April 29, 2010

Muhammad on South Park

When South Park is censored, then things are a lot worse than we thought they were. Here's an extract from an Op Ed piece that appeared in The New York Times on April 26th written by Ross Douthat.
You can't portray Muhammad on American television anymore, as South Park's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, discovered in 2006, when they tried to parody the Danish cartoon controversy — in which unflattering caricatures of the prophet prompted worldwide riots — by scripting another animated appearance for Muhammad. The episode aired, but the cameo itself was blacked out, replaced by an announcement that Comedy Central had refused to show an image of the prophet.

For Parker and Stone, the obvious next step was to make fun of the fact that you can’t broadcast an image of Muhammad. Two weeks ago, "South Park" brought back the "super best friends," but this time Muhammad never showed his face. He “appeared” from inside a U-Haul trailer, and then from inside a mascot’s costume.

These gimmicks then prompted a writer for the New York-based Web site revolutionmuslim.com to predict that Parker and Stone would end up like Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker murdered in 2004 for his scathing critiques of Islam. The writer, an American convert to Islam named Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee, didn't technically threaten to kill them himself. His post, and the accompanying photo of van Gogh's corpse, was just "a warning ... of what will likely happen to them."

This passive-aggressive death threat provoked a swift response from Comedy Central. In last week's follow-up episode, the prophet's non-appearance appearances were censored, and every single reference to Muhammad was bleeped out. The historical record was quickly scrubbed as well: The original "Super Best Friends" episode is no longer available on the Internet.

In a way, the muzzling of "South Park" is no more disquieting than any other example of Western institutions’ cowering before the threat of Islamist violence. It's no worse than the German opera house that temporarily suspended performances of Mozart's opera "Idomeneo" because it included a scene featuring Muhammad's severed head. Or Random House’s decision to cancel the publication of a novel about the prophet's third wife. Or Yale University Press's refusal to publish the controversial Danish cartoons ... in a book about the Danish cartoon crisis. Or the fact that various Western journalists, intellectuals and politicians — the list includes Oriana Fallaci in Italy, Michel Houellebecq in France, Mark Steyn in Canada and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands — have been hauled before courts and "human rights" tribunals, in supposedly liberal societies, for daring to give offense to Islam.

But there's still a sense in which the "South Park" case is particularly illuminating. Not because it tells us anything new about the lines that writers and entertainers suddenly aren't allowed to cross. But because it's a reminder that Islam is just about the only place where we draw any lines at all.
South Park, as anyone under the age of fifty who watches television knows, has made fun of everything and everyone, including most religions. When this iconic TV program capitulates, two things are clear to me. One is that any religion that cannot live with being made fun of is in decline. It may take as long as it took for the Ottoman Empire to collapse, but it will. The second is that any society that doesn't tolerate making fun of any religion is also doomed intellectually. Compromising intellectual freedom leads to ossification if not numerical collapse.

European intellectual society has betrayed itself. Some argue it did it when Jean-Paul Sartre ostracized Albert Camus for daring to distance himself from USSR communism. American academia is in danger of going that way too.

I subscribe to the New York Review of Books in spite of its flaws, such as Tony Judt writing about being Jewish. He might be an excellent historian, but what he calls Jewish and what I call Jewish have absolutely nothing in common. When he writes about his version, I cringe. But the good in the NYR far outweighs the bad. Something I cannot say for the London Review of Books, a kind of intellectual Amnesty International, pretending to be objective but not.

The attempt at a new Jewish Review of Books strikes me as infelicitous and farcical unless the quality of its writing far exceeds that of the NYR. It is another example of how to throw money away tilting at the wrong windmills. It is only going to preach to the choir.

The real drive needs to be to ensure that at universities, from where the next generation of intellectual opinion-makers will come, are exposed to libertarian, objective, and contrarian opinions, so that they will not become the cowardly failures who kowtow to bullying like Comedy Central, Yale, etc., etc.

I used to enjoy watching Comedy Central irreverence--Bill Maher's demolition of silly religion. Now I know they are cowards, only going for soft targets but chickening out in the face of bullies. In the long run, as I have said before, any religion that tries to suppress criticism or objects to a little harmless satire has lost it. For this reason alone, I say long live Dawkins, Hitchens, and their nutty crew. At least they have guts. The only way to stop fundamentalism from winning is to keep on pushing back at the bullies.

April 22, 2010


I don’t know what it is about religious leaders, in fact anyone put into a position of leadership and authority, that they end up betraying the very values they are supposed to uphold.

This piece is not in response to the Catholic Church's reluctance to take swift unequivocal action to remove and defrock sexually predatory priests. Of course they would all condemn abusing little boys or girls, or Jews for that matter. It's this naturally defensive and protective kneejerk response I detest. We have to think of the wider issues, of the Mother Church, etc., and our obligations to the faithful. (Don't get me wrong. As a headmaster I, too, did on occasion fall prey to the "it's in the best interests of the organization/the community/the teacher" argument to act in a way I later regretted.) At least they now seem to be getting their act together.

Nor have I written this piece as a response to the news this week that when a Chareidi Chasid in the USA was found guilty of sexual abuse and sentenced to years in jail, one of the victims was thrown out of a synagogue, no less, and the local rebbes who are relatives and friends of the perpetrator have remained silent. The Hassidic enclave of Square Town in the USA has now established a task force to deal with its sexual abuse issues. I only pray the task force will attack the perpetrators rather than the victims.

No, in one way what I am responding to is much less serious; but it is something morally corrosive.

Last week the Zionist Federation of South Africa, with the tacit approval of the Orthodox leadership, negotiated a deal with the family of Judge Goldstone (he of the infamous report on the Gaza Campaign). The deal was that he would not attend the synagogue in Sandton, the heavily Jewish suburb of Johannesburg, where his grandson was celebrating his bar mitzvah. Their argument was identical to those of craven university heads or society officers around the world who cooperate with the enemies of free speech and agree to ban pro-Israel speakers in order to avoid unpleasantness or confrontation. But it is also the way our own right-wingers try to silence critics, whether of Judaism or Israel. Reasoned, calm, gentlemanly disagreement seems to be a thing of the past.

If this was a public meeting on the issues of the day, then certainly demonstrate and exercise the right of disagreement and protest. But this is a private affair in which a man simply wants to go to synagogue, for God's sake! By scaring someone from synagogue for his political opinions, politicizes the synagogue. It attacks the idea of freedom of thought and expression and makes one's religion appear closed-minded, petty, vindictive. One embarrasses a fellow Jew and demeans Judaism in the eyes of the non-Jewish world. Religious leadership is supposed to represent and uphold those values, to stand up to pressure the way the late Chief Rabbis Joseph Hertz or Immanuel Jackobovits did in the UK. Not capitulate to mind bullies and fascists. This is a betrayal of moral leadership.

Judge Goldstone may (or may not) have been guilty of all sorts of errors of judgment and association. He might have been used as a tool by the enemies of objectivity and Israel's right to exist to mount yet more campaigns of hatred. He may have allowed himself to be used by the UN Committee on Animal Rights (no that wasn't a mistake, because they are certainly not interested in human rights) in a situation where open, free, and honest discussion about Israel, pro and con, is simply no longer possible. But let us assume he acted out of a sense of duty and noblesse oblige, nevertheless. Besides, for all the hatred his report has caused, it never does any harm to have one's faults and errors pointed out, hopefully leading to repentance and rectification. This reaction is no different than that of the synagogue in London which banned the weird Sir Gerald Kaufman, from attending its services on similar grounds.

I know what happens in these cases because it has happened to me often enough. The organizations who object to other points of view will call you and tell you how, as leader, you owe it to the State of Israel or the Community to take a stand. Your Honorary Officers will call you and tell you that if you don’t act the way they want you to your position will be compromised, and then the big funders will call and say they will withdraw their money and you will be responsible for the consequences. Other rabbis will tell you that if you do not do as they wish they will split the community, undermine your authority, publicize a humiliating assessment of your scholarship and competence, and make sure that great and important rabbis around the world will issue declarations saying you must be repudiated.

It would take a very strong, self-confident (yes, perhaps arrogant) man to stand up to these pressures. Sadly, the sort of men who get to be appointed to these positions, whatever other great qualities they may have, know that they owe their positions to some sort of consensus and are afraid to hazard it. But, dear readers, what defines a genuine leader is someone prepared to stand up for what he knows is right.

This reminds me of the way the Orthodox establishment in the UK humiliated the late Rabbi Louis Jacobs by refusing him an honor in synagogue on his grandson's bar mitzvah. There, too, the Orthodox leadership should have known better but failed to give a moral lead. And silence can also be a failure.

Even if the synagogue and authorities in South Africa are now backtracking, the damage has been done and we have shown to the world what a pretty religious leadership we have.

April 15, 2010

Shoes Can Kill

The Sunday Times of London reported on April 11th that the Metropolitan police in London allowed protestors to throw shoes and the English Courts have agreed that the shoe-throwing incident was simply a ritual form of protest and therefore not a criminal act of violence:
Judge Denniss agreed that the act of shoe-throwing should not be considered in a charge of violent disorder because it was “a symbolic” political gesture. Shoes, and particularly the soles of shoes, are regarded as ritually unclean in the Islamic world. An Iraqi journalist became a folk hero for throwing a shoe at President George W Bush during a press conference in December 2008. A spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service admitted this weekend that the police advice to the Downing Street protesters was a factor in the case at Isleworth crown court, west London. It has now emerged that the Metropolitan police first told protesters of its stance on shoe-throwing shortly after the attack on Bush. The concession has already been taken up enthusiastically by Muslim demonstrators, who pelted Downing Street with shoes in protest at the Israeli bombing of Gaza last year. Dozens of ski-boots and clogs were also hurled at the US consulate in Edinburgh in a related protest, in which three policemen sustained minor injuries.
If I needed any further proof that England has gone to the dogs, this is it. Have you ever been hit by a hobnailed boot? It doesn't matter if the nails pierce your skull or if it puts out an eye. It is alright because Justice Denniss thinks that, as it is an old Muslim ritual to throw shoes as sign of disgust, it must be allowed. I suppose the prophet Mohammad went skiing and that is why hurling ski boots is a legitimate manifestation of Islamic protest.

And if it is an ancient tradition to throw knives, Islamic protestors should be allowed to throw knives; and if it is an ancient tradition to murder in the name of honor, then one should be able to do that, and to keep women subservient at home, uneducated and unliberated, should also be enshrined and protected by English law. Just imagine what the fascist National Front can now ask the law to justify on the grounds of the ancient Angle custom of throwing axes! I just thank the Almighty there are still some free countries they do not allow fanatics of any kind (including our own) to act a they feel entitled to.

We Jews have our ancient customs of protest too. The Mishna records that once a heretical High Priest (according to Josephus it was the Sadducee King Yanai, or Jannaeus) performing the water libation ceremony in the Temple on Sukot, instead of pouring the water over the altar, poured it over his feet. This was his protest against what he considered was a rabbinic innovation without any Biblical authority. The gathered masses who supported the rabbinic line responded by pelting him with etrogim (citrons). Yanai's response was to call in the guards and thousands were massacred.

Now, I am not suggesting the Metropolitan Police should have called in the army to massacre the protestors, but I am suggesting that, as dangerous missiles as lemons might be, I'd far rather be hit by a lemon than a shoe; and that might explain why we Jews do not have a long history of killing people for relatively minor offences.

It is true that ultra-Orthodox Jewish protestors in Jerusalem throw stones. They’ve been throwing stones at other Jews certainly for the past fifty years. I know because I have personally seen it happen that long ago, and I suspect it had been going on for long before that. After all, the Jerusalem community has been living under Islam for nearly fifteen hundred years, and as we know, no pilgrimage to Mecca is complete without a good bout of stone-throwing at the devil in the Ramy al-Jamarat ceremony. I'm only surprised that they haven’t added slingshots to the ceremony yet. But I have never, ever heard any rabbi of significance in Meah Shearim or anywhere else express his approval of what is a gutter response of primitive idle fanatical youths who only prove that many outwardly ultra-Orthodox simply obey their spiritual leaders when it suits them.

But if it is allowed to throw shoes at demonstrations in London, why shouldn’t we import cadres of Charedi stone-throwers from Meah Shearim to mount a counter demonstration? If the Law or the police are consistent they should surely allow it? No? Or is this a special case before the elections to court the fanatical vote?

I am mightily disturbed by this latest example of capitulation of a hitherto open democratic society to violent fanaticism in the name of cultural appeasement. I am completely in favor of peaceful demonstrations, even where I disagree with the ideology and think they are all lying prejudiced lunatics. But I object to any form of physical violence. Eventually the Metropolitan Police did reluctantly act when banners called for the killing of Jews. Incitement to violence is not allowed (though I am sure it will be soon in the UK). But if incitement to violence is still forbidden, how can throwing missiles (and don’t tell me a heavy metal and fiberglass ski boot is not a dangerous missile) be allowed?

The English police and judiciary have gone mad. Thank goodness I got out!

April 08, 2010

Tino Sehgal

There was a time in my life when I was interested in trying to answer the question "What is Art?" Although I have long given up trying to find a formula that satisfies me, the nearest I can get is that it is something that sets out to stimulate, visually and intellectually, even if it does not work for me. Over the years I have always made a point of trying to see what is new and what is "in fashion", even in the notoriously fickle and material world where art is traded like any commodity. So with some skepticism I heard of an exhibition in the Guggenheim by a young German artist (born in London in 1976) called Tino Sehgal. At first I thought he might be Jewish and his name was a tarted up version of "Segal". But it turns out his father is of Pakistani origin, and I doubt there are any living Jews left in Pakistan.

His art is described as "Constructed Situations". Human beings pose or interact. In the typically pompous, vapid blurb of the Guggenheim promotion:
Tino Sehgal constructs situations that defy the traditional context of museum and gallery environments, focusing on the fleeting gestures and social subtleties of lived experience rather than on material objects. Relying exclusively on the human voice, bodily movement, and social interaction, Sehgal’s works nevertheless fulfill all the parameters of a traditional artwork with the exception of its inanimate materiality. They are presented continuously during the operating hours of the museum, they can be bought and sold, and, by virtue of being repeatable, they can persist over time.
But that puffery did not put me off so I paid me bucks and went in.

On the ground floor of the Rotunda were a young couple dressed casually in jeans, writhing on top of each other in slow motion, rotating, rising and then falling back down, embracing, grinding, and kissing, and occasionally turning to look at the audience. It was supposed to refer to some of the most romantic works of art that have included an embrace. But frankly there was nothing either romantic or appealing about what they were doing. I thought perhaps if I stared back at the artists they might open a conversation with me but they just returned my stare and returned to their writhing.

So I started to walk up the ramp to see what else there was. As I reached the first level this cute little girl, perhaps 8 years old, broke away from a group of other kids and walked up to me and looked me in the eyes and asked so innocently, "What is progress?" For a moment I thought it was a joke. That was some heavy question for an eight-year-old to ask. I smiled back at her cute face. Then it hit me that this was part of the exhibition, or happening, or whatever. So I replied by telling her about physical progress, for example from walking, to the wheel, to railways and cars and jets. But there was moral progress, humans behaving better and more sensitively. She listened attentively but said nothing and when I got to the next level she disappeared.

As I looked around to see where she had gone, a young man accosted me and asked me where standards of morality come from. I took a second or two to cotton on, then I fell back on my philosophical training and started to enumerate the various theories philosophers had for understanding ethics and I mentioned the religious option too. He seemed interested in arguing, so we argued, quite intensely, until we reached the next level when, once again without any sign or comment, he disappeared.

This time I was ready when a middle-aged lady with her arm in a sling asked me out of the blue whether I ever passed homeless people begging on the street. We talked about whether they were homeless out of choice or circumstances and if they wanted money for food, drugs, or some nefarious activity, and whether even if one did not give money one might just give a friendly sympathetic look. Once again the discussion was intense and challenging. And up we went to the next level and she disappeared on cue.

An older man took over and he talked about how his part of New York had changed so much over the years, with all kinds of new immigrants and different kinds of places of worship, and he asked me if I had noticed how my area had changed. We talked till we got to the top. Before he could go, I asked him what he did and how he got involved in this. He told me that the participants were either involved with art colleges and galleries or were friends of friends. He was a retired academic and he enjoyed his stint though it was tiring talking and walking up the floors for four or five hours a shift. And off he went, as if summoned by some higher unseen authority, to be recycled as it were. I thought of the angels on Jacob's ladder going up and coming down.

I went back down, watching other couples in deep discussion whom I would not have paid any attention to before, and arrived at the bottom to find the writhing couple still writhing. And out I went into the cold winter air and walked back across Central Park to the West Side, thinking about what had happened.

The experience had worked. I was stimulated. I started thinking about the interactions and the issues we discussed and they really had made me think and reconsider some of my views. And I thought that could only be "a good thing". I had enjoyed the experience and benefited from it. If that was Art, so be it. And if it was not, who cares! I had a positive experience. I was made to think! And I wondered if religion and art might not have something in common after all!

April 01, 2010

Women in the Park

The last days of Pesach are associated with the narrative in Exodus of crossing the Red Sea. If any reader happens to be in Jerusalem, it is worthwhile making your way down to Rehov Mea Shearim to the Toldos Aharon "court" of the Reb Ahrele Chasidim. There, on the last day of Pesach, the rebbe has his faithful pack the bleachers and simulate the huge banks of the water on either side and then re enacts the crossing, actually running up and down until he drops with exhaustion. So there is a tradition that the Red Sea crossing was not a leisurely saunter but a serious and even terrified run. So that's why I offer this thought this week.

I regularly walk, jog, and run around Central Park and I have observed an interesting phenomenon about women runners which leads me to a range of theories that I should like to share with you, for your consideration and response. And please do not pull your punches.

The main route around the park has lanes for cars, cyclists, and runners and they are marked with arrows and symbols indicating an anticlockwise flow of traffic. It is true that many users of the park ignore them, except for those restricted hours and sections when general motor traffic can use them. On weekends when there is no traffic it's very much a free-for-all, and anyway it is true that in general people seem to pay scant heed to the instructions, possibly because there are fewer police around.

For us Brits it takes time to adjust to the fact that in the USA (as in most of the world) traffic drives on the right-hand side. When I first arrived in New York and started to run, I found I got into trouble if I went against the flow. So I quickly adapted to running on the right-hand side of the lane, even if I noticed there were always contrarians.

In addition to the priorities of the road, I should add that I was brought up on an estate next to the River Thames and the law of the river, maintained strictly and policed by the launches of the Thames Conservancy, was that the faster craft always give right-of-way to the slower ones and motor power cedes to manpower. I automatically assumed such etiquette would apply to human traffic. So in the park, when I am faced with an oncoming pedestrian slower than I am, I give way, regardless of sex.

In general my "proper" English upbringing is very strict about giving way to women, which was what I usually do. But when it comes to running I treat athletic women the same way I do any other "competitor". In the world of female sport, as with male, the competition nowadays is so tough that many female athletes are now faster and stronger than most male athletes of my youth. Faced by an "equal" male or female I go according to the rule that whoever has the right-of-way literally sticks to his or her right. This works most of the time. When someone refuses to give way I am now the one who blinks first (though I wasn’t originally), because I am fully aware of the fact that I could be facing an armed lunatic who could pull a gun or a knife on me if he or she was minded to.

This is all background to my main point. In the runners' lane, at busy times runners pass within inches of each other. Often one closely misses or brushes or knocks limbs with opposing runners. Now I have observed that I am more than twice as likely to be struck by as female runner as a male. And I wonder why.

Assuming it is not personal, I have several theories to offer.

Evolutionarily speaking, men, as the hunters, developed a better sense of distance. Women who stayed at home looking after the kids, cooking, and preparing clothes had to develop a more focused and shorter range of vision. Therefore their judgment of distance is poorer than men's.

The style of many women runners is looser, more relaxed and less constricted than men, and therefore their wilder flailing arms are more likely to accidentally strike a nearby passing target.

Women who run concentrate much more than men on their running and therefore have less mental space available to consider oncoming traffic.

Women are more likely to be listening to their cell phones or iPods and less able to concentrate on what is going in around them.

Women who run are likely to be the more aggressive or physical of their species because they had to try harder to overcome prejudice and expectation and therefore are less concerned to avoid physical encounter.

Women who run have usually had to compete against men or overcome male prejudice and are therefore more likely to actually relish any possibility of knocking a male out of the way or making a male suffer.

So there you have my completely unprofessional opinions that doubtless would get me fired from any public job. I have overlooked one other possibility. The rabbis of the Talmud warn that men are particularly susceptible to females (you don’t need to be a big Talmid Chacham to work that one out) and too many rabbis in recent times have been caught getting up to monkey business. So perhaps the fact is that I'm noticing women joggers more than men and all this is the Almighty warning me to be careful and get back to my Gemara!

Otherwise, any other theories or other experiences that might either enlighten or correct me or help me avoid collisions would be most welcome.