April 25, 2008

Cry for Zimbabwe

Pesach, when we think about freedom, has coincided this year with further atrocities from a latter day tyrant, the nasty, evil little man, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

In 1966 I was a student in Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem when I was dispatched on a mission to Bulawayo, in what was then Southern Rhodesia, to stand in as a temporary rabbi for a few months. I found a wonderful small community of some 7,000 Jewish souls living in a sort of African Garden of Eden. The countryside was open and lush. Well-cultivated and managed farmlands spread out into the bush. African villages contrasted with comfortable, spacious, colonial housing. One level of society enjoyed excessive benefits precisely because another part of society did not. But still it was idyllic.

I arrived just after Ian Smith had declared Unilateral Independence to ensure that whites remained in control rather than cede power to the African majority. While proclaiming undying loyalty to the Queen, Smith and his followers reviled Prime Minister Harold Wilson, and the British political classes. I still have a roll of toilet paper with Harold Wilson's face on it that was popular there at the time.

The Jews of Bulawayo were amongst the most welcoming, caring, and nice people I have encountered, and some friendships have lasted to this day. The community covered the spectrum of wealth and background. It included greenhorns, relatively recent European refugees, and older established colonial families, relaxed in their privileged lives, secure in the national hierarchy, and in some cases in the most senior of positions. On warm summer evenings in the elegant suburb of Kumalo (the anti-Semites, who existed in deepest Africa as malodorously as in the rest of the world, called it Jewmalo) the custom was to take leisurely "Sundowner" cocktails around the swimming pools and tennis courts that were set elegant imperial gardens.

There some Orthodox, very modest, families who struggled to keep their Judaism alive under difficult conditions, far from the major centers of Jewish life. The main Orthodox synagogue of Bulawayo was in the Anglo Jewish style in that it included a spectrum from very Orthodox to merely occasionally traditional. Two youth groups, right wing Betar and left wing Habonim, vied for the attention of the younger generation, and I still remember a safari I took with a group of youngsters to the Wankie Game Reserve where we spent the nights in mud-and-thatch huts listening to the lions roar around us and the hyenas scratch at our doors and knock over the refuse cans in search of an easier meal.

The Jewish school, Carmel School, actually welcomed all races and religions. It was a model of multicultural and religious education, until Ian Smith effectively forbade the races to intermingle with his Land Apportionment Act.

Black resistance began to emerge, gently at first but during the late sixties and seventies pressure and violence increased. Most of the black politicians were impressive. But Robert Mugabe, the London University graduate with a PhD, reserved and dignified, seemed so honest and idealistic that his Marxist tendencies were overlooked and there was almost universal support of him. His party, ZANU, won a majority in the first free and fair elections over Joshua Nkomo's ZAPU and Abel Muzorewa's UANC. Things looked hopeful.

Over the years Mugabe has cruelly disappointed everyone except his cronies. He has turned from saint to sinner. First, he systematically hounded the Ndebele leadership and physically attacked other opposing politicians. Then he slowly destroyed economy and attacked the successful white farmers, giving their lands to ill equipped supporters who simply allowed all the good agricultural systems to wither and decay. He proved to be corrupt and incompetent. And his scapegoat (there always has to be one) was Britain, the colonial power, long after it had ceased to have any influence whatsoever.

Slowly, Mugabe transformed a Garden of Eden into Hell, not just for the white settlers but also for his own people. Those few concerned whites who stayed to help eventually gave up or were murdered and most of the talent simply left. Violence, murder of opponents, gangs modeled on Nazi thugs with Nazi named leaders inevitably led to despoliation of all Zimbabwe's riches. Mugabe destroyed the country and drove hundreds of thousands of all races into exile. He simply showed that Marxist fanaticism (in truth any ideological egalitarianism), whether white or black, contains the seeds of its own destruction.

What was more depressing was the refusal of black South Africa to do anything to rein in the increasingly despotic Mugabe. It seemed from Mbeki to Zuma, that black politicians would tolerate any sin so long as a black was responsible. Zimbabwe has been allowed by its supposed allies to suffer under the yoke of the Wicked Pharaoh and none rose to deliver (let us hope this will not last for four hundred years). There is a current African joke that a doll with missing limbs, no hair, teeth, or clothes is called a Zimbarbie Doll!

Recently there was an election in Zimbabwe. It is patently clear that the majority of citizens want change and a break from an inflation rate of 200% a year. They want Mugabe out and it seems equally clear they voted that way. But he has refused to accept the results and arranging re-counts! Meanwhile his thugs are rampaging through the country terrorizing, exiling, and killing opposition. He and his cronies will hang on until either death or assassination.

Intervention from a friendly, neighboring state could help, but, sadly, black Africa stands by washing its hands and pocketing its profits. It is so sad to see yet another example of what destruction humans can wreak on each other and sadder still to see that none is prepared to act.

The unsavory hypocrites of the United Nations Human Rights Council sit idly by, as always. The delegates may grandstand and applaud each other, but continue to turn a blind eye to one horror after another all over the world. They are all Pharaohs, pretending to listen, to be reasonable, but in truth possessing hardened, selfish hearts. So long as they have one scapegoat--the Jews--to blame for every ill in the world, why care about the rest? They continue to be selective about which refugees they support. Rarely those who need help most. It's politics, not morality that decides.

If Africa, let alone the rest of the world, cannot or will not deal with this evil, what lessons can other oppressed people take? What hope for Tibetans? I don’t know whom to cry for the most. Our religion is often criticized for being out of touch. But it seems to me the whole issue of people oppressing their own is indeed a human problem. Ideology of any sort is irrelevant if humans won't act fairly and honestly!

April 22, 2008

Freedom from what?

Pesach is such a magnificent archetypal Jewish celebration. It is true that it is based on a sad story of persecution, murder and suffering, but the way we celebrate it is anything but sad. The litany of the agonies of slavery which the Haggadah repeats is all but lost under the magic aura of lots of wine, strange customs, exotic food, fun for the kids, and endless debate and discussion. The only true remnant of servitude is the amount of hard work done by the women, who still take on the lion's share of the preparation.

Of course, that is changing. Pesach is now a time of mass Jewish migration. Traditionally-minded Jews head in vast numbers to Israel in imitation of the Biblical law that one should try to get to Jerusalem during the "pilgrim festivals" to celebrate with other Jews (they don't all go to Jerusalem, of course, and Eilat is hardly a spiritual destination). At the same time, equally large numbers of secular Jews leave Israel and go as far away as they possibly can from any religious reminder of the accident of their birth.

In the Americas, from Cancun to Miami, Palm Beach to Arizona, to every centre of Jewish life, luxury hotels offer the ultimate in exaggerated indulgence, religious refinements and strictnesses of Passover supervision, as well as galaxies of speakers, rabbis, entertainers, and clowns. One wonders whether any Jews stay at home, let alone how the heck they pay for it all. Pesach is a great experience, but an expensive one! And this is an interesting point: increasingly Jewish life, imitating Western capitalist societies, is becoming polarized between the wealthy and the strugglers. It is becoming unhealthily preoccupied with conspicuous consumption and exaggerated wealth.

How many people can manage to school four children, each costing $20,000 per annum, with housing prices in Jewish neighborhoods rising, even as they fall in virtually all other areas? How many people can afford a week-long Pesach escape at $10,000 a head? To be Orthodox nowadays involves buying expensive fur hats, human hair wigs, not to mention a whole array of special Shabbat-approved electronics. It is no wonder that someone recently told me that if you are Orthodox you cannot get a date in Manhattan unless you are earning $250,000 per annum!!

It's not just the cost of being Jewish. Prices of basic fuel and foodstuffs are rising all over the world. The cost of meat, milk, cheese, and of course matza goes up each year. Even becoming vegetarian is not necessarily that much of a help any more, as the trend towards organic food virtually doubles the cost of a supermarket trolley. And it's not just food. Yet for all the trend upwards of the cost of living and the price of aviation fuel there is a constant to-ing and fro-ing that recalls the wildebeest migrations across the Massa Mara in Africa, as herds of the faithful follow their rebbes around the world as they visit outposts of support, family weddings, vacations, and jamborees. The money must be coming from somewhere.

The fact is that large numbers of Orthodox Jews are defying the stereotype of pious poverty, and are doing extremely well financially (usually the entrepreneurs, rather than the professionals). But living cheek by jowl with the extremely wealthy are those struggling to make ends meet. The amazing charity, that exceeds most people's imagination, does a tremendous amount to ameliorate the situation, subsidizing education and the cost of religious living for the large number of those who cannot cope. Perhaps we shouldn't be too worried if real estate billionaires, financial wizards, or simply welfare states (let's not mention welfare abuses) pour huge sums into our community.

Yet I worry. It is not just a question of where this will end, with constantly rising demands, the gap between those who have and those who do not, and the difficulty of finding a partner if one is not rich. It raises profound moral issues of conspicuous consumption and spiritual values.

Can there really be any moral justification for buying a car worth hundreds of thousands of dollars when one worth a tenth can do the job required just as efficiently? Can one justify the hundreds of thousands it costs to maintain a private jet? Should one be taking expensive vacations so regularly when so many can afford none? Is the tremendous gap justified morally?

The truth is that Judaism does not like or value poverty and does encourage people to be self-sufficient and not be dependent. But where does one draw the line? The Jewish religion does not advocate imposing economic systems or ideological fiscal solutions. History has shown how impractical and unreliable human economic theories have proved to be. Instead, it has insisted from the time of Ecclesiastes that one try not to fool oneself that money is more important than it is. The Mishna stresses the dangers of having too much and, indeed, defines a rich person as one who is satisfied with his lot. Being able to be modest in one's living is an important spiritual quality. Wealth does not bring happiness, even if it has significant material benefits. I have seen as much pain and unhappiness caused by wealth as I have seen caused by poverty. Besides, nowadays in the welfare world we live in there are safety nets there never were. But still, should we not be thinking about the millions of humans who live a life of intense poverty and deprivation?

I have a feeling that the real slavery we are suffering from nowadays is the slavery of materialism. Pesach is the right time to ask questions not just about being Jewish but about what sort of Judaism one should be living and whether slavery to the myths of materialism is not as pernicious as the slavery to idolatry was in its day. Matza is, after all, the bread of poverty as much as the bread of slavery.

April 13, 2008

Shlomo Carlebach

As we approach Pesach I know I am going to sing tunes I learnt from Shlomo Carlebach, the "singing rabbi", the Jewish version of Bob Dylan, the Jewish voice of the hippy, love generation. He had an amazing talent for the simple, catchy tune and he has had a bigger influence on Jewish liturgical music, across the denominations, than anyone else I can think of. In life he was reviled as much as he was adored. In death he has become something of a holy man, and there's even an off-Broadway musical about his life. I have heard him referred to as "the Saintly One".

Most people are flawed, and the Talmud says, "The bigger the man, the greater the temptation." So the question that intrigues me is why, in this age of increasing strictness and religious hagiography in very Orthodox circles, has Carlebach overcome the negatives and become such an icon? Why, when the ultra-Orthodox rabbis of this generation are so against concerts of neo-Hasidic music, religious pop, men and women being in the same hall together, let alone singing together, is Shlomo, who transgressed and indeed initiated a lot of this, experiencing, admittedly after he died, such sanctification?

He was born into well-known German rabbinic dynasty. The family fled the Nazis and he ended up in New York at just about the time when the Lubavitcher Rebbe made Orthodox outreach fashionable. Although not a Hasid, Shlomo came under the influence of the Rebbe. He started as an Orthodox singing evangelist, fusing Hasidic music with American pop. His musical talent was recognized. During the fifties, his records could be found in most Orthodox homes and his tunes were universal.

I first met him in England in the early sixties. Despite being known in Jewish circles, he was a journeyman, a wandering minstrel traveling the Jewish circuits, campuses and synagogues, a lone figure with his guitar, bravely trying to warm up and enthuse reserved audiences. Jewry was still suffering from a post-Holocaust depression. Just as the Beatles symbolized the end of post-War British society, so Shlomo signaled a sea change in Jewish life. I remember him bravely trying to get uptight English public school boys at Carmel College to join in his guitar strumming and to respond to his simplistic Hasidic stories. He tried the same with Cambridge University students. It was still a struggle. It wasn't until the Woodstock era that Shlomo came into his own. He broke with many traditional constraints and moved to California. His outreach went further than most Orthodox rabbis would countenance; in particular, the way he was mobbed by his female admirers raised more than a few eyebrows.

Although his music became more sophisticated, the backing more professional, his infectious simplicity still charmed thousands. He founded his own commune in Israel and in fact there are thousands of Jews around the world who owe their continued presence amongst the ranks of the committed to Shlomo. Even more significant was the way his lively prayer songs have become almost the norm in most Orthodox communities. There is hardly a community that does not have its alternative Carlebach services, hardly an occasion when Jews sing without Shlomo's tunes being used. So, again, the question is how a man who was the object of much controversy, claims of sexual molestation and worse, managed to overcome the negatives which would have, and indeed have, destroyed the reputations of several other charismatic Orthodox rabbis?

One explanation is that, in general, authoritarian religions tend to discount female claims of assault. It is sadly often only secular courts that enforce what ought to be enforced and too often pressure is brought to bear, particularly on women, not to make a fuss. Secondly, we live in an age of hagiography where religious leaders tend to be sanitized, whitewashed, and sanctified. Thirdly, and this is the version I'd prefer to believe, where a person is perceived to be overwhelmingly good and spiritual, people tend to forgive a lot.

On the other hand, where a rabbi sets himself up as an authority figure, as a strong and righteous man of God, his feet of clay often extend to his heart. Others may be great scholars, powerful leaders with thousands of followers. But they draw on loyalty rather than love. Shlomo was a genuinely warm, spiritual man, committed to a religious Jewish way of life. So as with Lubavitch, itself--even if some of the views of some of its followers are heterodox and some others do things that are not always correct, it is easy to forgive when overwhelmingly they do good and remain totally committed to Torah.

Where a man is recognized as a special spirit, and in particular can express it though music, which is the most powerful expression of soul, we humans tend to overlook things. This is unfair to victims, and I do not condone it, but it happens a lot. Perfection does not exist. I wonder if it is the degree of imperfection that influences our verdict. Perhaps because song is so important in Hasidism, whose great leaders initially were men of inspiration, we think differently of singers than we do of ideological rebels. A thought is more dangerous than a tune.

Shlomo was a Yekke, who never got rid of his thick German accent, but he did manage to change enough to embody the spirit of the Hasidic revival. Despite the current mode for turning our rabbis into saints, the ideal is a man of simple inspiration, a song, a story and a soul. Shlomo was no ideal, so we should not pretend he was. That does not mean we cannot sing his melodies.

April 06, 2008


Geert Wilders is a right-wing Dutch politician, well known in his home country for his aggressive, outspoken, and controversial opinions. He has produced a short film called Fitna (the word translates as "struggle", "civil war", and variations on the theme of Jihad) in which he presents extracts from the Koran interlaced with clips of various Muslims calling their followers to conquer the evil world, preaching death to Jews and non-Muslims interlaced with images of Muslim cruelty to their own and to others, terror attacks and deaths. The film also projects the phenomenal rise of the Muslims in Europe and warns that their intention is to take over and deny the freedoms currently enjoyed in free open societies. He intends his film to be a dire warning.

Wilders claimed he was motivated by the death of Theo van Gogh, who was brutally stabbed to death a few years ago in Holland, in broad daylight, by an unrepentant Muslim fanatic, for daring to express contrary views and talking about Muslim threats against freedom of speech and Western values. Wilders believes Europe has capitulated to Muslim extremism and intransigence and is in danger of losing its secular liberal culture simply because it has lost the will to stand up for its values. There is nothing unusual in such views. You will find journalists like Melanie Philips or Michael Gove saying such things in Britain, and others throughout Europe. Those of us who recall Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech, about immigrants to Britain causing civil strife, will know that what sent him into the political wilderness was not what he was saying so much as how he said it.

I have no brief for Wilders. I have no brief for his film. But the big question is whether it was refused an airing by all Dutch television stations because of its own merits or out of fear of a Muslim backlash. In the end, Wilders arranged for it to be broadcast on the internet and it appeared briefly on YouTube before YouTube removed it, declaring that it feared for its employees because of death threats it had received. I saw the film on YouTube; then, out of curiosity, I followed it from site to site as each one eventually withdrew it out of fear. Thank goodness for the internet. No wonder dictatorships or autocracies try to ban it.

The film is not balanced and, in fact, not fair. Anyone who has had any contact with the Muslim world knows it is as ridiculous to imply all Muslims are homicidal maniacs as it is to suggest all Jews are extremists and would like to blow up Omar's Mosque. It is true that proportionally a far greater segment of Muslim world opinion is as fanatical as it is poor and alienated. But anything that fans Islamophobia is as bad as anything that fans anti-Semitism. The problem is one of double standards. Many Muslims feel happy to disseminate the crudest forms of anti-Semitism but cry foul when anyone gives them something back of the same sort.

Jews have had to put up with attacks on their religion for thousands of years. Look at the anti-Semitic and Muslim websites and you'll find lies and distortions that make Fitna look positively anodyne. You will see anti-Semitic, anti-Judaism cartoons that make the Danish ones seem like Mickey Mouse in comparison.

Similarly, Christianity, in particular since Voltaire, has been subjected to constant criticism and humiliation. Most of us have seen Life of Brian, a hilarious satire on early Christianity, or Mel Brooks' sketch of Inquisitors torturing Jews to sexy nuns doing a knees up. The founder of Christianity is more divine to many of its followers than Mohammed is to the Muslims, but he has been cast "artistically" in all bodily fluids at one time or another, and in films as anything from sexually ambiguous to politically extremist. Of course, the Church has objected, but to my knowledge they have not threatened anyone with death in recent years. And that's the issue. Too much of Islam hasn't grown up yet (or perhaps it needs its own Reformation or Reform).

It seems to me that Islam is behaving like a bully. If you can't win the argument you think aggression solves the issue. Sadly, a bully often wins and we are witnessing the success of bullies. But, like parents who use violence on their children teach them that violence is the normal way to respond, the more Muslims bully the more they will experience a reaction. This is why I hope that Fitna gets as much exposure as possible. It may not be more than a piece of crude propaganda, but it serves the purpose of asserting freedom of expression in an open society.

We need to combat prejudice wherever it is. We need to protect everyone and anyone from prejudice. There can be no room for Islamophobia. But neither can there be room for bullies to tell us what we can or cannot see or do. Freedom of expression may not yet a universal Muslim value. I am not sure it is in some parts of Judaism, either. But regardless of different histories there can be no room in free societies for trying to stop freedom of expression. If Islam really is worried about the dangers of insult, then it needs to look to its own house first.