December 31, 2014

Fukuyama and Dirty Politics

Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy is a follow up to his earlier The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. For someone as jaded and mistrustful of politics, establishments and power as I am, it is a breath of fresh air and realism. Though sadly, it gives no cause for optimism.

Fukuyama tempted fate with his The End of History and the Last Man in which he stated that:

"What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

It is true that Communism has manifestly failed, as have the world’s dictatorships and theocracies. The proof is that so many of the people who inhabit such benighted states, even if they excoriate the decadence of Western democracies, simply cannot wait to emigrate to them. On the other hand, the financial collapses caused by the greed and incompetence of Western liberal democracies can hardly justify the claim that this is as far as we can get in improving forms of government.

Wherever you look democracies are incompetent, corrupt, or deadlocked to the point of dysfunction. America, Britain, and Israel are all examples of states that we might love for their freedoms but at the same time are dominated by a small percentage of rich and powerful, run by bureaucracies, hamstrung by incompetence, fraud, and vested interests. Politics is populated by ambitious, concupiscent, corrupt, ideologically straightjacketed, second-rate egos. So-called democratic systems are still full of gerrymandering, dubious varieties of proportional representation that disenfranchise huge portions of the population or allow a minority to hold them to ransom. And politicians are generally held up to ridicule. “Don't play politics with me” is another way of saying, “Don’t lie to me.” The result is that at each election fewer and fewer people seem to care enough to vote.

Fukuyama identifies the essential ingredients of successful government; the State, Rule of Law, and Mechanisms of Accountability. In his analysis of systems historical and current, he identifies the examples of failure in one or more of these crucial elements. Even where the first two exist, the absence of accountability leads to decay. He writes:

“Human beings are social animals...this takes the specific form of altruism towards family and is universal to all cultures…humans are also norm creating and norm following and make possible the collective action of groups…which tend to be highly conservative and resistant to change…they start with band and tribal societies and then advance to state level societies.

“Natural human sociability is based on kin selection and reciprocal altruism, the preference for family and friends. While modern political orders seek to promote impersonal rule, elites in most societies fall back on networks of families and friends... and when they succeed are said to capture the state...which makes it less accountable”

Fukuyama qualifies his earlier writing:

“All liberal democracies are no less subject to political decay than other types of regimes. Some have argued that accountable political systems have self-correcting mechanisms to prevent decay…but there is no guarantee that this self correction will occur.”

Most significant is the replacement of nepotism or tribalism with patronage or clientelism. Patronage is usually face-to-face, whereas clientelism is more a matter of mobilizing voters and involves mass party organizations distributing favors through complex hierarchical political machines. This is so obvious nowadays in the way left-wing cabals or unions influence politicians through their numbers. Similarly the other side, the Tea Party or anti-immigration groups, mobilize the right wing. Wealthy patrons on both sides invest vast sums of money in the expectation of reciprocity. The battle lines are drawn in the West between those who apply group blackmail and those who use money and influence to countermand ideologies or policies they see as detrimental or immoral.

The USA is a dysfunctional system in which checks and balances make it all but impossible to reform taxation or immigration, let alone curb excessive expenditure. Like two aging boxers, the two sides batter each other into a state of paralysis. “Pork barrel politics” means that you can mobilize large blocks of votes; be they unions, churches, minorities, or sexes, as well as Chasidic dynasties. You can demand a quid pro quo for your support on one issue, which will often contradict your own strongly held ideals on others.

So, for example, Obama wants to help underprivileged black children but cannot support charter schools, which evidently help them, because he is in hock to the teachers' unions who oppose them. New York City has passed a law requiring that before performing circumcision in the Chasidic manner one must have written parental approval, because of the risks of infection. But because certain Chasidic dynasties command such big blocks of votes in New York, the authorities dare not enforce the law. Similarly, a Brooklyn district attorney avoided prosecuting cases of Chasidic child abuse for fear of offending Chasidic backers. Examples such as these are replicated across the country.

The saving grace of corrupt Western liberal democracies is that there is a better chance of the common man having a say or rising to a position of influence than there is in oligarchies or dictatorships, where it is the man at the top and his cronies who make the decisions and filter out opposition. The situation in China and Russia seems to indicate that so long as people have the opportunity to better themselves financially politics matter less. It is when things turn economically for the worse that the illusion begins to crack.

The challenging question is what can be done. The obvious answer is to move to a state one thinks is less evil or corrupt than the others, or to a state with whose religious or cultural ethos one is more in tune. But this may not always be possible. The second option is to go into politics to try to change it. However, all the evidence is that such moral individuals get compromised or crushed by the system, and the party machinery always wins out, sometimes with beneficial results, sometimes not. In the end one can only try to ensure one's own bubble is an ethical one and to do as much good for others as one possibly can. Humans are corruptible animals, and clearly some are more corruptible than others.

Fukuyama’s analysis and scholarship are a good way to start the new civil year!

December 25, 2014

Frenemies: Judaism and Islam

I always used to regard Islam as a religion much closer to Judaism than Christianity was. Its passionate Orientalism resonated much more with my experience of Judaism--less impersonally theological, instead more behavioral and warm. The Muslim centrality of Shariah, is akin to our wider use of the term Torah, with its emphasis on behavior. Maimonides said that according to Jewish law one may take an oath by Allah. According to him the word Allah and our names for God were one and the same, something one could not say about the Trinity.

The Muslim veneration of Mohammad goes way beyond our respect for Moses, who was revered less as a quasi-miraculous person and more as the vehicle of transmitting the Torah. Maimonides also pointed out that Christianity accepted the same Old Testament as we did, even if it thought it had been superseded by the New. Islam, on the other hand, claims we had forged and distorted the original text. A rather difficult claim to take seriously, given the prior existence of our text long before Islam ever appeared on earth. But since when have theological assertions ever been subject to logic or history?

I have always had a bias towards Orientalism and its mood. But there were other aspects of Orientalism I did not like: its attitudes to minorities, its male chauvinism, its more autocratic, less progressive mentality, and the tendency to violence that Jihadism seemed to encourage (yes, I do know there are rival concepts). But many of those elements can be found in the West, too. As a result I always felt a far greater affinity to Islam and a much closer personal connection with those Muslims I encountered in my youth and my career in the rabbinate.

However, once one leaves the theoretical regions of religious interaction there is an altogether different reality. The elephant in the room of course, is Israel and the presumption that this is what has soured relations. But the fact is that Jews were not treated that well under Islam. Jewish communities were assaulted, forced to convert and often killed just as often as Muslim powers tolerated them as second-class citizens, dhimmis. It was worse under the Shia than the Sunnis (and, of course, much worse under much of Christianity). But even then it was often random and unpredictable. This was the state of affairs even before modern nationalism appeared on the scene.

Jews had always been migrating to the Land of Israel. It is arrant nonsense to link Jewish settlement in the Middle East to the Holocaust. The religious connection with the Land had always been powerful. Three times a day we have prayed for Zion for two thousand years. Just think of Yehuda HaLevi’s famous poem written in medieval Spain, “My heart is in the east, and I am at the edge of the west.” The Ottomans positively welcomed Jews escaping from Spain. But now two nationalisms have clashed in what has become a case of two families wanting to possess the same house, not being willing to share it, and two religions each supporting their own (more or less).

I once used to try to avoid tension with Muslim friends by asserting that I was not an admirer of Zionism as a secular movement, that I was a Jew by religion. But the truth was that my religion’s connection with the Land of Israel was so powerful, even essential, that I did indeed want us to have a space of our own, and if that meant defending it, so be it. Given that everything is now measured in terms of National Identity and if Serbs and Croats can have their own states regardless of reluctant movements of population, to deny this to Jews, given the record of doors closed against them, could only be explained in terms of anti-Semitism.

Still, to this day I try to avoid awkward subjects. I never really liked nationalism. It always struck me as bordering dangerously on jingoism. I toyed with the idea of a return to a variation of the millet system under the Ottomans, where each religion ran its own affairs under a centralized bureaucracy. There is no way I could see that working now in the Middle East, where even internal Muslim factions are murderously engaged against each other.

Everywhere in the Middle East, the religious voice is growing and increasing in power at the popular level. We really are in the midst of a Kulturkampf, a battle of religion against religion, sect against sect, and all of them against the secularists. Tom Friedman argued recently in the New York Times that the voices of secularists are rising in the Middle East. I hope so, but I am skeptical. A few swallows do not make a spring.

Here’s the problem. Judaism is a priority for me. More so than for many Jews. If I care about the survival of Judaism, I will inevitably care about Jews, wherever they are. If I hear about Jews being attacked or oppressed, I do want to help them to respond. Just as when the Jews of Damascus were attacked and killed in 1840 (long before Zionism), or the Jews of Mashad were forcibly converted to Islam in 1839. The whole of the Jewish world rose to their defense. That is how I feel to this day.

Now if I care this way about other Jews, why should not Muslims feel the same way about other Muslims they see mistreated by Jews or Christians or anyone else? Cannot I maintain contact and friendship with people who have different priorities to me, so long as we respect each other’s differences?

Once I thought that people with a certain kind of education would incline to think for themselves. But nowadays whole nations and communities are so infected with deep anti-Semitism that it is almost true to say that a Muslim anywhere in the world is likely to be preconditioned to dislike Jews. In the same way that there are Jews who believe every single Muslim wants to kill them. I wonder nowadays when I see people in Muslim dress whether I should assume they hate me. In Abu Dhabi airport last month I wondered if someone might want to stab me. Even in New York I often notice black looks at my kipa from Muslims. But then Charedi New Yorkers tell me they often get black looks from almost everyone.

So what are we to do? Try to maintain a friendship by never speaking about the unspeakable? The fact is that everywhere one can find a distinction between the view of the masses, the prevailing orthodoxy, and the views of individuals. Arab Muslims are very different than Indian Muslims, who are different than Indonesians. Everywhere there is a majority that hates and discriminates, and a minority that cares and thinks for itself. Jews vary in their attitudes depending on religious affiliation, education, and degree of acculturation. Just because some, even many, of the “other” do hate or dislike us, should we allow that to deny ourselves the benefits of sharing common interests and the richness of other cultures with those willing to share?

The fact is that despite the whipped up frenzy of hatred that supporters of Hamas indulged in this past summer, there are so many examples of Jews still trying to build bridges with Muslims and plenty of examples of Muslims responding positively.

An editorial in the London Jewish News last week highlighted all the positive moves that are being made between Jews and Muslims in the UK. In Stamford Hill both religions combine forces on social issues. Similar green shoots can be found in New York. We must not let the hatemongers control the agenda, and neither must we fall back on a default position of antagonism.

These are the hardest times I can remember for interreligious relations, with many Christian groups too. Just as in the world of the sixties an understanding emerged to avoid theological issues that divided religions, so now I believe we can agree to avoid political ones if we wish to speak to each other. We can feel a person’s pain without agreeing about the political circumstances, whether it is race, religion, or politics. Just because secular politicians seem incapable of civility, we who claim religious inspiration must not descend into that black hole. I am more convinced than ever that we must persevere. I hope this coming secular year will be a better one for peace and understanding. We are not all barbarians.

December 18, 2014

Paul Celan

There are Jews who think, write, paint, and compose. But are they Jewish artists? To be an example of a bicultural person I believe one needs to have a degree of knowledge and respect for both cultures. Is it possible to draw any line that is not arbitrary?

A random selection will illustrate what a fool’s errand it is. Spinoza was born Jewish, but he rejected Judaism and thought Christianity was the only true religion. Felix Mendelssohn’s parents converted to Christianity; so did Karl Marx’s.

In contrast I would argue that Kafka and Freud would be examples of cultural icons, who contributed enormously to Western literature and thought, who were born Jewish but did not live a Jewish life or express any overtly Jewish ideas in their writings. They tried in different ways to articulate both an interest in and a commitment to Judaism in its widest sense--something that the others mentioned above did not.

Husserl was a philosopher who had a profound influence on me, but he says nothing of significance about Judaism or Jewish thought. Emil Fackenheim and Emmanuel Levinas, in particular, come to mind as Jewish philosophers. I should confess that Levinas’ philosophy does not resonate with me. However he certainly combined the rational with the use of Talmudic themes and narratives. On the other hand, I can find nothing Jewish in Derrida at all.

If I were to look for an example of a Jew who said something innovative about Judaism and contributed to mainstream of Western culture, Martin Buber comes to mind. Indeed, aside from him I cannot think of a modern Jewish philosopher who, regardless of other talents and contributions, has come up with any really innovative ideas. Those I have read might be good apologists or commentators, but they are either derivative or still use Maimonides as their starting point (which is like trying to fly with an Aristotelian cannonball attached to one’s foot). But that's a pet peeve to develop some other time. Harold Pinter would be an example of a Jew who repudiated anything Jewish, and the great American triumvirate of Bellow, Malamud, and Roth were Jewish only in reaction.

These thoughts on biculturalism have been occasioned by reading “Western Art and Jewish presence in the work of Paul Celan” by Esther Cameron. He and she deserve to be more widely known and read. Her book is an exciting discourse on the interaction of western culture with Jewish experience. Where does Paul Celan fit into my matrix? He was born in a deeply Jewish German-speaking Czernowitz. His parents and the rest of his family were murdered by the Nazis. He survived. After the war he moved to France and turned his back on Jewish life.

He chose to write in the language used by the most evil and debased of peoples as they murdered while professing commitment to western culture. It was his way of engaging directly with them, confronting them in their own language. His repeated refrain is “Damen und Herren”, “Ladies and Gentlemen”, addressed to those who are not. Just as the Orthodox world has defied Hitler by refusing to disappear and reproduces in greater numbers, so Celan faces his audiences in German and defies them with his very voice and existence.

His Jewishness is unavoidable throughout his work. In one of his poems he mentions Vitebsk, the Star of David, the letters Aleph and Yud, the Ghetto, and Eden. His range is incredible. But the real power of his poetry is his anger and pain. His howl of agony against the Almighty reflects the ancient Jewish struggle with God and the cruelty and incomprehensibility of life. He rejects the concept of resurrection for humans or humanity, as well anything that offers false comfort or hope. He struggles with everything around him and tries, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, to engage his audience in his odyssey of agony.

Incidentally, I do not understand why he chose to meet Heidegger. Esther Cameron suggests a comparison with Jacob’s struggle with the Angel who stands in for Esau as the emblem of the eternal hatred that Jews have and always will have to contend with. That is our fate.

This is not an easy book to read. But it is worth the struggle. It pays tribute to a tragic but brilliant multi-cultured Jew whose life was intertwined with his love of ideas and of culture despite the failure of so many to rise to the moral standards that they were called to. Their failure might have been too much for him to bear, but his legacy remains.

December 11, 2014

Heavenly Justice

As we celebrate the miracles of Chanukah, we are bound to ask why sometimes some people are saved and at other times not. A month ago four men, all pious, learned, charitable and altruistic, were hacked to death in a Jerusalem synagogue as they prayed to God in tallit and tefillin. They were not ideologues or fighters. Just Jews who wanted to be good human beings and practice their religion in what they believed was their Holy Land. And we must not forget the death of the valiant Druze policeman who intervened.

If religion tells us that repentance, prayer, and charity averts evil decrees or that those performing a good deed are protected, why were they not protected particularly at that moment?

Why did Heaven decree hundreds of years of painful servitude before the Israelites were freed from Egypt? Why have two temples destroyed and the innocent as well as the guilty raped, sold into slavery, or killed? Why go through thousands of years of exile, oppression, torture, and death at the hands of Christianity and Islam or the Holocaust of innocents before being able to return home? Or why, simply, in the words of the Talmud, does a good person suffer?

Abraham asked the question first and we have been repeating it ever since. The answers fall into different categories. Peoples, nations rise and fall, succeed and fail as groups, not individuals. Individuals get caught up in wider conflicts and crises, to quote Proverbs, “like birds in snares.” If good people die as their nation slides into periodic decline, is it because they failed to alert or to change or to persuade their contemporaries to be better people? Unlike other cultures thousands of years ago, we recorded our errors and failures. Two temples were destroyed because good people failed, because we brought it all upon ourselves, says the Talmud. So, yes, we are often the authors of our own obituaries; but is that the whole story?

The legend goes that when Rebbi Akivah was being tortured to death the angels challenged God and He replied: ”Silence! It’s my decision.” That’s one answer. We cannot know the mind of God. A different opinion in the Talmud is that “the world functions according to its own rules”, although that avoids the issue of who made the rules in the first place. And there were great rabbis who honestly admitted that they had no explanation at all.

We are told that there is no justice in this world altogether, it is all in the Next. But even this position is modified by the opinion that no one has ever seen the Next World or knows very much about it. So why then do so many of us think that rabbis, mystics, Shamans and mind readers can really know or guarantee us anything? Is it just our need for certainty that gulls us into believing what we want to?

I want to suggest an alternative narrative. The function of religion is not, as is often stated, to answer all our questions. It cannot and does not. That is, after all, why the Talmud said its better not to enquire too much about things we cannot know. Rather its function is to help us cope. By giving us a framework for living that incorporates the unknown and the unknowable, it forces us to think, instead, of our own daily behavior. Having a framework enables us to deal with tragedy and loss because it’s when one has no distractions that one can dwell on what has gone wrong and why, and depression can so easily set in. That's the meaning of the sentence in Proverbs about the person who takes to his bed claiming there’s a lion outside. Too much abstracting and not enough doing has been the downfall or religions as well as individuals.

In addition, focusing on a Divine non-physical being enables us to think beyond our immediate physical world. In a way it's also a kind of distraction. It enables us to handle pain in the way we try to think of other, nicer, more comforting things. Exercises such as deep breathing and relaxing, which help us cope with physical pain, also help us cope with mental pain, with the unthinkable.

The Biblical Hebrew word for faith is “Emunah”. But Emunah has a root of being firm, strong, reliable. In other words having the strength to persevere and survive. Belief in God does not necessarily mean everything will be taken care of or put right. Rather it means that we have something to hold on to, a good friend or a transcendental experience that can take us out of our physical world and give us an alternative to an intolerable present.

Indeed that’s exactly what so many expect from our rabbis and gurus and magicians, too. I just find it strange to rely on fallible humans for certainty when it is clear that they themselves cannot have all the answers.

The widow of one of the slain in Har Nof said it happened because of rivalry and hatred within the Orthodox community. Not unlike the tradition that Rabbi Akivah’s pupils all died because they did not show each other respect. This does not mean that that really was the reason. I take it to mean that when a tragedy happens, any tragedy, we must use it as an opportunity for self-examination and repentance and to think that “there but for the grace of God go I.” And if I have been spared I must use the gift of life well and fully.

Hanuka (however you spell it), precisely for this reason, gives two narratives: the proactive one of taking responsibility, defeating enemies, and getting a second chance, and the passive miracle of the oil, of things we don’t understand. We must embrace the inexplicable. Much as I respect and admire scholars who are also good human beings and would trust them before most others, I know that throughout our history our good and our great have disagreed, argued, and often made what were with hindsight clearly the wrong decisions. Infallibility is a Catholic concept and one that emerged in response to the challenges of modernity. That is not the example that we should be following. Acceptance and appreciation of life is the gift of Heaven. So is trying to do our best.

December 04, 2014


The shooting of yet another young unarmed black man, this time in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, has ignited a firestorm in the United States over the issue of race, specifically black. The return of a Grand Jury decision that there was insufficient evidence and too many contradictory witness reports to charge the police officer has only made matters worse. And similarly the Grand Jury’s decision in New York not to prosecute the white officer whose chokehold led to the death of Eric Garner gives the impression that there is one law for whites and another for blacks. Once again the argument is polarized between two sides that put all the blame wholly upon each other. Then there are those like me, who see both angles.

In both cases the victim was not blameless. Brown was wanted as a suspect in a petty robbery and behaved aggressively. Garner was doing something illegal and resisting arrest. None of these warrants taking a life. Clearly something is wrong with police tactics. But the juries focused on whether there was malign intent to kill and decided, as in the case of Trayvon Martin, that there was not.

Regardless of what gun supporters claim, the prevalence of guns in American society means they are more likely to be used, and police officers feel more jittery about their being used against them. Almost every day on American streets police officers shoot first and ask questions afterwards. Eventually American society will have to decide what it prefers. It is true that far more black men are shot by police officers than white. But this might reflect the reality of crime statistics on the one hand and that too few blacks who graduate school and get into police forces as much as racism. The reality is that the overwhelming number of black deaths is caused by other blacks. If demonstrators really believe the issue is black deaths, why are they waving placards saying “Don't Shoot” at white policemen when they should be waving them at other blacks, those who do most of the killing, spreading the message that black lives are cheap.

Although the crime rate in the USA has dropped significantly in general, specifically in certain big cities, the evidence shows the link between poverty and violent death. If one is raised in certain high crime areas one is more likely to become a criminal and get killed by same race criminals too. There is a whole substratum of alienated and violent young men and women, predominantly black but also Latino and this was only underlined by the violence, looting, and wanton destruction that accompanied the demonstrations in Ferguson. The question is whether this is about poverty, poor values, poor education, poor parenting, and desperation, or only about race. Gangs of poorly educated unemployed white youths are just as intimidating.

America has improved racially a great deal over the past fifty years. There are black Americans at every level and in every area of American social, economic, and political life. Clearly to rise is possible. Yet much of the black community is still held back.

So what is the problem? The American judicial system is seriously flawed. On one level almost 90% of criminal cases are decided on the basis of plea-bargaining where often innocent people admit to guilt to avoid the possibility of a much longer prison term. This means that bullying and coercion too often decide a person’s guilt rather than merit.

The legal system has decided that non-violent drug crimes are the biggest threat to society and deserve incarceration. Overwhelmingly, poorer Americans get caught up in this. The result is that 40% of the massive prison population is made up of blacks, even though they only make up 12% of the population. One in three blacks is likely to spend time in jail. Blacks are three times more likely to go to jail for the same offence as a white man. And the three-strike laws in many states mean that for repeated non-violent drug offences a person could spend most of his life in prison.

The result of this is that hundreds of thousands of blacks come out from jail, brutalized and unable to find employment and become responsible citizens. Family life is further eroded--67% of all black children grow up in single-parent families. This affects education as well as stability. For most young poor blacks, if they cannot become sports stars, entertainers, drug dealers, or petty criminals, they have no way of making a living other than joining the army which produces its own disastrous after effects. All this breeds desperation and hopelessness, which in turn increases violence.

Another cause of holding poor people back is the culture of dependency and expectation. Once it was a European disease to rely on welfare. Now in the USA government support is the sinecure that the poor have come to rely on. The massive growth in lotteries and gambling and the huge sums the poor spend proportionally on them also underline the reliance on salvation coming from somewhere else. In addition, a culture of blaming others and failing to take responsibility is reinforced by the culture of litigation. The career agitators, the Al Sharptons are out in force and the lawyers looking for million dollar paydays. Making a noise does not necessarily mean you are helping.

The media is to blame too for encouraging notoriety, instant fame, and excessive rewards for no talent other than self-promotion (usually through violence or pornography). The worse you behave, the better you do.

I also blame the left as much as I excoriate the excessive greed of the right. They love to simplify the enemy, to blame the other and look for any excuse to further their agenda. The proof is that at these current demonstrations one is seeing pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel placards. It is the same pathology. Too many ideologues focus on perpetuating problems by playing the blame game. And then for all their good intentions they end up supporting those who refuse to support themselves peacefully, because the victims are encouraged to look to others to get them out of their mess.

There are grave problems that must be addressed. There is some good news. The school dropout rate amongst the black population has reduced from 21% in 1972 to 9% in 2012. Education is slowly improving if only because there are more alternatives, despite the opposition of the teachers’ unions. There is hope.

Where there are peaceful demonstrations, I believe all caring citizens ought to be joining them. If something is not just or right in the societies we live in, it is our religious and social obligation to protest and work towards a resolution. But we should not perpetuate the problems by indulging and pandering and pretending it is what it is not.