in the dirty water. You can do that easier here than anywhere else I have encountered. Concessions abound. You can be anonymous and untroubled, or as public and socially mobile as you want to.

Europe recognizes class and wealth. But America, as well as worshipping the dollar, recognizes any talent less begrudgingly than the Old World. Intellectuals are cherished, rather than regarded as odd. No matter what your field, if you succeed you are valued. And the things that frustrate one here such as politicians, bureaucracy, incompetence, graft, corruption at every level, pretty much the same as everywhere else.

What I always disliked about Britain was the way that establishments closed ranks, excluded and dismissed the maverick or the nonconformist. This was as true of Jewish society as of non-Jewish society. In every sphere that I was involved with, I was made to feel an outsider because I was and because I made a point of making them feel I was.

Here it doesn’t seem to matter. Of course you have your secret societies and cabals. But the history and the culture of the New World is of outliers, mavericks, and people going out on a limb. That’s why I feel so comfortable here. And because it is so big, and there are so many different groups and options and immigrants and newcomers that one need not feel isolated. Above all, difference is welcomed as a route to success rather than an obstacle. Yes, the USA is completely dysfunctional. It cannot even agree on tax reform, let alone any of the serious social or fiscal issues it faces. But it’s as flexible as it is static. It’s more likely to change than ossify.

But perhaps the most obvious reason is that it’s so comfortable and soothing to be a Jew here. You don’t have to hide the way you do, or feel you should, in Europe. No one would think in the USA of not walking around with overt Jewish symbols. Yiddish words are part of the vernacular. Jewish holy days are acknowledged at every level. Chanukah menorahs are lit in almost every apartment building, and there are special stamps in the post office. There are Jews of every variety and degree, and whatever their differences most of them actually speak to each other. Because there is such a critical mass of Jews of all sorts, you know you will be able to find others at just your level of idiosyncrasy to feel less alone or weird. Each denomination is free to fight for itself, and the most extreme have their lobbies in Washington and state capitals and are courted by politicians.

Whereas the neo-monopoly of establishment services like state broadcasting systems dominate the mindset in Europe, if you do not agree with the chattering classes who are predominantly antipathetic towards Israel, you are made to feel evil. At this moment I see French and British Television all solidly pro Hamas and barely a note of dissent. There is of course a similar academic, left-wing, liberal religious prejudice against Israel here as much as elsewhere but in US I can see both sides. There are channels and think-tanks that can and do share other points of view. One feels under less moral assault.

The USA is a country of alternatives, even chaos. I prefer that to the thought police, social pressure, and the hypocrisy I associate with the Old World. Nowhere is perfect of course but have you ever wondered why the Queen has never been allowed to visit Israel? I think that proves my point.