Friday, July 30, 2010

That's it, folks...

I'm off to the Holy Land for the next three weeks and won't be blogging. See you back here on the week of August 23rd.
Enjoy your summer!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

On Jewish racism

A reader emails me, regarding Christina Patterson's piece:

I agree about the jump from bad driving etc to Muslim circumcision... but isn't there something in that article for Stamford Hill to reflect on??????

Well, now that 24 hours have passed and we have all calmed down (?), let's consider that question.

As I wrote in my blog post yesterday, there is no question that many of the things Ms Patterson complained about concerning the rude behaviour of the Charedim in SH towards her probably did happen, or could have happened. The truth is that she would not be the first to complain about bad driving and parking, terseness in shops etc. Unfortunately, the conclusions she drew from these incidents were so wild and her general tone so hateful and, frankly, hysterical, that it made it impossible, for me anyway, to actually address this one valid point. So much of what she said seemed to reflect on her rather than on the people she was writing about.

But now, Damian Thompson, editor of the Telegraph blogs, who has many times written in support of Israel and Jewish issues, has picked up on this, and written a post about Jewish attitudes to Christians. While his point is surely equally provocative, his tone is entirely different.

Please read the whole thing, but here is the crux:

Stephen Pollard, the brilliant editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described [Patterson's piece] as “pure, unrelenting unadulterated anti-Jewish bigotry,” on the part of Ms Patterson and indeed some of its undertones are disturbing. But monosyllabic terseness towards goyim? I’ve experienced it, and it’s maddening. Let me recommend a gripping book called Postville by the secular Jewish journalist Stephen Bloom, who records the extreme bad manners of Lubavitch Jews who moved en masse to a town in rural Iowa to run a huge kosher butchery. In the end, angry Christian townspeople, who had initially been welcoming, voted to annexe the land on which the factory was built, so they could tax and regulate it. Bloom, who felt the Lubavitchers had displayed “despicable” attitudes verging on racism, supported the move.

Jewish hostility towards Christians isn’t confined to the ultra-Orthodox. A woman friend of mine tutored the daughter of a Jewish couple in north London. When she said she wanted to take a break for Christmas, the wife went bananas. “We do not allow that word to be spoken in this house,” she said. An unrepresentative incident, no doubt; but my friend’s attitude towards Judaism changed after it took place. And I could tell other stories, of unbelievable haughtiness by the leaders of Anglo-Jewry, which would have led to diplomatic incidents if the Christians involved weren’t afraid of being accused of anti-Semitism.

Mr Thompson, you are welcome to email me privately....

I suppose I’m afraid of that, too, which is why I’m going to point out the following. This blog has often highlighted the alarming growth of Islamic anti-Jewish rhetoric, much of it flavoured by the propaganda of the Third Reich. I’ve drawn attention to the case of Baroness Tonge, the appalling Lib Dem peer who has called for an inquiry into allegations of Jewish organ-harvesting (and who still takes the party whip). I warned in advance that the Vatican was doing a stupid thing by lifting the excommunication of the Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson of the SSPX.

But until now I’ve never written a word about Jewish prejudice against Christians, even though I’ve seen it at close hand, at a series of Jewish-run conferences I attended in America in the 1990s at which evangelical Christian believers were stereotyped as fanatics who needed only the right demagogue to turn them into murderous anti-Semites. If the conferences were being held now, I suspect most of the flak would be taken by Catholics.

Let's not beat around the bush here. Painful as it is to admit, there is some truth to what Mr Thompson says. There are some Jews, and some parts of the community, which do look down on "the goyim", and express this in words and sometimes in action. There are elements in this community (and I'm not singling out any one in particular - as Mr Thompson says, this is not restricted to strictly Orthodox Jews) who do have a "non-Jewish problem" and see themselves as somehow superior. I'm not only talking about Christians. Anti-Muslim racism is even more rife.

Most of this is historical. For most of the last 2,000 years, Jews were victims of discrimination, explusions and pogroms, and had good reason to fear and despise the Christians amongst whom they lived. It takes a lot to erase two millenia of antagonism. When it comes to Muslims, there is nowhere near the historical enmity, but Muslim attitudes to the state of Israel, and modern Muslim antisemitism, have scared Jews.

There are also theological factors - as well as the idea of "chosenness" (which too many Jews, in common with so many antisemites, misunderstand as meaning superior, while it really only means chosen to spread monotheism) - and, as my colleague Simon Rocker points out, an ongoing fear of Christian missionaries. Some of the prejudice also arises through a lack of familiarity. If you don't know or work with non-Jews, it is easier to regard them as 'different'.

In Israel, where most Jews have never come across a Christian; where the country is engaged in a battle for survival with its Muslim neighbours; and where Jews are actually a majority and have power, many of these problems are magnified.

I think it is important to point out that while the other forms of prejudice Mr Thompson points to (Christian anti-Semitism, Muslim anti-Semitism, Christian Islamophobia, Muslim persecution of Christians) have, historically, routinely resulted in terrible violence, Jewish anti-Christian prejudice rarely has. Perhaps this is because the Jews have, until Israel, not been in positions of power, but nevertheless, people being rude in shops is hardly on par with burning down mosques, shuls and churches, crusades, physical antisemitic assaults etc.

Still, there is today no excuse for Jews holding racist attitudes. We spend a lot of time complaining about antisemitism and it is only fair that we make sure we are free of racism as well. We need to make sure we all understand that the odd comment about "the goyim" is not just a joke; that there are consequences to treating non-Jews as if they are inferior; and show no tolerance of these things when the emanate from our own community. Not only are these attitudes inherently wrong, they are a massive chillul hashem and result in long-term damage to our relations with our neighbours. Mr Thompson's blog (and, I'm afraid, Ms Patterson's piece too) should be a sobering wake-up call as to how we are, too often, perceived, including by our friends.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The limits of multi-culturalism

I have just finished reading one of the ugliest, most vile pieces ever published in the British press. It is actually dripping with venom.

I am speaking, of course, of Christina Patterson's piece in the Indy today, The Limits of Multi-Culturalism. Her piece begins as a mild rant against her annoying and rude neighbours in the Charedi neighbourhood of Stamford Hill. They drive while using their mobile phones; park in the wrong spots, don't say please or thank you in their shops and occasionally disdain their non-Jewish customers.

Fine. I daresay all these things really happened to her. Certainly they are all complaints that have aired so often they have become cliches.

But that's only the first couple of paragraphs. After she gets her complaints about the "armies of children" and the "funny suits and hats" out of the way, she really gets going:

When I moved to Stamford Hill, 12 years ago, I didn't realise that goyim were about as welcome in the Hasidic Jewish shops as Martin Luther King at a Klu Klux Klan convention. I didn't realise that a purchase by a goy was a crime to be punished with monosyllabic terseness, or that bus seats were a potential source of contamination, or that road signs, and parking restrictions, were for people who hadn't been chosen by God. And while none of this is a source of anything much more than irritation, when I see an eight-year-old boy recoiling from a normal-looking woman (because, presumably, he has been taught that she is dirty or dangerous, or, heaven forbid, dripping with menstrual blood) it makes me sad.

"Normal-looking woman"? What's that? A woman who looks like you, Ms Patterson?

She then goes on about a series of Muslim practices that similarly make her "sad" - including little girls "being taught that their tiny bodies, and their lovely hair, are things to be protected from the male gaze". The very concept of modesty - in clothing, in contact between the sexes - actually offends her. I'd love to hear what she has to say, by contrast, on the armies of young girls in London sleeping around, drinking and minimally dressed. That's what offends me.

All these things make me sad, but I accept that people should, except in certain professional situations which involve dealing with the public, be allowed to wear whatever they like, and that laws which prevent this are self-defeating, and that you can't stop parents, or rabbis, teaching little boys that adult women shouldn't even be brushed against on a bus, and I accept that some of these things are an inevitable consequence of a modern, and in many ways magnificent, multi-cultural society.

Again, she seems to think that she is the 'normal', normative one, and that the rabbis preaching modesty are the 'modern' ones. She fails to grasp that in the context of history, she's the modern, new one, not them.

I love, by the way, she pays lip service to the "in many ways magnificent" multi-cultural society. In her political milieu, she has to profess to believe in it, but at the end of the day, she's not exactly live-and-let-live, is she? You rather get the feeling that she (a) hates the Jews and Muslims really, seriously more than is strictly necessary and (b) feels they really ought to thank her for generously giving them permission to exist.

G-d, this is painful, but let's go on.

But there's one thing I will never accept. In the next few weeks, between 500 and 2,000 British schoolgirls – yes, British schoolgirls – will be sent abroad, ostensibly on holiday, and taken to the home of a woman who will, using an often dirty razor, and no anaesthetic, slice off their labia, and clitoris, and then, using sewing thread or horse-hair and an often dirty needle, stitch their vaginas closed. Sometimes, the girls faint. Sometimes, they die. But the people who do this to them (in East Africa and India and Pakistan and the Middle East) believe that it's what God wants. They believe that it promotes "cleanliness" and "chastity". Oh, and men's sexual pleasure. But not, for obvious reasons, women's.

Female circumcision has been illegal in Britain since 1985. Since 2003, it has also been illegal to take girls out of the country to have them "cut" abroad. The maximum penalty is 14 years. So far, there have been no prosecutions. Not a single one. I don't care if evidence is difficult to get, and I don't care if parents think they're doing the right thing for their children, and I don't care if it's a "sensitive" issue. This is a total and utter disgrace. Parents are being allowed to mutilate their children, and the institutions in this country are doing sweet FA.

There is, I'm sure, nothing in the Koran to indicate that hacking off a girl's labia is an all-round great idea, just as there's nothing in the Torah to say that Volvos should always be driven with a mobile phone in hand, and goyim should be treated with contempt.

Wow. We started off with rude Jewish drivers and somehow, four columns later, we've got to Muslims "hacking off a girl's labia". Amazing - no one at the Indy has yet spotted that the two things really have nothing to do with each other. Except that they are both carried out by those repulsive foreigners.

People will believe what they believe, but a civilised society will have laws to indicate what is acceptable in that society and what isn't, and it will act on those laws. A properly civilised society would also ensure that children are not subject to the crazed whims of their parents, and hived off into "faith schools" where they're taught that the world was created in seven days, or that they need special gadgets to switch on the lights on a Saturday, or that women who show their face are sluts.

"Crazed whims of parents"? Now we get to the nub. She dislikes Islam and Judaism and sees them and their practitioners as irrational and "uncivilised". That is what this is all about, as evidenced by the next paragraph:

A properly civilised society would accept that while lovely little C of E schools were once an excellent place for children to learn about the religion that shaped their culture, art and laws, you can't have them without having the madrassa run by the mad mullah next door, and therefore, sadly, you can't have either, but have, instead, a system of compulsory state secular education, in which children learn to get on with people from all religious backgrounds and none, and are taught about all religions, but also that the culture of the country they're living in was, for 2,000 years, largely based on one.

Hold on - she doesn't hate all religions. C of E schools = "lovely"! Muslim and Jewish schools = bad! I understand, Ms Patterson.

By now, of course, her tone is totally crazed - hate-filled and hateful. Even if I were reading this with the most charitable of attitudes, and wished to assume that Ms Patterson did not mean to come across as a complete bigot, this is how it reads to me. Maybe we ought to send her to visit one of those state schools where children "learn to get on with people from all religious backgrounds and none". She certainly sounds like she needs a refresher course.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Bad news on Cameron

There has been quite a lot of comment today excusing, or at least trying to play down, David Cameron's line on Gaza - "a prison camp". He was just telling the Turks what they want to hear; he is trying to keep the Turks onside to stop them moving any further towards Iran and Syria; he has been spending too much time with Nick Clegg.

Sadly, judging by Cameron's comments on east Jerusalem, which he boasted about in the FT in March, I think he means it. When it comes to Israel, at least, his true colours are red.

Burka update

We have spoken to the Edah Charedit, who have condemned the idea of Jewish women wearing burkas in the strongest possible terms (calling it an "abomination"), and say they will be issuing a statement banning their followers from wearing it.

Good for them.

Rabbis refuse to ban the burka

While the debate over banning the burka rages on in Europe, in Israel, the cult of strange Jewish women who have taken on a face-veil is slowly becoming a full-blown community.

The Bchadrei Charedim website is now reporting that 20 families in Beit Shemesh are taking their children out of the local strictly Orthodox school, because the teachers' wives do not cover their faces. They are presumably going to open up their own institution.

Even more worryingly, the site reports that in recent days, some of the husbands of these women have sent a letter to the Edah Charedit beth din, asking the rabbinical judges to ban the face veil (as their wives are wearing it against these husbands' wishes) - so far to no avail.

Why is this important? Because if the court does not explicitly ban it after a request was made, it is essentially given its consent. Up until now, the Orthodox community - which in its overwhelming, overwhelming majority has opposed the adoption of the burka, which originated with one crazy woman - has been able to argue that it is a foreign practice with no history and, even more imortantly, no halachic basis.

If the rabbis don't speak up soon, when explicitly given the opportunity, that goes out the window.

(Via Mom in Israel)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Wikileaks shows international hypocrisy over Israel

So, courtesy of Wikileaks, we once again have evidence of the enormous number of civilian casualties killed by US/Nato forces in Afghanistan.

The details are not pretty:

Some of these casualties come from the controversial air strikes that have led to Afghan government protests, but a large number of previously unknown incidents also appear to be the result of troops shooting unarmed drivers or motorcyclists out of a determination to protect themselves from suicide bombers.

At least 195 civilians are admitted to have been killed and 174 wounded in total, but this is likely to be an underestimate as many disputed incidents are omitted from the daily snapshots reported by troops on the ground and then collated, sometimes erratically, by military intelligence analysts.

Bloody errors at civilians' expense, as recorded in the logs, include the day French troops strafed a bus full of children in 2008, wounding eight. A US patrol similarly machine-gunned a bus, wounding or killing 15 of its passengers, and in 2007 Polish troops mortared a village, killing a wedding party including a pregnant woman, in an apparent revenge attack.

Questionable shootings of civilians by UK troops also figure. The US compilers detail an unusual cluster of four British shootings in Kabul in the space of barely a month, in October/November 2007, culminating in the death of the son of an Afghan general. Of one shooting, they wrote: "Investigation controlled by the British. We are not able to get [sic] complete story."

A second cluster of similar shootings, all involving Royal Marine commandos in Helmand province, took place in a six-month period at the end of 2008, according to the log entries.

As I have stated here before, I believe that civilian casualties are part and parcel of any war and - whilst always tragic - are not necessarily evidence of neglect or of deliberate targeting of civilians (of course, sometimes it is). So unlike the Guardian, for example, I don't see all of this as evidence that the campaign is immoral.

But I can't help wondering how the "international community" would have reacted had Israel been accused of similar actions. Many people, at the moment, are focused on the question of whether the documents should have been leaked, entirely skirting the implications of what they actually say; the American administration is currently busy brushing off responsibility, emphasising that this was all under George W's watch. Because yes, this stuff has been going on for years with hardly anyone showing any concern at all; for all the Guardian's fury now, it has taken it years to work itself into this lather of righteous indignation. The numbers were there ages ago, if only they had wanted to see them.

Meanwhile, Israel is being put through investigation after investigation following Operation Cast Lead and the flotilla affair - forced to answer for every civilian killed under its watch. Funny that.

They don't all hate Israel after all...

Shimon Peres looks on the bright side:

How do you explain the rise in the delegitimization of Israel in the world in recent years? Do you agree that this is happening?

Let me give you a contrary picture: Israel is the most popular country in the world... For 2,000 years there was friction between the Vatican and the Jews. There are, what is it, 1.3 billion Christians? Now we have excellent relations with the Vatican. This is no small thing. And we have good relations with India, also hit by Muslim terrorists. And that’s together 3 billion. And [we now have] excellent relations with China.

That's another 1.3 billion people, FYI - 4.5 billion in total.

I suggest you don't think about the holes in the argument too much and just enjoy, for a moment, the feeling of Israel being popular. It's been too long.....

Friday, July 23, 2010

Eastenders has a new Jewish family

When I first read this I was sure it was a spoof, but here is a real summary of the plot of Eastenders next week:

Returning from the bathroom, Jodie's horrified as Darren's stood there in his boxer shorts. Jodie screams 'Oh My God!' before rushing out. Darren stares down at his nether regions, bemused by her reaction…

[next episode]

Rushing to the front door, Darren's delighted to see Jodie. The pair awkwardly attempt to talk about what happened but she soon reveals the reason behind her reaction - he's not Jewish enough.

Fighting back the tears, Jodie admits that even though she's not truly religious, she can't be with him.

[next episode]

Meanwhile, Max is curious to know why Darren's been using his computer and when he delves into the browsing history, he finds websites about circumcision. When confronted, Darren protests that he's considering the procedure for Jodie. Max, however, explains how it's a step too far for anyone and suggests that he end their relationship.

Well, I'm going to reveal something fairly embarrasing here. Eastenders and I go back a long way. And I have to say, the prospect of spending August watching Darren agonising over whether he should go through with a brit milah makes me think one thing: Thank G-d I'm away for the summer.

I suppose that after doing a sensitive Muslim plotline (Syed) and a rather less sensitive Christian plotline (Lucas), the Eastenders producers had to round off their summer of Abrahamic faiths with a ludicrous Jewish plotline. Now, I don't want to lose my sense of humour here, but to be honest, I'm cringing. The Square's first Jewish family in years (if ever? Did Dr Legge and Felix have families?) are textbook stereotypical Jews: flush with money and completely vacuous. Their last name is Gold, for G-d's sake. They film this stuff in Borehamwood, couldn't they have come up with a more realistic family?

Daughter Jodie is so dumb it took seeing Darren with his trousers down for her to realise he wasn't Jewish. (Sorry, not Jewish "enough". I'd love to know what part of Darren she thinks is Jew-ish.)

And in all seriousness, the subject of intermarriage is very sensitive and this takes a stab at it with a butcher's knife. Essentially - and I hope I'm proven wrong here - Jodie is going to come across as a complete racist for wanting to date only other Jews "even though she's not truly religious". I hope the producers allow her to make a more substantial argument but somehow, seeing as there's nothing "Jewish" about her family other than the crudest stereotypes and seeing as she has the brain the size of a pea, it's unlikely.

All that said, I can't wait for the episode where Jodie takes Darren to meet the London Beth Din. Just kidding. I wish!

From the mailbag

Re: my post on who gets to speak at funerals, a rabbi writes:

Listening carefully to some colleagues always gave me the impression that they thought it their God-given exclusive right to speak at funerals, as though this was, somehow, an indispensible rabbinical duty. They seemed to object to lay speakers on the grounds that it was depriving them of an important part of their job, something I found to be incomprehensible.

In most cases, I offer the family the opportunity to speak, which they sometimes accept, but always offer to speak if they prefer.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Arab hospitality vs Israeli hospitality

Journalist Michael Totten writes:

The warm welcome travelers experience in the Arab world is so well-known it has become a guidebook cliché, but the Arabs have earned it. Their part of the world seems to suffer from no end of grave and serious problems, but a dearth of manners and kindness for strangers isn’t one of them. Everything you have heard about their hospitality code is true. Even first-time visitors who expect it are often astonished — especially Americans who might be used to frosty receptions in Europe.

Less well-known is the hospitality of Israelis. Their reputation is on-par with that of New Yorkers. Aggressive security officials at the airport, yelling taxi drivers, and occasionally abusive wait staff can put people off. That sort of thing, though, accounts for less than 1 percent of my experience when working in Israel.

A few days ago, I announced that I’m leaving for Israel this week now that I’ve finished and sold my book, and the same thing happened that always does when I mention in public that I’m on my way over there. My in-box filled with offers of generous assistance from Israelis whom I’ve never met or even heard of. Most offered to buy me dinner. Some said I could sleep on their couch or in a spare bedroom. A few even offered to show me around, introduce me to people, and set up appointments for me. Some of these offers even showed up in my comments section.

This rarely happens when I go anywhere else in the world. It happens every time I’ve announced a trip to Israel, though, in times of peace and during war, and it has been happening to me for years.

I get these sorts of offers from the entire range of Israeli society, from people affiliated with Peace Now to the settler movement. I can always count on kind and generous people in Arab countries to help me out once I’ve arrived, but only Israelis reach out so extensively, so consistently, and in such large numbers before I even get off the plane.

I've never understood why people who have visited the Arab world drag out Palestinian hospitality as evidence of their innate goodness and - therefore - worthiness as a political cause. It seems perfectly clear to me that on a personal level, you can be a warm, generous, hospitable human being - while on the political level, have malign and even murderous intent. You only have to look at all those mass murderers and terror suspects whose neighbours swear they are quiet, good citizens.

I have always wanted to send those who seem to equate "Palestinians offered me coffee" with "Palestinians are wonderful people who are being cruelly repressed by an evil Israel" to visit the most radical Israeli settlers. The fact is that some of the nicest people I know - on a personal level - are settlers and would doubtless be just as kind, just as caring and just as welcoming to any foreign guest as are their Palestinian neighbours. Does that exclude them from having mad or dangerous politics? I doubt most Western visitors would think so, but they seem mysteriously incapable of following the same logical path with the Palestinians.

Should non-rabbis speak at funerals?

When, last year, the United Synagogue changed its rules barring laypeople from delivering eulogies at funerals, I was strongly behind it. I had been frequently shocked by the impersonal nature of funerals here, with rabbis who did not know the deceased, or who did not know them well, giving a few biographical details and saying little else of interest. (I remember in particular one funeral of a young woman, where the rabbi referred to her throughout the eulogy by her Hebrew name, although she was not known by it at all.) It struck me as offensive to the person who had died - surely everyone deserves something meaningful and heartfelt to be said about them at their own funerals! - as well as to the mourners, who very often want to express their feelings about their spouse or parent at this most important of times.

But here comes a word of warning from Eric Yoffie, the head of the Reform movement in the United States. He argues that American Jewry has gone too far the other way, and has written a piece about how laypeople speaking at funerals (the norm, not the exception, in American Jewish funerals) has caused problems as well as solved them:

Family members discovered that when a close relative died, there was an expectation that one of them would speak -- even if they had no desire to do so. Since Jewish burials take place as soon as possible after the death, individuals still reeling from the impact of a loss find themselves under pressure -- real or self-imposed -- to talk at the funeral and represent the family to the community. Some refuse and feel guilty. Others agree but find the task difficult and painful. Either way, an unfair burden is imposed on those who are in profound distress.

Another problem -- delicate but unavoidable -- is that not everyone is suited to offer a eulogy at a funeral. The issue is not whether a mourner has public speaking experience or can give a polished talk; the absence of experience and polish is often an advantage. But someone who is uncomfortable in front of a group under favorable circumstances is likely to be completely overcome in the highly charged atmosphere of a funeral. The result may be a talk that is exceedingly emotional and barely coherent -- one in which the feelings of the speaker rather than the character of the deceased are primary.

And finally the practice of having family members and friends speak at a funeral can quickly get out of hand. The spouse of the deceased, not certain whom to invite and afraid of leaving someone out, feels that all of her children, or perhaps even all of her grandchildren, should say something. Friends, seeing that other friends are participating, come forward and offer -- sometimes quite insistently -- to participate as well, and it is awkward to turn them down. Many end up sharing anecdotes that are more about themselves than about their late friend, and -- yes, it happens -- trying to outdo the other speakers. The result? A funeral like the one mentioned above that leaves the members of the congregation both uncomfortable and bored, shifting in their seats and surreptitiously looking at the watches. Most important, the closest relatives cannot help but sense what is happening, and they suffer as a result.

Of course, these are the things that the US always warned about. Hopefully our British reserve and sense of propriety, as well as the continuing close involvement of our rabbis in all funerals, will prevent many of these problems. Certainly the rabbis conducting the funerals should emphasise to the mourners that they are under no obligation to speak if they don't want to (perhaps they already do, I don't know).

I have, sadly, been to several funerals since the laypeople rule was relaxed and they have all been highly dignified, very touching services.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Better than Brent Cross...

Tom Gross has pictures of Gaza's sparkling new shopping mall, which opened this weekend to great fanfare. It was built somehow despite a ban on importing building materials, and has shelves fully stocked with clothes, toys, cosmetics and yes, food.

A peculiar kind of humanitarian crisis.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Yes, we still need to fast on Tisha b'Av

My colleague Anshel Pfeffer has written a thought-provoking piece in Haaretz, in which he argues that we no longer need to fast on Tisha b'Av (which falls next week) because we have returned from exile, and because - he says - it would be perfectly possible to re-build a temple nowdays, if only there was the political will and religious interest (which there isn't).

He concludes:

Mourning on the Ninth of Av in this day and age flies in the face of both secular Zionism and religious Zionism. It contradicts the right of Jews around the world to decide where they prefer to live. The exile is over, and the temple has not been rebuilt because we don't want to do it.

The only ideologies that can justify continuing this observance are those that see democratic Israel as a heretic entity defying the majesty of God on earth. But if you are not a member of the Eda Haredit or a settler from Yitzhar, how can you mourn on Tisha B'Av in good conscience?

Well, let me explain why I still fast on Tisha b'Av - beyond the fact that it is a religious obligation - and why I believe it is still a fast which is relevant for each and every Jew, no matter where they live, what their religious or political orientation and whether they are interested in the return of Temple life or not.

For me, Tisha b'Av is not about the destruction of the Temple and the exile per se - but about the reasons why both these things happened. Traditionally, we ascribe them to needless hatred, as well as to idolatry, adultery and murder. But if you look closely at the biblical sources, there is something else at play.

In several different convenants with God, the Jewish people are given the mission of building a just and moral society, where the needs of the weak - the stranger, the orphan and the widow - are paramount and which can serve as a 'light unto the nations'. The land of Israel was given to us as a place in which to build this society; the Temple, in which God dwells, is the centre of all this.

We are thrown into exile when our society is corrupt. Indeed, a close reading of Jeremiah, before the destruction of the first temple, makes it abundantly clear that the Jews in the land of Israel before the destruction of the temple (the majority were already in exile many years beforehand) were what we would consider today 'frum'; they were dedicated to the Temple, they brought sacrifices, celebrated the festivals etc. However, they were unethical, and this is ultimately what forced them out of the land and brought about the destruction of the Temple. God, Jeremiah explicitely says, does not want sacrifices from such people.

These themes were explored in detail in a fascinating course by Rabbi Menachem Leibtag on exile and return, which I took recently at the brilliant London School of Jewish Studies. But Rabbi Shlomo Riskin expresses much the same sentiments:

So what is it about the loss of the Temple which engenders such national mourning? I would submit that the Holy Temple was inextricably intertwined with our national mission: to be God's witnesses, and thereby serve as a light unto the nations, bringing humanity to the God of justice, morality and peace. Our prophets saw the Temple as the living example from which all nations could learn how to perfect society. With the loss of the Temple, we ceased to be "players" on the world stage; we lost the means by which our message was to be promulgated. And a world without compassionate righteousness and just morality - especially with the possibility of global nuclear destruction - is a world which cannot endure.

Read the whole thing here.

Ultimately, what we should be mourning on Tisha b'Av is not the effect - the exile - but the cause, our failure to build a society where justice and morality are the guiding concerns, and our misguided emphasis on religious practice without the accompanying ethics.

Surely this is as relevant as ever today?

An ancient Anglo-Jewry mystery

On the Main Line has posted a few pages from an 18th century book on Anglo-Jewry before the expulsion in 1290. It includes a picture of a bowl, found by a fisherman in a brook around 1700, with a Hebrew inscription (which seems - as far as I can tell - to dedicate it to one Joseph, son of Rabbi Yechiel from Poland / advisor to a Polish community). Jews at the time could not explain its usage; he suggests that it is an ancient version of a pushke, or tzedakah box.

Any other suggestions?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Barak's private Camp David photos

Brilliant set of photos taken by the Israeli delegation to the Camp David Summit, 10 years ago this week. (Link takes you to the FB page of Noah Slepkov, an advisor to MK Einat Wilf.)

With hindsight, it's interesting to see Barak's body language - he is clearly most enthusiastic, while Clinton seems more reserved. But they do seem to have all the chemistry. Arafat - in the few pictures in which he appears - looks like a third wheel who is just playing along.

(h/t @Allanabbey)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

'Bloody Jews'

This is what antisemitism in polite British society looks like today. Eve Garrard writes in Normblog:

'Bloody Jews,' he said. 'Bloody Jews, bugger the Jews, I've no sympathy for them.'

I gazed at him, aghast. Where had this suddenly come from?

The encounter I'm here describing took place very recently, in the course of a large academic dinner at a University in another city, not my own one. It was a pleasant occasion, and the people at my table were innocuously and comfortably talking about sociological issues connected with the economic crisis, all completely harmless and (relatively) uncontentious. And then I heard the academic on my right hand side say to the person opposite him, 'Bloody Jews.'

When he saw my appalled stare, he said impatiently, 'Oh well, I'm sorry, but really...!'

'I'm glad you're sorry,' I replied politely, collecting myself together for a fight. But then he asked, 'Are you Jewish?' When I nodded, this academic - whom I'd met for the first time that day - put his arm around me and said, 'I'm sorry, but really Israel is terrible, the massacres, Plan Dalet, the ethnic cleansing, they're like the Nazis, they're the same as the Nazis...'

The encircling arm was offensive enough in its own right, but the Nazi reference was conclusive - it's so manifestly false, and when addressed to a Jew, it's designed to wound; no one makes that equivalence without malicious prejudice. And this, after all, was an academic talking, a professor, someone trained to resist casual stereotypes and easy equivalences. I wish I could say that I delivered on the spot a furious and crushing analysis of his various misdemeanours. However, because of the special circumstances surrounding this particular academic occasion, if I'd done that it would have caused distress to other people who were present, towards whom I felt nothing but good will, and who have shown me nothing but warmth and kindness. I thought - perhaps wrongly - that I was under an obligation to be restrained. (Somehow, there always seem to be reasons for not telling anti-Semites just what they are.) So all I did was say loudly, 'I don't have to put up with this crap,' and took myself off to join another table.

What did he expect, I wonder? Breathless deference, perhaps: 'Oh yes, I do agree, Israel is terrible; it doesn't speak in my name, no, no, not in the least, not at all; it's an imperialist colonialist fascistic genocidal apartheid settler state, how right you are to be disgusted at it.' Whatever he expected, I don't think it can have been such opposition as I offered him, tame though this was, since others told me that he shortly became full of remorse, and went around apologising alcoholically to those who were present at our interchange. They, of course, were paralysed with a very English embarrassment at the spectacle of someone dropping a social clanger. I was later informed that one (Muslim) academic told the professor that he should apologise to me, a suggestion which he rejected, saying that he never apologised to 'one of them'. Apart from that, the matter was allowed to drop.

I don't think this would have happened 10 years ago. There certainly was anti-Semitism (of a relatively mild kind) around the place, among academics as elsewhere, but they used to know that there was something wrong with it, and hence restrained themselves, at least in public. I haven't met anything quite as nakedly direct as this in the universities before now, not even in the UCU during the boycott debates: venomous though those debates were, the fig-leaf of anti-Zionism was usually kept more or less in place. Mark Gardner's wry and melancholy comments on the constant drip of criticism of Israel and Jews, the rising waters of this toxic hatred, seem especially resonant to me today.

As I look over what I've written about this encounter, it sounds oddly unreal, even contrived - it reads like an episode in a badly-written novel. But it did happen, a few days ago, here in the UK, exactly as I've described it. (As so often, life seems to imitate second-rate art). The incident wasn't in itself very important - the professor had liquor taken, and perhaps was having a Mel Gibson moment, so to speak. But he wasn't called out on it; no one - not even me - decided that the public expression of hatred towards Jews had to be publicly combated, even at the cost of some social discord. I'm very unsure that my restrained response was the right one, even in the special circumstances which obtained at the time.

People like Ken Livingstone keep telling us that criticism of Israel isn't anti-Semitic, and that those who play the anti-Semitism card (as they see it) are just trying to distract attention from Israel's crimes. The Guardian reviewer Nicholas Lezard seems to think something like this too; as does Caroline Lucas, the leader of the Green party; the UCU leadership has also peddled this line on more than one occasion. Attacks on Israel are nothing to do with anti-Semitism, they say; it's just honest political critique.

'Israel... massacres... Nazis... bloody Jews. Bloody Jews.'

Personally I think she is being too kind by giving this professor the gift of anonymity. Professors are public figures, and he made his comments in a room full of witnesses. Who is he?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Chief Rabbi Sacks boasts about Limmud

Our Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, has given an interview to Big Think, an American website. Because it is meant for an American and general audience, the questions are rather basic. Strangely enough, though, the result is at least one fascinating answer:

Question: What did you set out to accomplish as Chief Rabbi?

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: I wanted to turn a rather staid and quite predictable Jewish community, not very creative one, into a much more effervescent community and I think the community really has been transformed. We do things in Anglo Jewry today that are not done anywhere else in the world or if stimulated developments elsewhere in the world, we have something called Limmud where almost 3,000 young people come together to study for a week at the end of the year, studying 600 different courses. Now Limmud has been exported to 47 other places in the world from Moscow to New York and Los Angeles and almost everywhere else, so we have a very vibrant cultural life, which we didn’t have before.... [Continued here - MS.]

Is the Chief Rabbi really taking credit for Limmud, a conference he has conspicuously avoided as chief rabbi and which most of his rabbis are still afraid to visit for fear they will be deemed 'radicals' (G-d forbid)? It sure sounds like it.

(Also of interest: his very first answer, in which he talks of the chief rabbinate in terms of 30-year cycles. Are rumours of his imminent retirement exaggerated?)

Transgender dating in the Orthodox world

The NYT "Ethicist" column gets a Jewish dating question:

I am a straight woman, and I was set up on a date with a man. We got along well initially, but I grew concerned about how evasive he was about his past. I did some sophisticated checking online — I do research professionally — and discovered that he is a female-to-male transgender ed individual. I then ended our relationship. He and I live in Orthodox Jewish communities. (I believe he converted shortly after he became a man.) I think he continues to date women within our group. Should I urge our rabbi to out this person? NAME WITHHELD, N.Y.

The Ethicist answers that the date should have revealed his sex-change history very early on, but that the woman has no right to ask the rabbi to 'out' him publicly (though she can discuss it with friends). All of which seems right. I do think, however, that she should find out whether the person who set them up knew beforehand. If they did, she might have an issue there; and if they didn't, they are entitled - more than that, have a responsibility - to know before they set him up with anyone else.

What do you think?

Friday, July 09, 2010

UK fails the Israel test

A few days back, after it emerged that Russian spies had been using fake UK passports, I posed an Israel test: Will the UK launch an investigation and expel a Russian diplomat, as they did when they accused Israel of forging UK passports following the Mabhouh assassination in Dubai? Or do different rules apply to Israel and to Moscow?

Well, here's an enormous surprise. Courtesy of the Wall St Journal:

At this stage during the Dubai affair in mid-February, the Labour government had already summoned the Israeli ambassador and announced criminal investigations amid furious statements from all political parties. It expelled another Israeli diplomat a month later. The Guardian newspaper ran some 17 articles highlighting the passport accusations.

By contrast, a week into the Russian forgery story, there is not a hint of a diplomatic row between London and Moscow. The Guardian mentioned the fake passport allegations in two articles that lacked the breathless condemnation directed at Israel. The paper's editorial on the Russian spy-ring ignores the passport angle altogether.

Why the double standard? One possible explanation is that Israel is a friend and ally of Britain, and friends aren't supposed to behave that way. Then again, Downing Street also claims good relations with the Kremlin. Or perhaps the difference has to do with the recent change of government. Yet Britain's new chief diplomat, William Hague, when still shadow foreign secretary, encouraged Labour's diplomatic arm-twisting of Israel, a point he was eager to repeat in an interview last month with Al Jazeera, no less.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that what really infuriated the British was not so much the alleged offense but the identity of its perpetrators.

Why rabbis lose faith

The Orthoprax rabbi has, of course, provoked a great deal of discussion on the blogosphere - most (but not all) hostile. One of the more thoughtful responses I've seen comes from The Rebbetzin's Husband, a former pulpit rabbi now in Toronto, who says: "There are few professions which are worse for one’s belief in G-d and Judaism than the rabbinate."

He explains:

• A rabbi who really engages a community lives his life under theological siege, constantly facing people’s questions and challenges against faith. It’s like water sitting on a roof; eventually, some will seep in;

• A rabbi sees all sorts of tragedy and pain, and no one comes along to reassure him as he reassures others;

• A rabbi has no time for emotional bounceback, let alone philosophical bounceback, from the pain he sees;

• A rabbi lacks the space to step back and work through his theological challenges; he gets no religious Time Out. Whether they are right or wrong, other people can and do drop out of minyan or shiur for a few days, but the rabbi has no such option;

• A rabbi normally devotes little time to read works of hashkafah that might reinforce his belief; all of his time goes into the community. Reading it in order to teach it doesn’t count!;

• A rabbi sees the weak reasons behind some people's belief;

• A rabbi sees how some people turn to Judaism not out of strength, but out of absence of anywhere else to turn;

• A rabbi sees the professed believers who act immorally and corruptly, and knows what others get away with.

Of-course, it remains completely unclear how many rabbis really do suffer from profound crises of faith - any evidence is anecdotal, and we don't even have much of that. However, if you accept The Rebbetzin's Husband's basic premise, he has left out two factors I am sure must be significant.

First, knowledge. Clearly, rabbis are highly educated Jewishly, and therefore more aware of and more exposed than others to the contradictions and holes inherent in religious texts and thought. Obviously, they are also better equipped than others to deal with and bridge them, but for some, ultimately, the doubts may prevail.

Second, they will know far more than many others about the politicisation of organised religious life - the practical / sectarian considerations which drive some "religious" decisions, the hypocrisy of some major "religious" figures, the real influence of busybodies on religious decision-makers, etc etc etc. I wouldn't be surprised if this kind of thing drove some rabbis to doubt the entire framework.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Shtetl myths

A new book by Shaul Stampfer, Families, Rabbis, and Education, shatters some myths about life in 19th century eastern Europe:

To name a few: early marriages were not the norm but took place only among the elite, and then only during a relatively brief period; the traditional family was far less patriarchal than we think, with women exercising real power albeit in the absence of formal authority; women were also far more literate than we think, often more so than men; the Jewish elderly tended to live on their own, not in the midst of family; the Gaon of Vilna was indeed a genius, but not recognized as such in his lifetime.

I find the myths to do with women's status and family structure particularly interesting, as there are similar misunderstandings about women and family in medieval times. Then, too, women were far more powerful - economically, in the family, in terms of Jewish ritual - than we tend to imagine, throwing the idea of "traditional" women's roles completely out the window.

Israel finance minister: lose control and we'll end up like Britain

Remember the time when Israel was the economic basket case and Britain was rich? Well, those times are long gone.

Now it is Israel which looks on Britain with horror. As the Israeli finance minister Yuval Steinitz warned yesterday,

"If we go wild and lose control we might end up like Britain or Spain, not to mention Greece - in another two years."

Explains a bit about the recent spike in British aliyah figures, doesn't it?

(h/t Dani)

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

'My Palestinian cousins'

I've written before about Israelis with Palestinian cousins - literal Palestinian cousins. If your Hebrew is up to it, you must read this interview with filmmaker Noa Ben Hagai, who made a documentary last year about her relatives in a Palestinian refugee camp.

In her case, a 14-year-old relative called Pnina disappeared from her home near Tiveriah in the 1940s. More than 25 years later, following the Six-Day War, Pnina wrote to her family, telling them that she lived on the West Bank with her Arab husband and eight children. There was some contact between the families, but that came to an and after Pnina's death four years later.

Now, Noa Ben Hagai has got back in touch with the family in the West Bank (some of Pnina's children, though, live in Gaza, Kuwait and Jordan) and made a movie about the family's strained relationship. You can watch a fascinating preview here with English subtitles, which brings out the relatives' complex feelings.

In the very candid Maariv interview, Ben Hagai says that some of the Palestinian relatives have joined Hamas and others have spent time in Israeli jails. They suffered because they had a Jewish mother and so, in order to prove that they were not collaboraters, went to the other extreme.

She is frank about the fact that the Israeli side of the family feels awkward because the Palestinian side is constantly asking them for financial aid. At first they did try to help, even posting bail for one of the cousins a couple of times after he was arrested for infiltrating into Israel (they also tried to organise work permits in Israel for their Palestinian relatives) but ultimately the relationship is unbalanced and this creates a strain.

"Their expectations from us are very high. They expect lots of things - help with food, financial aid for operations and permits to work in Israel. The connection is very complicated - we are considered the occupiers on one hand, and the rich uncles on the other. They have some kind of expectation that we will save them from their lives."

There is, she says, no happy ending, and her own left-wing hopes of peace have suffered somewhat through this personal journey.

Read the whole thing here if you can. And a final thought - Pnina's children and some of her grandchildren, in the Palestinian refugee camp, Gaza, Kuwait and Jordan, are halachic Jews. How many other families have representatives on both sides of the divide? More than one might think, I suspect.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Syrian military hit by the plague?

This report may be based on a questionable translation, come from a suspect source and remain rather vague, but never mind - it has a rather strong biblical resonance:

According to the Syrian opposition in exile, the Syrian president, who is visiting Latin America, has ordered the shutdown of all Syrian
military exercises due to a plague that currently affects a large number of military, especially conscripts doing their training. Drinking water and food in the bases and the current heat wave are the cause of the epidemic.

Touched by a terrible drought, this epidemic (which reminds us of the Middle Ages) could cause extensive damage to elements of the Syrian
army in the coming weeks. Military sources have completely rejected the possibility of outside intervention that could be causing the epidemic.

Syria is currently facing the worst drought in 40 years. Hundreds of thousands of people are experiencing food shortages; peasants have been decimated, and many people are fleeing the country. Already, nearly 60 000 small livestock owners have lost all their animals, and 50 000 others have lost 50-60 percent of their cattle.

If the early symptoms of plague have occurred in the military (the Syrian army has 215 000 men, plus 300 000 reservists), it is probable that the soldiers will spread the disease, especially with the approach of Ramadan [11 Aug-9 Sep 2010] when a great number of soldiers return to their villages.

The last plague epidemic in Europe was in 1910.

Probably just food poisoning.....

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Do Israelis really want peace?

A very silly piece by Larry Derfner in the Jerusalem Post, arguing that Israelis don't really want peace. Not, you understand, that he disagrees that most Israelis are willing to give up land for peace, or accept a two-state-solution. His complaint is that Israelis are unwilling to throw their arms open, embrace the Palestinians and sing kumbaya:

...I hear this country’s mouthpieces going on about how Israelis, starting with the prime minister, are ready to accept a Palestinian state, how poll after poll shows that two-thirds of the Jewish population is in favor of trading land for peace.

The implication of this hasbara is that Israelis have become so liberal, so dovish, so open-minded about the Arabs. Oh no we haven’t. In 25 years, I have never seen this country so blindly contemptuous of everybody and everything Arab, so drawn to confrontation, so intractably closed-minded. Israelis haven’t come around to the idea of a Palestinian state because they
realize the Palestinians have rights, too, or because they think there’s something immoral about the occupation and the settlements.

Today, if Israelis thought they could get away with expelling the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza and the Israeli Arabs from Israel, they’d support it. But they know they can’t, so they want to put as much distance and as high a wall between them and the Arabs as they can.

If this is your idea of peace, then the cliché “all Israelis want peace” is true.

First, the implication of the polls is emphatically not that Israelis are so "liberal... so open-minded about the Arabs". That is Mr Derfner's interpretation alone. The polls show nothing more than that Israelis are willing to do what it takes to give the Palestinians a state. Anything else is conjecture, so he is destroying a straw man.

Second, Mr Derfner shows himself to be completely ignorant about human psychology. Which people, faced with years of conflict and bloodshed and hostility and wars, could really be expected to have warm, fuzzy feelings about the other side - as Mr Derfner seems to expect? I wouldn't think Israelis feel like that about the Palestinians, and I wouldn't think the Palestinians feel like that about the Israelis. They can't. The only way they could feel what Mr Derfner thinks they should is to shove to one side their experiences and reality and buy into some idealistic fantasy about the other side. Most people -- extreme leftists like Mr Derfner clearly being the exception -- don't work that way.

Third, positive feelings about the other side in the conflict are not a prerequisite to a settlement. They are the result, and probably follow only many years later, when the two peoples have been seperated completely and utterly and everyone has had time, a lot of time, to forgive and forget. If you are going to wait for a romance to bloom before we go ahead with this divorce, you are going to be waiting a long time.

Last but not least, I disagree with Derfner that most Israelis want to reach a settlement because they somehow "hate" Arabs. Obviously, some do. But most Israelis are, first of all, being pragmatic. They understand that the best thing for both peoples is to seperated right now (they just wish they could convince the Palestinians of the same thing, as I wrote in my column this week). They are also tired and frustrated and just want a normal, quiet life.

Moreover, I believe that a lot of Israeli antagonism to the Palestinians, as it exists, is shallow. The fact is that unlike the Palestinians, who seem to have a problem with the very idea of Israel and Israelis, most Israelis do accept that the Palestinians are here to stay, and will have their own state. The hostility comes because they see the Palestinians want to hurt them. When they see otherwise - that the Palestinians are genuinely interested in building their own state, not destroying the Jewish one - the negative feelings of many, if not most, will go away.

I cannot help but remember how Israelis regularly visited the Arab towns and villages in the West Bank before the first intifada, and how quickly they returned during that brief period in the 1990s when it seemed that peace was on its way. It may take a very long time - see again my column this week - but if there is ever a settlement, i hope it could happen again.