July 24, 2005

Eyeless in Gaza

Anyone who expresses an opinion on Israeli politics is heading for disaster. But since when have I been afraid of getting into trouble?

The current turmoil over the forced withdrawal from Gaza illustrates the polarities of Zionism, Judaism and Israeli society. In Israel orange ribbons festoon cars and homes as the color of those who object to withdrawal, the “Detachment” as it is called. Blue is the color of those who argue that the Zionist dream can only be sustained by reigning in the “settlers” and withdrawing behind defensible borders. Some are combining blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flag to argue that it is not Zionism at all that’s the issue but the secular Israeli State.

As you’d expect, there are plenty of people who disagree with these descriptions and characterizations, both in principle and because they do not fit exactly into any category. Most Chareidi Jews don’t care one way or another and stick to their usual color of black, and most young secular Israelis not in youth movements don’t seem to give much of a damn about anything except sex, music and drugs. In Diaspora communities in Britain and America you hardly see a blue ribbon anywhere. In Hendon, mine was the only one on display and it evaded at least three attempts, to my knowledge, to rip it off! I can’t even begin to fathom what Israeli Arabs think. They, too, seem to be as divided and sectarian as the others.

Israel is pretty much the same as any other country in a state of external and internal conflict, only more so!! Why, even the corruption of political life is no longer remarkable (not dissimilar to other so-called civilized countries). Most people seem to think there’s little point in bringing any of the big guns to trial, either because they are protected by the wealthy cliques who really control Israeli money and power, or because everyone who might replace them is so corrupt, as well, that whole echelons of Israeli society would end up having to be removed.

The question, of course, is how does Israel survive, and not only cope but flourish, despite almost universal antagonism and internal dissent? I have always said that the best argument in favor of God’s existence is the survival of the Jewish people. On occasion, though, I tend to feel that Israeli politics is proof that Darwin was wrong and we are regressing rather than progressing.

I strongly take the view of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai at the time of the Romans, and most halachic authorities today, that life is far more precious than land. Jews and Judaism have survived exiles and land. The miracle of the Third Jewish Commonwealth is another God-given opportunity that we have the chance to lose. We have blown it before and we can blow it again.

Despite my passionate love and support for Israel, there seem to me to be some basic axioms that stand above nationalist fervor. My love is neither blind nor irrational.

Two wrongs do not make a right so please spare me the arguments about all the other Arab/Muslim states being what they are. I do not want to be dragged down to the lowest common denominator. Neither is it any argument to say that the Palestinians are led by corrupt leaders and incapable of running their own affairs because by that criterion almost all of the United Nations would have to be discounted. We live in an imperfect world.

Both Judaism and Zionism were predicated on principles and values. One of these is the dignity of man (and also woman, it still, sadly, needs to be said). Occupying unwilling peoples is never good. I remember very well how in 1967 the Palestinians on the West Bank welcomed the Israelis because they were delighted to be rid of their Jordanian occupiers. Sadly, the Khartoum Conference of Arab States forbade any negotiations, and over time one occupier became another.

The issues are these. Israel has a right to exist as much as another country in the world. What are the defendable borders that will minimize risk and casualties? What policies are in the long-term interests of Israel? And what sort of society will Israel itself become?

Despite differences on details, everyone agrees that accommodation, in whatever form, is preferable to a state of war in a region awash with rockets, missiles and, potentially, nuclear warheads. As Winston Churchill said, better jaw-jaw than war-war.

Prevention is the best cure. So protective measures like walls and fences, when executed fairly (and in many instances at present this not the case), are safer than occupying Arab cities. Incursions to avoid terror are preferable to permanently endangering lives by sitting in alien territory under conditions of constant danger requiring massive military deployment.

On these grounds, withdrawing from Gaza is a “no-brainer”, as the Yanks say. Indeed, “Jews should not expel Jews,” but neither, as my brother Mickey has said, should they expel Arabs or Filipinos or other guest workers without just cause.

As for the future, idealism is wonderful and necessary. But, like religious fervor, it needs containing. Logically, Israel needs defensible borders. And if it wants to remain a democratic state it has to give all its citizens a vote. Those it is not prepared to enfranchise, it must give autonomy to. Whether it is a two-state or a Federal State solution, is up for negotiation, but compromises have to be made.

If Palestinians are not prepared to stop hating and attacking, then total separation is the logical goal until time and usage repair the ravages of occupation, humiliation, death and hatred on both sides. If some Israelis are not prepared to invest in building social, economic and educational ties, then at least allow for parallel development behind securely monitored barriers. Barriers can always be dismantled. I must stress, though, that far more is being done to bridge the gaps, by so many, than most Westerners supporters and critics of Israel, have any idea of.

It has always been an important component of Herzelian Zionism and Judaism to encourage coexistence. Sadly, politics has too often got in the way, because rabble-rousing is the easiest way of winning votes.

The late and great Yaakov Herzog often used to say that if ever there were to be peace, Israeli society would tear itself apart. Ironically, the Palestinian issue may turn out to be our salvation. In working together to heal others, we might cure ourselves.

It's interesting that as we read in the Torah about Pinchas the zealot, the upshot was that his zealotry was harnessed and then used for the maintenance of Israelite society in general. Fires when banked, can still warm. Ask any barbecue fan. They cook better when they’re under control but damp squids are totally useless! So I don’t completely “knock” the settler idealists. But I do think they need to face reality.

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July 17, 2005

An Emotional Response to Dead and Mutilated Bodies in Natanya and London, and in Memory of Srebrenica.

In one way it must be very comforting to be a Christian who believes in Original Sin and holds it to be a matter of faith that all humans are born essentially evil. This can explain how humanoids can set off bombs in the midst of civilians going about their daily business, who have nothing to do with them, have never lifted a finger against them and might be members of the very same religion or faith that they are.

The nearest Judaism comes to this is the idea that the episode in the Garden of Eden introduced us to the potentially catastrophic consequences of disobeying God. But according to the Torah it is only at youth that evil enters the equation. "The heart of humanity is evil from youth" (Genesis 8.21), not birth, which explains those young teens raping and murdering that we’ve been hearing about recently. We are born neutral with tendencies towards the good and the bad. This isn’t the place to go into the meaning of "Good" and "Bad" philosophically, so lets simply say that anything that affects an innocent human who has never directly harmed you is bad and, conversely, anything that helps, supports or aids another is good. Religious ritual "goods" and "bads" are of a different order and nature.

Of course we are born differently. Some of us have excellent brains, bodies, parents and bank balances. Others don’t have it so good. But crime, evil, knows no barriers and, equally, the most unlikely of backgrounds have produced the greatest of saints. It is part of our Jewish tradition that everyone is responsible for his or her actions, but naturally we do take circumstances into consideration both in evaluating and punishing people. Hence someone who battles against adverse conditions is regarded more highly in Judaism than the "Saint in a Fur Coat".

But our Western society, thanks both to Freud and Paul (the founder of Christianity), is fixated on excusing as if evildoers cannot help themselves. What's more, there is the great British tradition of appeasement that encourages Anglo-Saxons to refuse to face reality, in the hope that by being soft it will go away.

I am not saying, as some do, that all suicidal murderers are Muslim, although most of them currently are. After all neither Tamil Tigers nor Kamikaze Pilots were Muslims. Neither am I saying that most Muslim murders are only against the evil West, because homicidal maniacs of Islamic persuasion have killed far more Muslims than anyone else. But I am saying that Islam has a problem, just as I believe that Judaism has problems (of a very different order, of course), with extremism of various colors and shades. If one does not confront it head-on in one’s own backyard, then this spells disaster. And when one does wake up, it is usually too late.

But all I am hearing is, "Very sorry; awful what happened in London, but you must try to understand how we Muslims feel about Muslims being killed elsewhere" (guess where). And when asked about Muslims killing Muslims, the reply is it's America’s fault, Britain’s fault. Many Muslims I speak to express this victimization excuse. They believe the world--Jews, Christians, Hindus, and everyone else--are all out to get them. Perhaps it sounds familiar. Didn't Hitler believe Germany was victimized? Wasn't he fighting against universal enemies? Doesn't every teenager complain that no one understands him or her? And let's be honest, mutatis mutandis of course, don’t we Jews try that line too on occasion?

According to a range of surveys and polls, there are thousands of militant Muslims in Europe and the USA who would rejoice in the disappearance of Christianity and Judaism tomorrow, and who secretly cheer on the lunatics of their faith. This is not being faced up to. This spells a future of more and more bombs going off in London and New York. And nothing that happens in the Middle East will stop this, any more than peace in Kashmir or the Philippines or even Algeria will. Unemployed, disaffected, emotionally insecure people will always turn to group-inspired fanaticism to find validation or Heaven or Nirvana or, of course, Hell.

There is an infinite capacity for self-delusion that affects 90-year-old English ladies who remain proud of spying for Stalin, and British Left Wing apologists who equate Allied bombing of German cities with concentration camps, or the setting off of bombs on the London Underground with the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq (and I am NOT saying there isn’t something to criticize in all).

Religion plays a part in all this, of course. All religions make a play for the insecure, and sometimes sad and lonely, souls. All missionaries pick up converts from them and promise them certainties and security and a sense of belonging in an otherwise cruel, uncertain world. According to a review last weekend’s Financial Times, suicide bombers often come in groups (in one case a whole football team) which reinforce each other’s sense of belonging and camaraderie in death for a cause. Despite this, religion has a great deal to offer in terms of spirituality, structure and purpose. Forgive me for repeating Jonathan Swift’s jewel that "we have enough religion to hate each other but not enough to love each other!"

A friend told me recently of a survey (but I forget the source) that showed that across all religions, 70% of believers are no more tolerant than the rest of society, but that 30% are much more tolerant. So I reckon at the lowest level of 30% there is a benefit quotient. This applies to all religions. We all know we have our fanatics, those who see things only in black and white, for whom there is only one truth and they are in possession of it. This is dangerous, in the context of Israel and Gaza as much as it is about rigid exclusiveness masquerading as Halacha in the Diaspora. What is the solution?

Each religious community must deal with its own problems and not hide from them. We Jews must too, in Israel and in the Diaspora, and so must Christians deal with their Jew-haters, and Muslims with their terrorists (sorry BBC, they are terrorists and worse).

This has nothing to do with making sure that Islamophobia is eradicated. Any automatic hatred of any group, regardless, is poison and indeed any hatred is evil. Torah does not command us to hate anyone, but to remember, to face up to reality, and take steps to defend ourselves. "Remember," says the Torah, "what Amalek did to you" (Deuteronomy 25). "Remember," says the prophet, "what Balak the King of Moab advised against" (Micah 7). Remembering means thinking and acting, as in, "Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it."

Mealy-mouthed politicians concerned with the ballot box are no good at calling it as it is. This just postpones the danger. In Britain we have a lot of Chamberlains, but no Churchills. Religious leaders are almost always scared or reluctant to say it as it is, either because they want to keep their jobs or want to attract converts or want to use the hold they have over their followers for their own ends. This is why, just as economics must be balanced by morality and spirituality, religion must be balanced by thought, objectivity and critical analysis, and why dissenting voices must be recorded and heard. Heart without the head is as bad as "head without a heart".

Anyone, Jew or Muslim who cannot see another point of view, who cannot see what is going wrong in his or her community, will be held responsible for the consequences, if not by man then by God.

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July 10, 2005

Marrying Out

Marrying out of Judaism is such a major issue and I’ve received so many emails recently asking my opinion that I have to bite the bullet and address it.

It is irrelevant to look back to Biblical Judaism and think that because King Solomon did it (some 700 non-Jewish wives and 300 concubines), therefore it can’t be a problem. Judaism has moved a long way since Biblical times. Ezra (merely 2500 years ago) made it a matter of law, and pretty clear, that if one wishes to preserve the future of the Jewish people then marrying someone who shares one’s commitment is essential.

The reason has absolutely nothing to do with race. Anyone from any race is welcome through conversion. Neither does it relate to some mythical or improbable nonsense about non-Jewish genes. Marriage out is regarded as unsatisfactory simply because of the reality that in the vast majority of cases (but by no means in every) the process will weaken Jewish identity. And if the mother is not Jewish, then the children will be not be considered halchically Jewish.

All religions have objected to marrying out. Some refuse to give a religious ceremony. Others make conversion, or at least a commitment to educating the children their way, a condition of the marriage. It’s not only between different religions. There are even cases where Jews have been forbidden or discouraged from marrying other kinds of Jews. There were two bans issued against marrying Hassidim two hundred years ago. Some Hassidic groups even now refuse to allow intermarriage with others, and I know some Sephardi communities who regard marrying an Ashkenazi as the ultimate betrayal!

Once upon a time, marrying out of Judaism inevitably meant abandoning Judaism altogether and this is why there are stories of parents mourning the loss of a child. But nowadays a great deal of Jewish opposition to marriage out is not religious at all so much as social. What will friends/the rabbi/grandparents say? Often it is the least religious parents, who showed no interest in Judaism, who are most affected and disturbed. They are the ones who would come asking me to intervene. But what could I say if a child was brought up to think of Judaism as a social club? Why shouldn’t he join a bigger one? (As young bachelor rabbi in Glasgow, I tried to make this point by saying that I’d prefer to marry a non-Jewish girl who cared about God, morality and spirituality, rather than a Jewish one who did not. You can imagine the uproar that caused.)

The fact is that nowadays marrying out is not necessarily a flight from Judaism. For Jews from religious families, it is most often the result of the accidental encounter, circumstances and moments in an increasingly open society that encourages mixing across the barriers of religion, class and race. It is less likely to occur if one is brought up in, and stays within, a confined milieu where marriages are arranged and young couples grow up within a kind of tribal support structure. But for most Jews, that is neither the life they are born to nor the life they choose. After years of trying and failing, for whatever reason, to find a suitable Jewish mate, something definite, if imperfect, can seem a safe harbor instead of tossing around lonely and unsatisfied. And the fact is that some sectors of Judaism seem positively to welcome it.

However, nowadays marriages often do not last long. Three former pupils of mine who married out (clearly I had failed to persuade them of the beauties and advantages of Judaism) subsequently divorced and married Jewish girls the second time round and are fully integrated into the Orthodox community.

I also know of couples where one of the partners converted, either before or after marriage, and is now totally Orthodox and contributes phenomenally to Jewish religious, academic and social life, a wonderful addition to Judaism and a "Sanctification of the Divine Name". Even if originally the motive for conversion was imperfect, as the Talmud says "From doing it for the wrong motive you come to do it for the right one."

I must admit, however, that in most cases it doesn’t work that way and all the statistics confirm that marriage out weakens the commitment to Judaism even further. But the very fact that there are exceptions means we should look to that possibility and not put up insuperable barriers. When a young couple are in love, often there is nothing one can do. Strong opposition is counterproductive and may drive them further into each other’s arms.

Of course, one doesn’t have to go to the other extreme of pretending there is no issue. I’m not saying parents shouldn’t express their anxieties, nor am I saying it doesn’t matter. Even less am I saying that one should actively go out to encourage it, to bump up our numbers. Religion ought not to be about numbers.

But I do believe the response needs to be positively creative, not just negative. It is important for parents to assert their values, but then they need to be consistent and consequent, and actually show that abandoning Judaism matters in more than social convention. But if that doesn’t work?

I like to think my children have been persuaded by their upbringing that Judaism has something to offer. But in the event that they found a non-Jewish partner I know I would never renege on my love for them or not try to see the good, instead of retreating in anger and pain and thus lose a child altogether.

This is not being disloyal to Judaism. It is asserting the universal idea that there is good in most other human beings and perhaps we should try harnessing that good creatively. I want to tell parents not to despair. They should keep in touch and perhaps over time bring a family into Judaism instead of turning one away. This is about tactics, not ideology.

The way we survive is by being strong within ourselves, not by building barriers that symbolize negativity for kids to escape from.

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July 01, 2005

Anglican Disinvestment

Isn’t it interesting that the Christians who are most sympathetic to Jews nowadays are either the Catholics or the Southern Baptist Fundamentalists on the Protestant side? You would have thought that the more liberal, open Protestant Churches such as the Anglicans would be more understanding. After all Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, started off very sympathetic to the Jews. He criticized the Pope for being so anti-Semitic. But he had an agenda. He wanted the Jews to convert to his new modified version. When he realized they wouldn’t, he turned into the most virulent of anti-Semites himself. The same thing had already happened with Mohammad. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts! And, of course, the Baptists only love us because they want us all to gather in the Jezreel Valley when Armageddon happens so that we either get killed off or convert, to herald the Second Coming (of Jesus, not the Lubavitch Rebbe). Cannon fodder. In the meantime we are doomed to Hell and eternal suffering. Nice!

Last week the Anglican Consultative Council commended divestment from Israel on the basis of a totally one-sided report by the Anglican Peace and Justice Network on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Without doubt the American branches will follow suit. For years now the World Council of Churches has consistently taken a one-sided position, but now it seems to becoming the official policy of all "moderate" Protestants. This is, in effect, disinvestment from a relationship with the Jews. The writing is on the wall.

Once again I must go through the mantra that I accept that Israel has a lot to be criticized for. But as always I am totally amazed at the absence of reciprocity and proportionality. Nothing was said about the victimization of Palestinian Christians by other Palestinians, or the fact that more Palestinians have been killed by Muslims than Israelis, or why there was no campaign to disinvest from far, far worse regimes.

It must be said that the current Archbishop of Canterbury has strongly opposed this move and there is an absolutely super article by a giant (literally) of the Anglican Church who works tirelessly to mend fences and build bridges, Canon Andrew White (who, in addition to his "day job" in Coventry Cathedral, is also the CEO of the Foundation for Reconciliation in the Middle East). I quote:

The Telegraph editorial summed [the Anglican Peace and Justice Network’s recommendation to the ACC to encourage that provinces disinvest from Israel] with the words "Sanctimonious Claptrap" and that is exactly what it was. . . .

I spend much of my life in Israel and Palestine, every month I sit with those committed to working for peace on both sides of the divide. I know the pain and hurt of both communities. I know it is not possible to understate the pain and suffering of the Palestinians and know too the pain and fear living under the threat of terrorism that the Israelis have experienced.

Making peace is hard work. It is not for the faint hearted and it always requires working with both sides. If this group is really about peace why did they not even bother to go and see anybody from the Israeli Government?

Or are they like so many other so called peace groups who only talk to those they like. That such a group should function in the name of the Anglican Church is a tragedy and that the ACC should pass this resolution is an even greater tragedy. As far as Government of Israel is concerned the work of reconciliation that Lord Carey courageously began happens in the name of the Anglican Church. All that has been happening since the signing of the First Alexandria Declaration for Peace in the Holy Land is now at risk.

This is not a prophetic action but the corporate action of a group of people who are too scared to take seriously the challenge to be true peace makers. This action will be seen as being not only anti Zionist but also anti-Semitic and I know for certain I will never be party to such action.
Interfaith activity is a minefield. Under the late Chief Rabbi Jakobovits, z’’l, I was heavily involved, but over time I have largely withdrawn. Mainstream Orthodoxy has always been ambivalent. The official position is that there should be no theological discussion but it is fine to work together on common political and social goals. You can relax with Muslims because they are monotheists but Christians are idol worshippers because they believe in three Gods (or Shituf, Partnership—but by that token, of course, one shouldn’t talk to Kabbalists!).

Last week my brother-in-law, pointed out a responsum of Maimonides to me, which says you can study Torah with a Christian because he (or she) respects our common Biblical texts, but not a Muslim because Islam claims our holy texts are forged lies! Ho hum. You can’t win.

There is already a flood of offended Jewish polemic in the press over this disinvestment decision. But I wanted to point out that, with Anglicans like Andrew White and the immediate past and present Archbishops of Canterbury, we should realize what good friends we have in the Anglican Church and not go overboard in tarring all Anglicans with the same brush.

Nevertheless this does illustrate why I gave up interfaith for other priorities. I realized that it was too often open and like-minded individuals from across the religions talking politely to each other and getting on like a house on fire while at grass roots the old antagonisms continued to smolder unabated. I confess it’s too easy to give up and we should applaud people like my brother David who keep on working so hard at it.

After all, I am keeping on bashing my head against a brick wall with my priority--my constant battle to assert that to be Orthodox does not require one to be a narrow minded, insensitive fundamentalist who makes life difficult for all but that portion who sees religion as a masochistic obligation.

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