January 25, 2009

Misusing The Holocaust

I am emotionally raw at the moment. The chorus of hatred I see, read, and feel throughout Europe directed at a state struggling, however bluntly, to defend its citizens just reeks of irrational hatred. Yes, there have been tragic errors, failed opportunities, oppressive occupation. And I completely approve of criticism and free speech, even when it hurts. It is the irrational hatred, the use of terms like "genocide", that convince me beyond doubt that we are not dealing with honesty or logic but deep visceral hatred that has festered for hundreds of years. It constantly finds differing excuses to emerge from its filthy subterranean recesses to inflame and ultimately try to destroy, before burning itself out and returning to hide underground.

Genocide takes a plan, design, and system. Even if, as Hannah Arendt claimed, many of the perpetrators of the Holocaust were simply banal, nevertheless the design and the plan grew with public support. Criticism and opposition was systematically beaten and suppressed, voices silenced, and a state machinery devoted to the prosecution of the evil goal unremittingly, even to the point of harming its own war effort. None of this remotely applies to Israel.

This is the season of the Globes and the Oscars, and, each time, the Holocaust figures prominently amongst the nominations. Why? Is it because the Holocaust is the one universally accepted touchstone of inhumanity and Oscar voters wanting to be seen as more than trivial feel the need to nod in the direction of a moral issue? Is it because so many in Hollywood are Jewish? Is it because it remains in the minds of some in the free world as a unique evil? Or is that the range of Hollywood emotions is so limited that only an iconic moral cataclysm can evoke any serious response? I even dare to suggest that such movies are produced as a calculated tilt at what is likely to win an award. (The same goes for books and the ongoing and recent rash of fabrications.) But each time there are new examples of the trivialization of primordial evil.

This year has been true to form. A film about innocent children living on either side of the concentration camp fence striking up a friendship belies the extent of indoctrination German children drank in with their mothers' milk and smelt in their fathers' smoke about the corrupt, verminous dangers of Jewish infants. The film, The Reader (albeit an excellently acted piece of theatre) about a female concentration camp operative who was unable or unwilling to comprehend the evil she committed, masks, dilutes, and distracts. A film about the Von Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler ignores the fact that the plotters were happy to go along with Hitler for years, so long as he and Germany were winning. It was only when they were losing that they decided to act, and certainly not out of a sudden attack of moral conscience.

Frankly, with Israel being described on the streets of Europe as a Nazi state the last thing I want to see is a film about "good" Nazis (not I hasten to add that there might not have been one or two good ones undercover). And whether to give up a good page of Gemara for that drivel is simply, as the Yanks like to say, a no-brainer.

Defiance, the story of the Bielski brothers fighting as and with partisans in the Polish Russian forests, is a well acted and painful film. It is not a simplistic glory story, but contains nuance, moral ambiguity, and the very struggles of power and conscience that should have been taking place in Germany, itself, but were played out amongst the desperate fleeing Jews. As Daniel Craig's character put it memorably, "We may be hunted like animals, but we will not become animals." That's a film I would recommend to you all at any time. It is not the glory of violence that some might think, nor is it a propaganda piece for the hoary old lie about religious passivity; it tackles, head-on and fairly, the impossible situation of Jewish communal leadership under inhuman conditions (one of Hannah Arendt's blind spots).

But this issue of the Holocaust is so pervasive that it has become relative. Avrum Burg is a typical second generation post-independence Zionist, propelled by his politically savvy and successful father into prominence. He rose to head of the World Zionist Organization and, briefly, became Speaker of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. I have always considered him likeable, honest, and talented. A few years ago he went through a crisis of confidence in his received ideals, turned his back on politics, left Israel, and went into business.

A recent book of his is now coming out in the United States under the title, The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From its Ashes. I actually agree with a lot that he says. It was his language that I find infelicitous. His book was originally called "Hitler Won". Sensibly, he modified it to appear in Israel as "Defeating Hitler". He argues that Israel had reneged on the ideals of its founders. His point was that Israel was fixated on the negativity of the German Final Solution and the Holocaust. It defined its enemies as little Hitlers. Israel, Zionism, he claimed, had failed to find a new moral voice and justification for its existence. Zionism was dead and Israel had not yet found an alternative or a universal ideal.

Like him, I have grave reservations about lots of issues in Jewish and Israeli society today. But to want to survive, to stop attacks on one's civil population, does not require the Holocaust as justification! I find the negative language of Burg to be disturbing, as well as the distorted coupling, if only by implication, of Israel and Nazi Germany. I cannot avoid the thought that, like Hollywood, he uses the Holocaust to sell his wares. It will be misused, and the emotive issue of the Holocaust will simply be misapplied by those who want to obliterate us.

As the Ethics of the Fathers (1:9) says, "Wise men, be careful of your words lest others learn to lie from them." And if we ourselves are not careful with our use of emotive words, then we can hardly complain when others are not either.

January 18, 2009


Apologizing, if we mean it, is an essential part of Jewish religious tradition, not to mention psychological health. Perhaps there is a connection to Jewish guilt, self-criticism, and a host of other moral sentiments that are excellent unless they are taken too far and become obsessive. I am beginning think we have reached that point with apologies.

What are the issues? Well, let's take Madoff first. It appears (prior to the court case) that this guy is a self-confessed crook who beggared rich and modest, charities and businesses alike. I still don't know whether he was always crooked, whether he became crooked out of malice or desperation, or whether he miscalculated. The evidence so far does not seem to indicate an honest man. But the way everyone, rabbis in particular, are falling over themselves to curse him, excommunicate him, get on their high horses, is beginning to get nauseating.

I am in no way excusing him. But where were those voices these past fifteen years as everyone rode the waves of boom, bust, and boom, and huge profits, and rising home values and pension funds, and "irrational exuberance", and let us grab as much as possible and who cares? I cannot remember a lot of rabbis warning us then about the dangers of overreliance on materialism and the need for ethical standards, due diligence, and being wary of unrealistic gains.

Yes, there have always been voices in the wilderness, like the amazing and impressive Dr. Meir Tamari, formerly of the Bank of Israel. For years, he has relentlessly campaigned throughout the Jewish world for high standards of business ethics, simply quoting our holy sources, writing, and lecturing. And being ignored by almost everyone, from saints to sinners, and certainly getting hardly any support from rabbis, as he himself has often lamented.

One of Dr. Tamari's many achievements was the creation of centers for business ethics. One has done important but unappreciated work in London, supported by the Chief Rabbi, and circulating material to all synagogues, but still largely ignored--certainly by those to the right. Then there is the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, whose website ought to be on every Jew's list of favorites.

But Madoff is not typical. We have our good guys and crooks, just like everyone else. We are not better than anyone else, even if we are called upon to try to be. We have our doctors and charity workers, our Nobel Prize winners, and our hookers and murderers. I may be responsible for the welfare of my brothers and sisters, but I cannot be held responsible for their evil deeds unless I participated, encouraged, or could have stopped them. Do I expect Italians to apologize for the Mafia, or Catholics for child abusers, or Cambodians for Pol Pot, or Russians for Stalin? I have nothing to apologize for. I am embarrassed that a Jew should desecrate our good name--but the law is against desecrating God's name, not mine, and He'll deal with it no doubt.

I feel the same way about all those supposedly religious people around the world who are fanatical murderers, political extremists, power hungry or honour obsessed pursuers of self-interest using religion "as a shovel to dig" their own graves with, as the rabbis say. But why should I apologize for them--just because I happen to love my religious life and since I am overtly religious some might confuse us and assume we are all the same? I have nothing more in common with corrupt religion than I do with left-handed dyslexic chimpanzees. Sure Dawkins and Hitchens can make a good living showing what a mess religious people have made of life, and how much cruelty they have inflicted. On that issue I completely agree with them. But I am no more to blame for religious abuses than they are for the abuses of antireligious leaders like Mao Tse Tung.

In Gaza, Israel has killed too many civilians, but it certainly has not targeted them. Regardless of what their errors were, it has not used, say, the tactics of both sides in the Yugoslavia wars. It has no sent random rockets at civilian targets year in year out. Neither has it lined up opponents and shot them in cold blood as Hamas has. No doubt it will be argued that it's Israel's fault because Israel brutalized them. But I will not apologize for Israel's right to defend itself even if I believe they might have contributed to the situation in several ways. It is sad to see both Neturei Karta on the one hand, and renegades on the other, groveling as if that can either do any good or change anything.

I will try my best to do whatever I can to correct errors, to campaign for honesty, fairness, kindness, and humanity. I will work to build bridges and bonds with caring honest men and women of other religions and nationalities, but I won't apologize for existing and wanting to protect my home even with deterrent force. If I have offended someone personally, I will apologize. If a soldier knowingly kills innocents, then that is on his conscience, not mine, unless I gave him the order to do it.

I think we can be too easily swayed by the howling chorus of condemnation, particularly aggressive in Europe, that is motivated by other criteria than honesty. We can be browbeaten into feeling we are in the wrong and need to apologize. Perhaps the insecurity of the Diaspora leads to this kind of effete guilt. This does not mean that I do not welcome constructive criticism, but it needs to be even-handed. And if one needs further evidence that the situation is not so black-and-white as the BBC might imply, it is that Egypt is clearly interested in seeing Hamas dealt with. War is awful and terrible. It must be avoided at all costs. But a war to eradicate attacks on civilians cannot be apologized for.

Was Moses right to slay the Egyptian? Some Jews clearly did not think so then. But he did not apologize. Times haven't changed

January 10, 2009

Home Alone

I have always reveled in being different and felt privileged to enjoy the different worlds I have lived in and drawn inspiration and strength from. Of course it has been at a price. That price is a sense of alienation from everything that speaks "conformity". As I look back, I regret nothing. I was never attracted by communal affairs, only education. I have turned my back on the petty, unforgiving world of religious politics and have not identified with any specific political wing of Israeli or world Jewry. I believe it is this that has kept me a happy man, enjoying my work and retaining my enthusiasm.

But on the other hand, this sets me apart and even alienates me from much of the People to which I outwardly belong. The idea of "The Jewish People" has never been as significant to me as loyalty to its values. Looking in at Anglo-Jewry from the outside, I saw nothing I could identify with. And when I got to know different communities around the world, with their splits and factions and turf battles, I always felt the ideas of Jewish togetherness, of "all Israel is responsible for each other" (Midrash Rabba, Shir HaShirim), to be rather hollow.

Have Jews ever been united? It might just have been that way once but only fleetingly, at certain rare moments where external circumstances dictated it. Otherwise we have always fragmented. Oh yes, there are wonderful exceptions, religious and otherwise--but they are indeed exceptions.

I like the different communities and their specific cultures and traditions, Sefardi, Ashkenazi, Hassidic, Lithuanian, mystic, rationalist. I can pray and feel at home in an Iranian or a Hassidic service, so long as the people concerned care about what they are there for.

When I look at what I actually have in common with other Jews, it is not that much. There is the old joke that anyone less religious than you is an assimilationist and anyone more religious is a fanatic. What do I have in common with those who have no religious animation at all? Is it race or genes? Unlikely. A sense of peoplehood? What does that consist of, bagels and lox? A sense of shared alienation? I share that with plenty of others. What have I in common intellectually with Jews who have no open intellectual sense of wonder? I am not motivated by the same goals as those who make money a major criterion of self-worth, or of judging others. And what about those religious Jews who hate the very idea of the State of Israel? Not me. I am not much interested in power, authority, religious one-upmanship, or miracle workers.

If we look at the Jewish world--with all its fractions, varieties, orthodoxies and heresies, different lands of origin, mother tongues, and political loyalties--it is amazing that we consider ourselves a people altogether.

Now with the situation in Gaza I suddenly feel part of the Jewish people. I do not like alienated secular Jews who want Israel to conveniently disappear. I do not support rabid settlement policies, certainly not hordes of wild young fanatics wreaking damage and injury to make their point. I pray for peace, a peace with equality and tolerance and fairness.

But I would not for one moment want to make peace with people I cannot trust to deliver. I despise corrupt political structures, and nationalism strikes me us dangerous. Yet if nearly everyone else in the world can have a homeland, why can't we? And when, as now, I see the massive choruses of hatred, I feel the need to reinforce my Jewish sense of belonging to a dispossessed people. When I see young Israeli soldiers going to war, I cry. When I see the casualties of war on both sides, I am appalled and deeply troubled. And I can recognize that on the other side Muslims will feel their solidarities as I feel mine. We pray three times a day for peace, but peace seems to have taken flight. The numerical and military odds look frightening long term. But neither do I believe it is lost, nor do I believe in giving up. That is the paradox

I never liked the idea that only adversity keeps us Jews together. If it was the only reason then it would be a crushing condemnation of our religion and its culture. It is a like a marriage held together only because of financial convenience. Yet it is adversity that tests loyalty, that divides those who are committed to a people from those who ultimately are not.

Those of you following the Torah reading will be noticing how the sons of Jacob were divided--competing, argumentative, looking for others to blame, rivaling for leadership, and frankly an example of discord, even if later commentators claimed it was all in a spiritual cause. Yet they came together to meet the crisis of the various threats that Egypt posed.

That is us! A crisis tests loyalty, but the bigger test is whether there is anything deeper lying beneath the surface waiting to be awoken.

January 04, 2009

Gaza and Shoes

The incursion into Gaza is painful to witness. No human being of any degree of sensitivity can be unmoved in the face of human suffering, even when it is self-inflicted. No I do not approve of much of Israeli policy, but I simply cannot understand why, given its vulnerability, Gaza's masters insist on provoking Israel into retaliation. I can only assume that, to fanatics, human life is so dispensable that they simply put a public relations campaign above suffering. Similarly, I do not understand why Israel claims such incursions stop the rockets, or think they might, when they don’t, any more than concessions do.

There might have been a time when you could have argued that dissident groups bent on undermining Hamas were firing rockets into Israel. But everyone now knows the Hamas controls the Gaza strip, so that argument cannot wash. Even Abbas, even Egypt asked Hamas to stop firing them.

Let us assume that it is entirely Israel's fault that the Gaza strip is in the state it is. Let us ignore the fact that Israel offered to rebuild Gaza after 1968, but was warned not to because the Arab world wanted to keep it as a festering sore and bargaining chip. Let us ignore the fact that Israel voluntarily withdrew its armed forces. Let us ignore the constant raining down of rockets and the repeated threats from Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and almost everyone else in the Arab and Muslim world, as if threats were always just empty words. What is it in a culture's mentality that sacrifices children and adults by inviting, provoking retaliation, knowing full well that retaliation is a blunt weapon and innocents will be caught up in it? What is it that justifies putting bomb factories and rocket launchers in residential areas?

This apparent primitive desire to show that one refuses to make any concessions to peace, simply speaks of blind, irrational hatred that can never be appeased. One sees it on both sides. The blind Cyclops staggering around, determined to inflict damage regardless. The mentality of token opposition is nowhere better illustrated than in the Iraqi chappie who threw his shoes at George Bush.

The shoe has a long, long history in the Middle East of association with shame. Just look up the Book of Ruth, Chapter 4, where taking off a shoe is associated with relinquishing responsibility. Even today in Jewish law, when a man refuses to perform the Yibum ceremony of marrying the childless widow of his brother, a ceremonial shoe is removed and thrown to the ground as part of the Halitzah ritual. But ceremony is one thing. Actually throwing to hurt is another matter.

In the world most of us live in, symbols are reminders of much more important issues and ideas. But in a primitive world, where other methods of resolving conflicts have failed, the gesture, the words, even the acts of defiance, like throwing stones, are even more important. They are reminiscent of a child blindly returning to the attack against a bigger more brutal bully who is simply stronger. Instead of thinking of other ways to tackle the problem, the child simply hurls himself again and again at the tormentor until he is either too bloodied or tired to continue. Edward Said, the Palestinian academic said that throwing a stone over the Lebanon border at Israel was remarkably therapeutic. Therapy is one thing. Causing your own side immeasurable suffering is simply inhuman. But that is what Hezbollah and Hamas do in principle, as a strategy.

The man who threw his shoes has become a hero in the Arab world, where stone throwing is the only act of opposition most people can aspire to. A Saudi businessman is prepared to pay $10 million for one of the shoes that made an American president duck. We in more civilized countries laugh at the event. But it does illustrate this Middle Eastern passion for launching missiles where the gesture means more than the results.

Hamas makes a point by showing it can emulate Hezbollah and fire rockets into Israel at civilian targets. Yet equally frustrating is the certain knowledge that no matter what Israel does the fanatics will continue. Hamas and Hezbollah have so far rejected any peace deal. Saudi Arabia might be in favor it, but they cannot stop the rockets! I hope this current campaign will solve the problem but I'm not confident. On the other hand the excessive Israeli retaliation against Hezbollah, widely proclaimed a failure, has so far led to a quiet Northern front.

Public opinion in much of the world's media, for various ideological reasons, chooses to deny Israel the right to protect its citizens in ways that any other sovereign state, anywhere else in the world would consider the least of its responses. Indeed, in Israel itself Left-Wing protesters demonstrate against Israel protecting itself.

I am proud that Israel is such a free society in which such views can be openly expressed. I happen to side ideologically with those who believe Israel should give up land for peace. But only if there will be peace. For as long as its primary enemies now, Hamas and Hezbollah, do not even consider peace, so long as they fire rockets at Israeli civilians, for the life of me I cannot see what alternative Israel has. If someone throws a shoe at me today, he might fire a gun tomorrow. I'd certainly retaliate to protect my family. I'd be crazy not to.

I have always believed that only an American presence on the ground can ensure peace. Most other powers have shown themselves biased against Israel's interests and the UN cannot be taken seriously. If Obama really wants to be a different president, then the troops he wants to send to Afghanistan should be in Gaza, to deter both Hamas and Israel equally. Otherwise this pointless agony will continue.