April 26, 2012

Egyptian Gas

Last week’s news that Egypt has cancelled its agreement to sell gas to Israel sounds disturbing. But is it? Forgive my cynicism, but are we sure this isn’t just about business? Contracts get cancelled all the time, perhaps more in the USA than Europe, and often it is simply a business gambit to get more money. I have just been reading Daniel Yergin’s book, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, & Power. It was written in 1991 and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year, so it is hardly the last word on the subject. But it was such a fascinating and instructive read. It and taught me so much about how the Two World Wars were won thanks to superior oil supplies. It reiterated how the post-war discovery of cheap easily accessible oil in the Arab world got the powers scrambling to get a piece of the action and to hell with anything else.

One message comes through loud and clear. No matter whether it is Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Kuwait, or whichever emirate you care to mention, the record shows that the producer states constantly cancelled contracts, engaged in brinkmanship, nationalized their resources, played one company and country off against the other, all to get a better deal and more money. That is the way they do things. That is how most capitalists everywhere do it. It is why diplomats are described as “whores who lie for their country”. It is just that the Arabs do it with such charm and dissimulation one simply ends up admiring their Chutzpah. And it is the absence of such roguish charm that is often why Israelis do not make so many friends. In the Free World a contract, in theory, is a contract. There are supposed to be transparent legal systems, even though anyone who thinks they are beyond corruption is living in cloud-cuckoo-land. Why are China and Russia supporting Syrian oppression, or Mugabe or Omar Bashar? It is not out of love, I assure you.

It could be for political purposes that Egypt is canceling the deal with Israel. The Egyptians, almost to a man and woman, hate Israel, hate the Peace Treaty, and enjoy nothing more than burning Israeli flags, as the most recent demonstrations in Cairo illustrate. But just maybe it is also true that the Mubarak cronies who negotiated the deal were taking huge cuts and bribes and kickbacks and feathered their own nests. And dare I say it, the same is probably true for the Israeli negotiators who made the deal. Anyone who thinks Israeli businessmen are as pure as the driven snow deserves to be sentenced to life in an igloo. But whereas Israel has a relatively open and democratic society, 90% of the Arab world does not.

When they think of the West, they think of immorality, imperialism, the forces that sustain repressive dictators who themselves often came to power as modernizers and secularists and then proceeded to torture, rape, and pillage their own citizens. The Arab world has been corrupted and dehumanized for so long that they have not progressed since the days in 1958, when in Iraq they tortured and mutilated their king and princes to death and dragged their bodies through the streets--or wait, 2011 and Gaddafi. The West used to do that as a matter of routine 500 years ago. Over time they learnt to torture in private rather than as public entertainment spectacles.

Since the only people who stood up to repressive regimes tended not so much to be the religious establishments, but ordinary lay religious Muslims, it is not surprising that popular support now flows in the direction of those religious antiestablishment movements--be they the Brotherhood, the Salafists, Hamas, or Hezbollah--who offer the only rays of hope to the poor, unemployed, and disenfranchised of the Muslim world. Now is their time to see if they can do a better job. The beauty of any kind of democracy, however distorted or limited, is that if they fail, someone else may get a chance to do better.

But in the meantime they want to win elections, if there are any. And how do you do a George Galloway? The easiest way is by appealing to the very lowest and crudest levels of voter mentality, to the most jingoistic and prejudiced. That, of course, is what happens in the UK, let alone Cairo. And I guess that’s how Sarkozy hopes to get back in in France. And sadly, it happens in Israel, where the right wing is pushing to recognize more and more settlements and Netanyahu is giving in because it helps him get elected. But we also know, thank goodness, that as people have more to lose they are much more circumspect; even Oil Sheiks soon learn which side their pita is buttered on.

Wherever you look, dictatorship or democracy, it is clear that lobbies, money, and moneyed interests--be they of the Left or the Right--play the major role in winning elections. But it is also true that “it’s the economy, stupid” that decides how the votes go.

That is why, sad as I am at the anti-Israeli rhetoric and doubtless worse is to come, it is inevitable. If hatred has been fed to so many for so long, it cannot change overnight. If you play with people’s minds and souls, a quick session with a shrink will change as little as a quick dip in the Mikvah. So let us not overreact. Change that brings progress always takes time. Meanwhile, Please God, the Mediterranean will soon provide as much gas and oil as Israel could possibly want.

April 20, 2012


This is “bad hair time” in religious Jewry land. Men may not shave nor have a haircut till the 33rd day (Lag) of the Omer, if you are Sephardi, or three days before Shavuot if Ashkenazi (no, harmonization is not one of our strengths).

Hair, whether facial or on one’s head, makes a lot of statements about who a person is. In my youth, almost every male in England would go into a barbershop and ask for a “short back and sides”. It was not until the era of the Beatles that anyone, apart from a few eccentrics, considered letting his hair grow into a floppy imitation of a juvenile sheepdog. Looking back at it now, one is amazed that anyone could have thought it to have been a protest against authority. But that was also the era when most middle class males went to work in London with a bowler hat and a furled umbrella.

Since then, hairstyles have proliferated. A baldpate no longer automatically suggests one might be ill or even an employee of the Israeli Secret Service! A Mohawk cut is no longer the preserve of the Mohawks. Punk rockers gave us every color and shape option, and hair gel has allowed every strand to go in a different direction. One’s hairstyle tells us a great deal about the person.

The messages that hair sends is an ancient human tradition (let alone amongst animals). Anthropologists have written about the way hair delineates different levels in what we like to call more primitive societies. In ancient Egypt priests shaved their heads. In many other societies, only the wealthy had the leisure and assistance to cut or shave their hair, so beards became associated with the poor and barbarians. Beards were forbidden in the British armed forces, except the navy (it was too difficult to shave on a rolling ship). Look at photos of, say, George Orwell, and you will see how upper class Englishmen actually did shave their sideburns almost all the way up to mid-skull (or, if you are a soccer fan, look at Meireles of Chelsea). Whenever I was sent to have my hair cut I had to tell them to leave my sideburns in place and not to use a razor.

All this goes to explain the peculiarities of Jewish attitudes to hair. In my youth, dispensation was the norm, as Jews working in city firms or chambers simply could not hold down their jobs if they looked scruffy. It was almost unheard of then for a Jew to be seen wearing a kipah in any company or firm except hisown.

But now our societies are less homogeneous. Laws protect the rights of religious minorities to dress in accordance with their customs. Sikhs can cover their heads, wear beards, and carry daggers. Rastafarians display dreadlocks. And, slightly off subject, everyone seems to be showing off tattoos nowadays, which in my youth were a sign of the lowest, least educated strata of society.

The Torah asks us not to remove the hair around our heads and faces. Priests had additional restrictions and it is pretty obvious that this was intended to contrast with the pagan traditions of priests being clean-shaven or tonsured. Christianity itself reflects the cultural varieties from clean shaven Catholics to bearded Orthodox. The Talmud refers to special kinds of haircuts that the clean-shaven upper class Greeks and Romans sported. Jews were forbidden to imitate unless they had to appear in diplomatic roles and did not want to undermine their suits by being hirsute!

Males wore beards and covered their heads. Married women covered their heads because that was what both Christian and Muslim societies expected of good, modest wives. As modernity slowly affected Jewish communities, ways had to be found of looking more integrated. A distinction was made between shaving with a blade directly against the skin and shaving with a foil that intervened. If you think that was a fiddle, and many did, what about the fact that instead of a woman covering her hair with a scarf or a hat, many rabbis allowed her to wear a wig? In some ex-Carpathian communities, they wear a hat on top of a wig on top of a shaven head. Both issues are still contentious, even in the most Orthodox of circles.

Chasidism went the other way when it set out to look as different to everyone else as possible. Before every festival, if you happen to be in a Charedi neighborhood, you will see freshly shaved male heads, zero all round except for where their payot sprout out of their upper temples. It’s a variation of the Mohawk. Instead of the ridge, Balotelli style (back to soccer--he’s a controversial Nigerian/Italian soccer player currently at Manchester City), if you walk behind a Chasid you will see the snowy white close shaven back of the head peeping out from under the black hat and kipah. It looks as weird to me as a punk! But hey, if people actually want to look different isn’t that what freedom is for? The only thing that worries me is when anyone preserves peculiarity for himself but refuses to countenance it in others.

In Israel one sees all sorts of weird haircuts. For some reason the secular love to sport lastnb year’s style as though it were still current--mini pigtails for example. But I guess that’s because wherever you get one trend there’s always a countertrend. Compare Mormon haircuts with San Francisco’s. The weirder Charedi kids look, the weirder the secular ones are bound go.

I do see a value in dressing modestly, whether male or female. I resent that in post-winter USA we are subjected to so much unsightly bare flesh wherever you look. I never understood why only Muslim women were expected to cover up and not Muslim men. But then religious worlds are still male dominated. Even in the Charedi world, where men are indeed expected to be modestly dressed as much as women, they still seem to think women are to blame for encouraging male sexual predators. The latest nonsense I have heard is that it is forbidden for girls to have dresses with zips down the back in case randy male tries to unfasten them!

Being different for the sake of difference is, I suggest, a trivial pursuit. But being different to remind oneself of a higher calling, of a moral imperative, can be beneficial. In truth “difference” is often just a matter of degree. You can make the point in a modest way without needing to shove it in someone else’s face. After all, the Torah only commanded us to put fringes on our garments. It did not tell us to wear dhotis.

So shave your head, by all means, and leave your payot naked to view, but don’t then turn up at nightclubs (as I am reliably informed happens from Tel Aviv to London to NewYork) as if you went through the wrong door by mistake. Either it is to identify and behave as a religious person or it is no more than a fashion statement, and a not very attractive one at that! At least we have some time before the next shearing.

April 12, 2012

Crossing The Sea To Go Backwards

We Jews are a fractious lot. And the Hasidic world is the ultimate in bitter religious splits. Satmar, the largest dynasty today, has two rival rebbes. But the first rancorous division of a Hasidic court I encountered was amongst another Hungarian dynasty, the followers of Reb Arele. What is it about Hungary, or should I say the Carpathians, that breeds such fierce fanaticism and rivalries?

When Aharon (Arele) Roth died in Israel in 1947, he left a small community known as Shomrei Emunim, the Guardians of the Faith. They had a little shtiebel on Rehov Meah Shearim that his son took over against his father’s wishes ( the son had a dream that his father had changed his mind). So his son-in-law went off and founded Toldos Aharon, which eventually overshadowed the original. Both groups fed the sort of extremism that has earned Meah Shearim its dubious reputation. To this day, as they have spread out, they are the main force behind the Beit Shemesh barbarities. Meet them individually and they can be charming and gentle, but in mass and on the warpath they make the Sioux look like sissies. Over the years, they have grown from a handful into thousands, and Toldos Aharon itself has now split too. Extrapolate and the future is scary.

I am mentioning them now because of the seventh day of Pesach, when we celebrate crossing the Red Sea. One of the remarkable features of the movement was the custom initiated by Reb Arele on the morning of the seventh day of Pesach to start running between the singing, massed bodies of his followers, until he actually collapsed of exhaustion. The idea was to relive the experience of fear, of dashing through the waters before they swept back. Instead of the sedate procession featured in Hollywood reconstructions, this version feels the episode as one of terror, only assuaged by the relief of getting to the other side and then seeing one’s enemies destroyed.

In some ways it reminds me of the BBC nature film of the masses of wildebeest migrating across the river Mara, stopping, overlooking the flooded, crocodile-infested waters, terrified to jump in, but unable to push back. Then a Nachshon Ben Aminadav leaps in and they all follow over to their promised land of lush pastures.

I was fascinated when, as a teenager, I first saw Reb Arele cross the sea in his small shtiebel. Then over the years as they split and grew and built much larger, luxurious temples to their gods, and as rebbes were younger and stronger, the dramatic performances became even more overpowering. That’s the beauty of the mystical approach--to experience, to live one’s religion, rather than coldly recount and blindly observe. But in this anecdote lies an important lesson.

You are aware, I am sure, that, as on most issues, great rabbis of the past have argued about things that seem to be simple in the Biblical text, like the design of the Menorah or indeed crossing the Red Sea. Some believe they walked straight across. Others suggest they marched in a semicircle and returned to the same side they set out from. According that point of view, the lesson I would draw is that fear sometimes deceives us into making obviously wrong decisions. It paralyses us, like animals hypnotized by their killers.

And there are two kinds of fear I have in mind. Last week I mischievously entitled my piece “Oil or Occupation”. Whereas I had in mind getting a job, many of my readers thought I was referring to the occupation by Israel of the West Bank. Of course I was not. But that did illustrate the automatic response we have to certain words according to our preconditioning. This time I do want to make that connection. It is clear that the present situation is not working, neither for Israelis nor Palestinians. Both sides are unhappy. It may indeed be true that no solution is ever going to be possible because there is so much going on behind the scenes, so much doubletalk, so little genuine goodwill, so many vested interests and external pressures that no solution is possible, just a less unsatisfactory compromise. But if fear is the only motive, then I believe we are just progressing in an arc that will take us back to where we started. And if we ignore the suffering of others, how can we argue that ours should be recognized?

The same fear of taking a leap goes for religion. The early Hasidic masters were innovators who wanted to find ways of bringing people back to the beauties of a spiritual, mystical life. But over time fear of the outside, fear of losing control, of being corrupted, prevented them from innovating or from making concessions to draw more people into their orbit. This is what characterizes extreme Orthodoxy today. For the 1% it attracts, the rest are pushed away, intellectually and creatively. There is no spirit of progress or renewal, just carrying on in the same way as before. Which might work for those within, but will leave the rest to the spiritual crocodiles.

Any journey is risky and the first progress to the Promised Land was neither smooth nor easy. But at least they overcame their fears and crossed the sea. Our generation seems to be making no such progress. Nevertheless, on Friday I will identify with those of the pious who will reenact the crossing, though in my mind it will be onwards and upwards, not backwards.

April 05, 2012

Pesach 2012 - Oil or Occupation

In an article in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman quotes an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study showing that there is a negative relationship between the money countries extract from natural resources and the knowledge and skills of their high school populations. In other words, the fewer natural resources, the harder you have to try.

So when we Israelites celebrate Passover we should thank Moses for taking us right instead of left, bringing his people to the only country in the Middle East without its own oil. “Today,” says Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the exams used by the OECD, “Israel has one of the most innovative economies and its population enjoys a standard of living most of the oil-rich countries of the region are not able to offer.” And the foreign countries with the most companies listed on the NASDAQ are Israel, India, Singapore, Taiwan, and other countries that cannot live off their natural resources.

The number of Israeli Nobel Prize winners is rising all the time and the world-class technological campus New York is setting up will be a joint venture between Cornell and Haifa’s Technion. The Weizmann Institute is one of the world’s most successful in melding scientific innovation with commercial applications. Israeli creativity in almost every sphere--from cinema and the arts to scientific, medical, and digital--is immeasurably higher than almost every country, apart from the obvious giants.

Thanks for the plug, Mr. Friedman. But there are also cultural and historical factors, which he doesn’t mention. Cultures that blame someone else, that always look for scapegoats instead of getting on with solving their problems, are one obvious factor in the Middle East. And having to move, often at the drop of a sword, forces one to be nimble and resourceful. Too much bedding down in one place breeds complacency and acceptance. Ironically, we have to thank the continuous and never fading anti-Semitism for spurring us to counteract our enemies and to make sure we survive. A religion that encourages literacy, study, and intellectual challenge helps too. When we sit down at the Seder we ask, we challenge, and we use our brains, not just our stomachs. It is gratifying to know that despite our very small numbers so many think we control the world. If only. But perhaps if we really did, we would soon sink into mediocrity, like the British Empire.

However, there are two caveats that worry me. The first is education. In Israel the standard of state education has been falling catastrophically over the years. There is an endemic shortage of teachers, and, with a few notable exceptions, Israeli state schools are not impressive. Education is not funded as much as it needs to be if Israel is to survive. The situation has been disguised, because hundreds of highly educated Russians have joined the economy. But the crisis in Israeli schools is a far greater problem than its politicians seem to realize.

A great deal of attention is focused on the absence of secular education in the rapidly expanding ultra-Orthodox community in Israel today. It is true that without science and mathematics they will not become rocket scientists. But on the other hand, unlike many secular school kids, they do receive rigorous intellectual training, if of a different sort. A Talmudic education certainly hones their brains; even if that brain power will be turned to commerce and law, it still represents a fund of mental skills that can be harnessed if circumstances require it.

Another saving grace is that large amounts of money go to the military. In fact, the army is probably the most effective institute of education in Israel because it selects the brightest of its recruits from all over the country for technical jobs the military really needs now, as warfare has become more advanced and computerized than ever. Much of Israeli innovation comes from the military or ex-military. The sad fact is that in all countries a large proportion of the school population wastes a lot of their school time. At least in Israel the obligatory military service offers a second chance to a lot of talent that otherwise would be lost.

The second factor that worries me is the age-old Jewish worship of the Golden Calf of materialism. The disease is not only endemic in the secular world. Israelis have more in common with the icons of Hollywood than they do with other Jews. Even in the religious community, money has come to rule, everywhere from rabbinic dynasties down (or up). This pursuit of mammon not only degrades morally, but also spiritually. The great advantage Israel always had was idealism, but money eats away at idealism like locusts.

Israel’s biggest enemy is overconfidence, as both the Yom Kipur War and the Second Lebanese War proved. An ineffective political system that attracts the lower rather than the higher levels of intellect and morality does not inspire confidence. If the system can call on a Stanley Fischer to take the financial system by the scruff of the neck, why cannot someone do it on an educational and social level?

In theory, Pesach should be reminding us of our spiritual values. But, in fact, it has become the acme of vulgar materialism, a time when religion becomes associated with luxury cruises, hotels, and self- indulgence. I wonder how Moses, celebrating a Pesach of modest food, the bread of slavery, in simple travelling clothes, heading out of a corrupt materialistic society towards a promised land of moral integrity and purity, would think of us nowadays.