August 26, 2016

The Secret War against the Jews

It is no secret that nations spy on each other. They always have. Just think of Moses and Joshua sending spies into Canaan. That’s what you should expect and be prepared for, both defensively and offensively if necessary. Whether it is through individual contacts, so-called diplomats, arms dealers, shady fifth men, electronic surveillance, or hacking. The benefit of internet technology is that it is less and less possible to hide what nefarious activities go on.

We have known for a long time that where there are peace treaties, in addition to the publicly available official terms, there have always been unofficial side deals, national and personal, not divulged to the public for all kinds of reasons. Some will call it diplomacy (warfare through lies); others will call it wise counsel. We have just had an example of the internet revealing such a side deal.

An American planeload of cash notes in various currencies was photographed arriving in Iran. After it had been checked by the Iranians, another plane took off in the other direction carrying released hostages. No, said Obama, it was not trading for hostages. The money was part of a previously agreed restitution of Iranian money originally intended for an arms deal that the US held back when it imposed sanctions. Yes, pull the other leg. That’s why it happened just now and in secret and within hours of releasing hostages. And why in cash? There can be no other reason than that Iran wants cash to fund terrorism in such a way that it cannot be traced.

Of course the Government will tell you the deal with Iran was a success. He won’t tell you what other side deals were made. I guess it all depends on how you define success. To me it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, and yet the duck is dead. But in truth he’s only doing what state representatives and senators do all the time. You scratch my back, I’ll fund your pet project and pass it through Congress without anyone knowing about it.

What do you do when you realize that a supposed ally is spying on you? What do you do when you discover that your allies are really helping your enemies? This happens all the time and always has. It stands to reason when you are dealing with bodies like the American State Department or the British Foreign Office, well known for their antipathy towards Israel. After all, it makes sense in one way. There are only 14 million Jews.

If you want to read about all the examples of proven dishonesty, corruption, and repeated attempts either to blame Israel or pull the rug out from underneath it, not to mention actual attempts to get it destroyed, you have only to read one book: The Secret War against the Jews: How Western Espionage Betrayed The Jewish People, by John Loftus and Mark Aarons.

As the title proclaims, it deals with the diplomatic battle to attack Jews over a hundred years. We are no longer surprised at the antipathy and hatred towards Jews in Europe. But it is sad to read how far the poison has spread. The book’s frontispiece includes the famous 1992 quote from the Honorable James Baker, US secretary of State, “Fuck the Jews…they won’t vote for us anyway,” as proof, if proof were needed, that the war against Israel is also a war against those Jews who fight for the preservation of their autonomous religious and cultural traditions.

But everywhere things are constantly changing. Once the Democrats were the main supporters of Israel. Now it's the Republicans. Once 90% of American Jews voted Democrat. Now it is sliding rapidly down below 60%. Yet surprisingly, under Obama Israel has received more aid than under any previous American President. For all that, anti-Semitism erupts from the Middle East, and Olympic athletes refuse to talk, shake hands, or compete with Israelis; Israel has two peace treaties, is now on negotiating terms with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and shares their position on Iran. Turkey is renewing diplomatic ties. Russia has good relations with Israel, better certainly than under the Communists, and yet Russia is supporting Assad in cahoots with Iran. Everything is in a state of flux. Clearly, no alliance remains static. No hatred outlives self-interest. Israel must take care of itself, as it always had to. So realpolitik is the order of the day. In contrast, say, to religion, where realpolitik is a sign of its moral corruption.

Now it is a modern convention that spies, no matter how much damage they do, how many deaths they cause, are exchanged (when they are not just liquidated). Last years The Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks, was based on the real-life swap of Rudolf Abel for Gary Powers. TV series like The Americans revolve round the issue. So why is the American who spied for Israel, Jonathan Pollard, being treated vindictively, out of all proportion to his crimes? After all, he was providing proof to Israel that America was acting against it. Refusing to share information that they had agreed to. And delivering documents that caused no loss of life, endangered no system of espionage or American interests, other than American perfidy.

Yes, he was a spy. Yes, he betrayed America, and yes, he volunteered rather than being recruited. Israel itself correctly insisted that he had not been recruited as a spy, and indeed he was never employed by Mossad. Anyway, Israel thought him unreliable and had better sources of its own. Yet over the years they came round to reluctantly accepting that he had acted in order to help the state and granted him citizenship. Why did Caspar Weinberger, of Jewish origin on one side, go to such an extent to vilify him, lying about the damage he did? Why did two Jewish judges, Bader Ginsburg and Silberman, refuse an appeal, when the only non-Jewish judge argued strongly for a miscarriage of justice? What does it say about their insecurity? We Jews are our own worst enemies. Interestingly, the authors only refer in passing to Stephen Pollard as a small incidental cog in the Iran-Contra scandal.

Why is everyone so obsessed with Israeli espionage? I suggest it’s a reaction against Mossad, which has a fearsome and often exaggerated reputation. It has as many failures to its credit as successes. But just as once the czarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion purported to explain the myth of how and why the Jews controlled the world, now Mossad crops up everywhere from Hollywood to Bernie Sanders as the evil force that is secretly subverting and subjugating and the rest of the world. When, in fact, it is only helping Israel survive against all the odds, including threats from its supposed allies. As the great Hillel said two thousand years ago, “If I am not for me, who will be?” But of course we should also remember that he went to say, “But if I am ONLY for me, what am I?”

August 18, 2016

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter indeed, and so they ought to, all the more for what they have had to endure. But the organization, however noble and justified its beginnings, is in serious danger of marginalizing and undermining itself. For the sake of its cause, I hope it does not fall further into a political trap.

There can be no doubt that black human beings, as well as many others, both of color and of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, have been treated atrociously in the USA (and almost everywhere else in the world, regardless of political or religious creed). For all the moral piety of the Declaration of Independence that declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” it took a bloody civil war to abolish slavery.

It was not until President Lyndon B. Johnson helped secure the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (we can argue about Eisenhower), making racial discrimination and segregation illegal, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which abolished the poll tax and other means of keeping blacks and poor people from voting, that the USA began to take the noble sentiments seriously.

Despite all this and the fact that a portion of the black population has reached the pinnacles of American society, large numbers of black (and other) citizens remain confined to poor areas with substandard education, housing, and employment. A disproportionate number of blacks sit in American jails, and systemic prejudice remains endemic in pockets throughout the country. Some police forces have a terrible record of discrimination, and poor areas suffering from contamination, like Flint, have been ignored ( and sadly there are plenty of other examples of contaminated water across the US that have not been addressed). Clearly neither money, nor access to local government (Baltimore’s administration is almost entirely black), nor affirmative action have resolved what seems to be an intractable problem.

Is there a solution? I cannot think of one. I was brought up in a different culture, one that admittedly believed that self-help was the only way. But then Jews could always hide their identity if they chose to, and most did. Doctrinaire socialism has not found a solution other than blaming others. On the contrary, too often trade unions hold back progress in all these areas, either out of political correctness or vested interest in preserving their power bases and privileges.

That is why the only solution I see is for those who care to speak out, to campaign, to agitate peacefully against prejudice wherever it occurs.

But Black Lives Matter is in danger, unless it wakes up, of becoming another left-wing, political, ideological, lunatic fringe as guilty of prejudice and close-mindedness as any other special interest sector of American society, precisely because it has fallen into bed with crackpot extremists who have pushed it to adopt ideological lies that only prove it is just as politicized as those it claims to speak out against. And politicization only holds back progress. No better example exists than that of civil rights campaigner Al Sharpton, who for all his noise, bluster, and publicity for more than fifty years has achieved bubkas other than self-promotion and wealth.

There is a wider coalition (which Black Lives Matter has allied itself with), called The Movement for Black Lives, which has expanded its remit to deal with universal examples of prejudice and discrimination that it blames on American imperialism. Nothing, you notice, against oppression of human rights by other states, religions, and races. In its manifesto, published on August 1, it pokes its nose into the Israel-Palestine conflict and uses terms that are not only deceitful, but plain and simply wrong. Its motive can only be to ally itself with myopic ideological left-wing ideology with closed minds, and those, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who deny Jews equal rights. You will notice that they say nothing about Indian occupation of Muslim Kashmir.

They claim that the occupation of Palestinian territory is only due to Israeli intransigence and white Imperialism and everything wrong in the Middle Eat is America’s fault for supporting Israel. They repeat the tropes of black anti-Semites such as Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm X who thought that Israel was the sole aggressor, rather than an expression of a persecuted people for home rule (support them when they are victims, reject them when they are not). They erroneously think that blacks have more in common with Muslims than with Christians and ignore the fact that Muslim traders were more responsible for slavery, both in time and numbers. And that most slaves were sold to the Americas by black African chieftains for personal gain. Sadly, everyone’s hands were sullied by that inhuman trade to some degree, and to pick on only one to blame is simply historical ignorance, if not rabble-rousing prejudice. Unfortunately, this spurious black narrative has infected a whole generation, including novelist Toni Morrison, bestseller Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Bernie Sanders supporters who blame Israel for everything you care to mention.

It is applying terms like apartheid or genocide to Israel’s attempts to protect itself (while waiting for a negotiated peace agreement, having relinquished the occupation of Gaza) that betrays prejudice, whether it comes from Jew or non-Jew, black or white. Genocide means destroying a people, but under Israel the Palestinian population has risen not fallen. No mass graves of executed civilians or gassed populations have been found, whereas all this is common place amongst its declared enemies.

If Black Lives Matter is dedicated to removing discrimination in the USA, we should support it wholeheartedly and campaign for it. But if, like the UN, it allies itself uncritically with movements that have political agendas like The Movement of Black Lives, which sticks its nose uncritically into other complicated and complex conflicts, coming down on one side only, I will accuse it of dishonesty, prejudice, and malign intent. It will be in danger of becoming just another corrupt, self-serving political movement. If it continues to support The Movement for Black Lives, it will wither on its own vine.

August 11, 2016

The Temple

The Temple has been the most significant building in Jewish history. The Fast of Av commemorates two occasions when it, Jerusalem, and the Jewish state were destroyed. Tradition has it that the 3rd Temple will last forever! But how essential is it? We managed before we had a Temple with a collapsible, moveable Tabernacle. Babylonian Jewry survived without one. And we have managed without it for some two thousand years. Why do we make such a fuss of it?

I can understand its symbolism. Once we were in charge of our own land and could build whatever we wanted to. The Temple represents a time before Christianity and Islam tried to displace and eliminate us. It is the myth of the past, a mixture of El Dorado, Atlantis, and Tintagel, with great, wise, victorious kings like Solomon. When conquest was conquest, whoever the conqueror might have been, for better or for worse, and there were no interfering international proxies.

After the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70, the Jewish people had to make significant adjustments to a new reality. Community prayer and study replaced community sacrifices. Hundreds of years later, when the Byzantium exiled the remnant of Judean Jewry and authority, the reality hit that there was no chance of a military Messiah regaining what had been lost. Instead Judaism focused on a mystical Messiah.

As the likelihood of things being again exactly as they had been, receded, the rabbis had to allow for a new order that might be different than the previous one. So the idea developed that the prophet Elijah would come back down to earth to give us details of a new order. What new rituals and old laws would or would not apply? One opinion declared that all festivals would no longer apply, except for Purim—as the example of God’s presence being hidden, because His name is not mentioned once in Esther’s Scroll, and that we should enjoy life and be happy despite all awful things going on around us!

It was this idea of God’s presence withdrawn that lay behind the idea in the Talmud (Ketubot 111a) that we should accept our fate in exile and not try to return by force. Instead, wait patiently for God to intervene. Most rabbis have taken this as symbolic. Besides, the agreement not to use force was conditional on force not being used against us. Only the immensity of our suffering and political circumstances helped bring Jewish nationalism to fruition. Yet individual Jews always returned when they could—Nachmanides, Yehudah HaLevy from Spain, the Spanish Exiles to Safed, and the second generation of Chasidic masters and Lithuanian pietists from Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century. All of these groups shared one dream: to return to Zion, if just to die.

The place where the Temple stood remained holy ground, and under biblical law no one ritually impure could enter its space. Only the ashes of the Red Heifer could provide such purification. Even if such a Red Heifer were to be found, only a proven priest could carry out the ceremony. And it is a fact that we do not know for certain who a priest is today. The Cohanim we have are accepted symbolically, but not with the same authority or functions as Biblical priests. Yes, I know there are these fancy genetic tests, but none of them satisfies all the criteria for proving a priest’s pedigree today. We will just have to wait until Elijah comes, no matter what the crazies plan.

It is for this reason that you will not find Charedi Jews going to visit the Temple Mount. No one from my yeshiva ever tried to in my day. Even though it is probable that the Temple did not occupy all of the territory now called Haram Esh Sharif, or Al Quds, they did not and do not go there. When in doubt, one should not, particularly if there’s a danger of infracting a biblical law. Those who now campaign to go up there are the less Charedi. They are the nationalists who are motivated less by spirituality than political assertion of rights. When one side plays politics, so too does the other.

Those Muslims who object to Jews being up there and try to scream and scare them away are being racist and playing politics too. But in a tinderbox, one ought to be careful about lighting a match. One has to choose one’s fights. In this case the overwhelming majority of Orthodox and other forms of Judaism do not approve of trying to take over the Temple Mount. Neither does the Israeli government, nor any really significant rabbi that I am aware of.

Ironically, since the success of secular Zionism as a Jewish liberation movement in achieving a Jewish homeland, most secular Israelis have drifted so far away from religious Judaism that they don't care about the Temple very much at all. Those who want to claim rights are regarded as crazy by both the Charedi and the secular.

But the Temple will not fade from our psyche. We pray for it every single day. Certain Charedi yeshivot study every law to do with Temple procedure in great depth—every inch of the building in its first and second phase, every movement of procedure, every ceremonial, every garment, tool, and artifact. They are not the ones scouring Africa or Hollywood or the Vatican for the Lost Ark, nor going up on to the Temple mount to say their prayers. They are waiting patiently for God to reveal, through history, the fate of the Jewish people.

Meanwhile, given the world we live in, we have no option but to fight for our survival. Since most of the Charedi world doesn’t fight and more secular Israelis avoid military service, it is the National Religious who are following in the footsteps of Bar Kochba, taking up arms in defense of Jewish sovereignty. I admire them. Just wish some of them didn’t have designs on the Temple Mount.History never exactly repeats itself. But it seems to me that any attempt to provoke by trying to take over the Temple site is a fool’s game. Worshipping stones instead of God is itself an example of how some Jews continue to worship idols.

There is, of course, immense significance in the Western Wall, the last physical vestige of our Temple. As much as it reminds us what we have lost, it also stands as testament to the fact that we have done pretty well without a Temple, and this seems to be the will of God at this moment in time.

So as we mourn the loss, I think we should also celebrate how we have risen from the ashes like a phoenix. As Rabbi Akiva said on seeing foxes where the Temple once stood, the same voice that prophesied our loss also prophesied our survival.

August 04, 2016

Modesty

In the world we live in, there seems little room for modesty. Where absolutely every nook and cranny of the human body is easily available on the Internet and teens see more pornography than people of my age saw in the whole of their lives, any attempt to cover up is regarded as prudery or religious extremism.

In theory modesty is knowing that there is a place for everything, but not everywhere is that place. Judaism has always regarded sex as a positive, healthy Divine gift to be enjoyed and respected with an appropriate partner. It is true you can find in the Talmud the opinion that one should never reveal too much. But you will also find the principle that between a man and his wife everything is permitted so long as it is freely granted and completely consensual.

But in public the tradition is to be modest. Orthodox men not only cover their heads, but also wear clothes that cover up and are not body fittingly suggestive. Women either cover their heads or keep their hair modest. They also wear clothing that is not overly suggestive or tight-crotched or cleavage-revealing. Of course there are anomalies and contradictions, such as wig-wearing women in spandex and minis and Charedi men going to strip clubs. But we are not dealing with outliers.

Nudity has its place and the human body after all is God’s work! But I have always preferred the sense of modesty that respects bodies. I always noticed immodest dress. But what was revealed in my youth is nothing to what one sees on the streets of cities in summer nowadays. Not to mention what one sees at the cinema, even in movies rated as suitable for children.

The more I hear criticism of Orthodox extremes, the more I appreciate the foresight and genius of its founders to create a system that would end up demanding we shut off our phones and computers at least one day a week, insisting on families eating meals together, thinking about what it is we are eating, and expecting us to dress modestly.

There are many areas in Judaism where women suffer various degrees of disadvantage and prejudice. Most of it (not all, by any means) comes from adopting values from other cultures we have been living under. But one area where we have equality is in the area of modesty. There are some religions and cultures that expect women to cover up, sometimes everything except for eye slits, but allow the men to wear whatever they want. Or those that blame women, even kill them, when they are raped and oppressed, but exonerate or even praise the male perpetrators, and let them get away with it. If you are genuine and religious, as opposed to primitive and superstitious, you will insist on standards that apply across the board. I applaud modesty and agree with traditions that expect standards of dress from women, although I cannot understand, nor do I think it honest, that so many of them do not expect similar modest standards from their men.

We now live in a world of making statements, revealing everything about ourselves online. Everything is out in the open. Social media now exercises so much influence that it can topple or reinforce regimes, dictators, and self-promoters. But it also caters to hypocrisy. Covering one’s head used to be an act of genuine piety. Now it is a public statement to flaunt. Whether it is a hijab or a kipa, it says nothing about religious standards but everything about your political agenda.

In my western European youth, outward displays of religiosity were frowned upon. We did not push for religious agendas. We were Orthodox in private or in synagogue. If we went to college or worked in the city, we did not cover our heads. The default position in Jewry was to assimilate, to try to escape the Judaism that made us different (if we had any knowledge of real Judaism altogether, which in most cases we did not). But that all began to change, and I think its healthier even if it is a misusage.

Overt displays of piety were always the preserve of a few. But as a general symbol of identity, it started in the West with immigration and the idea that there was nothing wrong with looking or being different. Not only, but you no longer needed to adapt or learn a new language. And outward symbols also became a way of fighting back against more open societies. Not to preserve, but to offend. You should stay the way you were without making any concessions to the host society. For Jews, the Six-Day war was liberating. We no longer needed to apologize. We could feel secure.

I recall at interfaith meetings 50 years ago where no one suggested taking a break for Mincha. I remember telling cautious Muslim participants then not to follow the example of Jewish immigration in the nineteenth century that thought it best to hide one’s identity and be a Jew at home but an Englishman in the street. Now, of course, the pendulum has swung the other way. Many western cultures have all but lost interest in preserving their religious identities, and what identity one sees is either apologetic or fascist. Many of those who object to religious modesty on the grounds that it constricts females, approve of excessive looseness of dress that overemphasizes physicality and that also constricts females by objectifying them. A hijab is just the other side of the coin to the thong.

Moral relativism allows or turns a blind eye to a great deal, whether it is permissive or barbaric. Nations have lost their identities, and as a result all that is left is individual choice, which it is why modesty is so important. Because modesty is one of the few values most religions share. It is the usually (not always, I agree) the test of how committed one is.

Where it has become a political statement, I dislike it. It is too often hypocritical, destructive, and socially divisive. It encourages people to think they are holier than others. But as a genuine statement of respect, value, and self-control, I believe it to be as important today as ever before.

July 28, 2016

Proud to be a Zio

I was once standing in line to board a plane at Stansted Airport, and I found myself next to a gentleman who appeared, to my trained eye, to be an Orthodox Jew—black suit, white shirt, no tie, black hat, and beard. I turned to him and said, lightheartedly, in a mixture of English and Yiddish, “With a ‘Shayna Yid’ like you on board, I am sure we will have safe flight.” For the uninitiated, this is a Yiddish expression for a “fine, upstanding Jew.” It's a compliment.

He looked at me blankly, and I realized I had made a serious mistake. “What did you say?” he asked me. I replied that I had said that with such a fine, upstanding-looking gentleman like him on board, I was sure we’d have a safe flight. Don't ask me why I said such a stupid thing. But I did.

“No that’s not what you said,” he replied and walked away. And that was the last I saw of him.

I realized that he had heard the word Yid and had thought I was insulting him. You see, in Yiddish “a Yid” is a compliment. It is a positive, good word. But in north London soccer circles, “Yid” is a term of abuse. Supporters of Arsenal and Chelsea use it against fans of Tottenham Hotspur, regardless of whether they are Jewish or not. This poor fellow, possibly an undertaker or a member of some honorable Order, took it as an insult. It is all about context.

The word “Goy” is now used almost universally in a derogatory way, even if in the Bible it is used entirely complimentarily to describe any significant nation, primarily Israelite, but non-Israelite too. Where did its negative usage come from? According to Israeli academic Amnon Raz Krakotzkin, when the Catholic censors turned their attention to the Talmud, they went looking for anything that might be offensive to Christians. Talmudic terms for non-Jews like “Ovdei Kochavim” (idol worshippers) were intended originally to refer to real idolaters. But the censors thought it was a negative code for Christians, who had effigies of Jesus and Mary in their churches. So they insisted that the printers replace such terns with the word “Goy”, which at that time was regarded as a safe, positive biblical Hebrew word. But the fact that the Christians who were oppressing the Jews preferred this word inevitably turned it into a negative one. Amazing how one often does not see the consequences of one’s actions.

Now a new fashionable term of abuse, acceptable amongst the yahoos on the Left and Islamists, is that of Zio, intended to demean Zionists. In the discovery of rabid anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party, this term has suddenly come into the open. It is a soubriquet I am proud to adopt. If people use a term to disparage my inalienable rights, well, sod them, I say. In your face.

The strange truth is that in my youth I did not want to describe myself as a Zionist. My early experiences in Israel in the 1950s were of proudly secular Zionists who hated religion in general and Judaism in particular, who associated Orthodoxy with the ghettos of Europe and desperately wanted Israel to be Torah-free. This was a new phenomenon for me. I was brought up in England to respect religion, even if you chose not to keep it. The left-wing Zionism I encountered in Israel was rooted in the late 19th century, as a political movement whose dominant ( not all of course) ideology was inspired mainly by Marxism. In my youth Marxism had already been revealed as “the god that died” or, more accurately, had betrayed all those millions of idealists who trusted in its healing powers—whereas I was brought up in Judaism, where Jews had been longing to return home and praying for Zion for thousands of years. Wanting to return home was Jewish liberation, self-determination. One did not need another word for it.

The Zionist myth that normalization would remove anti-Semitism was predicated on the belief that anti-Semitism was logical. That when faced with “normal” Jews the anti-Semites would see the error of their ways. But in the face of the blind hatred that refuses to go away, no evidence or argument can dissuade prejudice. I am hated for being a Jew regardless of whether I am a Zionist or not, and the current tsunami of anti-Israelism has drawn no distinction between Zionist and Jew. Meanwhile many secular Israelis feel more at home with like-minded international socialism than they do with Judaism. Which is fair enough, so long as I have the right to identify with those I prefer to.

I believed, and still do, that any “ism” that thought it could replace Judaism was doomed. So I did not want to describe myself as a Zionist. Yet I remained, and remain to this day, a firm believer in our need to try to take control of our own destiny (in so far as anyone can nowadays ). One can describe that, if one wants to, as Jewish nationalism. But I could never see why, other than as a historical oddity, there was any value in calling it anything other than Judaism wanting its right to self-rule.

At the same time, I could see how all nationalism had and has a lot wrong with it. most of it a relatively modern phenomenon that replaced the Holy Roman Empire, Austrian Hungarian Empire, The Ottomans and sundry others. In a dream world we would not need it. But given that nationalism is the current currency of world affairs and if the Serbs and Croats and Samoans and Irish can have their own country, it seems to me that only prejudice or visceral hatred could possibly object to Jews having a state of their own and the right to protect it. All the more so given that no other states were prepared to absorb them in any significant numbers when Hitler struck. And I accept fully that objectively my nationalism ought to be no less and no more important than anyone else’s.

The attempt to differentiate between Jews, Orthodox or other, Zionist or not, is unhelpful and misleading. It provides work for bureaucrats and academics and excuses for Jew-haters. If you are walking in Jerusalem as a black suited-Charedi pacifist Jew who opposes Zionism as a secular distortion, you are just as likely to be stabbed to death as a soldier carrying a gun or to have abuse hurled at you by opponents of Israel’s existence. Current statistics show that Charedi men are far more likely to experience anti-Semitism in Europe and the USA than secular Zionists!

So, yes, I am going to call myself a Zio and be proud of it. Because if people hate me for who I am with no attempt at nuance or understanding, it makes no difference what they call me. So it’s my way of saying “F***K you, too.”

July 21, 2016

Conversion Confusion

We know well enough by now that the status of conversions to Judaism is an unholy, inconsistent, politicized and often corrupt mess. As a people and as a religion we are just as confused, inconsistent, and illogical as any other. I am referring to the chaos that reigns within what is confusingly and illogically called Orthodoxy.

According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Israel’s highest rabbinical court recently rejected a conversion performed by prominent American Modern Orthodox rabbi, Haskel Lookstein, upholding the decision of a lower rabbinical court. The Supreme Rabbinical Court had held two appeal hearings on the rejection of the woman’s conversion by the Petach Tikvah Rabbinical Court, where she had applied for marriage registration with her Israeli fiancé. Last week the Chief Rabbinate (countermanding) said it recognizes Rabbi Lookstein’s conversions, as it always has.

Naturally this case has attracted extra publicity, because Rabbi Haskel Lookstein was the rabbi who arranged for Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka to receive an Orthodox conversion so that she could marry Jared Kushner. It would look very bad just as the Republican National Convention appoints Trump as their candidate for rabbis to suddenly cast aspersions on his daughter’s conversion. Yet it does raise the issue of what the criteria for an Orthodox conversion are.

The episode illustrates the political tensions that exist in Israel between local rabbinic courts, the Supreme Rabbinic Court, and the Chief Rabbinate, each vying for power, and each believing it has the right to decide. So a conversion, even in Israel, recognized in one area might not be in another. There is nothing new about this; local courts and authorities often refuse to recognize others in the same country, let alone others. In Israel it has been particularly prevalent, because nationalist rabbis are too Zionist for Charedi rabbis, who are too fundamentalist and anti-Zionist for Modern Orthodox rabbis. While both agree that Conservative and Reform rabbis are not “real” rabbis.

In 2013, the Chief Rabbinate rejected—then later accepted—a conversion by New York rabbi Avi Weiss, who founded the liberal Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Last year it threatened to revoke the appointment of American-born rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who advocates progressive Orthodox policies as Chief Rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat. This is all too typical of religious political infighting, using theology as a smokescreen for power politics.

Conversion has been a problem ever since, two thousand years ago, Hillel took a lenient and inclusive attitude and Shammai preferred to be strict and exclusive. It did not help when Christianity and Islam both made converting one of theirs to Judaism a capital offense. But what distinguishes Judaism from the others is that it sees no point in trying to evangelize, so long as other peoples and religions are living ethical lives. Don’t convert if you don’t want to keep all the rules. Stay as you are. The criterion the Talmud laid down, and the one that remains imbedded in Jewish law, is that the only basis for conversion is that one wishes to join the Jewish people and live a life according to the Torah. Naturally each denomination defines Torah in its own way.

To this day we have two distinct attitudes even within Orthodoxy: the lenient and the strict. Most of my rabbinic life was spent in the UK, where the authorities took a strict line and would refuse to accept any conversion for ulterior motives, such as to get married. They refused to accept conversions from Israel, South Africa, and the USA, where they thought the rabbis were too lenient. You could be Orthodox in Johannesburg, but not able to join an Orthodox synagogue in London.

I was amazed to discover cases in the UK where an Orthodox conversion could be arranged if you were very rich and well connected. I was shocked to discover how easy it was to get converted in different parts of the USA under different officially Orthodox rabbis where there was no centralized authority. And scandalized to discover that in Israel there were rabbinic courts that would convert very easily, particularly if you crossed their palms with silver. There are still too many cowboys on both sides of the Atlantic. The situation is a mess wherever you are, and almost whoever you are, and I feel so sorry for innocent people who are misled by rabbis who do not tell them the truth about their status. Even in Hassidic circles what is allowed in one court may be refused in another.

For those of us who would like some consistency and humanity, this is depressing and even immoral. To others there have been so many suspect, dishonest, and baseless conversions, often abandoned the minute the ring is on the finger, that the whole issue of conversion is a farce anyway. Some never accept conversions for the sake of marriage. And yet the first Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Rav Benzion Meir Hai Uzziel although he disapproved in principle strongly urged tolerance and accepting such converts.Others, like the Syrian community in New York, simply refuse to accept any conversions at all.

Yet in one way the chaos is good. At least there are options, possibilities, alternatives, and the chance of finding someone in authority who might come down on your side. The advantage of one all-powerful authority is that, like the pope, you have infallibility. The disadvantage is that if they come down against you, that is the end of the road. There are not too many Orthodox rabbis that I know, that I would have the confidence in that I ‘d be happy to see them have the power to decide for us all. It is not their scholarship, I worry about so much as their ability to foreswear politics and power. So I am glad that there are other options.

You have two contrasting models in Judaism today: the centralized Israeli State Religious model, and the laissez-faire, uncontrolled American model. It is indeed tightening up now that pressure has been brought to bear. But there are still cowboys! Neither system is perfect. Many of the conflicts in Israel arise because one model seeks to impose its view on the other. This is always going to be a political battle. But in such situations you do find good men and women working hard to resolve the conflicts.

Like Rabbi Seth Farber, founder of ITIM, an organization that helps Israelis navigate Israeli religious bureaucracy. Or TZOHAR a movement of moderate, tolerant Orthodox rabbis within the state system. Or Rav Aaron Leibowitz of HASHGACHA PRATIT. They do a magnificent job that goes some way to redress the ethical balance.

You might say this all gives the Orthodox establishment a bad name. Orthodoxy will reply that it doesn't care. It has its principles. Besides, “what have the Romans ever done for us?” But if, as the Torah says, we are supposed to be an example to the world of an ethical, moral system that brings us recognition for our sensitivity and spirituality, we really need to see the damage that is being done by not having a clear policy, one way or another. Meanwhile, if Ivanka keeps Shabbat, I am definitely on her side!

July 14, 2016

Fractured Society

The Fractured Republic is the title of a book by Yuval Levin, subtitled “Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism”. He regrets the tendency to think in terms of national concepts rather than communal ones. In other words, we now tend to look at the whole building rather than its bricks. At the same time, whilst we look at national issues in terms of the larger picture, in practice we all live lives that are much more selfish than a communal. And this is one reason why religion is losing its popularity and position in American society. We have enough of big government s telling us what to do without needing religions to do it too.

Many Americans look back with nostalgia to a time after World War II in which schools, communities, and churches provided the social nucleus, and everyone was confident in his or position within a homogeneous community. Levin’s message is that looking backwards to a mythical past is unhelpful. Social clocks change all the time, but they very rarely go backwards. Parts of American society might have been thus, but such a myth ignores the racism, the social inequalities, and the exclusivities and closed communities that were even more evident then than now. It was hardly a model society. Just think of the McCarthyism that pervaded the early 1950s. Nostalgia is rarely an accurate lens.

Many Jews similarly look back to the ghetto as a kind of pastoral heaven, ignoring the anti-Semitism, stinking hovels, poverty, and constant threat of attack. Even the number and degree of the faithful is exaggerated. The average general level of religious study and practice was far lower than today, as well as the numbers dedicated to Torah compared to those nowadays in the USA and Israel. And yet ironically it is probably true to say the those tough conditions produced far more great minds and leaders than the masses sitting in study today. Even here in America there are many Jews who look back to the perfect Jewish world where everyone voted Democrat, and Reform and Conservative Judaism dominated the Jewish roost.

Judaism has always been concerned with community, for self-preservation and protection. It has looked to a model that combines spiritual authenticity and religious services all in one walkable zone. No human being can stand alone. Jewish communities were always based on charity, support, and the provision of social service. It is true that such cohesion was often imposed from the outside, and as soon as they could escape it, many did. But the ideological underpinning was a religious community, a kingdom of priests where study and prayer required involvement with others of different backgrounds and levels of commitment, wealth, and knowledge. It was as near to a classless society as one could get. Certainly more so that the evil, Marxist, egalitarian replacement that Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin created.

We are now privileged to live in a free world where we have choices. It is indeed a world of individuality and individualism. But this does not prevent people from choosing to live in whichever kind of society they want to. Many do indeed prefer closed, monochromatic communities for their support, religious facilities, and protection. Such Jewish societies can also be oppressive and restrictive. Yet Judaism today is a strange mixture of open and closed societies. Each has its good points and its bad ones. And we are able to move in and out of different models depending on mood, opportunity and where it is we live. In the larger communities we may visit a Chassidic rebbe or a Lithuanian yeshiva and attend a Modern Orthodox synagogue on Shabbat. WE can study a page of Talmud every day, and yet, go to the movies, holiday in the Caribbean, and wear modern dress. We may conform outwardly but rebel inwardly (and sometimes openly, too). On balance, I think this is healthy. Certainly no less healthy than excessively pious communities that disregard State as well as Torah laws they find inconvenient.

While one part may reject modernity, the other embraces it. Conversely, while one sector of Jewry objects to the idea of an Eruv, or protests the right of Orthodox women to bathe separately in municipal pools or circumcision or a Jewish state, another part of us can tell them to piss off. We are a people only in name or, as Sartre said, because other people describe us as Jews, not because we share very much; we don’t. Anyone to the right of me is a fanatic and to the left is an assimilationist.

Instead of mourning this variety, even confusion, I celebrate it, for it is the only way in the free world we inhabit. Whenever an exclusive ideology, no matter what it is, tries to impose itself on others, it might for a while win some traction. But it will always generate opposition, and there will always be alternatives. Just think off the history of Marxism.

No matter who tries to write a book (and many have Jews and non Jews alike) about what decisions we should make to heal fractured societies, they all sound preachy, pious, and unrealistic—indeed, doctrinaire in their own ways. Yuval’s book is just another such. He might be right about the importance of community. And creating communities and maintaining them is hard work. But what works in micro does not work in macro. They are two very different situations.

No societies, except dictatorships of mad men or the proletariat, have come up with a model that gains the approval and acceptance of 99% of a population. Why should it? Moses didn't achieve it, and by implication God has not either! Which is why there are so many different groups of humans speaking in His name and utterly convinced that He speaks to them alone.We are who we are, and above all we want to be allowed to make our own decisions. When anyone tries to bully us, we react the other way. Look at Brexit for example, or Heaven save us, Donald Thump.We accommodate to societies. We have personal interests and national interests. They sometimes conflict. We live in tribes, super-tribes, and pseudo-tribes, as sociologist Morris said.

I value Jewish values. They are amazing despite (possibly because of) their contradictions. I am not so happy about many of the ways that Jews treat these ideas, but I respect difference. As Sir Isaiah Berlin once said, if you come across anyone who believes he is in the sole possession of the truth, run away as fast as you can. I prefer fuzzy inconsistency to boring unanimity. The Ancient Greeks liked order and certainty. We Jews like questions more than we do answers. We were born and bred in chaos.