Friday, February 26, 2010

Queen Vashti - my heroine

For me, Purim always brings memories of my Batmitzvah year, when each
student in my class was supposed to create a project about a Biblical

Most of the girls chose Sarah, Rifka, Rachel, Leah -- the usual suspects.

I chose Vashti.

My parents were called in for a long talk with the teacher and I narrowly avoided getting kicked out of school.

For me, Vashti was always a positive role model - she refused to appear before the king and his followers at the men's banquet (actually the Hebrew word for banquet - mishteh - implies there was less eating on and more drinking, so it is a fair assumption they were all drunk). The text does not actually explain why she wouldn't turn up but the most straightforward explanation is that it was for reasons of modesty - after all, Achashverosh wanted her there 'to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to look at'.

For her disobedience she was dethroned. This was explicitely meant as a warning for other women not to disobey their husbands.

And yet, she is vilified in the midrash, which has turned her into some kind of monster who abused Jewish women and who did not want to appear because of vanity, not modesty (there are various tales about her suffering from skin diseases - and worse).

So it came as a little bit of a shock to read that this original idea of my youth has actually been a staple of Jewish-feminist thought for quite a few decades....

In this article in Commentary, contributor Abby Wisse Schachter rails at feminists for their elevation of Vashti, particularly because many of them seem keen to degrade Esther's stature in the process. When compared to Vashti's independence in her marriage - goes the narrative - Queen Esther's supplication, her willingness to go along with events and her 'good girl character' make her look powerless.

Personally, I don't see why we can't have it both ways. My early realisation that, sticking to the plain text, Vashti is more sinned against than sinning never actually made me re-evaluate Esther's role and reputation. And I continue to see no reason why we cannot have two strong women in the story, who represent two very different models of independence and of achieving what they want - one defiantly, one subtly. We don't need to come down on one side or another; we can appreciate the megillah for its almost literary inclusion of these opposites.

Rather than pitting Esther vs Vashti, I think it's interesting to ask why the midrash was so keen to vilify Vashti. Schachter says that traditional rabbinical thinking "sought to besmirch this minor character’s reputation in order to make Esther appear even more heroic." Is this really necessary? There are other heroes in the Purim story - male ones.

Is it possible that two women heroines were just too much? Were the rabbis simply trying to justify the apparently unfair treatment Vashti receives? Or - do they, too, not like the model of the defiant wife, which so angered Achashverosh?

I'm open to suggestions.

Why was Queen Esther childless?

An original reading of the Purim story.


Idea no 1 - Make 2010/11 the Year of synagogue renewal

As I explain in my column this week, every community can use new ideas - and ours is no exception.

So during the month of March, I am going to be running, on [my JC] blog, a new series: "21 Ideas to transform our Jewish community"* **. Every working day I will be posting a different suggestion from a community personality. But I have also reserved the last couple of slots for suggestions from readers, so if you have an innovative, practical idea that could potentially change Jewish life here for the better, please email me (up to 350 words) at

I hope that not only will the project generate significant debate, but that some of the ideas will be taken up. And we will publish the best ones in the paper at the end of the month.

So, to kick off - here is my first idea: We should make 2010/11 the Year of Synagogue Renewal.

While many view the JFS ruling as an unmitigated disaster, it does contain at least one positive outcome. Under the new entrance system, all children applying to Jewish schools must make several synagogue visits, giving the synagogues an unprecedented opportunity to reach out to thousands of relatively unaffiliated families.

Because of the timing of the JFS ruling last year, synagogues had to handle the influx at very short notice. This year, we have far more notice - and we must take advantage. It is not enough simply to shepherd families into pre-existing services. By definition, current synagogue arrangements are not meeting their needs, otherwise they would already be attending.

We must put serious effort into making the synagogue experience as pleasant as possible - this includes making Certificate of Religious Practice instructions straightforward and welcoming; ensuring that children's services are not overcrowded - run in several shifts if necessary; and that there are appropriate services for parents who may not know how to daven.

Parents must pre-register their children so why not follow up with a welcoming phone call? Many 11- and 16-year-olds will require CRP certificates. If they are not familiar with the services, can another teenager be appointed to help them? Or, why not offer to set up families requiring a CRP for their child with another family for Shabbat lunch?

It would also be useful for the schools to follow up with new parents about their shul experience. Part of the reason so many families are treating the CRP's synagogue requirements casually is because they know that the schools themselves see it as a box-ticking exercise. If the schools took it more seriously, so would the parents.

More broadly, synagogues could survey members about what ideas they can adopt to speak more directly to the life of the average Jewish family.

For many, schools are fast replacing the synagogue as the engine of Jewish life. But if we managed to get even 15 per cent of non-shul attending families to return once the CRP requirements were fulfilled, this would rejuvenate Anglo-Jewry.

That's my idea. Now what's yours?

* Inspiration for this project comes from Daniel Sieradski and a group of US media outlets and charities, who have come up over the past couple of months with many thoughtful and innovative ideas of their own.

** I am not reposting the contributors' ideas on Bloghead. The full set can be read here.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

'Why Miriam Shaviv's got Judaism all wrong'

Rabbi Shochet's facebook status is advertising the following event:


I guess he really didn't like my piece about him a couple of weeks ago....

'Intelligence' service

Victor Ostrovsky, author of The Other Side of Deception - allegedly an account of his time in the Mossad - has warned that the Brits whose passports were used in the Dubai operation could be in danger if they left the country. He tells the Indy:

"They're safe, so to speak, until someone tries to kill them."

Yes, Mr Ostrovsky, that's usually the way it works....

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Profile of a Chassidic matriarch

Last month I noted that a Satmar woman, Yitta Schwartz, had died in America with over 2,000 descendents.

Now the NYT is running an obit - and you know what? It is touching and fascinating.

Mrs. Schwartz gave birth 18 times, but lost two children in the Holocaust and one in a summer camp accident here.

She was born in 1916 into a family of seven children in the Hungarian village of Kalev, revered as the hometown of a founder of Hungarian Hasidism. During World War II, the Nazis sent Mrs. Schwartz, her husband, Joseph, and the six children they had at the time to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

At the shiva last month, another Bergen-Belsen survivor recalled her own mother dying at the camp; Mrs. Schwartz took it upon herself to prepare the body according to Jewish ritual, dig a grave and bury the woman.

“For her it was a matter of necessity,” Nechuma Mayer said of her mother’s actions.

When the war ended, the family made its way to Antwerp, Belgium. There, Mrs. Schwartz put up refugees in makeshift beds in her own bombed-out apartment.

In 1953, the Schwartzes migrated to the United States, settling into the Satmar community in Williamsburg. She arrived with 11 children — Shaindel, Chana, Dinah, Yitschok, Shamshon, Nechuma, Nachum, Nechemia, Hadassah, Mindel and Bella — and proceeded to have five more: Israel, Joel, Aron, Sarah and Chaim Shloime, who died in summer camp at age 8. Sarah came along after Mrs. Schwartz had already married off two other daughters.

While her husband sold furniture on Lee Avenue, Williamsburg’s commercial spine, Mrs. Schwartz, who never learned English well, tended the family. She sewed her daughters’ jumpers with mother-of-pearl buttons and splurged for pink-and-white blouses — 20 for 99 cents each — at that late lamented discount emporium on Union Square, S. Klein.

With so many children, Mrs. Schwartz had to make six loaves of challah for every Sabbath, using 12 pounds of dough — in later years, she was aided by Kitchenaid or Hobart appliances. (Mrs. Mayer said her mother had weaknesses for modern conveniences, and for elegant head scarves.) For her children’s weddings, Mrs. Schwartz starched the tablecloths and baked the chocolate babkas and napoleons.

After her husband died 34 years ago, relatives said, Mrs. Schwartz never burdened others with her new solitude.

“We didn’t feel even one minute that she was a widow,” Mrs. Mayer said. “She used to say, ‘When there are so many problems in life, I should put myself on the scale?’ ”

According to the family, she spent her latter years faithfully attending family simchas - and "had no trouble remembering everyone’s name and face."

She must have been a pretty special lady to be able to convince 2,000 people she knew exactly who they were....

Monday, February 22, 2010

Jewish Review of Books launches

The Jewish Review of Books has now launched, and looks extremely interesting - I hope to read and comment on some of the articles later in the week.

What with Jewish Ideas Daily (which recently hired the Jerusalem Post's editorial editor) and Tablet, there has been a real boom in intellectually heavy-hitting Jewish websites in recent months. What a pleasure.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

What really worried Israelis this weekend

While the entire world is talking about Dubai, I was interested to see that the weekend supplement of Yediot Achronot, Israel's most popular paper, devoted its first nine pages to the allegations against Rav Elon - getting to the events in Dubai only on page 14 (ending on page 16).

I guess that (alleged) Mossad operations going wrong because of a passport problem is old-hat in Israel, as are serious diplomatic crises with Britain. Sex scandals involving the country's most senior rabbis, on the other hand, are still something of a novelty.

At least there's something to be thankful for.

Does the Israel public know whodunnit in Dubai?

Yossi Melman says, about the Dubai operation:

the gravest danger of all is that someone in Israel's
talkative society will identify one of the operatives as his neighbor
or acquaintance from the past, and will not only hasten to tell his
friends about it, but will also post it on the Internet.

Half of the London Jewish community immediately recognised the British names on the list of suspects in the killings; if the Mossad is indeed to blame, surely half of Israel recognised the pictures (disguises notwithstanding).

Friday, February 19, 2010

Beware the charismatic rabbi

The best comment on the Rav Elon sex scandal comes from Adderabbi, who tries to put it all into context by quoting a passage on charismatic teachers from an absolutely brilliant new book on Jewish education -- written, ahem, by my father, Paul Shaviv, principal of TannenbaumCHAT in Toronto, the largest Jewish high school, grade-for-grade, in North America (and the largest private day school in Canada).

Much of what he says may be applied to charismatic rabbis in the public sphere, such as Rav Elon:

The ‘Pied-Piper’ is one of the most difficult situations for a Principal to deal with. Many excellent and highly professional teachers have elements of charisma in their personalities. In the ‘Pied Piper’ situation a powerfully charismatic teacher has exceeded appropriate boundaries. The teacher’s personality has become the centre of the classroom rather than the course content. A ‘Pied Piper’ will deeply affect and influence some students – but will almost always leave a trail of emotional wreckage in his/her wake.

‘Pied Pipers’ - charismatic teachers who misuse their charisma - are often themselves deeply immature, but their immaturity is emotional, not intellectual, and it is not always obvious. They can be brilliant in inspiring students to go beyond their wildest expectations, and are often regarded (by their following of students, by parents, and by the Board or the community) as the ‘most important’ or ‘best’ members of staff. There is always, however, a price to be paid.

One of the effects of charisma is to convince the recipient that he or she is the centre of the charismatic personality’s concern. A teenage student (or a particular class) may feel as though he, she or they is/are the protégé(s) of the charismatic teacher. The moment they realize that they are not (sometimes when the teacher ‘moves on to the next’), deep emotions come into play. Many charismatic teachers will lavish attention on a student or group of students – as long as the student(s) do things the teacher’s way, or accept every piece of advice or “philosophy” or Torah uncritically. The moment the student shows independence or objectivity – they are dropped. As soon as they are dropped, they are written out of the teacher’s story. Deep disillusion sets in. The student(s) are devastated. Often such students, very hurt, leave the school.

Whatever brand of identity and loyalty the ‘Pied Piper’ has inculcated – religion, sport, poetry, art, politics – may be abandoned overnight. The next set of ‘favorites’ takes their place. Tears are a feature of meetings between the abandoned students, their parents, and the Administration. Mild characteristics of cult leaders may be observed.

Other parents, however, will rave about how their son/daughter “adores” Mr./Ms/ or Rabbi X, and is “learning so much from them”. Events linked to that teacher will be showcase events, and in the Principal (or Head of Department) will come to be dependent on the teacher. “We need something special for the prize-giving...or the ground-breaking … or the community event… can you put something together?” The teacher will protest that the time is short, and it’s impossible, but will, of course, accept and do a fabulous job.

The problem is that at core, these are not educational relationships.

The emotional dependency and entanglement between teacher and student leads to boundaries being crossed. The teacher throws open his/her house to the students. Teens idolize the teacher, and dangerous fantasies begin to develop. Boundaries are crossed; the usual rules don’t apply to the Pied Piper, or, sometimes, his/her students.

For more on how this applies to the current scandal, read our special correspondent Anshel Pfeffer's powerful piece in Haaretz, on the influence Rav Elon had on him during his teens and early 20s.

Another relevant comment from my father's book comes from the opening to the section on teachers behaving inappropriately:

It is sobering to understand how charm, charisma and talent can mask an altogether more sinister agenda. It is even more sobering to face the reality of how far people of all ages can be deceived by skilful confidence tricksters, sociopaths and predators – to the extent of maintaining faith in them even after their evil has been exposed.

Worth keeping in mind in this day and age, when all too many rabbis seem to have turned from halachic arbitrators and community leaders into personal life coaches.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The rabbis were wrong to try and protect Rav Elon

Let’s turn now, for a moment, to that other major scandal currently roiling Israel: the allegations against Rabbi Motti Elon, one of – perhaps the – most prominent religious-Zionist rabbis in Israel today, son of former Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon, brother of former MK Benny Elon, former yeshivah head and media star, popular with the secular public as well as a star in his own community.

A few days ago, Takana, a forum for religious leaders combating sexual abuse in the Orthodox community, announced that Rabbi Elon was a “danger to the public”. The initial allegations were vague; it has since emerged that he is being accused of molesting, and of conducting long-term sexual relationships, with young men coming to him for counselling (some of them asking for advice because they were worried they had homosexual tendencies). As far as I can work out, the boys in all cases were over the age of consent and none were willing to press police charges.

Five years ago Rav Elon disappeared from public life, moving his family to a small town in the north. At the time his followers understood this was due to health concerns. But it now turns out it followed a deal with Takana, in which he committed to remove himself from all positions of teaching and leadership. This allowed him to keep the allegations quiet, while – allegedly – removing him as a threat to young men.

They went public now, they say, because he did not keep to the terms of the deal, beginning to see young men in private again, and they started getting complaints about his behaviour again.

What to make of all of this?

On the one hand, there is a temptation to congratulate the national-religious (modern Orthodox) community in Israel for taking the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse of a rabbi’s power seriously, particularly compared to the ‘brush-it-under-the-carpet’ attitude so prevalent in the Charedi community in the US, which has only began to change in the past couple of years with a series of high-profile prosecutions of abusive rabbis. Here, the religious-Zionist leadership was clearly genuinely sickened by his behaviour, and took real action against him, despite his high profile and towering stature across the country.But, on reflection, I tend to agree with Mom in Israel, who says:

Keeping secrets is not a good thing when it protects molesters.

Takana thought it was dealing with the problem by banishing Rav Elon to the north, but this really was only another way of brushing the scandal under the carpet. His reputation was intact; he still had a following and young men were still put in harm’s way, open to manipulation by this charismatic figure of authority. Indeed, that is exactly what happened.

Mom in Israel links to the transcript of a talk on the scandal by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, the highly respected head of Har Etzion yeshivah (the ‘Harvard’ of the modern Orthodox yeshivah world), who is a member of Takanah. It pains me to say this because Rav Lichtenstein embodies everything I believe in religiously, but on this issue, I am simply shocked by the priorities he reveals and by the level of naivety amongst the rabbis of Takanah.

He openly admits that they were concerned that if the Elon allegations went public, it would damage the reputation of the religious-Zionist community, both amongst Charedim and amongst the secular public. Another consideration, he says, was the reputation of Rav Elon himself – they had “pity for the man on personal level”. All the meetings were done “out of a desire to protect his honour and the public”.

But hold on – what about one certain section of the public – victims, and even more importantly, the future victims?

According to Rav Lichtenstein, the rabbis kept on hoping that with time, things with Rav Elon would “straighten themselves out” (no pun intended). “We hoped”, he said, “that the man had accepted responsibility and that now he must be interested in overcoming these tendencies, and understands that it can affect his situation and his standing.” He personally tried to talk to Rav Elon – begging him, he says – “you are ruining yourself and your life”.

This is simply naivety of the worst kind. Sexual harassers, men who use their position of authority in order to take advantage of their students, do not suddenly stop because they realise it could cost them their career. It does not depend on logic – they can’t be talked out of it.

So while I truly believe that the rabbis of Takanah had only the best of intentions, they were wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong again to try to deal with this privately. And it is distressing that in this situation, issues of reputation – of their community and of the accused rabbi – would be a consideration at all.All of which reinforces the argument made by activists fighting sexual abuse in Charedi communities in America: these issues cannot be handled within the community. Rabbis, even those who are clever, genuine, G-d fearing and well-intentioned, simply cannot be trusted or expected to act in the best interest of the only people who count – victims, past and future – when they know the alleged perpetrator and have additional considerations, such as the reputation of their community, muddying their judgement.

In another transcript, of one of Takanah’s meetings with a friend of one of the boys who allegedly had a relationship with Rav Elon, it is noticeable that they can’t even bring themselves to utter his name, instead referring to him – with one exception – as “the senior [one]”. Even when going public with the accusations, they initially could not bring themselves to spell out the exact nature of the allegations. How can people clearly still in awe of Rav Elon be objective on this?

In the future, when it comes to sexual abuse and harassment, there is one address only: the police. The rabbis and activists of Takanah should carry on working, but their aim should not be to deal with these issues privately; it must be to encourage victims to make official complaints. As in the Charedi community in the US, the modern Orthodox community needs a public climate in which there is no shame in complaining about abuse; in which abusers, no matter how senior they are in the community, know that they and their reputation will not be shielded. Only the promise of daylight will put an end to this horrible problem.

No secrets. No silence. Just the police.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, Takana did in fact approach the attorney general about Rav Elon, in 2006; he told the police not to investigate. This was, first of all, years after Takana first heard about the allegations about Rav Elon, come to the 'agreement' with him and he had moved to Migdal. Their main aim, right from the beginning, should have been to bring about a proper investigation, by encouraging the boys to make official complaints and by pushing the AG - who, possibly, has his own case to answer. He should not have left this to the rabbis; in fact, I would really like to know whether a factor in his decision not to pursue an investigation against Rav Elon was the knowledge that this highly sensitive case had already been 'taken in hand' by Takana.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mossad mythology

I love this completely breathless "expose" of the Mossad's operation methods in the Telegraph today. It is a perfect example of how the Mossad's fearsome reputation is bolstered by rumours, innuendo and just plain old meaningless rubbish. Best line:

In the past year, al-Mabhouh had moved to the top of Mossad's list of targets, each of which must be legally approved under guidelines laid down over half a century ago by Meir Amit, the most innovative and ruthless director-general of the service. Born in Tiberius, King Herod's favourite city, Amit had established the rules for assassination.

Wow. King Herod's favourite city! He must be really scary.... and probably loves fish.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How did the Mossad get the British passports?

According to the Times, the British authorities are now assuming that the British passports used by the Dubai killers were forged and are trying to work out how:

Authorities are investigating the possibility that British passport details were copied from the originals by immigration staff while the holders were travelling.

One problem: the olim whose names were used had lived in Israel for many years and were most likely Israeli citizens; in which case, according to Israeli law, they have to enter Israel on Israeli passports. So when exactly did the Israeli immigration staff have the opportunity to copy information from their British passports?

So, let's just say, this scenario seems unlikely.

Is the Mossad being framed?

The mystery of the Dubai Hamas assassination deepens. Our sources now tell us that at least seven of the members of the assassination team in Dubai had passports with the names of real people, six British and one German. Most of the 'real names' belonged to Israeli olim.

Could the Mossad really have been that stupid? Or does the sheer extent of the mess-up mean that it's a set-up, an attempt to incriminate the Israelis by leaving traceable Israeli 'fingerprints' at the scene?

Has the Mossad messed up the Dubai assassination?

Is this the Mossad’s worst mess-up ever?

Every major paper today is running the pictures of the 11 people suspected of carrying out the assassination of Hamas man Mahmoud al-Mabhouh on January 20.

Three held Irish passports – but the Irish deny that the names were fictitious.

One held a French passport, one held a German passport. So far no comment.

Six held a British passport, and here’s the rub. At least one of the names on the British passports belongs to a real person – a real British citizen living in the central Israeli town of Beit Shemesh. And it seems highly unlikely that, if you were looking to invent an identity, you would come up with “Melvyn Adam Mildiner” – coincidentally a British-Israeli citizen.

Now, let’s be clear. This is not proof positive that it is the Mossad that done it. Passports can be forged, and forging the name of an Israeli would be a great way of pointing the finger at Israel. Mr Mildiner absolutely insists that his passport is tucked away safely at home.

But………. I have heard, first-hand, of foreign residents in Israel being asked to lend their passports to security services, which returned them at a later date with a couple of extra stamps. It does seem at the very least plausible that the Mossad somehow got its hands on Mr Mildiner’s British passport – and used it.

Of course, they would have to be prize idiots if they used it in the course of an assassination, an assassination which has garnered international headlines for weeks now. But stranger things have happened.

So if it does turn out to be true, what can we expect?

In 1997, Mossad agents were caught using Canadian passports during a failed assassination attempt on Hamas man Khalid Meshal in Jordan. Canada was absolutely furious and a diplomatic blow-up ensued, during which Canada withdrew its ambassador to Israel, and Israel had to swear to Canada never to repeat the act.

Dubai has already accused Britain of being complicit in the assassination. Considering that Israel is currently trying to get the Brits to change the law in order to make sure Israeli officials can enter the UK without threat of arrest, if it turns out that the Mossad was using British passports, you can expect the volume of outrage to be turned up very, very high.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Gender-segregated street in Jerusalem

My Right Word has photos of a main street in Jerusalem in which the sidewalks are clearly marked 'Women' and 'Men', as well as a request signed by senior rabbis for women to stick to their side of the road, because their habit of going for Shabbat walks and hanging around the streets on Friday nights is causing "sorrow" to men who find it "hard to walk in our streets" as a result.

I really do wonder how the municipality allows this to stand. Although this is in a Charedi neighbourhood, the residents have no legal right to declare or enforce such a rule (is this even done with the agreement of the majority of residents? I suspect not - just as segregated buses were opposed by many Charedim). From a law-and-order point of view, it seems bizarre to allow one group to establish, in effect, their own little kingdom, unilaterally declaring ownership of the streets.

Keeping kosher on the 18th century road

How did Jewish peddlers keep kosher in 18th century Europe?

I always assumed that they probably didn't, or at least that they kept very minimal standards of kashrut. But the always-excellent historical blog, On the Main Line, has an excerpt from an 1887 book by Israel Solomon, an English Jew who moved later in life to New York. He reminisces:

" . . . in that time (i.e., appr. 1740 - OTML), down to 1830, inns where Jewish travellers rested were to be found in all the roads and towns of England.

The landlord then, especially to gain their custom, kept a cupboard or closet containing cooking utensils entirely for their use, so that they might eat kosher. The landlord kept the cupboard locked and guarded the keys on his own person, and when a Jew used the utensils he saw to the cleaning of them, and before putting them away he wrote with chalk within the bottom of the utensil his name, day of the month, and year, with the portion from the law read on the Sabbath of that week - all in Hebrew.

Some of these hotels were in the centre of populated districts, and the pedlars going the rounds of the district would congregate of a Friday evening at these hotels and stay over Saturday, and on Sunday they trudged again on their laborious rounds.

They generally formed a club and one of the number, who was licensed by the rabbi to slaughter animals, was paid by the club for one day's less of profit from his business to get to the hotel on Friday early enough to kill animal or poultry, purchase fish, etc, and either cook or superintend it that it should be quite kosher by the time the brotherhood came there, and ushered in the Sabbath gladly singing hymns, and after a copious but frugal repast, some Hebrew literature or tales of the past and present were related by one or the other with all the happy freedom allowed to speech in dear old England; although these happy lovers of English soil were not allowed the perfect equity now enjoyed by their children.

The custom, On the Main Line says, probably came via continental Europe.

Oxford student denies wanting to slaughter the Jews, but what does he want instead?

The student accused of shouting "slaughter the Jews" at the Oxford Union, while Israel's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, was speaking, has denied the charge. Let's take a look:

Mr Rashid claimed that he had in fact shouted “Khaybar ya Yahod”, a classic Arabic battle cry referring to a seventh-century attack by Mohammed on the Jewish community in Khaybar where the Jews were conquered and made to pay half of their income to the Muslim population.

They were finally expelled by a successive Muslim ruler, Caliph Omar.

Mr Rashid said: “My version went: ‘Khaybar, O Jews, we will win’. This is in classical, Koranic Arabic and I doubt that apart from picking up on the word ‘Jew’, that even the Arabic speakers in the room would have understood the phrase.

“As you can see, I made no reference to killing Jews. It carries absolutely no derogatory or secondary meanings.”

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, it is, in fact, entirely possible that the audience misheard. But since the Oxford Union has threatened disciplinary proceedings against the hecklers, there is also a certain interest in downplaying events. We may never know.

As for 'Khaybar, O Jews', having "no derogatory or secondary meanings" - there is no need to resort to secondary meanings. The primary meaning is offensive and derogatory enough. It is a call for Jews to be subdued (in violent battle) and fall under Muslim control, and to assume inferior dhimmi status.

No, thanks.

Mr Rashid said he believed the words ‘Jew’ and ‘Israeli’ were interchangeable terms.

Hard to believe a bright Oxford student could really think this. Also, the implication that screaming 'Khaybar, O Israelis' would be acceptable is simply false.

He added that it was possible he could have been misunderstood by the crowd, saying: “There was a great deal of confusion and several people were shouting at the same time.

“I do acknowledge that people may have misheard me and assume that I uttered something else - namely to ‘slaughter the Jews’ which is something that I do not believe.

“I express the deepest regret if my remarks were misunderstood or misheard to mean anything that even comes close to encouraging the slaughter of innocents. I will be writing letters to all my Jewish friends to express my sincere apologies, and also to clarify my remarks.”

And to ask for half their income?

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Brazilian dybbuk: an update

Our old friend, the Dybbuk allegedly possessing the body of a Brazilian yeshivah student, has put in another appearance.

Israel's Channel 10 has produced a half-hour report on the "incident" and the successive attempts to exorcise him/it. If you speak Hebrew, watch it in full - it includes some very clear footage of several of the exorcism attempts. For the rest of you, here are the highlights / new information:

-- The dybbuk (do I have to keep on saying allegedly?) claimed to be from the Second Temple period, called Petachyahu the son of Chava. (No explanation of how he got to Brazil or what he was doing in the intervening 2,000 years.) The sin for which he was denied entry into the next world was breaking into a house, murdering the man of the house, raping and murdering his wife, and sacrificing the son to an idol / foreign god. (Does not sound like a nice guy by whom to be possessed.)

-- The dybbuk claimed to be possessing the Brazilian yeshiva student for seven years (funny his wife never noticed until three months ago, but anyway)

-- During the second exorcism attempt by Rav Batzri, witnessed by hundreds of his followers, the Brazilian man had his head covered by a balaclava "in order to protect his identity" (I assume he doesn't want to ruin the shidduch chances of his children).

-- A third exorcism attempt by an even more senior kabbalist, involved the rabbi trying to speak to the dybbuk through a stethoscope.

-- Channel 10 unearthed a video of a Batri exorcism from 10 years ago. In this case, a woman claimed to be possessed by the spirit of her husband, who had died two-and-a-half years earlier. He was apparently a drunk who never said kaddish for his parents or dead sister. During the alleged exorcism, the woman started speaking in a deep voice. At some point, the rabbi declares that the spirit has left through her little toe (apparently the only way for a dybbuk to exit). On tape, interviewed by Channel 10, the woman claims that the whole thing was a set-up and she re-enacts the "dybbuk's voice". According to a journalist following the case, she alleged that the rabbi paid her NIS 15,000 and had also agreed to pay her royalties from the copies of the tape of the exorcism which were widely distributed after the fact, but that he never did so. The rabbi's representatives hotly deny it was a set up and claim the woman has apologised for lying about making up the dybbuk.

-- Is this all a big scam by the rabbis, a way of building up their following and ultimately making money through the tapes of the exorcism and gatherings in which they star? Or are they genuine people with primitive beliefs? A couple of journalists disagree (interestingly, the religious journalist believes Batzri is a charlatan and Avishai Ben Chaim, Maariv's secular correspondent for Charedi affairs, thinks he really believes in what he is doing).

-- A curious ommission in the documentary: there was still no final word on what happened to the Dybbuk. This thing could run and run...


Thursday, February 04, 2010

Excommunicating Richard Goldstone

The personal invective against Judge Richard Goldstone is becoming very intense and making me very uncomfortable. First, Alan Dershowitz calls him a "traitor to the Jewish people" and an "evil, evil man". Now, a senior IDF officer has said:

"I would not want to be with this person in my country and I would also not participate in a minyan with him for prayer purposes."

By saying you would not daven with someone, or count him in a minyan, you are essentially putting them into cherem.

Now, the Goldstone Report is, as far as I'm concerned, a slander against the IDF and state of Israel, and will severely damage Israel's ability to defend its citizens in the future. Clearly, there is reason to be angry at Judge Goldstone. But the rhetoric is becoming threatening. We should have learned where that can lead by now. And while taking it out on Goldstone personally might make people feel better, how exactly does it help Israel?

Deep breath, everyone....

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Words of wisdom from Barack Obama on the Middle East

They are just rolling in today.

According to Barack Obama last week, "the Middle East is obviously an issue that has plagued the region for centuries".

Now just imagine had George Bush said that......

Couldn't she find anywhere better?

"Anne Frank's spirit lives on in chestnut tree" -- headline, San Francisco Chronicle, Feb 3

What if an El Al plane crashed on the Lost island?

Another funny. The staff of JTA wonder what Lost - the last season of which will be on British screens next week - would have looked like had it been an El Al plane that crashed:

-- In the first place, the plane would have never crashed because the pilots would have been able to perform evasive maneuvers. But if it had…
-- Jack would not have been the only doctor.
-- John Locke would have been named Yeshayahu Leibowitz.
-- Sayid would have never made it on to the plane.
-- Instead of his makeshift radio, some of the Israeli passengers would have set up a high-speed Internet link.
-- Some Lubavicther would have shown up before long to open up a Chabad house.
-- There would be more than just one recklessly driven, German-made vehicle on the road.
-- The existence of a nuclear weapon on the island would never have been acknowledged.
-- Gratuitous shots of Kate in her underwear would be replaced by quick peeks of haredi women sans sheitels.
-- The island would suddenly have attracted the attention of the entire world, with the U.N. accusing the passengers of illegally occupying territory and using disproportionate force to fend off attacks by the Others.
-- UPDATE: A friendly rabbi adds: " The back fuselage was what stayed intact, so all the people davening in the back would have made it. Breakaway minyan, anyone?

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

A translation sin

Via John Podhoretz:

The Herzliya Conference—a high-level powwow—is taking place right now in Israel. Shimon Peres, once Israel’s prime minister and now its president, gave a speech in Hebrew that was simultaneously translated into English. A friend at the conference reports that, according to the simultaneous translator, Peres referred to the day when Moses came down from Sinai and "found the people building a golden veal."

Why Rabbi Romain is wrong on Jewish education

As fellow JC blogger Geoffrey Paul has noted, there is a row in the Times this morning between two rabbis over faith school education.

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein, of Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue, is attacking Reform's Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who a couple of days ago expressed his dismay that a new Hindu school was going to open. Rabbi Romain had said:

“I am greatly saddened by this because the Hindu community has been very well integrated into wider society,” he told The Times.
“It is a very regressive step. It will separate children from the rest
of society and take Hindu children away from ordinary schools so
children from other faiths won’t know them so well.”

Rabbi Goldstein accuses Rabbi Romain of double standards: why should Hindu children be denied the faith education offered to children from so many other faiths?

But there is a deeper issue here, one which goes to the very rationale for having faith schools.

Rabbi Romain wants Hindu children (and children of every religion) in mainstream schools so they can get to know children of other faiths and so that these children, in turn, will get "to know" them. He sees schools, in other words, as instruments of socialisation.

But what exactly are these children getting to know? Unfortunately, mostly only children with a very basic knowledge of their own religion. Yes, they may celebrate some festivals, go to synagogue or Temple on the odd occasion (perhaps) - and that is very important - but what (to move the discussion over to the Jewish sphere) do they know of Jewish history or thought? What grounding do they have in Jewish texts, what real knowledge of the Siddur? Do they understand and have they considered the differences between the Jewish streams, or Israeli history and society?

In order to represent yourself in any meaningful way to others, you need to know yourself and your own culture/religion first. And that is where faith schools come in. Good faith schools should provide a grounding in religion which is usually impossible to pick up at home, even in very observant homes (few parents, after all, have the time to teach their children the Bible, line by line, as a school would - to pick one example).

By seeking to deny children such education, Rabbi Romain is ensuring a generation with nothing more than a surface knowledge of their own religion; some may make it up by themselves as teens or later in life but these are, I am afraid, too few. So I'm not really sure why he thinks it culturally significant to have an ignorant, nominal Jew meet an ignorant, nominal Hindu.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Bin Laden's global warming message makes perfect sense

I actually almost feel sorry for the global warming true believers. In the past couple of months they have seen the science behind their theory severely undermined; the motivations and professionalism of their scientists cast into serious doubt; and the Copenhagen summit ended in failure. Now, to top it all off, their cause has been very publicly endorsed by the world's most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden himself!

about climate change is not a matter of intellectual luxury — the
phenomenon is an actual fact," [bin Laden's] tape says according to al-Jazeera. "All of the industrialized countries, especially the big ones, bear responsibility for the global warming crisis"...

In the latest recording, he calls out developed world economies for
continuing to produce global warming pollution even after signing on to
the Kyoto protocol. America stayed outside Kyoto, which Osama noted.

Bush junior, preceded by [the US] congress, dismissed the agreement to
placate giant corporations. And they are themselves standing behind
speculation, monopoly and soaring living costs."

"They are also
behind 'globalisation and its tragic implications'. And whenever the
perpetrators are found guilty, the heads of state rush to rescue them
using public money."

Talk about a nail in the coffin.

But all gloating aside, bin Laden's green turn makes perfect sense. The global warming movement has always been about politics; about finding more sticks with which to beat up and tame the developed world, capitalism, "giant corporations", globalisation etc - all targets the left hates. Bin Laden's pitch-perfect message shows he understands this, perfectly. And since he shares many of the same political targets (not - I emphasise - that I am saying global warming activists are equivalent in any way to terrorists), why is anyone surprised when he jumps on the bandwagon?

Why shouldn't Jews hate Germans?

Anthony Julius's new book on antisemitism contains a couple of paragraphs about his most famous client, Princess Diana:

"She was under-educated in the approved style of her class and gender… she had a strong desire to please, to leave her interlocutor happy, but often without understanding what that person was about.

"She was interested in Jews, but had no idea about them – she was happy to take Jews to be hostile to everything to which she herself was hostile. She once said to me that she should never have married into a German family."

Melanie McDonagh comments in the Telegraph:

He's right about the Princess being poorly educated – she didn't get a single O-level at her expensive school; her brother Charles got to Oxford from his (Eton).

But that remark about her wanting to say what her interlocutor wanted to hear, followed by the bombshell that she should never have married into a German family – what does that tell us? That she felt that Mr Julius, being Jewish, was anti-German, even if the Teutonic taint was, by the Prince of Wales's time, a few generations removed?

It doesn't seem to cross Mr Julius's mind that this remark was unworthy of either of them. He might have mildly pointed out that, although Jewish, he was not prejudiced against the German nation. He might have said that the Windsors were hardly German now, or even that it is unreasonable to equate being German with being Nazi, for that was the implication.

Of course, he might have felt it wasn't his job to do so, but one of the points of his book is that anti-Semitism – that is, racism – should be challenged, whether discreet or explicit.

First of all, Julius's text makes it quite clear that he does, in fact, dissociate himself from Diana's remark - he says Diana had "no idea" about Jews and that she just assumed Jews were hostile to the things to which she was hostile - ie, her assumption was wrong.

But what I really find silly here is the self-righteous implication that Good Jews are not "prejudiced against the German nation". We must all be sensible and reasonable and make it clear that we don't hold anything against the Germans, otherwise we are horrible racists.

Dear Ms McDonagh: the Germans killed six million Jews within living memory. I'm not sure how many Jews really are prejudiced against the German nation; I don't think most are (I seem to recall a survey, recently, which showed that Israelis in particular have surprisingly positive feelings towards Germans today). But if there are Jews out there who hate "the Germans", can you really blame them? Don't you think it is a normal and natural emotional reaction to the genocide of a people?

In the face of such a national (and often personal) trauma, the polite conventions of political correctness are simply irrelevant.

No more smelly socks for Israeli soldiers

Some rare good news for IDF soldiers:

Israel's foot soldiers are getting new odour-free socks that can be worn for two weeks straight without smelling or stinking up the feet...

"It may sound ridiculous... but this is a very important issue that causes many problems during training," the newspaper quoted Brigadier General Nissim Peretz, the commander of the Israeli military's logistics division, as saying.

The socks, which will be distributed to all new infantry recruits beginning in March, also prevent athlete's foot -- "a nuisance with which every soldier is very familiar," the paper said.

The fabric includes metal components to keep bad odours and fungal infections at bay, it said.

I can imagine there is an enormous market for this amongst teenage boys as well....