April 30, 2015

Israeli Alienation

Every year when Israel’s Independence Day comes round, I always experience delight, pride, and sadness.

Delight and pride because after two thousand years of exile, of suffering under the oppression, hatred, and prejudice of so many countries, civilizations, and religions, at last and miraculously, we have been able to reestablish ourselves in our historical homeland. We have contributed so much to humanity that we deserve the right to be treated equally and to be as autonomous as everyone else.

That includes the right to be able to make ones own mistakes in ones country as much as anyone else. Of course we should recognize the right of others to be autonomous, too, and in our specific case to try our best to reach a fair accommodation with the Palestinians.

However, let us make no mistake, the desire of so many to see Israel disappear will remain a challenge and there is no alternative but to face it. That is a sad reflection on others.

But the sadness that I am talking about is our own. On both sides of the spectrum I see fellow Jews with who I have little in common.

Let me start with those closest to me on the religious side. I can understand the mindset of opponents of secular Zionism. Secular Zionism was born out of an anti-religious secular, and mainly Marxist, worldview that saw religion as restricting, medieval and responsible for everything that was negative in the Jewish condition.

Its declared aims were to establish a state where religious values were excluded or at least marginalized. The early years of Zionism saw a profound sense of alienation between the Old Yishuv and the New. The Old were Jews living in the Holy Land out of religious conviction; a constant feature of exile, whenever conditions allowed. The New Yishuv were the secular pioneers who came to create a new state through the work of their own hands.

This antagonism has continued, but over time it has softened, largely due to the euphoria after the Six Day War and the personality of Menachem Begin who brought changes that brought both Sephardi and other traditional Jews into the body politic and into the workforce hitherto dominated by the secular unions.

Of course there is still a kulturkampf going in Israel, as is there is in many free societies, between religion and secularism. It is right that this struggle plays itself out in the democratic process and is accommodated, if not settled by it.

However, the situation today in Israel is very different than my first experience when I arrived in Haifa in 1958 and was spat at for wearing a kippa. Nowadays the spit seems to be flying mainly in the other direction. In my days the violent anti-Zionism was confined to a handful of lunatics called the Neturei Karta (“The Protectors of the City”, as if they protected anyone) who were even ostracized by the ideologue of anti-Zionism, the late Satmar Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum.

The anti-Zionists have every right to oppose the Zionist state. That is democracy. But isn’t it ironic that the Israel they abhor gives more support to Torah than any state ever has in history. And its social welfare system enables ultra Orthodox families to live a life of study and in many cases indolence. Their inability to be grateful is one thing. But to attack those Charedi Jews who choose to serve in the Israeli army and to destroy their property, brothers who actually defend and protect them, is simply criminal and I hope they are put in prison.

They claim to be religious, as I do, and claim to follow Jewish Law, as I do. Yet with such people I wish to have nothing to do whatsoever. I could not bring myself to be civil to such mutations of Judaism. They typify everything I despise about extreme, irrational religion.

I am an unreserved admirer of the late Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who believed that anyone helping build a Jewish state or helping the Jewish people survive was worthy of respect, admiration, and gratitude for that alone, regardless of whatever other shortcomings they were guilty of.

Now let me switch to the other extreme. I have every respect for those who wish to support the establishment of a Palestinian state that would live at peace with Israel and recognize its right to exist as a democratic state. I have enormous respect for those who stand up against abuses of law, humanity, and civil rights, whether within Israel itself or on the West Bank, and who highlight the mistakes and tragedies that have been made.

But I have no time for those Israelis who oppose the existence of a Jewish state and accuse Israel of genocide or apartheid and who show no sense of equivalence whatsoever.

As for “settlers”, however one defines them, fair and just resolution will be one in which Muslims and Christians live equally and peacefully in a Jewish state alongside the Jews, and Jews and Christians will live in a Palestinian state in safety and at peace alongside its Palestinian Arab population. That is why I support those who would be happy to live in a Judea and Samaria under Palestinian rule, just as I oppose those settlers who believe that Palestinians should never have a state of their own and those Palestinians who want it to be Jew-less.

Finally in this list of those I have nothing in common with I include those Jews who out of lack of education or any substantively Jewish experience feel no interest or commitment to a Jewish state. I am simply not in the same space.

I am one of those middle-of-the-road committed Jews who want the best of both worlds. As with everything, it is the extremist who gets the attention. But I know there are far more moderates like me than most people seem to realize. We are not silent. We express our views and propagate them. We just do not make as much noise as the zealots on both sides. But that doesn’t mean we will not win the argument in the long run.

Now let me switch to the Muslim world. It is indeed awash with anti-Semitism and dominated by extremists who call for the death of Jews and Christians and who will kill them given a chance. We are accorded Dhimmi status by the Koran. This is not a status that can be morally acceptable in this modern world. It is redolent of primitive fundamentalism and no more to be tolerated than discriminating against homosexuals, blacks, or other minorities in any civilized society.

But I know full well that there are many Muslims who do not accept this and are in exactly the same position in relation to their world as I am in relation to mine. We do not approve of fanaticism. We can and we do talk to each other. Not enough, of course, but there can never be enough reconciliation and moderation.

Now if I can claim that the Neturei Karta and those Jews who deny Israel legitimacy are alien deviations and distortions of Judaism, so moderate Muslims can say the same about their extremes. I often hear people ask, “Where is the moderate Muslim?” Just as I often hear people ask, “Where is the moderate Orthodox Jew?” We are there and not “hiding behind stones and trees.”

In conclusion, we are like a dysfunctional married couple. Professional counselors might help, outsiders might help, family might help, and common sense might help. Above all, one should keep on trying. But in the end each one of us has to do the best to survive.

I am happy to be alive. I am sad that some people don’t want me to be. But I won’t let it stop me trying to make the world a better place for everyone.

April 23, 2015

Who is to blame for Iran?

I was never an admirer of the Shah of Iran. I was never a fan of monarchies nor of autocracies in general, any more than I am of democracy when there are no institutions of civil society to sustain it. But Persian Jews owed the Pahlavis, father and son, a great deal. For the first time in Persian history since it came under Shia Muslim control, the Jews were allowed the freedom, the equality before the law, and the opportunities they had been denied for a thousand years.

I remember how in the 1950s Britain, Russia and America interfered and battled for control of Persian affairs. To this day resentment against the arrogance of the Imperial powers for the way they tried to control Iranian oil, lingers. Internally Rezah Shah, the founder of the Pahlavis, was a modernist. He tried very hard to battle the primitive medievalism of the Mullahs and their grip mainly on the rural, less educated classes. He promoted education, liberated women, and helped create a dynamic, industrial country that went a long way towards dragging Iran out of the typical backwardness that we see to this day in Afghanistan and elsewhere in that benighted part of the world.

The conflict between religious medievalism and modernity in Iran was made more complex because of Soviet interference through the powerful Tudeh Communist Party. The Shah, under the pressure of the cold war, was forced into a balancing act in which he courted the Mullahs, retracted many of the anticlerical moves of his father, and employed his cruel secret police organization, SAVAK, to clamp down on left-wing and communist dissidents. In the end the combination of left-wing antipathy towards the Shah’s autocracy combined with Muslim religious opposition triumphed.

The Shah was ousted by the Americans. They and the French brought Khomeini (whom the Shah had exiled for his extremism) back from exile because he promised moderation. However as soon as he returned, he and his cronies set about killing opposition, removing moderate, pro-Western leadership and anticlerical voices, and letting loose the oppressive ideology that now inspires, funds, and arms the violence around the world that strengthens their cause.

American foreign policy has always veered between right-wing interference and naïve left-wing idealism. Whereas the Republicans allowed the CIA to interfere in Iranian affairs, Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, believed that if you were nice to Khomeini and gave him a chance he would spread tolerance and good will and become Jimmy’s best friend. Carter has gone on in a similar vein to preach the left-wing gospel of Hamas reasonableness in the face of Israeli intransigence.

We are now once again in a similar situation. The Democrat President believes that being nice to Iran will blunt their revolutionary zeal. Making concessions will “bring them back into the community of nations” and reduce their aggressiveness. Allowing them to have a nuclear bomb will bring peace to the Middle East. It is an exact replay of the mentality of the Carter years.

There is no doubt that there will be a deal regardless. Obama wants it. He will buy it. He probably genuinely believes in it as much as he believed in the Arab Spring and in the benevolence of the Brotherhood. Iran will keep its capacities and its warheads and its plutonium enrichment and, within a few years, its nuclear bombs. There is nothing Israel or anyone else can do. Even if Israel has the capacity to bomb some of the targets, it cannot get them all. The targets are so many, so diffused, and so deep underground that without an alliance of major powers the effort will not be able to be completed. Besides, bombing Iran will only bring its disparate groups more strongly together in patriotic unity in the face if an external threat.

Despite all this I do not see the coming deal as the end of the world. Yes, Iran will get the bomb. Pakistan has the bomb. India has bomb, and so does North Korea. No doubt the Sunni states will get their bombs too. Proliferation will be inevitable. But that does not necessarily mean they will be used or that lunatic extremists will get hold of them in ways that they can be used in localized conflicts.

I remember the fear we all had in the fifties of a nuclear war between the East and the West. It never happened despite all the mischief the USSR got up to. Iran has its own problems. It is dependent on Russia and China and world finance and trade. Its Mullahs know well enough that if they cannot improve their economy and provide jobs, they too will face millions of disaffected citizens, however devoted religiously they may be. And launching nuclear bombs whose spillover will decimate the Shia Hezbollah, or even the Sunni Palestinians, will not bring about the appearance of the Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi. Besides they couldn't even defeat Saddam Hussein and his notoriously cowardly Iraqi army. So no—perhaps irrationally—I do not believe that Iran is the Great Satan.

Now that doesn’t mean I would trust those brutes who kill and rape student protestors any further than I could smell them. And the doctrine of “Taqiyya” (lying to your opponents to achieve your long term political and religious ends) will continue to be an essential part of their great Muslim tradition.

But I do not think the leaders are stupid either. They have, after all, learned to use the very social media they ban at home to win friends abroad. And they know how to smile. There will of course be anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers like Ahmadinejad in Iran, just as today there are everywhere else in the Arab world and beyond.

For all we Jews have to contend with, we have not been stronger since the days of the Maccabees (nor any more loved). Greeks hated us then too. So long as Israel is capable of defending itself, I have no fear. I am indeed amazed at the delusions of politicians, well meaning or not. I do not trust princes. But that is world politics for you. In the end I suspect they will cancel each other out. We must at least concentrate on improving our own societies.

How to go forward? As the Israeli proverb goes “Kabdehu V’Chashdeyhu”—Respect him but suspect him!

April 16, 2015

Holocaust Survivors in Miami

In 2012 a television series called Magic City appeared on Starz Network and it ran for two seasons. It depicted the glamor and sleaze of Miami around the time of Castro’s revolution in Cuba. Inevitably the Jewish Mafia made its appearance, with its desire to control Miami as a potential hub for gambling to rival Las Vegas. Miami was also going to be a substitute for the loss of Havana as a hub of crime investment. The WASP-ish non-Jewish residents were locked in a battle for Miami’s soul (and their privilege) against the interloping Jews, and then the Cubans. There was murder and prostitution, a Jewish DA keeping an eye on a Jewish hotelier who was caught in the vice of mafia money and struggling to free himself from a noxious Jewish criminal and pervert. References to Jewish life peppered the dialogue, and it seemed every Jewish character was either having sex with or was married to a non-Jewish girl. In other words its depiction of Jews was cringeworthy and embarrassing. Jewish life had absolutely nothing to commend it. A Passover seder was different to any other banquet only in its token matzah. All of this is the setting of Thane Rosenbaum’s latest novel How Sweet It Is!

Thane Rosenbaum is a distinguished law professor. He is the director of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society, hosted by NYU Law School. He is actively involved in Jewish life and is popular lecturer, writer, novelist, and essayist. As the child of Holocaust survivors, his earlier work had drawn on themes of dislocation and the ongoing trauma that survivors experienced and passed on to the succeeding generations. He graduated from the University of Florida, and he earned his JD from the University of Miami School of Law, where he was a Harvey T. Reid Scholar and served as Editor-in-Chief of the University of Miami Law Review. So he knows the Miami scene very well, and his familiarity with the local scene is one of the highlights of How Sweet It Is!

Into this setting he brings the familiar personae of Meyer Lansky, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Fidel Castro, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and Muhammad Ali. All of them were sometime denizens of Miami Beach. Jewish swimming legend Marc Spitz features prominently, and we are introduced to an atheist rabbi who bears as much resemblance to a rabbi as a drunken Cossack on hallucinogens. But we might be inclined to forgive him because he is a holocaust survivor. So too are Jacob and Sophie Posner, who struggle in their different ways to cope with life. Their neglected son, Adam, finds his own way of growing up in a context that bears a close resemblance to Hades, heat included.

Sophie Posner finds relief in gambling, and this leads her into the clutches of Meyer Lansky, who has just been extradited to the USA from Israel (that part, of course, is true). He finds his empire in disarray. He recognizes Sophie’s combination of brilliant amorality and deep post-Holocaust dysfunction. He employs her to knock his aging and incompetent associates into shape. She rises in the organization to become his consigliere. Meanwhile her husband accepts her absence and struggles to survive, himself in his own post-traumatic world. Adam turns to running and baseball, at which he excels. It is a metaphor for his desire to escape. In a scene reminiscent of Philip Roth, he stumbles on a hippy orgy in Flamingo Park the night before the Democratic convention.

I don’t know how much of all this is based on Mr. Rosenbaum’s experience of Miami and indeed parents who survived the horrors or how much on a very fertile imagination. By now you have realized that this book is a comic pastiche—highly entertaining, unpredictable, and an exercise in cross-everything in a multicultural cocoon. As such it is a novel of our times, and yet of course it isn’t because it is set some 40 years ago.

The contrast with today is significant. Miami Beach is not the same, and Judaism is not the same. Both have stabilized and established themselves. Just as the Mafia has turned to white-collar schemes, so Jewish life in America has gotten over its mad rush to escape its roots. More and more Jews now realize that either the religion takes itself seriously or it disappears. This is a requiem for an era gone by that, frankly, offered little of substance.

In satirizing that world, Mr. Rosenbaum has achieved two things. On the face of it he has given us a funny, enjoyable read and a nostalgic look at a place and a time gone by. But on a serious level, he has shown us how empty and valueless it all was. A period of transition, in many ways its aftermath was a cultural dissonance that turned too many Jews into the soulless, hollow version that Woody Allen portrays. Thank goodness we have rebounded and reestablished a Jewish life of study, conviction, and commitment that we can be proud of, instead of being embarrassed by.

This is the season of remembering--Yom Hashoah, Yom HaZikaron, Yom Ha’Atzmaut--the tragedies and the triumphs. It is a time to remember that defeat and victory, humiliation and triumph, are two sides of the coin of history. For all that this book laughs at tragedy and failure. it also celebrates the spirit of life and survival.

April 09, 2015


According to the Biblical narrative, when the Children of Israel were still in Egypt they were commanded to prepare in various ways for the Exodus (Chapter 12). They had to set aside a lamb to be killed and eaten. That in itself was an act of defiance. Egyptians revered sheep and would have been insulted by such a flagrant breach of their customs. All the more so as it was being perpetrated by their slaves and, even worse, the animal was selected and tied up in preparation three days beforehand, as if to dare the Egyptians to do something.

After having killed the animal, the Israelites were instructed to daub some of its blood on their doorposts (Exodus 12:21) to ensure that the imminent destruction the coming plague of the firstborn Egyptians would not strike them too. What was that act meant to signify? Was it an ancient pagan custom to keep evil spirits away? Would the act in itself protect them? Around the Middle East, even today, blue is the favored color to protect homes from evil. Similarly the red band is a very common charm to ward off evil spirits.

It seems to me that the real purpose was to evince a sense of identification. One rabbinic tradition has it that many Israelites assimilated or were ambivalent about leaving Egypt. Which is hardly surprising given the record of biblical Israelites to be incredibly fickle about which gods they worshipped. Now they would have to decide by taking a positive act of commitment.

Many of the actions taken in Egypt at the first Passover were never replicated again. There is no obligation nowadays to sit at the seder in our traveling clothes with our shoes on our feet and our staves and wallets at hand (Exodus 12:11), and we no longer daub blood on our two door-posts (shtey HaMezuzot). But the actual word used in Exodus, mezuzah is used again, twice, later in the Torah (Deut. 6 and 11) in what we now call the Shema. There it says that we should write, not daub, the words of the Torah on the doorposts (mezuzot) of our houses and gates. The connection strikes me as obvious.

The Samaritans and the Kaarites did not take this command as literally as we do. For them it was figurative. The command was that our homes and cities would be committed to Torah and its values. But the Judaism we have today does indeed take it literally. That is why every Jewish home has a mezuzah on its front door and every other room for living in a house or apartment.

Nowadays it is common to see Jews touch or kiss a mezuzah that they pass by. The question is why? You can respect and value something without kissing it. Yet many Jews kiss the Torah or a siddur. And kissing, particularly in the Middle East, is a sign of respect. Is this superstitious?

There are two very different kinds of interpretations as to the function of the mezuzah. The simple rational one is, whether one takes the mezuzah as an object or not, that its function is simply to remind us of the Divine commandments. As Maimonides says in his “Guide for the Perplexed”:
“There are some actions prescribed (including the mezuzah) which serve to remind us continually of God and of our duty to love and respect Him and to keep His commandments (Divine Commandments Chapter XLIV).”
The non-rational explanation is to suggest that somehow the mezuzah automatically protects the home. This is emphasized particularly by those rabbis who make a living checking mezuzot and assuring the credulous that if things do or have gone wrong it is because their mezuzot were not checked and were faulty. The very idea of a mezuzah as a protection in itself makes no logical sense. Otherwise one should be able to discern a very clear distinction between homes with a mezuzah and those without. Nowhere does the Torah say that protection is automatic simply by fixing it on a door. Much later the rabbis did indeed give a list of things that might avert an evil decree: repentance, charity, and prayer. They did not include the mezuzah in that list.

If anything, it is living a good life and following the commandments that gives one a sense of meaning and the confidence to deal with the challenges one faces. A life that is full of spiritual significance. It is true the Torah says in the Shemah that if we behave correctly “the rains will fall in their time.” This does imply a very definite quid pro quo. Nevertheless the rabbis tended not to take this literally or as applying to this world. Quite the contrary, the traditional view is that there is no causative reward and punishment in this physical world; it is all on a spiritual level beyond the material.

The West I was born into was one in which difference was scorned. Minorities tried to hide their marks of identification. Things have changed dramatically. Now differences and ethnic religious signs of identification have become badges of honor. Blacks, native peoples, Sihks, and Hindus do not try to hide their identities or affiliations. Yet so many Jews still do.

Having a mezuzah on one’s doorposts is indeed a sign of commitment, of belonging, as it was in Egypt. We are given the choice to make public our affiliation or to hide it. The mezuzah serves this purpose. We may kiss the mezuzah, if we feel so inclined, out of love or respect. There is no law that we must. But to suppose it is some magic talisman, an automatic kind of protection, regardless of who we are and how we behave, is indeed pure superstition. It might be comforting, and it might be (sometimes) a courageous act of identification, but it is not magic.

April 02, 2015


Every time we sit down to a meal, according to the Talmud, it is an act of religious celebration. The ancient Temple sacrifices were not just a matter of formal communal gifts to God. They were also a system of getting everyone, priest and lay, rich and poor, to share food. Originally all slaughter for food was sacrificial. Only later did it move beyond the sanctuary.

In this day of restaurants and hotels, the idea of sharing ones daily meals has been largely lost. Traditionally every meal had to be shared with the poor, the needy, and travelers. At every meal we were supposed to thank God before and after. At every meal we were expected to study something. Every meal was a symbolic reenactment of a sacrifice on the altar. In fact only on Shabbat and festivals is all of this normally observed nowadays. But at the Seder on Pesach we really “make a meal of it”.

There are the rituals and blessings and customs and, indeed, peculiarities that serve not only as symbols but also as reasons to ask and to challenge. Uniquely amongst religions and customs comes this insistence on everyone participating, of not just sitting passively, but questioning.

The Talmud mentions the questions, four in the Babylonian and three in the Jerusalem, that have to be asked. But interestingly it says that if you were to ask any other kinds of halachic or religious questions you would not need to ask the formal ones. It's the idea of asking that trumps the text. The fours sons who ask theirs are emblematic of different approaches to religious issues and identity. Rebbi Elazar Ben Azaria represents the rabbinic dialectic but also the challenge to authority. He played a crucial part in the rebellion against Rabban Gamliel’s authority. And the rabbis in Bnei Brak remind us of Rebbi Akiva’s controversial support for the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome. All of these are expressions of individuals asking and questioning at different times and under differing circumstances.

The Hagadah gives different types of answers. One, “We were idol worshippers” saw us as having broken with idolatry: spiritual freedom. The other “we were slaves” talks instead about the physical freedom from oppression, slavery, compulsion. One is personal, the other personal and national. But the text was only the intellectual hors d’oeuvre. Scholars and students spent the rest of the night in debate and discussion, not just of religious matters but of political issues and the steps to be taken to free one from the cultural and physical slavery of later oppressors. Greece, Rome, Christianity, and Islam.

Equally unusual is the emphasis on involving the children in a religious and educational experience. They are also encouraged to ask questions (rather than “be seen and not heard”), to search for the hidden Afikoman. It was for them that the popular mittel-European folk songs were adapted to the Hebrew or Aramaic.

But in my experience most kids and many adults have nodded off long before they get anywhere near the grand finales. Over time more was added to the Hagadah that might have resonated with mystics or scholars but that now simply leaves most moderns bemused, frustrated, and longing for it all to end as soon as possible so as to get on with the food and drink.

In religious homes time is not an issue. The interest in analyzing the text, bringing other sources and debates from classical Jewish rabbinic literature to bear on complex questions, or coming up with one’s own solutions are all part of traditional table talk under normal circumstances. This is all the more relevant on a night when the greatest of rabbis and their students went on debating and arguing until dawn.

But outside of a traditional religious household, most of the text of the Hagadah has become alien and irrelevant. There have of course been all kinds of creative solutions, from a secular Israeli harvest Hagadah to the inclusion of a wide range of quotes, articles and poems dealing with human rights issues and the wider question of slavery and freedom. And all that is to the good. But, even so, I suspect most guests at the Seder find it hard going and, any way, year after year it all loses its novelty.

It is my belief that the Talmud was aware of this problem and that most people were not scholars. That was why the Talmud says that you should at least say “and God brought us out,” and again says that “every person should try to imagine that he or she has escaped.” We need to imagine, to place ourselves in history. That, they are saying, is the essence of the Seder. They knew that most people would not have the patience to read every word and pay attention all the time. They would need a minimal alternative. Otherwise, why would Rabban Gamliel say that to fulfill your obligation you only have to talk about Pesach, Matza, and Maror?

So if you find yourself amongst or hosting a reluctant group of participants, I suggest paring down the Seder to the core paragraphs and blessings and allowing all the guests to talk freely about their own personal experiences and voyages, of “servitude” and freedom, at home or at work, of being forced to do what they did not want to, of all the issues of personal integrity and morality that lie at the core of Jewish life.

If our freedom from Egypt, whether it was historical or symbolic, was for us as a people to live ethical lives and to set a moral examples (even at election time) I suggest we have plenty to discuss. For that matter so do our rabbis, too many of whom this past year have found themselves accused and convicted of a range of crimes that call their moral integrity into question.

If the Seder Night on Pesach is to be more than an empty ritual, we really need to take it seriously and personally and not hide behind an impersonal text. And if the evening leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth, or a dry one because it had encouraged us to be self-critical, then it will have been worth it, instead of being an experience of ploughing through a text that we read and then ignore for another year.