June 25, 2006

World Cup, Jewish Style

How can I justify to you or to myself wasting hours in front of a television set watching two teams of bipeds struggle for possession of a lump of leather and no sooner do they get it then they try to get rid of it. They battle like tigers, pull bodies and shirts, kick each other’s groins, feign agony, jostle and protest. Are they athletes or in show biz? Most of them appear to worship a deity and believe that if they cross themselves or kiss the ground, they will be given favourable treatment. Pity God, who is expected to decide between two teams of competing Catholics or Muslims. So much effort to such little effect.

A few weeks ago a journalist called to ask me if I would, in my community, be praying for the success of the English soccer team. I said that it was against my religious belief to pray for the impossible. Besides, every time I start off full of hope that "my side" will win and I end up disappointed and frustrated, I wouldn’t want to hold the Almighty responsible.

This time the English papers have been full for weeks of news about Wayne Rooney’s broken metatarsal bone. A friend even emailed me to say that as the Haftarah of Rooney’s recovery began "Ro(o)ney VeSimchi" (Rejoice and Be Happy) this was a sign that England would win. As if one man can win a World Cup. Besides it says, "Rejoice and be happy, O Daughter of Zion"!

Supporting English football is like teenage love. It promises so much. It lifts one’s spirits. It opens the gates of Heaven an inch, only to have them slammed shut in one’s face. Disappointment shatters the illusions. So I decide not to waste my time or allow my stupid desire to see England win get the better of me. Why? Why? Why do I care? What do I have in common with these yobs? What difference will it make to my life or the betterment of the world?

But I am weak. I give in. And as I watch I start wondering about all the conflicting emotions. Is this war by proxy? Nations who used to hate each other and fight each other (and some still do) battle it out again on the pitch. Am I so in need of an outlet for my suppressed aggression that I need the life-or-death struggle of football players to release all the pent-up frustration that my religion and society normally expect me to control? Is this why soccer attracts so much racial abuse and violence? Not in the USA perhaps but certainly in most other places.

Yet surely this is just a game. It is about skill. I enjoy the magnificent networks of passes, the magical goals, the tactics of two balanced teams testing each other, probing, trying to prize open a solid defence. I am impressed by the way clever managers establish a pattern of play for the opposition to respond to, and then switch or substitute so that they create confusion and imbalance that allows for a breakthrough. Yes, it is about skill and beauty and intelligence and athleticism, and I only watch to see the best sides, the most beautiful sporting machines and talented players, triumph.

So then why do I allow my petty nationalist emotions to emerge? I do not want the Croats to win because they were pro-German during the war, or the Saudis because they are Wahhabis and import African slaves to play for them, or Iranians because they want to eliminate Israel, or the Ivory Coast because I don’t like their politics, or Japan because of Pearl Harbour, or the Spanish because of Franco, or the Argentineans because they sheltered Nazis. And my hero this week is John Pantsil of Ghana who usually plays for Hapoel Tel Aviv. He produced an Israeli flag every time they scored against the Czechs. He did it for his Israeli fans. The raging chorus of anti Israel fanatics came down on him like a ton of bricks. I hope he gets a free week in Eilat! Lovely man!

As a youth I was soccer mad. I confess I really frittered away my youth on the soccer field. I daydreamed through my lessons and only looked forward to the two afternoons a week of school sport. I abandoned extracurricular disciplines such as music. I opted out of extra Talmud. I would sneak off to the gardener’s cottage on Shabbat to watch the Cup Final on his ancient television set. Just think. I might, instead, have become a really great rabbi!

Yet when I got to yeshiva I discovered that they played on Friday afternoons, and there were as many tough-playing, cursing, dirty players there as on the playing fields of English Public Schools. Perhaps the only difference was that afterwards we’d spend time studying what really mattered and would feel bad about behaving so badly, at least for a week.

Certainly physical exercise for the sake of healthy bodies (to better serve the Lord, of course) was not frowned upon, and many a contemporary of mine took up weights. After all, the extreme religious world is full of healthy young men who can hold their own with police batons in Jerusalem or New York!

Indeed, the Talmud records how the aggressive young priests in Temple times would barge each other off the ramps and break limbs in the competition to get the best jobs first. Others would go round in teams beating up priests who misbehaved, and yet others used fruit as handy missiles to pelt anyone they disapproved of, even kings! And these "Pirchei Kehuna", young bloods of the priesthood, are referred to quite affectionately on occasion. They also were known to be red-headed and have very, very short fuses. So what’s the difference between them and soccer players?

Perhaps if they had been allowed to play soccer they could have channelled their aggression more creatively. Who knows, with a team of aggressive red-headed young priests, Israel might have gotten to the finals!!!

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Jeremy and the JC

Last week I let fly at the Jewish Chronicle. I received a lot of support from so many of my readers, with offers of good offices. But as is often the case, things have moved on. So here’s an update.

This whole business started when I wrote in my weekly essay that the JC’s treatment of the Richard Desmond affair was ‘using the tactics of the gutter press’. I then received this email message from Simon Rocker at the JC who had commissioned a piece from me:

Jeremy,

I have some bad news. Our editor David Rowan is upset at your reference to us in your weekly email (re Desmond) as "gutter press" and has asked me not to commission you. Hence I am now unable to use the piece. I hope you understand.
And that, of course, sparked off my diatribe!

David Rowan has now been in touch with me directly. Here is the main body of his email:

Jeremy,

At risk of diminishing the drama, I didn’t ban you, nor do I have a problem with attacks on the way the JC covers stories, as you’ll see from the dissent I¹ve been keen to find space for in our letters page. As you know, my specific and only concern was your use of your public platform to accuse the JC of being ‘the gutter press’, which I can’t see any paper tolerating. My instructions to Simon were to pay you (in full, not a kill fee) for pieces awaiting use and to hold off commissioning new pieces for the near future while this was fresh in people’s minds.
So there you have it. Lets not quibble. Peace reigns and we can get back to watching the World Cup!

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June 18, 2006

Jewish Chronic

You remember last week I criticized the Jewish Chronicle (together with Anglo-Jewry, in general) for making an unnecessarily lurid item out of the Richard Desmond case? Well, they didn’t like it. Not one bit. So much so that I have been informed by email that I have been banned, excluded and blackballed from writing occasional pieces for them! Well, if that isn’t a typical Anglo-Jewish response. “Tow the party line or else.” “No criticism.” And then comes the usual, “Don’t we have enough enemies outside without being attacked from within?” Most of my life it has been the Orthodox world that has been seen to be clamping down on dissent. Not any more! "Oh, how the mighty have fallen." What kind of journal cannot take criticism? In all fairness, it must also be said that having the guts to come out so brazenly is a new departure, because traditionally the JC has tended to play too safe. Perhaps new editors are Jekylls and Hydes.

“Freedom of the press," I hear you say? The truth is there never has been complete and absolute freedom. But I guess it’s relative. We get more information in the West, even if much of it is both wrong and biased, than they would in Saudi Arabia, for example. Why even the iconic internet company, Google, caved in to Chinese pressure and allows censorship. Even the most unbiased editor makes decisions. And that’s only fair. I wouldn’t quibble with that because that’s his job.

As students we used to argue that in Russia it required a committee of Communist Party hacks to approve anything printed in Pravda. Then we realized that in the West a wealthy power broker could control the free press through his money and decide what would go in or what would not. Most often the bottom business line decides what news is fit to print. The saving grace of a free society is that you at least have the chance of hearing different points of view, and indeed we know jolly well what sort of angle on the news you’ll get from the Guardian or the Telegraph, and what sort of illustrations you’ll get in the Sun or Sporting Life!

But the Jewish Chronicle doesn’t need money, not really. It is now an independent trust set up by the Kessler family and does very well indeed. It charges exorbitantly for adverts, even from Jewish educational institutions, and makes a small fortune because it is a sort of monopoly, in that it reaches more Anglo-Jews than any other journal and is still regarded by a lot of people as the best the Jewish community has to offer. So this offence that I gave cannot be because they think they’ll lose money. No. It is either a new editor under pressure trying to flex his muscles, or a particular kind of mindset that wants to punish any disagreement, which is really most inappropriate to journalism.

My late father used to make disparaging remarks all the time about the Jewish Chronic, as he used to call it--usually when there’d be some reference to the Jewish identity of the person who danced with the person who danced with the Duke of Edinburgh. One Shabbat he asked me if I’d read that week’s edition. I said I hadn’t. He flew into a fury. “How can you know what’s going on in the Jewish world if you don’t read the JC?” he said.

My father was a friend of then-editor William Frankel, who I respected as a wise, generous and good-hearted man, though I think his campaign to establish the Conservative Jewish movement in Britain backfired (in particular on Rabbi Louis Jacobs), even if his critique of the Orthodox establishment was spot on. At one stage I actually used to fill in for Chaim Bermant when he was away. The JC published poems and cartoons of mine as well as articles. Then there was Geoffrey Paul, whom I have always admired very much as an editor and as a man of substance in the community. I’ve been friendly with important members of the team, from Meir Persoff to Bill Wilson to Melvyn Weinberg to Simon Rocker. But then I started to spend more time away from Britain and never had a lot to do with Ned Temko, so I guess, gradually I have diminished my credit line. But it strikes me as very sad when a journal cannot take criticism or reacts to it like a spoilt child. It can’t be in anyone’s best interest.

I write a weekly column for the Manchester-based Jewish Telegraph. The editor there has been pretty peeved by one or two things I have written over the years. But maybe it’s his experience that has led him to realize that indulging favored children can sometimes produce dividends!

The JC still is the widest read paper in Anglo-Jewry buts its reader base is shrinking. Overall, Anglo-Jewry is shrinking, through assimilation and emigration. As the community polarizes, fewer Jews on the left are reading the JC and many Orthodox Jews are reading papers that more closely reflect their values, often from Israel. Internet access now means we can know “what’s going on in the Jewish world” without the JC. Many of my friends prefer reading the English versions of Ha’aretz and the Jerusalem Post. This way they are closer to millions of Jews rather than thousands. It should make sense for the JC to include rather than exclude.

For me, it matters little. But for Anglo-Jewry I think it’s a sad state of affairs.

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June 11, 2006

Richard Desmond

Richard Desmond is a wealthy English Jew. He is the publisher of the Daily Express, the Daily Star and OK Magazine (another one of those publications that succeed on the basis of the common man’s insatiable appetite for pictures and information about nonentities). He made his initial fortune through pornography, and he still runs TV Channels such as “Television X”, “Red Hot Climax” and “Red Hot Only 18”. And I think I can safely assume these are not channels propagating Socialist ideology.

He was recently appointed the head of Norwood, the Anglo-Jewish charity that started off as an orphanage and now deals with children’s needs in general. His job is to raise money, and he promised to widen the donor base, which means he will use his contacts in areas not usually associated with Jewish causes to get more valuable support for them. So here we have a man offering some of his time and energy to benefit good causes when he could just as well have thrown it all away on another night in Vegas (with trimmings).

Mr. Desmond himself has been very charitable both to Jewish and non-Jewish causes. He has given away £19 million this past year alone. I want to point out that I have never met the man and know absolutely nothing about him personally. So what I have to say is regardless of whether he is an unpleasant piece of work or the sort of man you’d be happy to introduce to your sister.

There has been an outcry from almost every section of the Jewish community about this “unsuitable” appointment. The Jewish Chronicle has delighted in blazing the controversy across its pages and using the tactics of the gutter press, making sure that the full disgusting evil of Mr. Desmond’s publications are revealed for all to see--of course, disingenuously claiming it was all in the public interest. I’m surprised they didn’t give out free DVD’s of his work!

There is little that is edifying about Anglo-Jewry, in general, and even less when it has one of its occasional fits of moral superiority. But this is one of the worst examples of righteous hypocrisy I can remember. Anglo-Jewish charities have a record of getting up to some strange activities in pursuit of a buck or two. I have no complaint against anyone who says, “I personally have such a deep distaste for pornography and anyone associated with it that I will not be involved in a charity (or any other organization) that benefits in any way from pornography, so therefore I will resign.” On the contrary, I regard such a position as noble and ethically praiseworthy, provided the person is consistent and applies similar standards elsewhere (of course, this does not mean he must treat every misdemeanor as the same).

Will the person who detests pornography also say that he or she has such a distaste of gambling that he or she will not be associated with anyone whose business is gambling and would not agree to a charity deriving benefit from gambling profits? If so, all those religious charities that have benefited from the National Lottery, or indeed have run their own, should be off his safe list too.

Actually, I once had a meeting with a man whom I believe to be very honest and straight who refused to be associated with the board of my school because at the time the chairman headed a major gambling company. I respected that. But I must say that the said chairman, whatever his limitations, did and has done a great deal of good for Jewish causes around the world.

I cannot tell you how many charities I know of, religious and non-religious, who have benefited, if indirectly of course, from white-collar crime, money laundering, income from brothels, arms trading, corrupt business practices and other illegality. I could run off a list of synagogue functionaries I know who have been of the most unsavory character, not to mention totally hypocritical in their religious practice. I know some religious adulterers who have themselves done inordinate harm, and have scattered their sins like a tornado, but this has brought them no obvious criticism, condemnation or ostracism. Sure, I know that everyone makes mistakes of all kinds (Lord knows, I am no saint). But I am talking about consistent offenders who also flaunt their religiosity. If our community is going to lay down standards (which, indeed, I may totally approve of), then they should be applied across-the-board, not only selectively.

I remember a visit to Ford Open Prison, many years ago, where I discovered a Beth Midrash fully fitted out with Talmudic texts and commentaries, by a couple of Chasidim doing time for a massive fraud. When I asked them whether they were worried about “Chilul HaShem”, bringing Judaism into disrepute, they replied that as far as they were concerned they were spending a few years studying Torah and on release they would give millions to religious charities and live and be treated like kings!

There has always been a very strong tradition in Chasidism of rebbe money-launderers. Let me explain. One of several lines of thinking in Chasidism goes that the rebbe is the saint who redeems the Jewish (and non-Jewish) universe. An ordinary person cannot hope to rise to his level of proximity to God. So simply by association and, where possible, rendering financial support, a person is elevated by the rebbe’s relationship with God and participates in the rebbe’s sanctity. This explains those rebbes who positively encourage sinners to come to them, to donate where possible vast sums (and I can assure you no questions were asked) and, as a result, both parties feel a lot better.

Nowadays, in addition to Chasidic rebbes there is a whole industry in Oriental mystics and wonder rabbis to whom streams of corrupt businessmen flow, carrying large donations, as regularly as flights to Las Vegas. Not all rebbes, rabbis, or followers are like this, of course, but there’s a heck of a lot of it going on quite openly, even brazenly, and all hallowed by religious fiat (oops--mustn’t mention Fiat, or Juventus, or dishonest Italians).

Of course, I am not for one moment comparing pornography to gambling or making any equivalence. I detest pornography. But I am talking about double standards. If we do not shrink from turning a blind eye to dubious sources of funding throughout the religious and the Jewish world, then we must not pillory one man just because he is an obvious and easy target.

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