Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dogged devotion

The Brits are notoriously mad about their pets. So perhaps it's no surprise that, last Sunday, 40 doggy-lovers at the Liberal Synagogue Elstree held a service for their animals:

The service at The Liberal Synagogue Elstree, in High Road, brought their pets to celebrate the “diversity of creation and the joy of companionship.”

Encouraged by his six-month-old Yorkshire Terrier, Milo, Rabbi Pete Tobias sent an invitation to all members of his congregation inviting them for a short service on behalf of their pets.

He said: “The service, a series of readings about the relationship between humans and animals, took place in the synagogue car park and was attended by more than a dozen dogs and some forty human beings.

“It was a joyful event and the human participants said they looked forward to similar ceremonies in the future."

Oh boy. Wait until they discover the bark-mitzvah...

Did Lot's wife really turn into a pillar of salt?

Last word on Lot's wife (well, for this year any way). In an old post, DovBear asks why G-d needed to employ magical means to punish her, especially when no one at the time seemed to recognise the miracle.
The Ralbag must have thought it was strange, too, because his view is that it never happened:
Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag) suggests that וַתְּהִי ["and she became" - MS] does not refer to Lot's wife, that *she* became a pillar of salt, but rather וַתְּהִי refers to the *city*, which is a feminine noun, so Lot's wife looked back and saw that the city had become a pillar of salt, which was a way of saying it was destroyed. [DB: ie: the whole land was brimstone and salt and burning.]
Ahh, so what happened to Lot's wife? She simply perished with the other people of Sodom.
Very elegant.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Intolerant liberals

A piece in The Economist about the settlement of Ariel magnificently illustrates the way some liberals are, in fact, the least liberal people out there when it comes to 'tolerating' the Other.

The piece explains that the city's founder and mayor, Ron Nachman, originally envisaged it as a home for economic, secular settlers. Now that the city is no longer attracting the 'right' kind of people,
Mr Nachman continues to spurn the ultra-orthodox Jews who have peopled much larger settlements. But seemingly holding his nose, he has welcomed religious “Anglos”, or English-speaking Jewish immigrants, including a South African rabbi. He has also made room for some of the religious settlers Israel moved from Gaza when it pulled out in 2005. But if it is to survive, Ariel will have to swallow its pride and admit less tolerant and flexible folk.
Less tolerant than who? Than people who "hold their nose" at religious people?

To be fair, this is probably more a comment on the anonymous author of the Economist piece than on Mr Nachman - since the last line is not a direct quote, I have no way of knowing whether he characterised the difference between the parties in this way or whether it reflects the perceptions of the writer. But clearly someone out there can't see the contradiction.


Why are young Charedim not getting married?

Last week I wrote about some frightening demands of the shidduch system - and Israel's housing boom. Now let's tie them both together.

According to Marty Bluke, the latest Hebrew edition of Mishpacha magazine (which doesn't go online) claims that as a result of Israel's spiralling house prices and the economic crisis*, less shidduchim are being made amongst Israeli Charedim. Why?
[F]ewer and fewer parents of girls can afford to buy an apartment for the couple. Many/most of the boys are still holding out for an apartment and there are very few parents of girls who can afford it.

The article says that the dormitories in the Yeshivas are full because the older boys who should be getting married aren't. One Rosh Yeshiva said that usually around 30 boys a year get married, this year only 10 got married. The head of a post high school seminary said that in the past half the girls were engaged or married by the end of the year, last year it was only 10%. The reason is very simple, the boys are holding out for an apartment and the girl's parents simply can't afford it.
Nor, I'm afraid, will they ever be able to afford it - first, because house prices show no sign of dropping, and second, because even if house prices fully collapse, most normal people simply cannot afford to pay for apartments for 3-4 daughters any more. And most Israeli Charedim earn less than the average wage; a very large number of them don't "earn" at all.

So if it really exists, this marriage impasse may turn out to have big implications. Right now, Israel's Charedi society is in real denial about its inability to afford its own lifestyle. Its rabbis are battling to prevent young Charedi boys from studying any secular subjects, effectively preventing them from being able to participate in a meaningful way in the workforce. But where, long-term, do they expect all this money for apartments to come from?

Either some of these young men are going to end up having to compromise, and decide they need to marry women who cannot actually offer them a housing solution - in which case they will be pushed into work in order to fund their flats (or, alternatively, into deeper poverty); or Charedi society, suffering from a glut of angry young unmarried men, is simply going to implode under the burden of its own economic mess.

Either way, it will be a big blow for a system in which marriage is treated, to a large extent, as a business transaction; and in which work is perceived as a dirty word. Good.

*Because Israel is doing relatively well economically, I'm assuming he means the dollar's exchange rate problem, which has dramatically impacted Israel's Charedi institutions and some individuals, who rely on donations from abroad

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Rethinking Lot's wife

Yesterday in shul, we read the story of the destruction of Sodom. As Lot's family left the burning city, his wife disobeyed the instruction of the angels, who had told them not to look back, and was instantaneously turned into a pillar of salt.

Traditionally, Lot's wife is villainised. She was disobedient, a rebel - and the midrash goes out of its way to emphasise her negative traits, explaining that in common with the other residents of Sodom, she was inhospitable to her guests.

But why did she turn round? Why did she have to take that last look at her burning home? A lovely piece by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson forces us to reconsider Lot's wife's essential character.
Actually, we know one other fact about Lot’s wife: she is the mother of four daughters. Two were married, as we know from the fact that Lot consults his sons-in-law, “who had married his daughters” and they refused to take his warning seriously. In addition to those two married daughters were two others, the “two remaining daughters.”

When the angels came to take Lot and his family out of the condemned city, they actually left two of Lot’s daughters behind with their husbands.....

But the mother’s heart could not let go. Mrs. Lot couldn’t choose between her children, couldn’t bear that two of her daughters were trapped in the flames. Her head knew it had to fight to live for her surviving children, but her mother’s heart tugged her toward Sodom, toward the children left behind.

“Just one more look, maybe it’s not to late to help them,” she might have reasoned. And so, imperiling her own life, like countless mother’s have done for their children throughout the ages, she stopped, and she looked back, desperately trying to see her children one last time.

And that moment of turning cost her her life—the advancing sulfur, the streaming lava, immediately engulfed her.
In this reading, the angels' words to Lot - “Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away” - are less of an order and more of an exhortation. Lot's wife was not being punished for disobedience, she was paying the price of motherhood.

Read the whole thing here.

(Via Uri Cohen)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Read all about... well, me

I am really honoured to be profiled this week by Normblog. Here is more than you ever wanted to know about yours truly:

Why do you blog? > I used to be able to explain it. It began as a bit of fun when I moved back to England in 2004 and was looking for a job, but I quickly realized that blogging forced me to sharpen my views and I enjoyed the challenge. Nowadays the question 'why' hardly makes sense. I'm way past that. It's an addiction.

What has been your best blogging experience? > Being linked to by Instapundit (Glenn Reynolds) in the early days of my blog. I received so many thousands of hits, in a matter of minutes, I thought there was something wrong with my traffic counter.

What has been your worst blogging experience? > Threat of a lawsuit by a well-known journalist who, bizarrely, believed I had damaged her reputation when I proved one of her interviewees had been lying.

What would be your main blogging advice to a novice blogger? > Only do it for as long as you enjoy it. Don't feel pressured to post in order to keep your readers happy if you have nothing to say - you will burn out.

What are your favourite blogs? > Yaakov Lozowick's Ruminations, Jeffrey Goldberg, A Mother in Israel.

What are you reading at the moment? > Atonement by Ian McEwan, That's Not What The Good Book Says by Avigdor Shinan, and Yair Zakovitch (Hebrew) on biblical myths.

What is the best novel you've ever read? > Despite (or perhaps because of) a degree in English literature, I rarely read fiction any more. In recent years, Beaufort, Ron Leshem's fictional account of an IDF bunker in Lebanon, left a deep impression on me.

What is your favourite poem? > Strangely for a good Jewish girl, 'The Windhover: To Christ our Lord' by Gerard Manley Hopkins (subject of my BA honours thesis).

And more - much more, including my political heroes; my missing talents; alternative career plans; regrets; and who I would most like to have over for a dinner party - here.

Matchmaker, matchmaker, am I too fat?

This is hardly news to anyone who has ever been involved with the shidduch system, but The Jewish Star is running a particularly disturbing account of the system-wide pressure on young, religious girls wishing to get married to stay very thin:
It happened just a few weeks ago. I was speaking with a Torah scholar and seasoned teacher of seminary girls in Jerusalem about my lecture series on how to eat healthy without dieting. She responded with, “We can’t have you speak here. The girls need to lose weight or they’ll never get a shidduch.”

“Excuse me?”

“You and I know that it isn’t right, but these girls want to get married and they know that if they’re a size 14 or bigger, they’ll never get a shidduch. You can’t tell them not to diet.”

“But dieting is unhealthy,” I responded. “95 percent of people who diet gain back the weight, usually even more. That is a huge percentage of failure. There are ways to learn to eat when hungry and stop when satisfied, and to have a healthy relationship with food – while maintaining a normal, healthy weight.”

“Yes, but will they lose weight quickly if they do that? They’re under tremendous pressure to be thin. They’re too desperate and they need to get married.”

I felt defeated. How could I help these young girls if their teacher – their mentor and role model – wasn’t willing to listen? I tried again. “Please realize that eating disorders are on the rise. Girls in seminary often become so obsessed with wanting to be or stay thin that they endanger themselves with chronic dieting, closet eating, and sometimes anorexia or bulimia.”

“Yes, I know,” this teacher responded without hesitation. “Do you know how many girls vomit now? And they say, ‘It’s only once a day, or only a few times a week,’ so they convince themselves it’s okay. I know it’s terrible, but what can I do?”

And still I was unable to convince her that these young women need to hear a different message. How could this beloved teacher prefer to ignore a girl’s self-induced vomiting instead of trying to help? I walked away shocked at the unwillingness to solve this overwhelming problem.

Unfortunately, this is never going to change as long as young Charedi men are encouraged to look for the best 'bargain' - an apartment, rich father-in-law who can support them, pretty girl - rather than the best wife.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The threat against shechitah in UK starts coming true

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post warning that the campaign currently being waged against halal meat in the UK is a preview of what we can expect against shechitah, if an EU law mandating that all meat slaughtered by a shochet be labelled 'meat from slaughter without stunning' passes in December.

Well, turns out I was wrong about one thing. The backlash has already started. And not only that, it is directly connected to the fight against halal meat being sold to the general public in 'mainstream' outlets.

The Jewish Chronicle reports:
Kosher consumers suffered a... blow this week when a major abattoir in Ireland closed its kosher facility...

Rory Fanning, managing director of Slaney Foods, in County Wexford, which supplies the London Board for Shechita (LBS), said: "We have made the decision not to have religious slaughter."

He said the decision was prompted by media stories that halal meat was being used without the knowledge of the public by some McDonald's restaurants. McDonald's denied this as it was against its policy to use religiously slaughtered meat.

But the company checked its suppliers and was forced into a u-turn, admitting that one abattoir had used halal meat for some chicken products.

A spokesman said all suppliers were asked to "reiterate that their meat was not slaughtered in that way". One of them was Slaney, which had worked with McDonald's for eight years, predating its relationship with kosher meat.

Suddenly, at the end of last week Slaney announced its decision to end religious slaughter. Rumours, since denied, were rife in London, where most of Slaney's meat was delivered, that McDonald's had given it an ultimatum to stop the kosher part of its business or risk losing it as a customer.

Slaney's managing director Rory Fanning said: "It's not that we are doing it because someone was influencing us outside the company. We made the decision ourselves.

"There has been a lot of media coverage of ritual slaughter, and it was in the context of that, that the decision was made. I'm not saying it's the right decision. I am very hesitant"...

McDonald's said: "While kosher meat is outside McDonald's UK specification, we understand the importance of it to some customers as well as UK and Irish agriculture.

"If Slaney has stopped producing kosher meat as a result of our non-specification then there has been a misunderstanding. Our supply chain is in discussion with the Slaney abattoir to ensure they can continue to produce kosher meat separately to their production of traceable, non-kosher meat for McDonald's UK."

How long until the other kosher abbatoirs (and I don't believe there are that many) are going to decide they don't want to deal with religious slaughter any more - that it simply attracts too much criticism to be worth it? And - just as importantly - how long until the mainstream shops which stock meat that was slaughtered through shechitah (but which the kosher market doesn't use) decide they don't want to bother with meat that can attract protests, either?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Lord Sacks: Meeting the Pope was "an epiphany"

The British Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, certainly knows his audience. Talking to the Catholic Herald about his meeting last month with the Pope, he managed to sound just a touch Christian:
“Soul touched soul across the boundaries of faith, and there was a blessed moment of healing”.
He also called the meeting "an epiphany".

Perhaps Lord Sacks was being diplomatic (and I would have actually rather liked to have overheard the conversation between these two intellectual giants), but this isn't going to make him any more popular amongst that section of his constituency who do not like the dignity of difference.

Then again, the beth din probably don't read the Catholic Herald.

(Via Failed Messiah)

Howard Jacobson's Jewish Mother

Either Howard Jacobson's mother comes straight out of his latest novel, or the winner of the Booker Prize is dabbling in some more fiction. According to the Evening Standard diary,
Speaking at the 5x15 event at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill, Jacobson, whose book The Finkler Question won the Man Booker prize last week, recounted: “I rang my mother the night I won the Booker Prize to tell her.
‘I know, I know,’ she said. ‘I’ve just been listening to the news. But I’m upset about one thing — I didn’t hear the end of your speech because they had to cut it short as the Chilean miners were coming out’.
She said, ‘Those miners have been down there three months. Would 10 more minutes have hurt any of them?’”
At least she couldn't complain he never called....

Italian mafia gets the get

Pity the poor Jewish women, who have to resort to ever more desperate means in order to free themselves from unwanted marriages.

According to Kikar HaShabbat, Yisrael Briskman has been travelling all over the world for the past four years, in order to evade his wife in Israel, who wanted a Jewish divorce. Two-and-a-half years ago the Israeli beth din took the unusual step of publicising his name and description (apparently he has "a large head... small nose, thick lips, small fingers" - anyone seen him lately?), asking the public to help locate him.

Recently, Briskman was spotted in NY. The bride's family apparently hired members of "the Italian mafia" to deal with him.

It's unclear what happened next - of course it's impossible not to picture Tony Soprano bundling him into the trunk of his car and waving lots of guns around. Suffice to say that several days later, Briskman appeared at a rabbi's house declaring he was prepared to give his wife a get.

Now, some people might think this is a story with a happy ending; that the husband got rather more than he bargained for and that the wife's family deserve credit for a creative and exotic solution. Personally, I am aghast that there are still Jewish marriages that must be dissolved through recourse to violence and criminal gangs. It is pathetic that we still don't have a proper solution to the problem of agunot (chained wives).

That said, I hope they gave him a good beating.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Priced out of Israel?

AP has cottoned on to the fact that the Israeli housing market is hot, hot and getting even hotter:

According to Global Property Guide, a trade magazine that monitors the housing market, Israeli housing prices in the second quarter of 2010 rose sixth-fastest in a ranking of 36 countries. Four of the top five, including Singapore and Latvia, were rebounding from sharp price drops. So looking at the past two years ended in June — the last period for which there is data — Israeli real estate clocks in at No. 1...

Today, a three-bedroom apartment in Tel Aviv, with its beaches, balmy weather and freewheeling spirit, fetched an average 2.15 million shekels, or $560,000, in June, compared with 1.73 million shekels a year earlier, according to government statistics.

The price of an average apartment in Jerusalem, with its holy sites and mixture of ancient and new, rose 19 percent to 1.55 million shekels, or $403,000, at the end of June from 1.31 million shekels a year earlier.

Of course, the 'good' areas in Jerusalem, particularly the ones popular with immigrants from the West, are far more expensive than that, with many apartments in the $1million + range. For many young couples I know, Jerusalem is considered firmly out of reach.

The truth is, I genuinely don't understand how on earth so many Israelis afford all this. Israeli salaries are not extravagant compared to London or New York, and yet some of the prices in the centre of the country are comparable. Sure, there are hi-tech millionaires who are living large, but I can't figure out how the rest of the population is paying for their Tel Aviv pads. Answers on a postcard please.

Meanwhile, the housing boom has many implications for Israelis, but I am also interested to see what the impact of this going to be on Western aliyah. Israelis who can't afford to live in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ra'anana or Modi'in and the like can move to the periphery (and in a country as small as Israel, it is relatively easy to live outside the big cities but close enough to commute). But most immigrants from the UK, US, France etc. want to live in communities with other immigrants, immigrants who speak their language and can provide cultural support. These are usually in the larger centres.

Until recently, part of the attraction of aliyah for many families was that they could trade in their expensive NJ/Hendon house for something even larger, and possibly mortgage-free, in Israel. This partially compensated for a drop in earnings or for needing to commute in order to make ends meet.

With prices so high, however, many middle-income Western olim are going to find that they lose this financial incentive. It seems to me that aliyah will still be attractive for youngsters who have never paid a mortgage and pay it little thought; for religious couples willing to live in settlements and other smaller communities; and for the very rich.

But your average Western couple? Irony of ironies, even if they are interested in making the move, they may find themselves priced out of the Israeli housing market.

Calling all neurotic Jewish parents

A rather handsome-looking new website for Jewish parents-of-under-fives has just launched, complete with book recommendations, arts and crafts, discussion forums, and some rather dubious-sounding kosher recipes (challah with a chocolate bar in the middle, anyone?). It's called Kveller, not Kvetcher, though, so be on your best behavior...

Next-Chief-Rabbi Watch

As the retirement of the British chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, approaches, the community has regularly bandied about names of possible successors. One name that regularly crops up is that of Shaul Robinson, the very charming former rabbi of Barnet synagogue, currently rabbi of the prominent modern Orthodox synagogue Lincoln Square, in New York.

But why would he want to leave a plum position in the diaspora's most vibrant Jewish community, to come back to rainy old England, provincial Anglo-Jewry (from the POV of NY), and the complications and constraints of the London Beth Din, the United Synagogue, and the very big shoes of Lord Sacks?

The Forward reports this week that not all is rosy at Lincoln Square:
Lincoln Square Synagogue, the iconic Modern Orthodox congregation on New York City’s Upper West Side, has halted construction on its new building and lost its president...
The synagogue, long seen as innovative center of Modern Orthodoxy, issued the announcement only four days after posting notice on its website saying that construction would be halted on its long planned new building, pending a naming donor and or a venture partner, since “the cost of its new building at 180 Amsterdam Avenue has run higher than originally expected”...
Lincoln Square launched a capital campaign to support construction, but in a recent meeting, it announced that the costs had grown tremendously, leaving a difference of about $17 million, several members say.
The NY Jewish Week adds:
Should Lincoln Square come up with the funds or a joint venture partner to complete the project, it is facing another daunting problem -- this one of demographics: the Upper West Side Jewish community seems to be moving steadily northward, and 69th Street isn’t as attractive an address as it once was.
Just noting.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Jews who join the Islamic revolution

Over the past decade, there has been quite a lot of publicity for Adam Gadahn (born Pearlman), the grandson of a Jewish doctor from Orange County who converted to Islam and is now the English-language spokesman for al Qaida.

Well, turns out he's not the only Islamic radical with Jewish roots. NPR is profiling the founder of an American group called Revolution Islam, which has numerous links to terrorists and men accused of terrorism.
The group's goals include establishing Islamic law in the U.S., destroying Israel and taking al-Qaida's messages to the masses.... Of the two-dozen homegrown plots in the United States in the past year, Revolution Muslim was linked to one-third of them.
The founder is one Yousef al-Khattab, born Joseph (Joey) Leonard Cohen.
He grew up in Brooklyn, the son of secular Jews... Khattab says that, for him, there was something missing in the Jewish religion. He liked the idea of completely submitting to God, so he became a Muslim. "My parents aren't religious Jews, and they don't agree with Islam at all, but they believe it is my choice to do what I want," Khattab says.
Do they really believe it is his choice to help encourage terrorists? Unclear.

What annoys me about these kinds of stories -- and stories trying to "prove" men such as Ahmadinejad are really Jewish or that the Taliban are descended from Jews -- is the unstated implication: that the Jews are even to blame for Muslim extremism. So let's get that out of the way straight off. Two Jews (or men with Jewish roots) who dabble in Islamism and terror are not proof that the elders of Zion are now running the Jihad. Jeez, let us off the hook for something.

Beyond that, I'm not sure there is too much that the Jewish community can learn from these examples. Could Judaism have offered them more, somehow channelled their energies into somewhere positive? I'm not sure, when you are talking about men who are willing to be tied to terrorists. They are clearly attracted to serious radicalism and frankly, must have "issues".

It is a completely different question when it comes to Jews who convert to Islam (as opposed to Islamism). And, just as there are thousands of Christians currently finding meaning in Islam, there are examples of Jews making the switch - including journalist Abdallah Schleifer (born Marc Schleifer in Long Island), advocate for moderate Islam Stephen Schwartz (Jewish father), and so many more we have never even heard of (I strongly suggest you watch the opening minutes of the video of the girl whose face is covered.)

What does Islam offer them that they could not have found in Judaism? Of course, this question is impossible to answer without proper research - and is not even clear how many of those who converted "out" of Judaism (to any religion) properly investigated the possibilities inherent in their own faith first. Perhaps they never found because they never seriously looked.

I will just note, however, that diaspora Judaism is nowadays a pretty Establishment religion, with all that entails. We are not particularly good with spiritual seekers - people who want to talk about God, people with difficult questions, people interested in developing their meditative or mystical side. You have to be fairly wealthy in order to afford a "Jewish" neighbourhood and lifestyle. We are certainly not the first port-of-call for those who want to escape their middle-class existence and shallow Western values; all too often, our communities are tied up in both. I am quite sure we lose some of our own people to other religions as a result.

Incidentally, the Khattab story has a semi-happy ending. He has severed all ties with Revolution Muslim:
"In Islam, we have a principle of loving and hating for the sake of Allah. They focus on the hating all the time. When you see the youth only talking about the hate, that's a warning sign"...

"I guess I came to say that I believe what I said before was wrong," he says.

When asked if he thinks he outgrew Revolution Muslim, he replies: "It is hard to outgrow something that is bigger than you are." And he's quiet for a minute. "I don't know, yeah, I guess that would be the word — I guess I would say I outgrew it."

Unfortunately in the meanwhile he opened the door for all too many people to find radical Islam, people who haven't yet, and probably never will, "outgrow" it.

(Via Allison Kaplan Sommer)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Frum fashion watch

A former yeshivah high school student, now blogging as 'The man repeller' (I sense certain issues), has noticed that many of the skirts being sported around New York and Paris fashion weeks over the past month are distinctly frum-friendly. She is not thrilled:
When I graduated an orthodox Jewish day school in 2007, I vowed to burn any and all remnants of the wardrobe that tormented my high school years. This included some twenty long black floor length straight skirts and three pairs of Uggs... Since graduation, I've made it my business to bare my legs, thighs, even ass on occasion. But when maxi skirts started peeking on to runways and the Tuilerie Gardens last fashion week, I knew I was doomed. Doomed, I tell ya.
Well, dear, it could be worse. The fashionistas of NY and Paris could be adopting this look!

Monday, October 11, 2010

The threat to Britain's kosher meat

In December, the EU will be voting whether kosher meat needs to be labelled as "meat from slaughter without stunning". British Jews are extremely worried that this could effectively bring about the end of shechitah in the UK, as more than 70% of the meat killed by shechitah actually goes to the non-Jewish market. If mainstream consumers decide they don't want to eat animals "slaughtered without stunning", shechitah would become economically un-viable.

Anyone who thinks that this threat is exaggerated need only look to the Daily Mail, which in the past few weeks has spotlighted a number of outlets - including Waitrose, M&S, Tesco, Asda and McDonald's - some of whose 'regular' meat, it turns out, is halal. (I assume this is a similar arrangement to the Kosher one - Muslims eat some parts of the animal, which are labelled halal, while other parts go to mainstream outlets, where it is not labelled as such.)

When "exposed", McDonald's abbatoir stopped slaughtering halal; Waitrose ditched its halal meat; the 'defence' offered by Asda was that all their animals were stunned (which is apparently allowed by "moderate" Muslims). In all cases, in addition to concern over the method of slaughter, there was also widespread concern at the meat being 'blessed' by the Muslim slaughterer. (A shochet makes a brachah before starting his work, but there is a widespread misconception that kosher meat is meat that has been 'blessed by a rabbi'.)

The fact is that there is no nice way of killing an animal; many animals who are stunned need to be re-stunned because it hasn't worked, or else do get to the slaughterer un-stunned; others who are supposedly unconscious because they have been gassed pre-slaughter are either completely conscious, or dead through the gassing. And so on and so forth. The battle to label meat as 'without stunning' is simply antisemitic, because it completely ignores the fact that all methods of slaughter have their failings - failing which affect many more animals than the relatively small number killed through shechitah.

Nevertheless, the campaign against halal meat is a clear preview of what the UK kosher market can expect if the EU law passes in December: widespread rebellion by regular consumers, and a massive financial hit - possibly fatal.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Geert Wilders for Foreign Minister?

The Charlemagne column in The Economist argues that Geert Wilders' attacks on Islam and the Koran are "dangerous stupidity" - but ends by suggesting the Dutch politician, currently on trial for incitement to hatred and discrimination against Muslims, be made a minister:
A better, braver strategy, in some cases, might be to bring far-right leaders into the cabinet, exposing their ideas to reality and their personalities to the public gaze. It may make for tetchy government, but it could also moderate the extremes. So roll the dice and make Mr Wilders foreign minister: for how long could he keep telling the world to ban the Koran?
A strategy that really worked well in Israel with Avigdor Lieberman....

Friday, October 08, 2010

The lessons of J Street's troubles

My JC column this week is on the lessons of J Street's disastrous few weeks:

It was miserable timing. Two weeks ago, the JC revealed that a number of activists in the UK were trying to establish a left-leaning Israel group, which would support Israel but not shy away from criticising its government. The initiative, which is being spearheaded by Hannah Weisfeld, formerly of the Jewish Community Centre for London, was directly inspired by the liberal American lobby group, J Street, which, since it was founded in 2008, has increasingly challenged the more conservative Jewish establishment.

And then, last week, J Street crumbled. The Washington Times revealed that a large chunk of its funding - $750,000 since 2008 - came from the family of Jewish financier George Soros, known for his anti-Israel views. At the height of the second intifada, he blamed the rise in antisemitism on the Israeli government; he also declared that he does not "deny the Jews their right to a national existence - but I don't want to be part of it".

J Street had consistently denied that they had received his money but it seems that they had blatantly lied. Many of J Street's supporters were furious; the group, which had promised "ethical" criticism of Israel, had no ethical credibility itself.

An additional revelation, that J Street had facilitated meetings between Washington officials and Judge Richard Goldstone, lead author of the damning UN report on Operation Cast Lead, seemed to doom J Street's brand.

A couple of weeks ago, our own local doveish activists were hoping that some of J Street's magic would rub off on them. Now, they must learn the lessons of its downfall.

Read the rest and come back here to comment...

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Europe's vulnerable airports

The targets of the European terror plot which has been subject of travel advisories this week apparently included the crowded check-in areas of five major airports:
A law enforcement official told ABC News that terror teams could have staged commando-style attacks on pre-security areas packed with travellers before they boarded flights.
Which is why, in Ben-Gurion airport, passengers have been through several layers of security before they even get close to the check-in desk: on the road approaching the airport; as they move towards the airport doors; and at the entrance. In Israel, essentially, no area of the airport is 'pre-security'.

Hairy priorities

It's good to know that our leaders are hard at work trying to solve the greatest problems facing the Jewish people. For example: making sure that all our men have kosher haircuts!

Courtesy of a NY-based kollel, here is the definitive guide to the halachic trim.

But hey, I don't really care. Every moment spent obsessing about peyos is one less moment spent obsessing about women's sleeves, skirts and burkas...

(Via Dovbear)

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Who changed the Jews' names?

Dara Horn - whose novel, All Other Nights, I hugely enjoyed last year - blasts away the idea that Jewish immigrants to America, coming through Ellis Island, were forced by immigration officials to change their names:

Ellis Island officers never wrote down immigrants’ names. Instead, they worked from ships’ manifests, which were themselves compiled by local officials at the point of embarkation. Even overseas, passenger lists were likewise not generated simply by asking immigrants for their names. Rather, they were drawn from passports, exit visas, and other identification papers.

The reason for this was simple: Errors cost the shipping company money. A mistake on a manifest, such as a name that was not corroborated by other documentation (whether legal or fraudulent), would result in the forced deportation of the person in question back to his point of departure — at the shipping company’s expense. Of course, many Jewish immigrants’ names were changed upon coming to America. Without exception, however, they changed their names themselves.

She suggests that the immigrants wanted to integrate into American society, but were embarrased that they had shed such a defining part of their Jewish identity so easily, and so the myth arose that it had been forced on them.

It makes sense; there are numerous stories of Jewish immigrants completely re-inventing themselves on the boat on the way to America (throwing off their sheitls once the shtetl was safely behind them, etc), or shortly after, so I don't see why they wouldn't change their names themselves as well.

It is unclear to me, though, when they were supposed to have done so; presumably, in the days and months after landing, which means that the Ellis Island records would still show their "Jewish" names. If so, there must be many families who have looked for their ancestors' records in the extensive Ellis Island archives who already know that the story told to them by Bubbe and Zaide wasn't quite true....

Monday, October 04, 2010

Stuxnet conspiracy theories getting ridiculous

Whoever invented the Stuxnet virus, which is supposedly targeted at the Iranian nuclear programme, must be rolling around laughing at the increasingly far-fetched speculation over who created it. Most of the "proof", of course, points to Israel. Now, I'm not saying that the Israelis didn't do it - they certainly have the motive and the capability - but the so-called "evidence" is really moving into the realms of the ridiculous.

The piece that has everyone in a tizzy is the file path b:\myrtus\src\objfre_w2k_x86\i386\guava.pdb, which appears in the virus's code. This is, according to alleged experts, an allusion to the biblical Queen Esther, who saved the Jewish people from a genocidal Persian. Myrtus is the Latin word for myrtle, and Esther's other name is Hadassah, or myrtle, you see....

Of course, the myrtle is (partially) native to Europe so it might be a link to the Brits. It is also used by aromatherapists, so perhaps the programmers were just trying to kick up a stink? Or, if you are absolutely set on some Jewish symbolism, according to Wiki, "In Jewish mysticism, the myrtle represents the phallic, masculine force at work in the universe." Bibi the alpha male is really showing Ahmadinejad who's in charge....

But seriously, there is also a clue at the end of the file name: guava, which - guess what - is a member of the myrtle family.

Myrtus could also easily be construed as My RTUs. In SCADA environments, RTU is a commonly used term for remote terminal unit. Isn't it more plausible that the Stuxnet author named the folder myrtus (meaning My RTUs) then realized it also read myrtus, the botanical term, and hence named his file guava? [source]

Then again, there are guava orchards in the Gaza Strip. Perhaps the programmers were against disengagement?

The other piece of "evidence" being thrown about is the string 19790509, which is being interpreted as the date May 9, 1979 - the same day on which Iran executed Habib Elghanian, a prominent Jewish businessman. Unless the programmers are themselves Persian Jews, it is unlikely they are familiar with this episode. But wait:

Perhaps what we really have here is someone born on May 9, 1979

This does sound more likely - although, if the virus was constructed in England (or by a British expat), perhaps we're talking about someone born on September 5, 1979. Who the hell knows? None of this is serious proof for anything other than that we all love a good conspiracy theory.