May 28, 2015

Zimbabwe & ISIS

In 1966 I was sitting in yeshiva in Jerusalem studying hard and all but oblivious to the outside world, when I was summoned to see Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz, former Chief Rabbi of South Africa, then retired to Jerusalem. He was a contemporary and friend of my late father and a mentor to me. He told me I should get a taste of the real world and go out to Bulawayo in Southern Rhodesia, where the rabbi had just died tragically and the community needed some spiritual comfort and religious support. He urged me, no he actually ordered me (that was his style) to go out there for a month and stay over the High Holy Days. It would give me an experience that would either confirm my commitment to go into the rabbinate or disabuse me of the idea. I consulted the head of my yeshiva, and he thought it was a good idea.

Southern Rhodesia, then one of the last outposts of the British Empire, had just declared unilateral independence from the British government. Ian Smith refused to allow Rhodesia to become a full democracy, which would mean handing over the reigns of government to a black majority. One of my major challenges would be the stand I took either in support of Smith or against him. I asked the head of my yeshiva whether he had any advice. His response was that he knew nothing about such matters and that I should decide for myself what to do, so long as it was “Tsedek” (just).

When I got there I found a small community. It was vibrant, very hospitable, and warm, an absolute gem. I had a wonderful time. I threw myself enthusiastically into teaching and preaching, and it all confirmed beyond doubt that I wanted to devote my life to Jewish education and the rabbinate.

Most Jews were traditional rather than Orthodox, which was the norm then throughout the British Empire. And they were fiercely Zionist. Both the Zionist youth movements, Habonim and Betar had strong followings. There was a Jewish school, called Carmel School, with a significant minority of black and Indian pupils.

Salisbury (now Harare) was the capital city. Bulawayo was the second city. Salisbury and its hinterland were dominated by the Shona tribe and Bulawayo the Ndebele. Life was very good. Some Jews lived in town. Others were in the lovely suburb of Kumalo, which was known both enviously and derisively by the English as “Jewmalo”. After a game of tennis and a swim in the pool, the fortunate were served drinks relaxing in the verdant African vegetation, listening to the sounds of the wild as the sun set. This was the Imperial custom of the sundowner.

What struck me most forcefully was that most of the white population lived such a privileged life on the backs of the indigenous peoples. Even so, there was a very clear divide. For all those yahoos who would have been considered peasants back in Britain, but who supported white supremacy, there were enough thinking, sensitive whites who realized the situation was morally untenable and that things had to change.

The Jewish community straddled the divide. Most of its members were liberal in the good sense and wanted to see a more egalitarian and fair society. So I took a stance against segregation and against Smith.

Amongst the leaders of the black “resistance” that I admired then was Robert Mugabe. A graduate of the London School of Economics, inclined to the left, but he sounded sensible, moderate, and honest.

I returned to yeshiva and my studies. My career took me to Scotland, but I kept in touch with many of the friends I had made in Bulawayo. Southern Rhodesia eventually became Zimbabwe. Mugabe gained power, and everything I had hoped and prayed for fell apart. His tribe had more votes than the others. So he squashed them. Instead of working together with Joshua Nkomo of the Ndebele, he attacked him and his people. He empowered his own tribe at the expense of everyone else. His moderation turned into bloody murderous oppression, starving, beating, and killing anyone he did not like. The academic saint turned into a despicable, barbaric murderer.

Had he succeeded in establishing a fair egalitarian society, one might, as Marxists loved to, defend his tactics by saying the end justified the means. It didn't work with Stalin or with Mao. It didn’t work with Mugabe.

He confiscated industries and farmland and handed then over to his goons, who promptly looted and ruined them. He pushed even supportive whites out. He ruined a thriving economy and established a kleptocracy of his cronies. He has survived thanks to another morally dubious state, China. Moderate voices like that of Abe Abrahamson were stifled, and over time the Jewish community dwindled to the point of extinction.

If there were justice in this world, Mugabe would suffer a painful and agonizing death. But there isn’t. Although he is persona non grata in many countries, there are still enough morally compromised gangsters willing to welcome him. I noticed that Putin invited Mugabe to Moscow for the celebrations to mark the end of World War II. They deserve each other.

But what Mugabe illustrates is the enduring and strong grip that tribalism still has on Africa and the Middle East. The Imperial powers had the arrogance and stupidity to think that if you drew lines on maps and cobbled countries together from rival tribes, you could form stable societies. Just as America thought that if you removed tyrants in Iraq and Afghanistan you would be able to replace them with democracies. It is now clear you cannot. Why even “Great” Britain, the mother of parliaments, liberal democracy, and utilitarianism can’t keep its tribes together any more.

You cannot force tribes or religions or even families together if they do not want it. I always wondered why it was that Biblical Israel that made so much of tribes in its early history, then all but scrapped the idea by the end of the first commonwealth two-and-a-half thousand years ago. Perhaps it always was the intention. The census the Torah commanded this past week talks about families and households, even if they did end up in tribal units. I suspect this was a hint at things to come.

Our societies today are riddled with corruption, nepotism, favoritism, and protecting dynastic interests. They may claim the contrary, but it is all approximation and relative; you choose which poison is less noxious or more tolerable. We live in a world of pragmatism, not idealism. Any attempt to force tribes to live with each other, whether it is in Zimbabwe, Burundi, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, or indeed Palestine, will simply not work. But that won’t stop idiots or malignant interests from pretending it will work. You can sometimes get different people to live together and get to respect each other. But where tribal rivalries are fierce, they exacerbate difference and get in the way of integration. Then all you can do is limit the damage until they decide the time is right. Strong fences make good neighbors.

May 21, 2015


Shavuot is the festival that commemorates not just the encounter between Moses and God on Mount Sinai but also the “revelation” of Torah. There are traditionally 70 ways of explaining (70 faces of) Torah. So how we understand what actually happened is, of course, subject to almost infinite variations, from fundamentalist literality through academic reconstruction on to absolute denial. And I can respect different views even when I disagree with them.

But there is one possibility I can neither take seriously nor stop myself from laughing at, and that is one I have heard on the History Channel in the USA. Aliens landed on Mount Sinai; the fire and the smoke was obviously the exhaust of a space ship. Moses entered, was fed space rations for forty days, and then emerged with extraterrestrial instructions burnt into the tablets of high grade composite as to how his followers should behave if they wanted to survive successfully on earth. Then of course the ship took off and promptly disappeared. But not before some of those nobles, who standing halfway down the mountain, caught a glimpse of the afterburners (Exodus 24:11).

Some people just love conspiracy theories, and just as many are suckers for stories about how the only explanation we have for anything unusual on our planet is that it must have come from spacemen because humans could not have done it. Apparently 60% of Americans believe that aliens have landed on earth at some stage in our history. Of course I cannot prove they haven’t, but neither can they prove they have.

The History Channel programs cover pyramids, ziggurats, Peruvian Nazca lines, Machu Picchu, Easter Island statues and Stonehenge, and underwater cities off the Bahamas and the Mediterranean. The latter that Plato (naturally) referred to in his fictional work on Atlantis. Now they have added Divine Revelation. The writers of the scripts follow a similar formula that you hear every time: “If this was the work of aliens from space, then…” And the narrator proceeds as if it were a proven fact. That all these phenomena can be explained perfectly naturally, though human agency is ignored, not even mentioned. Selective choice of “experts” ensures that anyone debunking the theory scientifically is not going to be heard. But who cares? It is television after all, and even serious newscasters tell lies, betray their prejudices, and tailor the facts to fit their predispositions.

The History Channel posits the idea that ancient prophets communicated with space. They were so advanced, so ahead of their time morally, that the only possible explanation could be (qualified of course by “if”) that they were contacted by aliens who bestowed them information and inspiration not otherwise available on earth.

But then it struck me. Isn’t this what all religions teach? That an extraterrestrial force intervened in human affairs and inspired or instructed Moses or Jesus or Mohammad or Buddha how to teach humans the proper way to behave? OK, except no one suggests spaceships. Other than Erich von Daniken in his 1968 book Chariots of the Gods, where he suggests that Ezekiel’s vision of God in Chapter One is a description of a spaceship. And frankly, it does bear some resemblance if you remove the animal and human parts. But if we take spaceships and aliens out of it, isn’t it the same thing? Isn’t inspiration understood to come either from within or from without?

If academics suggest that Moses might have modeled his legal system on Hammurabi’s and tweaked it a bit to remove some of the less savory parts because he was sensitive enough to recognize its limitations, the fundamentalist chorus will object most strenuously. The only way fundamentalists live with the fundamentalist approach is to appeal to the miraculous. In which case of course it's a miracle! But the miraculous cannot usually be explained physically. Though from the History Channel, too, it seems all the Biblical miracles can be explained naturally with only a weeny amount of imagination or rephrasing. So one solution is to put it down to some external intervention. And if some call it the work of God, why should not others call it the work of spacemen? Except that spacemen and spaceships are very physical and conform to physical laws. Therefore one would expect to find some independent physical evidence of their presence on earth, then or at some other date, rather than just a theory to explain structures that can otherwise be explained perfectly well.

But there is an important distinction. In the case of the Biblical prophets, at any rate, they did not build pyramids. They were men of ideas, social and spiritual. Their remit was not to create buildings or cities, but to teach people the difference between right and wrong, how to live a good life. They were not engineers but inspirers. It is true they claimed they talked to or dreamed of or were inspired by God, but the prophets who came after Moses were not given technical blueprints or indeed the power to make laws.

The greatest of prophets in Judaism was Moses. He had two titles and two roles. He was “Moses the Teacher” for disseminating his legal work and “Moses the Prophet” for his relationship with God. We usually only use the first. All prophets that followed him were exclusively of the second category. Hence the Talmud’s principle that “prophets are not allowed to innovate laws". Their role was simply to reinforce what was there already.

Therefore, to suggest that prophets were inspired by physical objects like spacemen undermines their very purpose, which was to spread the word of a spiritual reality, not a physical one.

Now it’s true that given the way that many religions deify their prophets, their holy men and their graves (when you can find them) it’s little wonder that some Jews have tended to jump on the bandwagon. But that is why the Torah insisted that no one would know exactly where Moses was buried, to forestall such a tendency.

That is why on Shavuot we don't even mention Moses. It is all about studying the message, not worshipping the messenger.

May 14, 2015

The Ronson Name

The name “Ronson" once meant shavers and nowadays, thanks to social media, is associated primarily with vapid “personalities” who achieve little more than notoriety. But to me it conjures up someone I knew since our school days together in England—Howard, who died far too early from cancer in 2007.

I was thinking of him recently when I read an article in the Wall Street Journal concerning “air rights”. Air rights, for the uninitiated, is the right to build upwards using “rights” from other nearby buildings. In the ever-hot atmosphere of Manhattan, real estate it is a very significant right. Because if you have a church or a synagogue that is, say, “merely” four stories high, you have air rights that extend upwards for many additional floors. Such rights can be sold, with certain limitations, to other people wanting to build either nearby or indeed over and above a present building. And given that nowadays buildings are rising to over 100 stories in Manhattan, that is a lot of valuable and sellable space.

On Fifth Avenue stands the pretty nondescript (to those used to the real thing in Europe) neo-Gothic St. Patrick’s Cathedral. If it used its air rights, it could build as much as the Chrysler Building above its present structure. But it could also, in theory, sell its air rights to another developer nearby. Except that the buildings around it are so tall that there’s no way to use the rights. So Catholic St. Patrick’s, together with Episcopalian St. Bartholomew’s and the Reform Jewish Central Synagogue, in an example of ecumenical self-interest, are working with the city to get permission to sell their rights beyond their immediate footprints.

When I read about this maneuvering, my thoughts immediately drifted back to Howard Ronson. But before I tell you why, let me tell you a bit about Howard. At Carmel College, the Anglo-Jewish school we both went to, he struggled with academic work and made little impression until he was big and strong enough to take up rowing. He became a very successful oarsman, leading Carmel crews to victory at several important national regattas. Then he left to join his father in property. His parents were very friendly with mine, and Gerald, his father, was a governor of Carmel College. So we kept in contact even though I went off to university and yeshivah and then the rabbinate.

Meanwhile, Howard took to real estate like a duck to water. Whereas in school he would have had difficulty adding, subtracting, and dividing, in property he suddenly mastered converting square meters into square feet, working out in his head the amount you could build and sell on so many thousand square meters, and the relative profit margins of residential and commercial going rents, not to mention currency conversions. He could rattle off the differences in profit if you used steel and glass of different thicknesses and how much difference it would make to a massive project in comparison to concrete, brick, and wood. He used his knowledge and expertise to help improve conditions and administration in his old alma mater. He loved buildings and, just as importantly, knew how to run them. When I became headmaster of Carmel in 1971 (in no small measure thanks to the support of his parents) Howard helped me with the maintenance, administration, and inside knowledge of the school.

But then he decided to spread his wings and went off to France, where he built up an impressive business. He took up residence in Monte Carlo and, naturally, had a magnificent yacht in the harbor. Ever eager for new exploits, he moved on to New York, where he took Manhattan real estate by storm. He used to regale me with amazing stories of mafia and union bullies trying to muscle in on building projects in Manhattan and coming to meetings with their guns in full view. He took me around his really impressive achievements, and he was the toast of the town.

At the peak of his success in 1982, I visited him in New York and he took me to St Patrick’s Cathedral. Standing outside, he said he was negotiating to buy their air rights and actually build above the cathedral itself. But he was being blocked by the Historical Society, who were influencing the city planning authority against the idea. He said it would be a long-term project, but he was determined to see it through, however long it took.

For various reasons he moved back to Europe and built up yet another real estate empire in Germany after reunification. At the time of his death, he had been working on developing several important projects in China. He never got to build above St. Patrick’s. He didn’t buy their air rights, but anyway he would have had to wait another 30 years before it would become a viable project.

Few people nowadays remember Howard’s great contribution to real estate. More people know of his name because of the Yeshivat Reishit Yerushalayim and the Genesis Center he built, managed and supported for the Marcus family in Beit Shemesh. And in Tel Aviv for the building he financed for YAKAR Tel Aviv, which bears his name. I often get emails from contemporaries, former pupils, and others who saw his name on one of these two projects and ask me about him and them. These will be his legacy more than his buildings. His place in the history of the Jewish people is guaranteed by what he did for their continuity. Although it was precisely because of his commercial success that he had the funds to support and strengthen Judaism.

I am reminded of another Ronson, his cousin with whom he didn't get on and who is still very much alive—Gerald (not to be confused with Howard’s father). He surpassed his cousin in real estate in Britain. And like Howard, I believe Gerald too will be remembered less for his buildings than for his immense contribution to the Jewish people in another sphere, that of security. It is largely because of him that the Community Security Trust in Britain exists and has been so successful in monitoring anti-Jewish activity and actively protecting Jewish sites and communities. It has done this without getting involved either in party politics conflicts, turf wars or in the sort of neo-fascist bullying that ended up discrediting American versions.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his famous poem Ozymandias, reminded us that buildings come and go but that causes and ideas outlive them. So to me the name Ronson illustrates how much good a person can do when he uses his material success to benefit the community. People like them are also the builders of the Jewish people. Its continuity will guarantee their immortality.

May 07, 2015


The riot of Ethiopian Jews in Israel protesting against racism is a sad reflection on Israeli society. It must not be exaggerated but it should come as no surprise. There has always been a disconnect between the ideals of Israel’s state institutions and the petty prejudice and fighting against and between its minority communities. There has always been a distinction, in countries as well as people, between the theory and the practice.

Israel, as a matter of policy, has always taken pride in the fact that Judaism is colorblind. Unfortunately too many of its citizens have not been. Israel always voted against apartheid in the United Nations. But when it needed to protect itself it entered into covert negotiations with racist South Africa. Israel took great pride in welcoming thousands of black Jews from Africa, and many of them have risen to positions of prominence in Israeli society. But at the same time they have, as a community, suffered from both religious and secular prejudice. The poor Ethiopian soldier who was beaten was both black and religious. In some quarters in Israel that is a double whammy.

Israel has always been a complex, conflicted, and confused society. Originally the pioneer Zionists came into direct conflict with old time religious settlers in the Holy Land who had been coming to live there for a thousand years before Zionism ever existed as a movement. The newcomers treated the old ones with contempt and ridicule. As Zionism grew in strength and numbers, it came into conflict with Arab nationalism. The succeeding riots and wars only exacerbated tensions between them. Within the Zionist movement itself, left-wing ideologues fought with right-wing pragmatists. They struggled and even killed each other.

The Eastern European left-wing secular Jewish pioneers of the early years despised the more cultured and sophisticated Central European/Germanic refugees, who came in response to Nazism. Together they combined to discriminate against the Oriental Jews who came in droves after the state was declared, and they were expelled from Arab countries. It took 30 years before the Sefardi communities reached parity in power and social standing. Even within these communities Yemenites, Bene Israel from India, Karaites, and sundry exotic scattered tribes brought home, all had to fight legal and social discrimination. There was even a Black Panther movement in Israel of Oriental Jews fighting against prejudice and disadvantage. Once the Department of Statistics used separate categories for Oriental and Occidental Jews. Now no longer, because they are so intermarried. Yet still there is discrimination, particularly in the Charedi world, where the Ashkenazi rabbinic elite feel the Oriental Jews are neither as religious nor as acceptable as they are.

The Russian Jews who came later were discriminated against too. The women were all supposed to be hookers and the men all gangsters, until their intellectual contribution to Israeli life proved their value and equality. Then came the Ethiopians, who were welcomed (although their religious status was challenged by the Ashkenazi rabbinate). They were given a far better life than the one they had before, but then they were discriminated against because, like any immigrants, they needed more help to overcome their disadvantages.

The sad fact is that Israel, like a high school where the newcomers are made to pay by the top classes for the hazing and bullying they suffered as freshmen, has always given the new “pupils” a rough time. This doesn’t excuse it, but it is a sad reflection on human nature. Yet no country anywhere in the world has succeeded in absorbing so many disproportionately large and different cultures into one society with only marginal and occasional ruptures. Certainly the army plays a crucial equalizing role.

There is of course another form of discrimination: the economic one. Usually racial minorities are the ones who suffer disproportionally from this, if they come from societies with poor education. The economic issues in Israel were highlighted by the public protests in Tel Aviv two years ago. They went beyond any racial lines and focused purely on the gap between the rich and the poor. The Ethiopians suffer twice.

This is an issue throughout the world. In the USA spontaneous and organized violence has erupted in Ferguson and in Baltimore over police brutality, which is as much a problem as are poverty, unemployment, and disrupted family structure. Just as emblematic of the challenges are the demonstrations against Wall Street and the One Percenters. In the USA, as in Israel, the gap between the rich and the poor exacerbates the sense of insecurity and alienation. These issues must be addressed. Every politician says so. Yet the fact is that in the end political dysfunction gets in the way of finding solutions. So do ideologically different and conflicting approaches to the problems,. Actually, as the Torah says, “The poor will never cease”; so thinking that soaking the rich will solve the problem is misguided. Creating jobs is an important step. But still it assumes young poor people will necessarily want them.

The only truly effective answer (once legislation against discrimination is legally enforced) is the slow but inevitable intermingling of different racial and social communities. We have actually seen this happen in Israel over time. But it takes time, and it takes education and opportunity, to succeed.

Israeli leadership is responding well in public to the latest eruption. They are going out of their way to express solidarity and to bring rogue cops to justice, as indeed is the USA. But the social issues will continue to be a challenge until time and the better human qualities of our nature get round to realizing that we are, as the Talmud says, all the children of one God and all equal under the law.