July 23, 2006

Not the UN

Calls for the United Nations to send peacekeepers into Lebanon are a sick joke. Have we forgotten that previously Indian UN peacekeepers lent their uniforms to Hezbollah? Indeed, are we all unaware that there are UN "peacekeepers" in Southern Lebanon still, at this very moment? What HAVE they been doing?

The United Nations is useless and it should be scrapped. Its so-called peacekeepers have never kept the peace, but have certainly brought corruption, mendacity and sexual exploitation to wherever they have been sent. And, of course, the United Nations itself is so hamstrung by politics that it cannot even get agreement on the ethnic cleansing and genocide in Darfur, or deal with Iran or North Korea’s rogue nuclear policies (I say rogue because other countries which have nuclear capability do not make a point of threatening to obliterate others). It stood by and let the Rwanda Massacres take place. It allowed Srebrenica Massacres to happen before its very eyes. As for the infamous oil deals with Saddam Hussein’s regime, the subsequent reports have all agreed that corruption was endemic and overwhelming.

You will doubtless think I am biased because the United Nations debates and votes on about 35 anti-Israel resolutions each year and spends millions on special bodies designed exclusively to condemn Israel alone while doing nothing about the millions of Muslims and Christians killed by corrupt Muslim states. Yes, it’s true--I do think balance and reciprocity is an issue. I am all for condemning any betrayal of human beings, any dehumanization of God’s creatures, wherever and by whoever perpetrates them. But to single out one state, whose victims pale in comparison to others in terms of number and degree of torture applied, is simply proof that we are not dealing with honest people.

Winston Churchill is reported to have said that he was in favour of the UN even if it was only a "talking shop" because "jaw jaw was better than war war". I concede that if they were mutually exclusive then obviously talking is better than fighting. But it is not the case. The "jaw jaw" goes on while the ‘war war’ continues. So what then is the point of "jaw jaw" if it is totally ineffective?

Why should millions be spent on an incompetent and impotent talking shop when the money saved could rid the world of malaria and bring drinkable water to millions of humans? Instead, corrupt representatives of sick and failed regimes go to New York to have a great time doing nothing more than spouting hypocritical , unconsidered platitudes to an audience of closed minds. It’s not the UN that ever gets anywhere challenging the USA. It was its own Supreme Court which stopped the processes at Guantanamo Bay.

As Edward Luttwack has shown, wherever the United Nations has intervened it has only prolonged the conflict and the agony. In the bad old days nations fought each other and large numbers were killed. But at least there was a resolution. Some survived, some did not. Human affairs have always been about shifting alliances, moving populations, refugees, victims and victors. We Jews have suffered more than most from the vicissitudes of history because we’ve been around longer than anyone else and gone through more than anyone else. And we know that defence starts at home. But we also know that a weak policeman is often far worse than no policeman. With no policeman you know the odds and you decide to fight or concede. With a weak or corrupt policeman you never know what new factor enters the arena, what dirty tactics might be employed while your hands may be tied behind your back.

One of the saving graces of the United Nations is said to be its agencies. Some of them may indeed do some good, but you don’t need the UN for them. They could perfectly well exist independently as do World Trade organisations. Some of their agencies are simply bodies that are paid to perpetuate strife, like the UN agencies in Palestine that say that they have to allow anti-Israel and anti-Semitic material to be used in their school because otherwise they would not be trusted. Of course, “Trusted by whom?” is the question. Indeed, when it comes to aiding Palestinians, who are so poorly served by their leadership, in a humanitarian way (as opposed to giving them money for arms) it is clear that help comes neither from the UN nor the Arab States (who appear to use them as tools to distract their own malcontents) but rather from Europe, the USA, and, ironically, Israel.

Another example of UN moral corruption is the Human Rights Council, supposedly a reformed version of the discredited Commission on Human Rights which became such a laughingstock with countries such as Zimbabwe, Libya or Saudi Arabia presiding. It was officially replaced last March but, of course, the reform was totally fudged. So here we go again with a council that includes Russia and Azerbaijan, and in which 16 of the 29 states involved come from Africa and Asia and half of them are Muslim. And what is the first thing they have to deal with? What is the world’s biggest problem? Where are most Muslims being killed nowadays or most citizens being jailed for dissent? Not Darfur, not Zimbabwe, not China, not Kashmir, not Iraq, not Saudi Arabia, not Syria, not Lebanon, no. Guess who? No, don’t bother. Not even the combative US ambassador, John Bolton, can get anywhere with these apologies for "statesmen". For humanity’s sake scrap it. Save the cash. Donate it to the poor or give it to Bill Gates. I trust him more than the UN.

I’m not sure that bombing Lebanon in general brings peace, even if Hezbollah uses civilians as shields for its supplies and launching pads and its Prime Minister declares that Hezbollah IS Lebanon. But I do think destroying Hezbollah and standing up to Syria and Iran will help. Greater experts than I have stated that Hezbollah is not interested in Palestinians or Sunnis or, indeed, Lebanon. But don’t expect the UN to care. Whatever Israel does, it must not consign its safety to these jokers.

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July 17, 2006

Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Accolades have been rightfully heaped upon Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs in death (in stark contrast to the scandalous way most of Anglo-Jewry treated him when he was alive). But his loss will not have much effect on Anglo-Jewry, precisely because his brand of Judaism has become very much a minority interest. Once, ironically, it was that of the more Orthodox of Anglo-Jewry and the majority of its clergy.

Rabbi Jacobs was regarded in the 1950’s as the outstanding rabbi/scholar of the Orthodox world. He had studied in Gateshead where he had a reputation as an “illui”, a genius. He entered the rabbinate and was the rising star of Jews College, which was then a significant institution with a serious academic reputation as well as its role in training Orthodox rabbis. When I returned to London after several years in yeshiva in Israel, my late father encouraged me to go to listen to his lectures—his Talmud classes, in particular. The greatness of Jews College in those days was that you could study with men like Epstein, Jacobs, Wieder and Zimmels and think you were in a traditional yeshiva one moment, then hear them switch a gear and think you were in academia the next (nowadays the only places you can do that is in some Israeli universities). Rabbi Jacobs was brilliant, but no great orator. He didn’t sweep people off their feet. But he was a good, caring, sweet, honest man and I do not know many rabbis today of whom that can be said.

Throughout his life, he and his wife kept mitzvot punctiliously. The only thing I ever heard him say about mitzvot that was heterodox was that people made a fetish out of head-covering. Yet even in that case, where it was halachically required he obeyed. He was also (to my mind wrongly) totally loyal to what was known as Minhag Anglia (English Custom), which was the tendency of the United Synagogue to mimic the cold formality of the Church of England in its synagogue services. When I once recommended that he scrap canonical dress and steer his shul more towards a Carlebach/Shtiebel atmosphere he reacted with horror.

So what was his crime? In his small book published in the early fifties, “We Have Reason to Believe”, he followed a Maimonidean line in trying to make traditional theology make sense rationally. He argued that although he believed in Torah from Sinai, it really depended on how you understood “Torah” and how you understood “Sinai”. By this he meant only to say that he did not take literally or at face value the assertion that every single word and letter of the Torah was dictated by God to Moses on Sinai (something the Midrash itself questions in Shemot Rabba 41.6), because Moses did not come down with a written Torah but just the Tablets of Stone. There were laws he had to ask God for clarification about later on. There were words and letters written one way and pronounced the other. And although it was perfectly possible that the ramifications and implications of the laws were indeed conveyed, we did not know the exact manner of communication or its form. What he did say at that time was that the laws of Judaism originated on Sinai, were sanctified by Divine approval, were hallowed by tradition. Anyone who wanted to claim to be a practicing Jew had to adhere strictly to the Torah as is, regardless of the process of how it came to be what it is today. When his book was reviewed by the Mizrachi weekly press of the time, it was well received without reservation.

In the late 1950’s the Dayanim of the London Beth Din were asserting their power and ideology over the willing but weak Chief Rabbi Brodie who was no match for them (unlike his predecessor Rabbi Hertz who stood for no nonsense). They knew the only person in the Orthodox rabbinate who could put a break, intellectually and religiously, on their march towards the right was Louis Jacobs. When Rabbi Epstein died, and Rabbi Jacobs was his natural successor as head of Jews College, he would then also become the obvious candidate for Chief Rabbi after Brodie. So they set to work to destroy him by claiming that his book made him unfit to be an Orthodox rabbi, and branded him a heretic (the usual tactic of the right when nothing else works). He was ejected from Jews College and his United Synagogue.

Rabbi Jacobs was no fighter. He allowed himself to be used by William Frankel, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle whose agenda was to highlight the hypocrisy of the United Synagogue and win it over to the American Jewish Conservative movement. My late father was terminally ill at the time and I remember a visit from Rabbi Jacobs when my father begged him not to make fight of it, to maintain his dignity and bide his time. Anglo-Jewry was too conformist, too anti-intellectual and too apathetic to rise in revolt or to change. But Frankel won him over. The campaign was fought and lost and Rabbi Jacobs was forever cast out of his Garden of Eden.

Unfortunately, I believe he then felt free to distance himself from Orthodox theology. I did not agree with his idea of “revelation” as being what wise men thought God wanted. Meanwhile, the mainstream turned fundamentalist and refused to think about issues. In the words of Daniel C. Dennett, it became a matter of “believing in belief” rather than trying to make sense of the issues.

With hindsight I might argue that the tactics the conformist, anti-rational brand of Orthodoxy have proved themselves, as that approach currently dominates the Jewish world. But it resulted in the near destruction of intellectual Torah, and the alienation and loss of whole swathes in the middle.

Rabbi Jacobs devoted his life to academia. His break-away synagogue slowly declined, and all that came out of it was the emergence of a small, if vibrant, Masorti movement that the Orthodox tend to put on a par with Reform.

I was asked in the 1980’s to write a review of a book by Louis Jacobs for a magazine called LeEylah published by Jews College in its terminal years. The editor-in-chief was the Chief Rabbi. In my review I said what a shame it was that Orthodoxy was denied Louis’s scholarship and intellectual powers and that it was poorer for it. The assistant editor then told me he was carpeted (he didn’t say by whom) for allowing my review to be published and that he should not ask me to contribute again (sound familiar?). Much later, Louis was disgracefully denied an aliyah in an “Orthodox” synagogue in Bournemouth at a grandson’s bar mitzvah.

Was he a heretic? Well, if Orthodox rabbis who claim that the world is more than 5,700 years can be called heretics, he was. If claiming that the alphabet of the Torah today is not that which Moses used is heretical, then the Gemara must be, too. If we judge him by his actions (and halachically it is this that defines an outcast), on his devotion to Torah, and his honesty and goodness, then I guarantee he will get through those Pearly Gates well ahead of the vast majority of Orthodox rabbis alive today. And, as the Talmud says, “May my lot be with his.”

For years the easiest way to prove your Orthodox credentials was to attack Rabbi Jacobs. Times have changed. Rabbi Jacobs is no longer. And those who once thought that by attacking him they would be safe, have themselves been accused of heresy. The ground is constantly shifting to the right, and to paraphrase Hillel, “Because you drowned him, you too will be drowned.” The only answer is to follow Micah, “Be just, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” That he did. May his memory be a blessing.

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July 09, 2006

Gay Parade

In an uncharacteristic show of unanimity, the Jewish, Muslim and Christian clerics of Jerusalem have united in calling for a ban to a projected Gay Parade in the Holy City. This confirms an opinion I have long held, that fundamentalists across the religions have more in common with each other than they do with liberal members of their own religion. There are many shared values amongst fundamentalists of different religions, even though they each loudly proclaim that they are the sole purveyors of absolute Truth and all the others are in error.

The issue of Gay Rights and parades actually highlights the strength and the weakness of much of religious opinion. This is precisely the sort of thing that all fundamentalists point to when they excoriate the decadence of the West. "If," they argue, "Western culture and values permit and encourage such practices, then we must oppose them by withdrawing into or own communities and fight for our own traditional values and ground." The more liberal society becomes, the greater the pressure to offer a counterbalance. And, it must be said, the notable resurgence in orthodoxies of all religions attests to the power and attractiveness of such a position. Orthodoxies are on the increase, while liberals are, in general, assimilating out of their religious communities (although numbers don’t prove anything--otherwise we’d all have to be Chinese Communists).

Of course the intellectual position of fundamentalism is riddled with inconsistencies, even if orthodoxies have an amazing capacity to justify their own circularity of thought. "We are right and everyone else is wrong, even when we are manifestly wrong and everyone else is right." After all, there are still people who believe the earth is flat and others that the world has been visited by creatures from space.

What modernity has added to life, and even to religion, is the importance and value of individuality and personal freedom. This can mean switching from one sect or body of practice within a religion, something rare in the past except for major revolutions or new movements. It has also allowed for a great deal of movement within urban communities--shul-hopping as well as community-hopping. It has also allowed for people to pursue personal agendas, from role-swapping to celibacy to homosexuality. In one way, the battle lines are drawn over this issue of individual freedom. Yet, in fact, even within Orthodoxy individuals choose to ignore demands or dictates of their religious leaders on issues such as lavish celebrations, watching television, use of the internet and of mobile phones, to mention only the most obvious. So, in effect, a mood has developed within parts of Orthodoxy that allows for, tolerates or looks benignly on "exceptions", "individualists", or "eccentrics" so long as they do not publicly flout or challenge their norms. Without taking sides, it seems to me that the Orthodox world, while not agreeing that homosexuality is a normative lifestyle or equivalent to heterosexuality, does usually choose not to make an issue of it and even, rarely, to be positively benign. Of course, in liberal terms this is not enough, but in Orthodox terms this is a significant concession.

One might argue that the Orthodox world consistently seems to brush its problems, particularly the sexual ones, under the carpet and therefore, its opponents might argue that forcing it to recognize "others" by giving them a bloodied nose might get somewhere. If only. Sadly, it always has the opposite effect. But it’s not a question of giving in, so much as finding other ways of winning battles.

Problems always arise when one side in a cultural or religious divide tries to impose its views and demands on others. This has happened in Israel where religious Jews try to impose their demands on secular Jews. But it works both ways. When secular advertisers put semi-naked women on public advertising in religious areas this is as offensive as religious people trying to require Sabbath observance of others. In a democracy one allows freedom of action, provided one is not affecting others or impinging upon them. The truth is that both sides of the divide are guilty of insensitivity and of imposition.

Maybe it is because of Orthodox coercion that gays feel the need to parade within Jerusalem. In Tel Aviv such open flouting of religious values is the norm rather the exception, so had the parade been held there one would not have felt so strongly about it. But to go into a city which is holy to all the faiths that, whether rightly or wrongly, find homosexuality offensive, or at least problematic, is simply asking for a counter reaction that will only set back the cause of tolerance another generation.

Orthodoxies put a lot of emphasis on "modesty". I happen to think that in our day and age we have gone too far in overt and public displays of intimacy. Those who want to flaunt their sexuality in public need to stop and think, and realize it is as hurtful to others as is the crude hatred and antipathy that is directed towards them. It is sad that human nature seems to be so much more willing for a fight than for amicable accommodation.

In a free society one simply has to learn to live and let live. This allows people to choose their own personal lifestyles as well as allowing for abuses. But letting the other "live", cuts both ways. At the moment it seems to me that both sides are wrong in their different ways. Sadly, this is an example of gratuitous offence from people who ought to know better, if only because they too have suffered from intolerance. The fact that this is taking place in Israel underlines the general mood of destructive divisiveness and depersonalization that permeates Israeli society in the way it deals with its own. How can one, therefore, expect much understanding of Christians, Muslims and other religions (let alone politics), if we can’t show minimal sensitivity to our own?

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July 03, 2006

Chassidic Gang Wars

“Supporters of rival candidates for the new spiritual head of the Satmar Chassidim clash on the streets of Williamsburg.” The outcome of the struggle now depends largely on the proceedings of civil courts. They have been asked to decide who the heir to the Satmar real estate empire is. Meanwhile we are left with a negative impression of the mix of religion and fanaticism.

This seems very remote from our ideas of Chassidim as pious followers of God. Yet conflict is a pretty regular feature of some Chassidic life. Where does it all come from? And does this seeming regression towards primitivism that characterizes too many parts of other religions, now look like taking Judaism over too?

Chassidism started up in Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century as a movement of charismatic religious leaders. Within a few generations it had consolidated into regional and strongly nepotistic dynasties. Their leaders, known as rebbes (to distinguish themselves from rabbis), exercised a powerful and dominant influence over their followers, who saw them as the conduit between themselves and God and referred all important life decisions to them for approval and blessing.

Despite the loss of millions of followers during the Second World War, they have succeeded beyond all expectations in re-establishing themselves. Growing in numbers, wealth and power, the Chassidic dynasties today, in America and Israel, dominate the Orthodox world. And as they grow and new talent needs outlets, new little dynasties are constantly springing up. But all of them are named after towns and villages in Eastern Europe to give them “authenticity”. And rather like car number plates, a new rebbe of some Carpathian backwater, emerges in the pages of the Ultra Orthodox Press to add luster, one hopes, to the breed.

Chassidism has succeeded in thriving largely because they are close-knit sects of true believers convinced that they are right. Everyone else, including other Jews, is wrong, and the only way to survive is by holding firmly to their views in opposition to those of the outside world. Anything that is perceived to threaten their exclusivity must be resisted at all costs. This is common to all religious and, indeed, political sects. Just think of fisticuffs that break out between rival churches within the Holy Sepulcher each year, or Sunni Muslims massacring Shiites and vice versa, not to mention the millions of Marxist “revisionists” massacred by Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and the rest of them. Chassidism is remarkable in that it mainly turns its aggression inwards. In recent years there have been lots of cases of intra-communal aggression, most of it involving Satmar Chassidim.

Towards the end of the Second World War, the Rebbe of Satmar, Joel Teitelbaum, was rescued by a deal with Adolf Eichmann. He went to Israel, where he became president of the fiercely anti-Zionist Eidah Charedis religious community in Jerusalem. Then he moved on to New York, re-establishing his community in Williamsburg. As Satmar increased, it spread to other enclaves and established a satellite community in upstate New York called Kiryas Yoel (Town of Joel). Satmar communities, schools and yeshivas exist in all the major Jewish communities, including Stamford Hill in London, where they have their own rabbinical authorities and standards.

Satmar has grown into the most numerous and powerful of the Chassidic dynasties, with about 100,000 adult members worldwide. It is also the least accessible. Satmarers are known for their strictness and emphasis on education, but they are also known for their charitable work and visiting the sick. Although some of the brightest students go on to a life of study, most young men, after marriage, must go out and earn their keep. This explains the great wealth and influence that they have acquired, particularly in New York, where they are courted by all the major political leaders.

The zealousness of Satmar has always led clashes with other Chassidic dynasties. The first serious physical battles began when they fought against Belz and Ger, who are more numerous in Israel, over their positive involvement in Israeli political affairs. When Belz dealt openly with the Israeli government in the early ‘60s a bitter feud developed. Simultaneously, it must be added, there were fights going on between rival factions within Belz, itself.

Lubavitch, Chabad is the most visible of Hassid movements. But in fact it is much smaller than Satmar. Nevertheless Satmar has always disliked them because of their outreach and proselytizing. Satmar argues that they trivialize and dilute the integrity of Chassidism. In 1975 some Satmar hotheads hung an effigy of the Lubavitcher Rebbe from a telephone pole in Williamsburg, which led to clashes there and in Crown Heights. Running battles continued during 1977 and 1978.

In 1981 the Belz synagogue in Williamsburg was attacked by a Satmar mob. In 2003 there were fights in Williamsburg again because Bobov (another smaller but rapidly increasing sect) recognized the new eruv, whereas Satmar strongly opposed it. According to the New York Times, Satmar supporters brought in gangs of night club bouncers to add weight to their cause. One might argue that these cases of violence are just the result of loose canons. The most conspicuous antagonisms of Satmar have, indeed, come from splinter groups such as Neturei Karta, who are so anti-Zionist that they have sent representatives to Iran to offer them support against Israel, and they regularly turn up to support pro-Palestinian demonstrations. While these groups may not be official Satmar organizations, they draw their support and ideology from it. (Actually, Neturei Karta also gets support from Charedi organizations in Britain such as the Adath.)

This physical extremism is the inevitable result of closed, passionate communities living in open democratic societies which give them greater freedom of _expression than they enjoyed under the Czars or Communism. It is also clear that violence tends to erupt during yeshiva breaks when huge numbers of teenage youngsters with few outlets for their physical energies are let loose within closed and judgmental societies. Such a “religious riot” happened in Boro Park, another Orthodox enclave in Brooklyn, this spring.

Despite all this very non-religious behavior, there are some hopeful signs. As more communities grow they are bound to split. New sons and grandsons of famous dynasties are now vying for power where only one can succeed through the old system. Whereas hitherto this competition was played out in terms of who could set up a new “court” by being stricter, the spread of challengers now means that some candidates will be presenting themselves as more tolerant and accommodating. New leaders will emerge who will attract support from those areas in the Chassidic world (and they do exist) who are dismayed both by the spiral of violence and the retreat from the more open spiritual and mystical message that initially animated the movement.

In the language of Lurianic Kabbalah, there may be some “holy sparks” emerging from the “broken shells”.

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