January 29, 2015


Wondering about Jews living in Europe under difficult conditions reminded me of the Jews of Salonica. Once it was one of the most bustling and creative of Jewish communities. Now it is gone. Most of them were carted off to Auschwitz.

Several years ago I reviewed Mark Mazower's excellent Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950, which covers the rise and fall of a major Jewish community from 1430 to 1950 and records its changing fortunes under different conquerors and occupiers. They were rarely completely safe. Neither Greek nor Turk (and certainly not Nazi) comes away with much honor. Of all of them, the Turks were the ones who treated the Jewish population the least inhumanely.

Most Ashkenazi Jews are sadly unaware of the richness of Salonica’s long Jewish history and the important part played by the Ottoman Empire in welcoming Jews fleeing from Spain after the expulsion of 1492. Whereas Yiddish is now thriving as the lingua franca of ultra-Orthodox Judaism around the world, the number speaking Ladino, the Sephardi equivalent, is sadly small and diminishing. However, more and more books are now bringing its rich heritage to light.

Salonica was not just a city of Sephardi Jews. There were Ashkenazi communities too, attracted by trade and the tolerant conditions which were far more attractive than most Eastern European communities. The Ottoman Empire in the early nineteenth century was still threatening central Europe, and both Russia and the Western European powers were meddling in Ottoman affairs. It was only by the end of the century that the Ottoman Empire was described as the "Sick Man of Europe". Nevertheless, the writing was on the wall. Society was fracturing. Extremists were spreading their malignant aggressions. Western and Central Europe were in the ascendancy as the Industrial Revolution swung the balance of power away from religious control, and the slow decline of Islamic power in the Middle East began.

I have just read a moving short memoir written in Ladino and translated into English: A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa'adi Besalel a-Levi, published through the generosity of Joe Dwek.

Sa'adi a-Levi's memoir covers this period of transition in the early nineteenth century. It starts with a community controlled by its rich men and its rabbis exercising power through the Millet system, in which each religion in the empire ran its own affairs with absolute authority, subject only to the administrative oversight of the Ottoman government and its agents. Within a society that was dominated by religious authority, and before the enlightenment began to weaken the grip of the pious, rabbis, imams, and priests could make use of the death penalty, corporal punishment in the form of the bastinado (lashing the bare soles of a victims feet with canes) and the ban or excommunication that effectively excluded someone from the benefits, support, and protection of the community. At a time when there was no governmental social security, health care, or unemployment benefits, communities played an essential role in peoples lives. Exclusion meant destitution, and the only option was to convert to another religion. The authorities exercised enormous power buttressed by a culture of gossip, malicious slander, and, above all, incredible superstition. The ordinary Jew, Christian, or Muslim was at the mercy of his or her religious authorities.

Sa’adi inherited a modest printing business and had to eke out a living for himself and his orphaned siblings by becoming a successful musician and singer, able to perform both Jewish and Turkish music at weddings and community celebrations. But he was constantly being threated by his own religious authorities who disapproved of his non-Jewish music and by competitors who used underhanded methods to destroy his livelihood and attack his family. Sa’adi himself was outspoken in his criticism of the methods used by rabbis to control the community, of the unfair financial impositions that made kosher food very expensive, and of the way the rabbis fought amongst themselves and supported their favorites to make life difficult for those who opposed their abuses. Things haven't changed!

Sa'adi describes how, in his own case, his only protection was to find some important member of the community, one of the rich men, the Gevirim, to support him. He struggled in his early years. But as Western powers began to exercise an influence on Salonican Jews, this led to the opening up of the community. The arrival of the French Alliance Israélite Universelle spread secular education and ideas. This divided the community between those who wanted to preserve the old ways and those who welcomed progress. The absolute authority of the rabbinate began to wane.

This situation applied just as much to the Ashkenazi communities of Europe. They too had been controlled by this usually unholy alliance of the wealthy and the rabbinate, where control and conformity were the tools of social cohesion. Superstition, the fear of curses, and exclusion were used freely to coerce and subdue. All this is still effective nowadays in certain circles.

We are inclined to forget how significant the Enlightenment was in challenging this religious monopoly. The freedoms we have are overwhelmingly due to the separation of State and Religion and the limitations imposed on religious authority that developed during the nineteenth century. But every movement produces a reaction. As religious authority lost its grip, materialism, La Belle Epoque, lack of any restraint, and the abuses of freedom began to gnaw away at the security that closed communities offered.

In the West these polarizing forces usually coexist and accommodate. Much of the Muslim world continues to regress. The very forces that led to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire drove its fragments back to the dark ages. This is where much of the Middle East finds itself today, with its executions, amputations, rape, and slavery that so many refuse to recognize or condemn. It is ironic that in the Middle East now only Israel is able to accommodate both secular values and extreme religious ones.

Sa'adi reminds us of what we have escaped. But his memoir stands as a warning of what we might return to if we allow religion too much control. Personal choices and freedoms are essential. Equally, the right to live an extreme religious life must also be preserved. But if we do not limit extremism to its own backyards, we too will be dragged back to the primitive, cruel, and fanatical medievalism that he survived.

January 28, 2015

Edward Luttwak Interview

Edward Luttwak is an old schoolmate of mine, and he has gone on to establish a notable career as an academic and a consultant to governments. He has published on matters of strategy, security, and international affairs. Often controversial, always outspoken, one of his consistent messages has been that the interference of powers and outside interests in the Israel-Palestine situation has often only been counterproductive and has impeded any final settlement. In this interview he extends this idea to the wider Middle East conflict. It is worth listening to. It's a fresh breath of honesty. -->Click here to go to the recording of the interview.

January 22, 2015

Gun Culture

For a long time I have believed that the gun culture of the United States is dangerous and frankly stupid. So many people are killed by firearms going off accidentally or because they fall into the hands of children or madmen. Their easy availability is not just because they are a transportable and smugglable commodity, but also because there is a myth of American culture that claims that only by possessing guns were the American rebels able to defeat the British and gain independence. Even if that were so, and it is not, what might have been true 300 years ago is not necessarily the right answer for today. The NRA spends billions buying votes (as is the American way) to ensure that anti-gun legislation is blocked. Regardless of the massacres, casualties, abuses, and misuses, almost all attempts to restrict guns in the US fails. As a result its gun death statistics are the highest in the world per capita, and they insist on believing that guns help protect people.

The other lobby, of course, is the hunting lobby. I hate hunting. I think it is cruel. Shots often miss or injure without killing. Often enough an innocent bystander or passerby gets wounded or killed. But I know I will not convince anyone because I will be dismissed as a culturally inhibited Englishman corrupted by my upbringing and I will be only preaching to the “amen chorus”. And yes, I do believe that the meat industry is cruel too and needs much tighter control. Frankly I’d like to see it banned altogether, but that’s another argument.

However, all this depends on the police forces around the world being able to protect their citizens. If you live in the Wild West then, I agree, not having a gun would be crazy, even if it might not save your life, even if having a gun and being able to use it well meant that you were more likely to be a target yourself.

There has been a lot of debate about whether the police in the US and elsewhere are over-armed. But since crooks, drug dealers, and ordinary citizens can acquire the most sophisticated and powerful killing machines, it would be ridiculous and insane not to allow the police to be able to match the fire they come up against. We have all seen this week how the Islamic fanatics in Paris were so well armed that they could force the police into retreat by completely outgunning them. They were, thankfully, eventually cornered, outnumbered, and put out of their miserable lives.

What happened in Paris, however, has now led me to modify my opposition. What happens when the state does not protect its citizens? There have now been repeated murderous assaults on Jews in France and elsewhere. Isn’t it time for them to be armed? It is the principle of the English philosopher Hobbes that we relinquish some of our freedoms to the state in exchange for its protection. Where they fail, the contract is void. Europe has a strong tradition of restricting individuals from having access to firearms, even the police under normal conditions. As a result its citizens are far less likely to be killed. But if assaults on Jews are increasing in France, I believe those Jews who remain must be prepared to arm themselves.

Israel is a country where citizens have access to guns and where they are constantly under threat. Yet you might argue that having guns did not stop the massacre in Har Nof. But the proximity of civilian arms did help limit the damage. Had the Hyper Cacher store had armed protection, the initial assault might have been avoided. Clearly the French police have not done enough hitherto, despite the repeated assaults on Jewish targets. We must not be afraid of taking the initiative. If the French authorities object, they know that the answer is for them to do more to deal with the problem. Yet for all the fine words, we know they have abandoned area after area in France to Muslim self-control and have allowed the hatred to fester without response. This situation is now being repeated right across the European community. I would not want to be in France today without self-defense. And the instructions of the US State Department to Jews traveling to Europe not to show any outward signs of Jewish identity in public is simply crass appeasement, capitulation, and defeatism. Just as the refusal in Britain and the US to print the cover of this week’s Charlie Hebdo uncensored, because it contains a cartoon of Mohammad, is a sign that we have lost the battle for freedom already.

We need a debate about the values of modern societies. Throughout the world what exacerbates alienation is a sense of inequality, financial and political. If one puts wealth and accumulation above providing a meaningful occupation, one will be breeding discontent. This is as true in western states as it is in eastern states. Even where there is a generous welfare system, this alienation festers. There has been a consistent governmental failure to find work, to create public infrastructure projects, or to use tools such as micro-lending to encourage the poor and unemployed to find some pride, regardless of color, religion, or race.

There is a constant flow of refugees and immigrants. In Europe every year some 300,000 come in from Muslim countries around the Mediterranean. In the US there are just as many illegals crossing the borders. Most are peaceful and want only to find a better life. But inevitably amongst them, as with all such waves in history, there are gangsters and fanatics. Most societies have failed to integrate immigrants or the socially deprived. The problems are both social and, increasingly, religious. Muslim countries send thousands of primitive, hate-mongering imams around the world to cater to the spiritual needs of these disadvantaged and vulnerable wanderers.

On one level a society is to be judged by how it treats its weakest and poorest citizens. The Left believes that only a strong welfare system can help solve the problems of inequality. The Right believes that only by encouraging people to take care of themselves and find ways of creating wealth can the poor and disadvantaged raise themselves out of their disadvantages.

To be fair, most western societies seek some sort of compromise between the two extremes. But clearly generous welfare in Europe has done nothing to ameliorate this. It is argued that American Muslims are less alienated than European Muslims because they feel better integrated. But this is so in Europe too--those Muslims and other immigrant minorities who do well are better integrated. Those who are not are the breeders of violence. The European way has been to ignore the problem or simply throw money at it. Until this changes I see no alternative other than for us to strengthen our defenses. Because the jihadis are only showing that they can get more and better means of attacking what they regard as their eternal enemy.

January 16, 2015

France and Islam

I hope and pray the massive demonstration in France against the barbarians who attacked Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher market will mark a sea change in European attitudes. I hope, but I am not convinced. Hollande is still stuck in the same old orthodoxies of the left, which was why he invited Abbas, of all people, to join his march.

What is the biggest threat to our freedom? It is the arrogance of the assumption that all reasonable human beings will agree with a basic value system and that if one avoids confrontation one will be able to achieve one's ends. It is what we call appeasement. The European reaction to Hitler was to do nothing and hope the danger would pass. It did not. Inaction was taken as weakness. In the end the fight came at a catastrophic price.

It was the great achievement of the French Revolution to proclaim the theoretical values of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. But we know it soon deteriorated into mass murder and chaos. Britain achieved its freedoms and human rights through evolution rather than revolution. In both cases beautiful sentiments proved useless in the face of power and vested interests. Even in the USA, whose revolution and noble aims predated the French, discrimination, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia have continued to flourish. The reality has been that exhortations and slogans all collapse in the face of human selfishness, ever since “Love your neighbor as yourself." Every ideal falls apart or fails when people are unwilling to fight to preserve what they value.

We are experiencing a stage in history in which one part of the universe is fighting for its insane, barbaric, medieval values and another part is all but sitting back and expecting that its value system will prevail by appeasing at home while using its militarily abroad. Across Europe there are no-go areas where immigrant extremists, more often than not of Muslim extraction, control whole swathes of territory. Every year hundreds of thousands of poorly educated Muslim refugees flood into Europe: 100,000 from Tunisia, 100,000 from Syria, and 100,000 from other Muslim countries, from Afghanistan to Somalia. If they were being integrated into European society, it would benefit everyone. But they are not. The laissez faire liberal policies have backfired and Europe is lost.

The apologists argue that the West is to blame for imperialism, for invading other countries, for supporting Israel. The West is responsible for causing alienation, for failing to integrate immigrants, and for not providing jobs; much of this may be true. But this sounds like a child blaming his parents for everything, besides it does not excuse random violence. It does not excuse singling out opponents for assassination with the now familiar, blood-curdling cry “Allahu Akbar.” Alienation inevitably seeks scapegoats. But some ideologies seem more prone to violent responses, to spreading extreme hatred towards the outside as well as internally. Our world is choc-a-bloc full of people who blame someone else instead of taking responsibility.

But the French problem is particular. Napoleon was the first European to give the Jews equal rights. Yet a hundred years later, France was awash with anti-Semitism as the Dreyfus Affair released the virus of prejudice and hatred against innocent human beings. You might argue it was the freedom of expression that allowed this hatred to fester. But I believe it was the tolerance of hatred, by government, church, and society and the refusal to denounce and react to it that was to blame. This also explains the craven attitude of France to the Nazis. You might have thought that the morally indignant Voltaire secularism of France would have achieved a better result. Instead it seems to hate all religions and not care until it itself is attacked.

For years now in France the mood of hatred toward Jews and Israel has been allowed to fester. There has been no corrective in the face of repeated abuse and violence. There was no serious response in France, no outrage when hundreds of thousands of its citizens bought books claiming 9/11 was a Mossad plot. No reaction to universities refusing to teach the holocaust for fear of giving offense. Anti-Semitic comedians like Dieudonné are massively popular. French media, like the British continues to vilify Israel, and in so doing it only encourages public demonstrations that place all the blame for the conflict in the Middle East exclusively on Jews and encourages and support those who not only fail to negotiate but whip up hatred and honor child murderers. This is why so many Jews no longer feel safe in France. Meanwhile, failure to act only plays into the hands of right-wing neo-fascists. If we do not marginalize and reject hatemongers, worse ones will only emerge. France needs a Zola to write a new “J’Accuse”. Manuel Valls, the Prime Minister, has taken such a stand. He has courageously and strongly, far more so than the President, condemned the rabid hatred and called on France to reject anti-Semitism. But, as you might expect, support for his call has been polite and muted.

The refusal to confront Islamic fascism ideologically and recognize its encroachment on our culture is responsible for the fact that it has its metastasized. Just consider: Hollande, Clinton, and Obama all declare that this is not a problem within Islam. That is the western world’s trope. But it takes the Egyptian President al-Sisi to tell the clerics of Al-Azhar, the premier Sunni theological college, that there is indeed a problem with Islam that the clerics must address before it destroys Islam itself. Even Nasrallah of Hezbollah, the last person I would expect to, says the same. Every day Sunnis kill Shi'a and Shi'a kill Sunnis. Don't tell me this is a problem within Christianity. The Arab world is a sewer of current anti-Semitic literature and media. Yet much of Europe says nothing and turns a blind eye.

The official policy is that to criticize Islam is to promote Islamophobia. But I did not hear anyone in the West object that to criticize Catholic priests who sexually abused their charges would cause anti-Catholicism. If I attack the problems and myopia of Jewish fundamentalism, does that mean I am inciting Jew-hatred? Yet for some reason the liberal world refuses to recognize the threat for what it is. Europe and even America tolerate hate preachers and others inciting their audiences to despise the “other”. But very rarely is action taken.

You can hear preachers attack Jews and infidels every week in some British and European mosques. Indeed in France some Muslim schools and Imams refused to participate in the moment’s silence and the demonstrations. Yet it must be reiterated that not all Muslims buy into this hatred. Indeed in Paris there were heroic Muslims who came to the defense of Jews under attack and moderate Imams who expressed solidarity.

All religions are subject to interpretation; some interpretations are jingoistic, self-serving, and exclusionary. Others are open and inclusive. But they are both products of the religion and must be addressed as such.

Despite my religious conviction, I strongly believe that religions need to be subjected to scrutiny, criticism, and, yes, satire. All systems need it. It is the best way of getting one to see what is wrong or what needs addressing, because all systems tend to resist change, to decay and to become paralytic. Uncomfortable as I am to see American comedians like Jon Stewart poke fun of my religion, I think it is healthy. That is why I object most strongly that there exists in the USA and Britain a tacit understanding in the media not to provoke, or make fun of, or show cartoons of Islam. Charlie Hebdo's anodyne post-massacre cover was not shown by the press in either country.

Meanwhile it is perfectly OK to make fun of Mormons and other Christian sects on Broadway. It cannot be right. If one wants a fundamentalist approach to religion one should live in that world, not the free world. The West must not capitulate. It must allow the freedom to disagree and to ridicule as much as the freedom to practice whatever weird religion one chooses (so long as you do not harm others). I might even add that one of the reasons for Jews’ success in rising in the West was that they simply had to cope with ridicule and become stronger to prove themselves. This is a lesson new immigrants of other religions would do well to learn instead of expecting to be mollycoddled.

It is one thing to be a civil or secular state, which I applaud (in no small measure because I just do not have the confidence in any religious leadership). And such a state must act to preserve its values. But if it does not respond other than with social payouts to those who preach hatred and undermine liberty, in time the secular or civil state will be overcome with hatred of all kinds or collapse altogether. That is something I believe neither Jew nor gentile would welcome. “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to remain silent.”

January 08, 2015

Chief Rabbis

The British Jewish community, like all communities, reflects the ethos of its host society. British conservatism, with its deference towards hierarchies and establishments, has certainly influenced the excessive respect that Anglo-Jewry has for authority and in particular for the position of Chief Rabbi. However, this characteristic has also been blamed for restricting freedom of thought and creativity far more than in communities like the United States that do not have Chief Rabbis. I have just read Britain's Chief Rabbis and the Religious Character of Anglo-Jewry 1880-1970 by Benjamin Elton, which I heartily recommend.

There have been several attempts to analyze the impact of successive Chief Rabbis on Anglo-Jewry. Most notably Meir Persoff’s Faith Against Reason: Religious Reform and the British Chief Rabbinate, 1840-1990, Todd Endelman's The Jews of Britain, 1656 to 2000, and Miri Freud-Kandel's Orthodox Judaism in Britain since 1913: An Ideology Forsaken. Benjamin Elton’s major contribution to the field is a thoroughly researched comparison of the ways Chief Rabbis over a century have dealt with challenges to their authority. He comes to the conclusion that they all acted consistently with their religious beliefs.

For much of the period that Elton covers, the United Synagogue, as the Orthodox umbrella of Anglo-Jewry is known, tolerated standards that in practice allowed for a great deal of laxity and leeway. Most members did not keep Shabbat and drove to synagogue before going off after Saturday services to soccer matches or their businesses. Mixed choirs sang in several synagogues. Its Ministers of Religion dressed like Anglican churchmen. The mikvah was all but abandoned. It was not until Sir Isaac Wolfson in 1962 that the United Synagogue had a traditional Orthodox lay president. The supervision of kashrut in butcher shops and at functions was much more lenient then.

The arrival of survivors from Eastern Europe began to exert far more Orthodox pressure on the community. The enclaves of genuine Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy began to assert themselves and over time expanded beyond the confines of their ghettos in Gateshead and Stamford Hill. Whereas once the Chief Rabbi set the tone, increasingly it was the Beth Din, made up of men from far stricter backgrounds, who came to be the arbiters of United Synagogue practice. Chief Rabbi Hertz did invite the magisterial Dayan Abramsky to head the Beth Din in between the World Wars. But it was not until many years later that the Beth Din felt strong enough and had a large enough base of support to slowly but surely suborn the authority of the Chief Rabbi. From being the Court of the Chief Rabbi, appointed by him, it turned into a self-perpetuating oligarchy.

The effect over time was that the United began to drift to the right halachically and is doing so lost much of its constituency. Some have argued that this was a good and healthy development but it has certainly been at the expense of intellectual openness.

What was the role of the Chief Rabbi? Was it to reflect the mood of his community or to try to change it? Was he the religious executive or the representative of everyone within the community? Perhaps the Chief Rabbi’s role was purely a diplomatic one, looking towards the non-Jewish world as much as the Jewish?

If the aim of the Chief Rabbinate under Adler and Hertz was primarily to halt Anglo-Jewry’s slide towards Reform or assimilation, under Brodie it was increasingly a struggle to accommodate the growing pressure from right-wing Orthodoxy. The Jacobs Affair is often regarded as the turning point when Anglo-Orthodoxy took a decisive lurch to the right. Rabbi Louis Jacobs, an Orthodox rabbi who had studied in the Gateshead Kollel before becoming a pulpit rabbi and then lecturer at Jews College, had suggested that the dogma that every word of the Torah was dictated on Sinai, need not necessarily be taken literally. Brodie then blocked him from advancement at Jews' College and subsequently from the United Synagogue rabbinate itself. Was this because he himself disagreed with his theology, or was it because of pressure from the right? Elton suggests it was because Brodie himself did not agree with Jacobs. I am not convinced of this from my personal knowledge of Brodie.

I incline to the view that Brodie, like all Chief Rabbis I have known, was zealous for the position and felt he had to hold the line. He saw his role as that of chairman of a company or headmaster of a school, constantly having to weigh the right decision to take when there were conflicting interests and to decide which battles were worth fighting and which were not. Invariably the safe solution was to compromise, to fudge the issue, or to take the decision that would do less damage. Brodie was a good man. He chose to accede to the pressures from the right and probably believed them to be in the long-term interest of Anglo-Jewry. He might well have been right, with hindsight but it came at a price.

Immanuel Jakobovits was, in my opinion, the most religious and humane of the Chief Rabbis I encountered. But he too saw his executive role as requiring him to “do the right thing” for the US. The rulings of the Beth Din on all sorts of wider issues were never challenged until the present Chief Rabbi of the UK, Rabbi Mirvis, chose to publicly ignore their advice on the issue of Limmud. (He capitulated on other issues subsequently.)

Only a rampant Beth Din can explain Chief Rabbi Sacks' obedience in refusing to attend Limmud and his acquiescence in forbidding Louis Jacobs from being called up for his grandson’s bar mitzvah on the grounds that he couldn't recite a blessing over the Torah that he claimed did not come from Heaven. If that were the real criterion, then 90% of all those called up to the Torah in United Synagogues should never have been.

I have a problem with the mixture of power, religion, and appointed authority. Inevitably the interests of institutions come at the expense of individuals and individuality. Power diminishes soul. I cannot begin to number the men and women I have encountered who have been rejected and rebuffed by religious authority sticking to a rigid line and an uncompromising stance. I look to great rabbis to moderate such positions, to set spiritual examples rather than executive ones. It is for that reason that I have been so disappointed with the performance of so many Chief Rabbis, wherever they have functioned. No one is perfect, certainly not me, but if one takes on a position of leadership then one must be prepared to lead and stand up for what one really believes in.