March 31, 2011


I was walking up Fifth Avenue on my way to teach Torah, the other day, when I came upon a black gaggle of Chasidim, corralled and supervised by police behind metal barriers. The protestors were directing their attention towards a townhouse on the other side of the street. They were being led by a venerable octogenarian who was weeping and howling into a megaphone about the terrible tragedy that had befallen God's Holy Ones. Swaying bodies to his left and right chanted Tehillim (Psalms) at the tops of their voices. What was this about? Was it about the victims of the Japanese tsunami, the peaceful protestors massacred by Arab dictators, the victims of war, disease, and poverty?

I approached a young Chasid. He was elegantly dressed and accessorized. By elegant, of course I do not mean the style of dress, simply the cut, cleanliness, and clear cost of his coat. I asked him what Chasidic dynasty he belonged to, was he Satmar, Bobov, Belz or Ger, naming the better known Hassidic courts. He refused to divulge his religious loyalty but asserted that he was one of "the Almighty's Chasidim". Of course I assured him I was too! He handed me a flyer.

From the flyer I learned that this was a demonstration organized by a body called "The Central Rabbinical Congress" (an organization, according to the dreaded internet, founded by the late Satmar Rebbe, Yoel Teiltelbaum). The protest was taking place opposite the townhouse of a notorious Jewish real estate developer called Aby Rosen (no relation, thankfully), against "the uprooting of an ancient Jewish cemetery in Jaffa Israel for the purpose of building a luxury 600 million dollar hotel on the site." Aha, I thought, this is an old trick. Make a nuisance of yourself to such an extent that the developer will pay you to go away. A nice little earner often employed in such circles where discovering Jewish bones and cemeteries is a huge and profitable business.

Then the flyer declared, "The Torah expressly forbids the existence of a Jewish state during our divinely ordained exile." Now, I have read the Torah from cover to cover but have not found any such statement. It went on , "The State of Israel has trampled on every law of the Torah with impunity." Strange, given that one of my complaints against Israel is the extent to which it imposes Jewish Law on reluctant citizens. And more: "It viciously oppressed all those who stood in its way." Yeah, now that sounds more like anti-Zionism to me! I was sure I had stumbled on a Neturei Karta demonstration; that collection of peculiar homo sapiens who seem to think Ahmadinejad is a cuddly philo-Semite, and would rather trust their lives to throat-slitting barbarians than secular Israelis.

But this was not a local spat. There have been massive demonstrations in Israel because of bones, apparently around 1,500 years old, found in Jaffa when builders were working on the foundations for a new hotel. This is where Aby Rosen, comes in because he is one of the developers.

Now there is simply no evidence either of a Jewish burial site or indeed of Jews living there altogether. The Ministry of Antiquities examined the bones forensically and decided they were not Jewish. Some Charedi gentlemen with possibly extensive training in casuistry, but certainly nothing scientific, decided they were Jewish. Let us assume the Ministry of Antiquities is a thoroughly evil, prejudiced collection of blood suckers. Could I please see any empirical evidence from any objective source that these bones are Jewish?

All the evidence points to the contrary. Jewish settlement during that period was up in the Judean hills. The Coastal Plain was always dominated by Philistines, Greeks, and Romans. Just because some rabbi says so, these bones suddenly have converted? But let's leave evidence out of this.

Neturei Karta and their running dogs seem to have forgotten that when in 1948 the Old City was captured by the Arab Legion and in Arab hands, the whole of the Mount of Olives graveyard was vandalized, tombstones used as paving stones, bodies simply dug up and dumped. This is the sort of regime these people think they'd rather entrust their lives and the lives of their families to?

But what disturbs me more is that thousands of the like-minded turned out in Jerusalem to honor and bury these self-same bones. Now by all means give honor to all human bones. Quite admirable. But honestly wouldn't you have thought the living were more important? Wouldn't you have thought that going to comfort the mourners of a family butchered in Itamar a bigger mitzvah? Did you see any of them there comforting the Fogel family? No, I thought not. Why? Because the Charedi camp despises the Religious Zionist camp and the settlers of Itamar are Religious Zionists. The last thing anti-Zionists would want to do is to be nice to Zionists, or even visit their sick or comfort their mourners.

Regardless of whether one agrees with an ideology or not, should not humanitarian issues override these considerations? Isn't this so symptomatic of Jewish life, Israeli life today? They'd rather make a fuss and demonstrate over probably non-Jewish bones, than of living coreligionist human beings. Because bones don't have different opinions. I only hope "Resurrection" comes soon enough for the bones to declare they'd rather have a Christian burial!

March 24, 2011

Who isn't a Jew?

The definition of "Jew" is as unresolved now as it has been for the past 200 years. When Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman, was shot in the head by a maniac, the press in the US made much of her being Jewish. Her rabbi in Tucson said she was a committed Jewish member of her Reform congregation. But to many other Jews she is not. Although she has a Jewish father, her mother is Christian. Giffords is married to a non-Jew. She has not converted, and thus she is not Jewish by the standards of Orthodox and Conservative Judaism. Does it matter? Esther married a non-Jew too!

For thousands of years until the Enlightenment, everyone was defined by religion. The Jewish religious definition--a Jewish mother or conversion out of conviction--was the only criterion for Jews . There was no secular option. There were different periods in which things were either less rigid or more flexible, but that depended as much on external conditions as internal ones. Then new developments changed the picture.

As discrimination against Jews slowly began to thaw, more and more Jews and Christians wanted to marry each other, either for love or money. The only way to do that was for one partner to convert to the religion of the other. In most cases it was the Jew who married out, but in some cases the Christian wanted in, and in others the Jewish parents insisted on it. The problem was that conversion now became less a matter of conviction and more one of convenience or compulsion.

At the same time there were others born Jewish, like Spinoza, who despised Judaism and religion altogether. He was technically Jewish, by birth, but that was an accident he wanted nothing to do with.

Reform Judaism in the nineteenth century, developed a set of religious criteria of its own which made "conversion" a bone of contention. Zionism added another factor. The State of Israel decided to grant automatic citizenship to Jews through the Law of Return. "Never Again" would anyone be persecuted as a Jew without having a refuge. This purely secular, political decision defined Jews in the way Hitler did for the purposes of extermination. Anyone with a single Jewish grandparent qualified as a Jew.

At the same time, the State of Israel gave matters of personal religious status to the rabbinate, which imposed a purely religious definition. Young men and women given Israeli citizenship as "Jews" could fight and die for the Jewish state, yet neither marry nor be buried as Jews. Chaos.

The final nail in the coffin of a single religious definition came when American Reform Judaism accepted the patrilineal criterion in 1983 and thus cut itself off from the rest of religious Jewry. So that now there were Jews who were self-identified as Jews, but the Reform and Orthodox versions of religion became as different and as antagonistic to each other as Catholics were to Protestants.

Add this to the refusal of Orthodoxy to accept conversions it doesn't approve of (even Orthodox ones) and then setting the bar for conversion higher than ever before. Even more chaos. And amongst the Orthodox themselves there are factions and sects that recognize no one but themselves and a select few others on a good day.

And then there are secular Jews who worship at the altar of Woody Allen, Philip Roth, and Noam Chomsky. Some fund courses at American universities given by people who have nothing in common, know what they don't want but haven't yet worked out what they do and whose identity seems to be a whimsical mélange of birth and history, anger and dislocation.

The Jewish people now are more fragmented than they have ever been. There is no one definition that covers every variety. It is in practice true to say that anyone is a Jew who says he or she is. And why not? We are so few, we are under such constant assault all over the place, we should be grateful for anyone who wants to join our club and grateful for any friends and supporters we can get. Even the Megillah specifically includes and praises those who identified with the Jews (Esther 8:17).

But the fact is no one should be under any illusion that there is a master pass membership card. Many Charedi communities are only too delighted to take charitable donations from any kind of Jew even if they would not for moment entertain the possibility of marrying off a son or daughter to them. Your money will do, but not your body (or your soul). And ironically many Jews who have little to do with Judaism seem to feel that giving money to the very Orthodox is some kind of insurance policy.

This only becomes an issue if you want to change your Jewish subspecies. Each has its own ideology, standards of membership, rules and regulations, language and taboos, dress and head covering. It's the same with any club you want to join; to do so, you have to obey its rules. But thankfully in a free society no one is going to compel you. Denominations that do not honestly tell their members the reality of the situation are guilty of deception but that's their issue. Otherwise it's a free world. We need all the support and all the friends we can get. You want to be a Jew? Be my guest.

Here's an analogy. Soccer. You have professionals and amateurs, managers and trainers, goundsmen and administrators, casual spectators, travelling supporters and season ticket holders, agents and reporters. Those who make a living televising games, making sports equipment and clothes, promoting, designing and selling, all involved in one way or another with the sport. Yet the fact is that without the professionals, soccer would be little different from ping pong. Still soccer wants as many players as possible to be encouraged to play or watch the game. If anyone wants to train harder or play more often it is up to her or him. And if some want to switch to baseball, that's their business too. My only problem is with people who hate all soccer players for no good reason and rabbis who are too busy saying "no".

March 18, 2011

Purim 2011

At the time of Purim, Persia was the most cultured, technologically advanced, and powerful state in the Middle East, two and a half thousand years ago. Then came Rome, Christianity, and Islam. The Jews were omnipresent and persistent, influencing, working behind the scenes; never the Oscar winners, but always the nominees for supporting role, with a consistency that in the end compensated for never making the top spot. If there is a lesson to be learnt from that, it is that sometimes the little man overcomes and survives the big bully. This year that is particularly relevant. As are some other lessons that jump out of the pages of the Megillah.

King Achashverosh was a typical Oriental ruler--autocratic, self-centered, self- indulgent. By turns blustering and arrogant, then fumbling, juvenile, and pathetic. Surrounded by his seven inner advisors, who only told him what they thought he wanted to hear, he was effectively insulated from his people. One could only gain access to him by making it through a series of courtyards; even then if you got there, a flick of his scepter and you were a dead person.

His idea of buying loyalty was throwing huge, booze-washed parties. That was, and indeed is, the way in the East, the equivalent of the Bahraini king's cash to all citizens or the Saudi king's massive handouts to ensure loyalty. Achashverosh does at least realize the first law of politics: "It's the economy, stupid." He uses tax reductions to win support both at the start and at the end of the story. Doubtless he was utterly convinced his people loved him.

The Talmud debates as to whether he was right to give a party to the provincial grandees first and then, only after having secured the fringes, to turn to securing his home base in Shushan the capital, or whether he should have done it the other way round. Just as Ga Duffy, who behaves just as I imagine Achashverosh did, secured Tripoli first, he knew he could rely on the loyalty of his own local tribesmen because they all had their snouts in the pig swill (sorry to offend good Muslims, I should rather have said "oil wells"). And I have no doubt that, like current Persia today he'd have had no compunction in torturing to death anyone who dared challenge him or bombing the guts out of peaceful civilians.

Why did Achashverosh give the provinces a feast lasting 180 days and the capital only seven? Perhaps it was a numbers game, the empire stretched from India to Egypt, after all, and I suspect he offered a rolling buffet as each delegation arrived at the end of a long and tiring journey. His aim obviously was to impress, to show off, and to overpower. As now, that was how excessive consumer extravagance proclaimed a man's bank balance, driving around Shushan in Lamborghinis, princes of the realm demanding cash for influence (oops that was Britain, not Persia). But there is no reference in the story to his trying to impress with wisdom, culture, or technology.

The huge feasts and display of wealth, reminds me of the late Shah's massive celebration of 2,500 years of the Persian Empire at Persepolis in 1971. He was not secure either. Achashverosh was nervous about insurrection. Not just because in Bigtan and Teresh he had evidence of plots against him, but also in Queen Vashti's rebellion against his authority. He was the first recorded example of a male chauvinist being challenged by woman power. Just look at that pathetic declaration "that every man should rule his own house and only speak his mother tongue". As if an Imperial fiat is going to have any such effect. What a pointless desire to show who is boss in his own home that cannot but indicate a profound sense of insecurity.

Indeed, insecurity is there all the time as a subtext: Esther's insecurity about her position, the Jews about theirs, Haman's about his position, and the king's idiotic insistence that he cannot contradict himself and therefore every instruction he gives cannot be withdrawn but has to stand. It reminds me of the Catholic Church making papal infallibility a dogma in the nineteenth century just as Darwin, Huxley, and modern science were making monkeys out of religious fundamentalism.

We all have our insecurities, but the key word of the Megillah is "Venahafoch", meaning "And it was overturned". What appears an obstacle or a disaster at one moment, can change overnight. Who would have thought at the height of Nazi power or Stalin's iron grip that the whole efficient overpowering machine would crumble? As Lenin once said, "Sometimes decades pass and nothing happens, and then sometimes weeks pass and decades happen."

Purim reminds us that what was true then is as true today, whether it is an evil cruel regime, an overconfident or an overindulgent one, the world of human affairs, the Wheel of Fortune, and God make sure that things do not stay the same forever. As King Solomon says in Kohelet, Ecclesiastes (11:9) "If you only indulge and follow your heart and your eyes, know that the day of reckoning will come." He might well have been thinking of Middle Eastern potentates.

March 10, 2011

Passive Resistance

In Tunisia and Egypt, passive resistance seems at this moment to have brought about change. In Iran and Libya, where the rulers believe it is acceptable to murder peaceful protesters, it has so far failed to dislodge cruel oligarchies. In other parts of the Arab world the jury is still out.

Sometime ago I wrote an essay jointly with Yair Ronen (then of Bar-Ilan, now of Ben Gurion University). Entitled On the Child's Right to Protection of National Identity During Political Conflict: Lessons from the Case of Mubarak Awad, it addressed the question of whether "passive resistance" might not be a more effective way than violence in dealing with Palestinian rights. Mubarak Awad, is a Palestinian-American psychologist who advocates nonviolent resistance. He was born in Jerusalem under the British Mandate. His father was killed in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. After high school, Awad completed his education in the USA. His work concentrated on children's rights around the world and he helped develop programs for troubled and abused children in the USA.

Awad returned to Israel in 1985; there he established the Palestinian Centre for the Study of Nonviolence, which sponsored several nonviolent actions during the early months on the first intifada. He believed that nonviolent tactics could be used to resist the Israeli military occupation. In what was a typical misjudgment, Israel deported Awad in 1988, after refusing to renew his visa. He now teaches in Washington, DC. Had he been encouraged instead of deported, he might have helped prevent the intifadas and saved countless lives.

In a recent article posted on the New York Review of Books online site, David Shulman discusses the latest book by Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian academic, president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, and one of the few very reasonable voices in the Palestinian world, respected on both sides of the divide. Nusseibeh's What Is a Palestinian State Worth? describes an earlier stage of organized Palestinian civil disobedience, in which he had a significant part--the popular struggle of the first intifada in 1988 and 1989. But, as we know, violence triumphed and so did Israel.

Shulman mentions Ali Abu Awwad, a young activist who has followed in Mubarak's footsteps. He runs the Palestinian Movement for Non-Violent Resistance, which has offices in Bethlehem and increasing influence throughout the occupied territories. Shulman quotes him as saying, "Peace itself is the way to peace, and there is no peace without freedom.”

Another champion of passive resistance is Abdallah Abu Rahmah. Once again the Israeli authorities have shot themselves in the foot, by arresting Abu Rahmah. He was prosecuted by the military, and on January 11 the judge sentenced him to sixteen months in jail. The response in Israel has been deafening silence. Sometimes I really do believe we are our own worst enemies.

If we accept that everyone has the right to free speech and peaceful political activity, I cannot for the life of me see why Palestinians should not have that right too, even if our ideologies are in conflict and we are, to use the old metaphor, two families fighting for possession of the same house.

Many will readily blame the current situation on the cumulative trauma resulting from Arab (including Palestinian) violence against Jews, going back to the beginning of the conflict, and the virulent anti-Semitism of much of the Muslim world. This, together with the escalating anti-Israel sentiment in Europe and the West, stoked whether intentionally or not by the BBC and other pan national media, explains a great deal. So does Israeli cultural prickliness. And one cannot help but wonder why Israel is regarded with odium by so many when the whole world has been seeing for itself what obnoxious regimes surround it and how they treat protestors far far worse than Israel does.

Nevertheless, given there is a conflict and it will not go away however hard one might wish it to, wouldn't one logically prefer peaceful demonstrations rather than violent ones? Why, therefore, should not Israel encourage passive resistance rather than allow violence to be the only tool available? Is it the same miscalculation that led them to encourage and finance Hamas in its early days to emerge as a rival to the secular PLO? Or the arrogant overconfidence that, in recent years, has led to more reversals than successes?

The issue is whether passive resistance can achieve anything in the case of the Palestinians. The fact is it only works where the authorities, like the British in India (after the Amritsar massacre), are not ready to shoot to kill peaceful demonstrators. And in truth many historians question the extent to which Gandhi’s passive resistance was what led the British to leave India. In the case of evil regimes which have no compunction in massacring their own citizens, clearly passive resistance is a risky tactic. Sadly, it must be admitted that in Israel, too, unarmed protestors have in the past been shot and the army is simply not doing its duty by allowing a band of violent pathological settlers to run riot at will and usually unpunished. Though in no way is there any comparison between a state at war with its neighbours and one at war against its own citizens.

Israel is fighting overwhelming odds for its survival. Even if it is well armed, the threats remain visceral and constant, if unsuccessful so far. The majority of the population is committed to survival and will do whatever it takes to meet any existential threat. It is not a scenario in which I can see passive resistance winning.

The Palestinian struggle is not simply one of changing a political system. It has become, in the minds of many, a battle between Islam and Judaism. The Arab world should, in theory, be ready to march from all directions, millions on foot, towards Israel and there would be no way Israel could deal with that threat. It is fortunate indeed that they often hate each other more than they hate the Jews. But in the meantime, why should Israel see passive resistance on the West Bank as such a threat.

But then I cannot understand why Israel did not, from the very beginning in 1967, try to woo the West Bankers and solve the issues through positive measures rather than negative ones. It may be too late now; Hamas may not be prepared to play that game. But at least on the West Bank the evidence is that economic progress achieves more than petty, cruel restrictions and the almost free reign of nationalist bullies.

Even if Peace Talks continue to get nowhere, surely it must make sense to minimize conflict rather than exacerbate it. Who would not rather face a genuinely peaceful protestor than an armed one?

March 03, 2011

British Mandate

Whether it is in drama, journalism, or academia, there are always subjective and different ways of examining historical events. A new Channel 4 series The Promise, by Peter Kosminsky, illustrates once again the deception and dishonesty of presenting only one side of a story. The series purports to objectively illustrate how so many British soldiers, seeing at first hand in Europe the result of what the Germans perpetrated against the Jews, came to Palestine to serve in the British Mandate Army, imbued with a pro-Jewish feeling, a sense that the Jews deserved a refuge--but the actions of the wicked Zionists turned them against the Jews and left them feeling completely on the Arab side. So here is another point of view. And if you doubt my objectivity I refer you to Conor Cruise O'Brien's The Siege for a disinterested perspective.

When I first went to Israel as a teenager in 1956, I remember vividly how surprised I was when I encountered so much ill feeling and resentment towards the British Mandate. I was made to feel that being British was an embarrassment.

It is not as though I did not know about the history of the British Mandate. Britain had captured the Middle East from the Turks in the First World War. The Balfour Declaration had promised a homeland for the Jews in their ancestral lands, but the interests of the Arab population had to be preserved. When Britain was granted the mandate in 1922, the first High Commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel, a Jew, succeeded in alienating everyone. It was an impossible situation.

The Ottoman Empire had welcomed Jews ever since their expulsion from Spain. However, as anti-Semitism grew in Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and Jewish immigration began to increase, tensions rose. Initially some Arab leaders welcomed the influx and its promise of joint development. Emir Feisal (son of the King of Hejaz) and Chaim Weizmann (later president of the World Zionist Organization) signed an agreement in 1919 to work together to achieve common goals. It was, sadly, short-lived.

Originally the plan was for the whole of Palestine and Transjordan to be divided between Arabs and Jews. But the British began to play the old game of Divide and Rule, hiving off Transjordan and sending army officer Sir John Glubb to establish and train the Arab Legion. The rise of Arab nationalism led to riots, attacks on civilians, and the notorious Hebron massacre of Jews in 1929. The British felt they had to appease the Arabs, so they began to restrict Jewish immigration. The White Paper of 1939 virtually closed the door on Jewish immigration precisely at the moment when a haven might have saved hundreds of thousands from the Nazi barbarity.

Those who did manage escape Europe had to face harsh detention camps in Atlit, and then Cyprus. Refugee ships were sent back to Europe or redirected to Cyprus or Mauritius. The British army and police force became notorious for their harsh and humiliating treatment of Jews. Indeed, the Board of Deputies had evidence that many of the volunteers who went to Palestine had anti-Semitic records. Still, the main Jewish community under Ben Gurion, despite his disgust at British policy, was committed to cooperation with the Mandate forces and participating in the war effort. He famously said, "We will fight the White Paper as if there is no war, and fight the war as if there is no White Paper." But as diplomacy was not working, extreme Jewish groups such as Etzel (Irgun) and Lehi (Stern Gang) began to initiate campaigns of violence against British military and Arab targets. The first member of a Jewish underground group, Shlomo Ben-Yosef, was executed in 1938, but no further executions of Jews were held in Palestine until after the war when they resumed their campaigns.

In 1945 the Mandate enacted the Defense (Emergency) Regulations which suspended Habeas Corpus, established military courts, and prescribed the death penalty for carrying weapons or ammunition illegally and for membership in illegal organizations. The post-war foreign secretary of the Labour government was the notorious Ernest Bevin, who was adamantly opposed to the idea of a Jewish state. Richard Crossman believed he was profoundly anti-Semitic. He pushed the Mandate authorities to take a very hard line.

In 1946 Michael Eshbal and Yosef Simchon were arrested and sentenced to death. The Irgun began a policy of reprisals. Five days later they kidnapped five British officers in Tel Aviv, and another one the following day in Jerusalem. Two weeks later, when Eshbal's and Simchon's sentences were commuted to life imprisonment, the officers were released.

In January 1947, another Irgun militant, Dov Gruner, was sentenced to death. On January 26, two days before Gruner's scheduled execution, Irgun kidnapped a British intelligence and the president of the district court of Tel Aviv. Sixteen hours before the scheduled execution, the British forces commander announced an "indefinite delay" of the sentence, and Irgun released its hostages.

On April 16, 1947, Gruner and three other militants, Yehiel Dresner, Mordechai Alkahi and Eliezer Kashani, were executed. In May 1947, forty-one prisoners broke out from Acre Prison. Six of them were killed and seven others were rearrested. Among the organizers, Avshalom Haviv, Yaakov Weiss and Meir Nakar were tried by a military court and sentenced to death.

The Irgun retaliated by capturing two British soldiers and announced that if their men were put to death they would do the same to the British soldiers. The High Commissioner Alan Cunningham gave the order and the Irgun men were executed. The day afterwards the bodies of the two British soldiers were discovered hanging from olive trees. The Irgun admitted to the killings.

There were other acts of Jewish terror, but this was the one act that Britain never forgave the Jews for. The British press attacked the Zionists. The Board of Deputies of British Jews issued a full condemnation. So did the Jewish community in Israel. Ben Gurion had been resolutely against violence or terror. Indeed, the Haganah had been working with the British forces to find the captured British soldiers. But the endemic anti-Semitism of much of British society exploded.

It is argued in their defense that the campaigns of the Lehi and Stern Gang contributed as much as anything else to Britain's giving up on Palestine. She ceded responsibility to the UN, which voted for partition. But the Arabs rejected the compromise and declared war. Behind the scenes Bevin plotted with the Jordanians and also negotiated "the Portsmouth Treaty" with Iraq (signed on January 15, 1948), with the British undertaking to withdraw from Palestine in such a fashion as to provide for swift Arab occupation of all its territory to destroy the Jewish state. As the British withdrew they handed over as much of their hardware as they could to the Arabs. The ill feeling with the Foreign Office has festered to this day, which is why the Queen has never been allowed a formal visit to Israel.

So it may well be that Sabra arrogance and triumphalism alienated British soldiers and policemen working in Palestine. But my goodness me, they and their masters did more than enough to deserve it. Two wrongs do not make a right of course, but there are two sides to every story.