January 29, 2006

Hamas

In Biblical Hebrew “hamas” means “violence”. But I think we should be glad that Hamas has won the Palestinian elections. It is a victory for democracy.

It is a victory against corruption, because under the old Fatah regime billions of foreign aid from mainly non-Arab and non-Muslim donors simply went into private bank accounts. It never ever went anywhere near relieving the poverty and suffering of Palestinians wherever they were unless of course they were martyrs. Remember hundreds of thousands are still forced by Arab governments to remain in festering camps on their Muslim, Arab territories.

Whatever other fears one may have about Hamas, they were and are seen to be a caring, socially concerned and a less corruptible collection of people than the old gangsters that Arafat surrounded himself with.

Yes, I know they are ideologically anti-Semitic. So, sadly, is most of the Arab world. Under the PLO, the territories were awash with the crudest anti-Semitic literature and hate TV programs. The surprising thing is that so many are still not!

Yes, I also know that Hamas is committed to the destruction and obliteration of Israel. At least one knows where one stands, unlike with the old Palestinian double-talk of condemning terrorism to the outside while supporting and encouraging it inside. “Know your enemy” is the first lesson of warfare. With Arafat and Fatah one never knew what they really believed.

It has been clear for ages to any fair observer (of whom, I fear, there are very few) that the old PLO was incapable of governing a kindergarten, let alone a state. Factions were killing and undermining each other and setting up independent fiefdoms. They have been undermining Abu Mazen, the nice but totally incompetent and powerless figurehead. On the ground the men with the guns made the Russian Mafia look like pussycats.

So at least the air has been cleared and it is now clear that most Palestinians are not left-wing moderates, but absolutists of the exact same mindset as the Iranian President Ahmadinejad. Will all this make any difference to the world outside or change their opinion? Fuhgeddaboudit. Not one whit. On the contrary, Left Wingers and neo- Marxists have already shown that they’d be much happier as allies of Gay-Bashing, Virgin-Slaying, Suicidal Religious Fundamentalists than with liberal, utilitarian, secular Israelis who allow gay equality, despise religion, and have an independent Supreme Court and rights.

However, let me be positive in other ways. Up to now Hamas has agreed to a Hudnah, a ceasefire. The recent attacks on Israel from Palestinian territory, have not come from Hamas, but from Fatah factions such as Islamic Jihad. Hamas has declared it will continue its Hudnah if Israel does. I would rather have Hamas abiding by its Hudnah while calling for Israel’s destruction than Fatah declaring it supports Israel’s right to exist while doing whatever it can, in whatever way possible, to destroy it. At least if Hamas says something it tends to stick to it. Fatah never stuck to anything.

It is true that now more money will be channeled into Hamas, despite protestations, and from there some of it will go to arms. But under Fatah I suggest 90% went to arms and 10% went to human needs. Now I suspect the proportions might be reversed.

There have been many examples of terrorist organizations that made the transition from terror to peace. I believe that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely and that often goes for religion too. But power also forces people to accommodate. When one is responsible there is a better chance of acting responsibly than when one is free to rebel. Indeed more concessions came from Israeli ex-extremists than from liberals.

It was actually Israel that helped establish Hamas because its Divide and Rule policy led it to believe that establishing a counterbalance to Fatah would weaken Palestinian political power. Of course it did not. Thank goodness Israeli generals are not as incompetent as its politicians, or indeed its Secret Service. But secular Israel has always misunderstood religion--its own, let alone others. Once you let the genie of fundamentalism out of the bottle it goes wild. The history of the Middle East is one in which moderate religion always loses out to extremes. It’s partly the nature of fundamentalist, or monochromatic, simplistic religion. It is partly the way political alliances are formed. Everywhere in the Middle East now extreme religion is on the ascendancy.

I see this as beneficial in that it can be a wake-up call both because it shows that caring can win votes and because it may lead to putting more energy and support into moderate religion, instead of the usual secular response to go the other way. It has always fascinated me how secular Jews very often feel more comfortable with extremists whom they know are poles apart from them and therefore can be regarded as romantic fossils or amusing phenomena. Moderate religious people present a greater challenge. They appear as “normal” as the next guy. They live a “modern” life. So the question is, “Why am I not behaving religiously?” They cannot be as easily dismissed. If this is true of Judaism it is true of Islam, too. So after the initial euphoria, perhaps counter forces for moderate religion might emerge. Life always goes in cycles.

What will all this do to the peace process? What peace process? So far there’s only unilateralism. I’d love to think it will get going again and if you listen carefully there are some positive sounds. But more likely a Hamas government will reinforce Israel’s determination to withdraw behind defensible barriers.

I hope there will be a fairer regime within Palestinian territories, and then the separation of the antagonists will help the long healing process that eventually might lead somewhere. I’d like to think that reason will win. History in the Middle East does not hold out much hope. But we can always fall back on the Messiah!! Though I do pray, I’m not holding my breath.

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January 22, 2006

World Zionist Organization

The 35th World Zionist Congress is going to take place in Jerusalem, June 19th–June 22nd, 2006. Does it really matter a jot? Not one bit.

The Zionist Organization was set up by the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897 to represent the ideals and goals of Zionism and to try to establish a Jewish homeland. Its governing body set up the Jewish Agency, which was in effect the government of Israel in waiting.

In 1948 when the State of Israel was founded and a democratically elected government was installed, the full panoply of bureaucratic departments came into being. You would have thought that the Jewish Agency, the Zionist Organization (now renamed The World Zionist Organization), would quietly disappear. Why wouldn’t the State take over their functions?

But in the true tradition of Eastern European bureaucracy, the Jewish Agency and the WZO continued to exist, supposedly to ensure the integration of Israeli Zionism with World Zionism. At the time many people thought it ridiculous. Indeed the first Prime Minister, Ben Gurion, argued that a Zionist was someone who came to live in Israel and anyone else was not.

And just as government portfolios were allocated according to political party votes, so too the Jewish Agency allocated portfolios according to political parties.

Why did one need an Israeli Government Department of Education plus a Jewish Agency Department of Education for the Diaspora, plus a Jewish Agency Religious Department of Torah Education for the Diaspora (because one couldn’t trust or wouldn’t work with the other) and a Department of Education in the World Zionist Organization? All with their buildings and offices and civil servants and cars and drivers and secretaries and tea ladies and doormen and place men and layabouts, all drawing salaries and pensions and travel expenses and very costly junkets around the Jewish world as perks of the job and compensation for spending so much time sitting behind desks and reading newspapers and drinking coffee and doing damn all. Some people argued that instead of unemployment benefits this at least gave the unemployable a sense of importance and value.

So in time honored fashion, instead of scrapping them, they tinkered. In 1952, the Knesset gave the Jewish Agency responsibility for aliya, immigration, absorption and settlement. Then in 1970, they changed the structure so that half the members of the expanded Jewish Agency were representatives of the WZO; 30 percent represent the UJC (U.S.); and 20 percent represent organizations affiliated with Keren HaYesod from the rest of the world. The Jewish Agency would deal with immigration from countries of persecution and the WZO would deal with immigration from affluent countries. In 1979 the WZO was given responsibility for Diaspora education and youth.

The Israel government may have all the talent and all the departments and embassies around the world to handle all this stuff, but for some reason we still need a Jewish Agency and the WZO. Boy with such an ingenious solution you wonder how any Jews ever won any Nobel Prizes. It’s a good job they don't run the army that way.

So what are the WZO and the Jewish Agency in practice? Bloated, over-funded, cash cows. And everyone tries to milk them both as much as possible. Members of Diaspora communities sign up for membership of parties and these parties, according to their numbers, are allocated portfolios and money, mullah, dosh. As with all such party-based structures corruption was rife, numbers were massaged, people who had never heard of the WZO were simply added as members through their synagogue or some other organization that affiliated and then affiliated its members automatically. The pretence of democracy is an even bigger pretence than elsewhere. With recent changes, the Diaspora membership has shifted away from parties and more towards social, welfare and religious groupings. So America, and more specifically its secular and Reform blocks, have the votes to ensure that most of the money goes to their institutions.

The Ultra-Orthodox in Israel avoid the WZO like the plague. They relate to and negotiate with the government of the country they live in, not with an organization they see as a hangover from the ideological battles and secular anti-religion of the early days of Zionism. It is only the Centrist Orthodox who is scrambling around to salvage what they can.

As a student I was immensely grateful for all the free trips and useless conferences the Jewish Agency used to organize to justify its existence. If the price of a free trip to Israel was having to listen for hours to boring placemen pontificate, it was worth it. Though I used to get into trouble when I couldn’t stand it any more and started heckling or making chicken noises.

Later, as a headmaster, I experienced the Jewish Agency sending teachers to the Diaspora. This was a good idea in principle, except they were chosen according to political affiliation and personal favor. Usually the teachers were on junkets to enjoy themselves, pretty useless educationally. There were, of course, wonderful exceptions, few and far between.

So what the heck was the WZO for? Ask yourself what it is that keeps Diaspora Judaism alive? It is religion and education in its widest sense. But why send money to Israel to have them decide how and to whom to send what’s left of it back??

At this moment Diaspora Jewish organizations are desperately scraping around for people to affiliate to the WZO so that their votes can be used at the upcoming conference (when more millions will be wasted paying for useless delegates to come to Israel) to get their hands on WZO allocations.

Why do I think you shouldn’t join? Because by joining you are helping perpetuate a meaningless organization. Care about Israel? Support Israel. You’re a Zionist? Israel needs you. Make the country more efficient. You want money in Israel? Argue your case with the Government. You want money in the Diaspora? Raise it.

The argument goes that they’re going to throw money at the Diaspora anyway so why not get some of it. But by going through the WZO you are lending your name to corruption. Better give your affiliation fee directly to a charity of your choice rather than have it shrunk by leeches sucking most of it into their expense accounts.

The idealist will avoid tainted money. The purist will get involved directly with causes he or she cares about. The answer is to scrap the system not to perpetuate it.

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January 17, 2006

Glueckel and Abramoff

Unbelievably, there are still males who think they are the superior sex. The only superiority I can see is in their propensity for greater monkey business.

One of my series of lectures is about outstanding Jewish women who succeeded in doing as good a job if not better than their male contemporaries.

Amongst them was Donna Gracia Mendez Nasi, A.K.A. Beatrice Di Luna, who was born in Portugal into a family forced to convert to Catholicism. She had to hide her Jewishness while she ran one of the biggest banks in sixteenth century Europe (after her husband and brother-in-law died). She fled Antwerp from the attentions of the Emperor Charles, was betrayed in Venice, rescued by the Duke of Ferrara, where she was able to publicly profess her Judaism. She ended up in Constantinople, famed as a rescuer of beleaguered Jews and a great benefactress of charities and learning throughout the Jewish world.

Another favorite is Bertha Pappenheim who got an awful press as a neurotic Viennese woman from Breuer and Freud, and from anti-religious feminists who blamed her religion for her difficulties. She was rescued from their prejudices by Professor Daniel Boyarin of Berkeley. She was a poet and dramatist. She fought for women’s rights and translated Mary Wollstonecraft into German. She campaigned for poor Jewish women often sold into prostitution and was a trustee of various Jewish educational institutions including the Bais Yaakov girls’ school network.

Her heroine was Glueckel of Hamelin (1646-1724), from whom she was descended. She is known to us because of her diaries which have recently been reissued. She spent most her life in Hamburg. It was her husband who came from Hamelin. Her description of the difficulties, insecurities and dangers the small Jewish communities of Germany had to endure makes riveting, if sad, reading. Even then Denmark proved a more hospitable place for Jews than Germany. When her husband died she took over the business and succeeded in providing for her children. She did very well indeed. It was only when the males pressurized her to remarry for all the wrong reasons that she did and her new husband promptly lost her capital. But what really strikes me about her diary is how little certain features of Jewish life have changed.

Her introduction begins:

This dear children is no book of morals. Our great rabbis have already done this. We have our holy Torah in which you can find and learn all that you need to guide us on our journey through this stormy world to the world to come. The essence of the Torah is ‘You Shall Love Your Neighbor as you.’ But in our days you seldom find it so. And few are those who love their fellow men with all their heart. On the contrary if a man can contrive to ruin his neighbor, nothing pleases him more.
And I was reminded of so many examples I have come across in London, Antwerp, and New York of even outwardly religious Jews who seem determined not just to make as much money as possible--in itself no crime, of course, but to do so by cheating, swindling and even destroying colleagues, relatives and associates with such enthusiasm that one can only wonder what genetic distortions have done their work. Throughout Medieval Europe, despite the depredations and difficulties, the rabbis were constantly reiterating the importance of ethical behavior, of respecting non-Jew and Jew alike, not to cheat or give negative impressions, to avoid Chillul Hashem (desecrating God’s Name or to behave in such a way as to reflect badly on Judaism).

It is embarrassing now in the USA to read and hear about the lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Here is Jeff Jacoby, himself an Orthodox Jew, writing in the Boston Globe on January 8, 2006.

Abramoff defrauded his clients of millions of dollars, bribed public officials, cheated on his tax returns, and deceived lenders to qualify for a loan.

His e-mails to cronies, with messages like, '’Can you smell money?!?!?!’ and, ‘I'd love us to get our mitts on that moolah!’" oozed greed and boorishness. Behind their backs, he crudely mocked those who hired him, calling them "morons", "monkeys", "troglodytes", and "the stupidest idiots in the land". He played fast and loose with what were supposed to be charitable funds. The worst is that Abramoff is an Orthodox Jew -- someone who claims to be committed to strictly observing Jewish law and faithfully adhering to the Torah's ethical standards. But instead of upholding those ethical standards Abramoff trampled on them, and a "religious" Jew who behaves so corruptly disgraces not only himself but all religious Jews. He brings his faith into contempt.
To me it is equally sad the way so many religious leaders have remained silent instead of having the guts to dissociate themselves. Sadly, wherever one looks throughout the Jewish world one sees other examples both of the crimes and of the silence. If only we listened and acted in accordance with what our religion has to say. Here is Glueckel again:

The best thing you can do is to serve your God from your heart without falsehood or pretence, not pretending to others that you are one thing while in your heart, God forbid, you are another. Say your prayers with awe and devotion. Do not talk and stand idly during services. It is a great sin to engage with other men to talk about business. Shall you keep the Almighty waiting while you finish your affairs? Always set a fixed time to study the Torah to the best of your ability. Then go about your business to earn an honest livelihood to support your children.
Say no more!

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January 11, 2006

The Hour and The Man

Over the years I have noticed so often that the most mediocre or the most flawed of individuals, or sometimes the most inappropriate or even downright bad, get into positions of authority and power, when far more able, appropriate or effective people are overlooked for all kinds of reasons.

Sometimes it’s just the way self-perpetuating oligarchies ensure they have “their” men in positions where they can be controlled. Sometimes it’s the way political parties work. So I am never surprised at which people get to the top of the greasy pole. Its only amazing that on rare occasions the appointment is felicitous. I am sure we can all think of examples, in businesses, establishments, religions and countries.

Was Tony Blair really so superior to all the other Labor leaders of the eighteen years who preceded him but were destroyed by the Conservatives? Or was he the right person, in the right position, at a favorable time? How did Bill Clinton, a second-rate governor of a third-rate state with a colorful past, get to be president of the most powerful nation on earth? Was he so much better than all the other Democrats? Or was George Bush really the very best candidate the Republicans could find to be president? I’m not arguing about whether they have done good jobs or not. Just observe, how many accidents and incidentals occur on the path to the top and how rare it is that those favored at the start are those who succeed in the end.

Who would have predicted in 1950 that throughout the Jewish Diaspora Jewish education would come to be regarded as the norm? In London only Rabbis Solomon Schonfeld and Kopul Rosen fought for Jewish Education against arguments that it would prevent integration and inhibit success in life. Their arguments have never been bettered. Yet fifty years later it took a range of circumstances, including the collapse of the State Education System, for almost 75% of the UK Jewish community to be hooked on Jewish education. It had little to do with people (though I don’t underestimate some important contributions). It had much more to do with circumstances.

Who would have thought thirty years ago that Orthodoxy in the UK and in America would now be burgeoning, with massive birth rates, tremendous resources and an explosion of shtieblach , chedarim and yeshivas, while at the same time becoming Chassidish more than Lithuanian, fundamentalist more than scientific, and rabidly right-wing? Can one put this down to any one or group of individuals? I think not. After all, you could never have found as great an authority, scholar, and brilliant brain as the late Dayan Yechezkel Abramsky, of the London Beth Din from 1932 until 1951. He would knock the whole of the present Beth Din into a cocked hat with room to spare. But his influence in his time was miniscule compared to their influence in Anglo-Jewry today. Was he a lesser man? I don’t think so.

Sometimes circumstances have to change. Sometimes attitudes. For nearly two thousand years Jews, wherever they were, desperately wanted to return to Jerusalem, or at least to have the freedom to do so. Would anyone suggest that Herzl’s love for the Holy Land was any greater than that of Yehudah Halevy or of Nachmanides, from medieval Spain, who pined and yearned and ultimately died to get there? And was Ben Gurion a better advocate of the right of Jews to their homeland than Jabotinsky? No. The facts were that the circumstances for the rise of a secular Zionist movement could not have come together any earlier in history, if no other reason than that the very idea of a Secular Jew did not exist before the so-called Enlightenment. And the conditions for establishing a Jewish homeland only occurred in the twentieth century with a confluence of factors, Britain getting the Mandate at Versailles and later the Second World War and Hitler.

Life is, indeed, very much a lottery. Who would have thought that Sharon, condemned by the Kahana Commission for not preventing Christian militias to enter Sabra and Chatilla, would one day become Prime Minister? And who would have thought that he would follow Begin and be far more adventurous and concessionary than other leaders? (I did! I said it at the time to incredulous friends and have it in print.)

I’m not at all surprised by Arab rejoicing at his state. After all, I’d rejoice at the neutralization of all enemies of the Jewish people. Though most Israelis are not enemies of the Palestinians. They just want to protect themselves. Neither am I surprised at the response of some Jews that it serves him right for withdrawing from Gaza. We have always had our share of sick minds.

But who will take his place. Perez? Perhaps an improvement on those who came before him but someone who would wreck Israel’s economy by returning to a Neo-Socialist Command Economy. Netanyahu? A total failure as Prime Minister. A morally compromised opportunist (although admittedly an effective Finance Minister), who has no constructive answer to the diplomatic process other than to say “No”--like rabbis who find it so easy to say “No,” “Treif,” “You can’t.” But ask them to make concessions or be lenient and they go weak at the knees.

Or Olmert? The greasy wheeler-dealer who can’t control his mouth and who’ll go whichever way the money or the opportunity calls? Look around at the Knesset and you see a roll call of the most uninspiring, often corrupt and incompetent men and women you could ever wish to come across anywhere in the free world (outside the UN and the EU). Where will leadership come from?

Sometimes I think God got us into this mess and He will get us out of it. The Messiah will come. Sure, we have waited two thousand years and every prediction so far has proved to be absolutely wrong, not to say dumb. But who knows. Miracles happen. Someone will rise to the occasion and once again, like Joseph in Egypt, we’ll say, “The hour maketh the man.”

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January 01, 2006

Munich

Hillel saw a skull floating down the river. He said, “Because you drowned others, they drowned you, and those who drowned you will in turn be drowned.”

This thought kept coming back to me during the Spielberg film Munich that is creating such a stir because of the way it portrays Israelis avenging the cold-blooded massacring of the Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich in 1972 by the Palestinian Black September.

I am not going to address the issue of equivalence--whether the film is or is not implying that Palestinian violence and Israeli violence are equivalent--nor how the lumpenproletariat or knee-jerk anti-Zionists will respond. And neither will I deal with whether any of Spielberg’s films are educational (Did Schindler’s List reduce anti-Semitism? I doubt it!). This is just a therapeutic personal reaction, which is probably as much about me as about the film.

I’m sure there are Israeli and Jewish criminals, rapists, murderers and sadists. And without doubt anyone in the field of combat is likely to make tragic misjudgments and errors, sometimes with disastrous consequences. But I do strongly believe Israel as a state, with all its faults, and the Israeli army specifically, have always tried to be mindful of traditional Jewish values in theory, and have never, as a matter of policy, sanctioned the intentional killing of unarmed civilians.

Even if you were to argue that Palestinians who declare in public they want to see all Israelis swept into the sea are combatants, there has never been an Israeli policy to set out to kill regardless. Yes, there have been Jewish lunatics, fanatics and people so blinded by either hatred or primitivism that they have called for Palestinians to be driven out, and have committed atrocities--but never has this been justified either by Jewish Law or actual Israeli policy. An independent judiciary and Supreme Court and independent commissions have always held to this principle. Indeed, when the Kahane party advocated racist policies towards the Arabs it was expelled from the Knesset. This needs to be asserted again and again, and contrasted with those who think that children on a bus are a fair target.

Some would say that Israel has brutalized the Palestinians, turning them into crude killers. But it was other Arabs and the UN who have intentionally condemned the Palestinians to living in awful conditions without hope. Although outwardly supported, the Palestinians are deeply unpopular throughout the Arab world. This, of course, justifies nothing; but I would be more inclined to accept blame if the other side would accept that as much brutalization has come from their own as from Israel.

All of this is by way of introduction. Spielberg’s film evokes a variety of responses, but I do not think anyone involved in the Middle East situation could possibly see this film simply as entertainment. It is about what violence does to everyone involved. Impressively, the script quotes the famous Midrash in which the Angels want to sing songs of rejoicing as the Egyptians are drowning in the Red Sea, but God replies, “My creatures are drowning. How can you rejoice?” Even Pharaoh and his henchmen, who threw children into the Nile, killed and raped innocents, and actually did set out to destroy a people, even they were still creatures of God, just as much as Jews or anyone else.

Even when one’s cause is just, the process of killing, even in self-defense, has a profound impact on anyone with a degree of humanity. This is why a kohen, a Jewish priest, who has killed, even justly, may not stand in front of the congregation to bless it. There is blood on his hands, even if justified. As another Talmudic phrase goes, “How can you say one person’s blood is any redder than another’s?”

Armchair pundits are good at passing easy judgments. And I agree not all human beings are sensitive. But to take a human life is an awesome, terrible thing to do under any circumstances. This film is about what killing does to people, those entrusted with the mission, regardless of whether it is just.

The hero of the film is haunted by the way bound and gagged Israeli athletes are mown down as he is by having to kill the Palestinians who planned it. Whichever side one is on, there is the very valid point that taking life has a profound impact on real people and that violence breeds violence and an inevitable cycle will lead nowhere and it must be stopped. This is the recurring theme. (On the most trivial of levels, as an ex-headmaster, I can assure you that group punishments, threats and retaliation were the most ineffective and counterproductive of tools).

But of course it takes two to tango. Until one sees any evidence of a willingness on both parts to stop the cycle, it will continue. Wonderful, sensitive humane young men and women will be faced with choices of life and death, and many will do their duty and suffer in silence. I am constantly reminded of Golda Meir’s famous statement that “I can forgive those who commit violence against us, but I cannot forgive those who force us to be violent in return.”

I don’t know if Hillel actually knew whose skull it was. I’m sure he did not mean to say that we should not deal with murderers, but he would have agreed with the old saying that “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Although tragedy can strike us all, we must give constant thanks if we are individually spared having to make such decisions and take human life. If God is unhappy about the death of a cruel man, then so must we be. Otherwise we are in danger of losing our humanity.

There are many things about the film I liked and disliked (why does he HAVE to keep on shoving gratuitous sex into our faces--does he have a checklist to pass?), but it makes us think about how precious human life is and how terrible it is to take it. And how awful it is to be forced to do so in defense of ones right to live and have a home of ones own. And before one castigates the hero for ultimately seeking to escape and not wanting to return, let us not also forget that that simply puts him on the same level as over one million other Israelis who have left Israel after serving their country since the State was founded.

The real victor of the film is humanity.

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