March 28, 2006

Rabbis and Imams in Seville

Just got back from Seville in Spain where I attended a the Second World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace. Strange that it was the first time I had ever been to Spain. It had nothing to do with the ban on returning to the land that expelled the Jews in 1492 (most halachic experts believe it has lapsed). It had nothing to do with hating Franco Fascism. It wasn’t even my revulsion at the first national sport of bull fighting. (Tell me, someone, how you justify torturing an animal, send in men with long spikes to inflict injury on it so that it can’t fight back properly and then make a sport out of sticking it to death with a sword? The brave little bull of the cartoon world never had a chance! Oh! I forgot, it’s like fox hunting, really they enjoy it!) Perhaps it was an unconscious desire to avoid Costa Nostra and drunken Brits turning the color of cheap paella. No, it was for none of those very good reasons. It was purely circumstantial. If anywhere in Europe claimed my cultural, historical, aesthetic or sybaritic loyalty it was Italy. But Seville was a delight with its Alcazar Palace and Cathedral. Must go back for more and Cordova and Granada.

I do indeed visit cathedrals and for that matter, listen to requiems. Most great Cathedrals and Churches are as much museums as places of worship nowadays. However in Anglo Jewry, in particular, the current tidal wave of religious obscurantism has meant that I regularly get asked by innocent children at Jewish day schools or by confused adults who remember the past, why it is that their rabbis have been forbidding them to go and look at, say, the Rubens in Kings College Chapel or the Sistine Chapel in Rome. So it was with delight that, as I was descending the 35 flights of the lovely Muslim Tower that now is the Campanile of the Cathedral, I passed four gentlemen wearing the black hats and frock coats, the uniform of Orthodox Jewish clergymen nowadays, enjoying the climb. There were two dayanim and two area Chief Rabbis from Israel thinking nothing of enjoying the wonders of human creativity, even if associated with another religion. Was this a case of “only in Spain”--or rather of “only not in Britain”?

So why go to Spain now? For the first twenty years of my career I made a point of getting involved in interfaith activities. I was at one stage even a member of that drolly named “The Chief Rabbi’s Cabinet” responsible for interfaith activities in Britain. It was, in many respects, very valuable, for I met a lot of impressive spiritual minds from other religions, which was both inspiring and chastening. It made me appreciate that God has many ways of communicating with human beings, and it saddened me that too many of my own seemed to be in a much lower league when it came to understanding the nature of spirituality. It was clear that we had more in common intellectually than we did with the fanatics of our own respective religions.

But I gave it all up because after a while I came to feel that there was little seeping down to grassroots. I remember the then Cardinal Koenig of Vienna complaining that for all his efforts to root out anti-Semitism he was having almost no impact on his rural priests. I also became frustrated with conferences and speeches and grandstanding when I wanted to see action, not words. I guess it became a matter of selecting other priorities. So I left the field to younger, and manifestly better, replacements, for a great deal has been accomplished over the years, particularly with regard to the Catholic Church. (But, of course, the situation in the Middle East has muddied the waters in more ways than one. Once we tended to think the Anglicans were closest to us in Britain; now the pendulum has swung the other way.)

Now I was interested to see if anything had changed since I was last involved. Seville was an impressive gathering, the second attempted; a gaggle of Sephardi rabbis from France of North African origin (they speak the language and understand the culture, after all), an Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, and an array of assorted rabbis ( Chiefs and Grands and Highs ) and dayanim from all over the globe (not to mention experts, spokesmen, time-servers and those along for the ride, as well as a mass of reporters and TV camera people who just swarmed around the most exotic dressers on view).

There was a similar, if not quite as high-powered, range of Muslim imams. Shia and Sunni, American, Far Eastern, Middle Eastern and Western Imams who offered as wide a range as you’d expect of attitudes, backgrounds and education as the rabbis did. The general tenor was one of shared concern for spirituality and inter-human behavior and for the challenges we all faced of materialism, egoism and fanaticism.

Tension only erupted every time the Gaza clerics exploded in anger over what they perceived was Israel’s exclusive fault at the parlous state of Palestinian children. The Far Eastern Muslims seemed somewhat bemused at this one-sided approach and uncomfortable that Islam was being presented through an Arab Middle Eastern filter. We had some discussion about religion and politics that, of course, was not resolved. Nothing was. Nothing could be. Politicians or clerics or both are always too busy blaming everyone else. King Solomon has it right three thousand years ago. It’s all “hot air” and nothing fundamentally changes under the sun.

There were still traces of the fear that the “other” was out to convert. An Israeli Head of a Yeshiva declared that he was only interested in discussing the issue of whether a boy who becomes Bar Mitzvah during the Omer has to recite the full blessing when he starts his obligatory count! One imam wanted us to condemn the controversial cartoons of Mohammed, and he got some rabbinical support too. But that was given short shrift, I’m glad to say. After all, we were neither the American nor the British government.

It was as valuable as most conferences are in bringing people together and making contacts. I do not underestimate (or overestimate) the value of this. When I expressed my reservations about results to a wonderful elderly Rabbi Pappenheim of Jerusalem, he replied, “I do not want to enter the Afterlife feeling I didn’t try my best to heal the world!”

I was most impressed by the number of young and enthusiastic Jews ready to get involved and I’m delighted there is talent coming up through the ranks. But as for me, I’ve served my time. Did it do any good? Lord knows. But we dare not stop trying.

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March 20, 2006

Corruption

There is a spat going on in England over the fact that some gentlemen, amongst them a Jew or two, have given loans to the Labor Party and apparently, but not necessarily, have been given titles and honors in return.

Let’s deal with the “honors” bit first. Titles have a highly disreputable past. Under the Saxons they went to whoever killed most. The Normans gave them to French gangsters who came over the Channel to make their fortunes. James I gave them to Highland cattle thieves. Charles II favored mistresses and bastards. The Georges seemed to have fancied drunkards. The Victorians ennobled industrial exploiters of the poor, racist land grabbers and financial tricksters.

The British sickness of worshipping class has meant that it didn’t matter what sort of ennobled criminal you were, ermine and a coronet enabled you (and after your death, your heir), however stupid or incapable, to sit in the House of Lords. The mere whiff of a title got you better seats in a restaurant and the automatic respect of anyone who didn’t have one. Often ordinary and unexceptional people would be prepared to betray their own mothers and their ideals, play the sycophant, grovel and fawn in the hope they, too, one day would get the title.

That some of these had a hand in governing Britain made it all the more preposterous. Over the years fainthearted modifications have taken place to the House of Lords, but for some reason the British are too scared of total democracy to make it completely elected. I well remember Margaret Thatcher inveighing against the evils of European culture and what Britain would lose by joining them at a time when Britain was the only European country to have an unelected Upper Chamber.

There were also other honors (gongs, they are called) that did not necessarily involve getting into the House of Lords, for time serving civil servants, generals, pillars of the Empire, and local government time servers. Every Government has used them for political purposes and to further its own agenda.

Life Peers were introduced in 1958 (previously Lords passed their titles on, although there were occasional exceptions). This was in part to ensure that a party in power had sufficient votes in the House of Lords. But to be fair, independent men and women of stature were appointed occasionally to counterbalance the Bishops of the Church of England. It was also an unashamed device that all parties used to reward donors (though it helped if you also gave to another good cause).

All this is to show that I hold honors in a degree of contempt only marginally higher than catamites. No doubt those who delight in pulling me to pieces will argue that this is only because I have not been so rewarded.

Some of this current spat is about the honors system itself. But why should giving someone an honor for donations be any different than all those ghastly plaques and dedications one sees everywhere in Jewish and non-Jewish charitable and educational institutions or, for that matter, honorary degrees?

It may be about why loans made to political parties that are treated differently to gifts. It may because the treasurer of the Labor party wasn’t notified first. Big deal! And if it was because honors and money go together, no government has ever done otherwise.

But I suspect this witch-hunt is really to do with two things. It is about political maneuvering to cover up real corruption because too many husbands and wives or mistresses of current politicians are on the make and take and it helps to distract attention. Secondly, if there is ever a sniff of a Jew involved, it automatically flushes out a whole subterranean undercurrent of odium because everywhere, not only in the Muslim world, if you need a scapegoat the Jew is still your man.

Elsewhere, real corruption continues unabated. According to the Economist, Britain is now down to number 14 on the list of honest states. The European Union is a byword for the most corrupt of practices in the Western World. Its auditors have continually complained that its findings are ignored. Billions goes to totally corrupt schemes, and even more on subsidizing fat farmers at the expense of millions of poor in the underdeveloped world, largely to keep French trade unionists happy and rich. Two years ago the European Parliament agreed that the dishonest practice of automatically compensating its Members of the European Parliament by paying tax-free first-class travel expenses, regardless of whether you actually did spend the money, had to end. It costs 60 million Euros a year, by the way. Today it is announced that out of the hundreds of European members of Parliament only 30 have paid any attention to the directive. That is scandalous, not someone getting an honorific title for supporting an arguably good cause.

Finally, as if I needed another excuse for my blood to boil, that apology for an organization, the United Nations, is reforming that even bigger joke, the Human Rights Commission. Yes, that’s the one where the States with the worst records of torture, corruption and abuse sit and condemn those States they don’t like for quite unrelated, and usually spurious, reasons. Now there will be a Council instead of a Commission. Yippee! And instead of 53 corrupt States there will be 47, most of whom are African and Asian! Enough said, guv’nor! Not surprisingly, voting against it as an inadequate sham were the USA and Israel. Oh yes, and Palau and Marshall Islands!! There will be a review system so that states who abuse human rights will be suspended. Ha ha. Want to guess who will be suspended first? Certainly not China, Myanmar or Zimbabwe! As for Sudan, it is both African and Muslim, so don’t expect that it will be accused of anything in Darfur.

All this is what I call corrupt. This is what the press should be trumpeting about. But, as we know, it is the Golden Calf that rules and all we have left are broken tablets of stone. And that, if you wanted it, is the connection to the sedra.

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March 14, 2006

Happy Purim!

At the very end of the Megillat Esther (the Book of Esther we read on Purim) there is an amazing line that almost passes unnoticed. Here’s the context. The Jewish people were under sentence of mass annihilation, initiated by Haman and agreed to by a drunken monarch whose brains had clearly sunken to another part of his anatomy. Mordechai had the foresight to plant his niece (some say his wife) in the harem (sure, she got to be chosen Queen on her own merits). He proved his loyalty to King Achashverosh by revealing a plot to assassinate him. He helped Esther plan her campaign. Thanks to both of them the Jews were saved. It is clear from his own wording that Mordechai did not claim any credit, but was certain of Divine intervention (Chapter 4:14) so he could not be accused of being an arrogant, self-serving, communal bigwig. Yet for all this, when they declared a day of celebration and instituted the festival of Purim with its laws of reading the Megillah, giving charity, giving gifts to friends and having a banquet, it says that Mordechai and Esther "were accepted by most of their brethren" (10:3).

Most? Most?! I ask you. They have saved the whole of the Jewish people and there are still some Jews who can’t accept it, who simply have to object, complain and refuse to go along with them. Can you believe it? And it’s not just me saying this. The Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 16b, "Why does it (the Megillah) say 'most of their brethren' instead of saying 'all of their brethren'? It teaches us that a minority of the Sanhedrin disagreed with him."

Here’s a report from last week’s Jerusalem Post.

A delegation from the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta sect is currently visiting Teheran to meet with senior officials and express their support for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his calls to eliminate Israel. In a statement to Iran's official IRIB radio, the group called for "the disintegration of the Zionist regime" and defended the Iranian president, saying that it "is a dangerous deviation to pretend that the Iranian president is an anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic personality." They added that they were "upset about the recent ploys, propaganda and tensions which have been created by the West regarding the statements of the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about a world free of Zionism, since this is nothing more than wishing for a better world dominated by peace and calm." At the meeting, according to the Iranian news agency IRNA, Weiss "praised the 'enlightening' statements of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about the Holocaust and said the establishment of a Zionist government and occupation of Palestine are contrary to the injunctions of Judaism."

Clearly, they brought in Purim ahead of time! Now you will say, "This is no laughing matter." But I claim it is. I can understand the Satmar ideology that we must wait for the Messiah. It is based on a Talmudic source that although it is disputed has to be understood on various levels. It says in Ketubot 11a that God made a deal with the Jewish people when they went into exile. For His part He promised that the Nations of the World would not overdo their oppression and in return the Jews had to agree not to rebel against them or try to force the return to the Land of Israel. We can argue about whether the Nations of the World kept their side of the bargain or not. Most religious authorities have never taken this as a legally binding idea. I do not at all support Satmar, but I can understand the desire to reject political initiatives or a system of governance that allows religion to enter the stink fields of politics.

But facts on the ground are that the ultra-Orthodox community has thrived and expanded under the Zionist Entity, and its families and institutions given wide support and tax breaks that have enabled them to expand exponentially. Do they really believe that under a Palestinian or Iranian regime they would receive such favorable treatment?

It is one thing to attack and criticize a Zionist State. It is quite another to consort with those who seek to annihilate it. That is like cozying up to Haman, not to mention Hitler. I suspect even the worthies of the Sanhedrin who thought Mordechai had no right to make new customs or laws would not have put themselves on Haman’s guest list. And I have no doubt that those who disagreed had excellent halachic arguments. Mordechai was adding on the Torah, which is forbidden. He was inventing new blessings that might have required taking God’s name in vain. They would have been no less persuasive than the vast majority of modern rabbis who like to argue that unless you take a microscope to a lettuce leaf you are breaking the law on bugs.

What a funny people we are. We are so unbelievably self-destructive. It has been said in jest that "anti-Semitism is disliking Jews more than is absolutely necessary." Here we are, barely 12 million surrounded by billions of enemies and we can’t agree on anything.

When I write an article critical of a Right-Wing American professor, his response is to hurl abuse about Loshon Hara and disparage my brothers. When I criticize individuals in Lubavitch for inventing myths, I am accused of attacking the whole movement. What’s wrong with us? Can’t we disagree politely? Are we so damaged by thousands of years of anti-Semitism that we are simply crippled?

I think Purim is so important precisely because it invites us to laugh at ourselves as well. Some of us Jews have always been very eager to attend drunken orgies, to cozy up to corrupt rich monarchs, and ease out of our religious tradition altogether. Many of those that have remained loyal have been so determined not to give an inch that they have retreated behind the most absurd of fences. So it’s hardly surprising that, despite being saved from extinction time and time again, we are so uptight that we can’t even agree on how to thank God.

What a shower we are. No wonder some argue that the only way to really celebrate Purim is to get drunk.

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March 05, 2006

David Irving

We have just entered the month of Adar. It is the month of Jewish “carnevale” and the downfall of irrational hatred. So it’s appropriate to write about another example of the latter.

David Irving, one time historian of note when he concentrated on facts, is, according to an objective English judge, “an anti-Semitic racist”. This is why President Ahmadinejad of Iran is an admirer of his and wants him to come to Iran to chair a conference that will, of course, prove that the Holocaust never happened. Don’t we just love “academic” conferences when the conclusion has already been decided upon?

At his trial in Austria this month he professed to have seen the light and repented. Yes, he did as recently as 1989 assert that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz, but now, having read Eichmann’s diaries (been available for forty years), he accepted there might have been one or two itsy bitsy ones. The Austrian judge said he did not for one moment believe his change of mind or his apology. And he was right, because two days later, from his cell, he told the BBC, "Given the ruthless efficiency of the Germans, if there was an extermination program to kill all the Jews, how come so many survived?" Indeed, and how come the Nazis lost the war!

Shortly a whacko called Ernest Zundel, deported from Canada to Germany, faces similar charges. I wonder if he will also recant his belief that the Nazis invented Unidentified Flying Objects, UFO’s.

Some fifteen countries have a law which makes Holocaust Denial an offence. But neither in Britain nor in America is there such a law. There, warped minds, regardless of race or religion, are free to claim whatever they like about Jews, Nazis and gas chambers (just don’t display the Ten Commandments anywhere in public!).
Since it is rather difficult to fly in the face of overwhelming evidence (even Left Wing ideologues have found this a problem) the next best thing, if one cannot deny the Holocaust, is the now seemingly universally accepted equation of Israelis with Nazis. No one has yet shown that there are gas chambers in the West Bank, but irrationality knows no boundaries. "As long as the heart preserves desire, the mind preserves illusions."

I have to admit that I have never been in favor of making any ideas illegal. We all know the aphorism, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." In our society this means allowing Muslim clerics to declare that we are a corrupt doomed bunch of sinners and that those societies that allow them to say this should be wiped off the map (so long as they are the ones left standing).

It is precisely because some extremists want to stop us making fun of religious pomposity and lunacy that we must fight for the rights of lunatics. The issue should never be one of censoring thought, however crooked, but of controlling actions to ensure one fanatic or another, regardless of background or faith, can impose his or her sick ideas on anyone else.

Compulsory censorship never works, whether it’s to do with politics, entertainment, pornography or religion. It stokes up resentment. It drives evil thoughts underground and it give Iranian Ayatollahs another excuse for castigating Western double-standards (don’t even ask about theirs). Wherever it is around the world, in the long run, more availability of ideas and opinions liberates. More restrictions constrict. Look how China fears the internet. And, incidentally, look at the Western internet companies who are so enslaved to material profit that they kowtow to Chinese censorship. No wonder we in the West are accused of hypocrisy.

Just as the NGO conference in Durban revealed the extent of the poison of anti-Semitism and its infection of almost the entire NGO community, so too conferences that allow all sorts of madness to be aired reveal the nature of the disease, who its proponents are, and tends to encourage more research to nail the lies and distortions. Of course, they never do any good because, as we know, you can get away with blue murder so long as you supply China with oil and ruin the world to supply American SUV’s.

The answer to idiots is to expose their idiocy. There is a fascinating contradiction in Proverbs 26 where it says both, "Do not answer a fool according to his folly," and, "Answer a fool according to his folly.” I believe this means that where a fool is incapable of hearing another point of view, then don’t even try. But where it is not the fool so much as the idea that is the problem, then reply by addressing the idea. Trying to muzzle a fool like Irving only makes him a martyr and gives him more publicity!

The reaction of the Israeli cartoonists to Ahmadinejad is the best one. Let’s have our own anti-Holocaust cartoons. Only sick people will enjoy them, but they would demonstrate that there are no sacred cows and everything can be aired and ridiculed, because in our religion it is neither the thought nor the word that counts, but the action (Ethics 1.17).

In the end, facts speak, historians reveal more than they conceal, and to quote from the Bible again (Psalms 85.12). “Truth bursts forth from the earth.” Delighted as I am that Irving is sitting in jail, I do not believe there should be laws against ideas, only actions. The answer to mad ideas lies in education, not legislation.

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