August 27, 2006

Computer Games

Many of us "older" people are totally unaware of the most powerful, the most widespread and the most wealthy religion in the world today. It is a religion that attracts as its devotees virtually all the young people on our globe. They spend more time deep into the night on it than on any other single activity--and often more than everything else combined. They spend hundreds of billions on a religion that has its own language, its own skills, its own High Priests, its own currency and its own magazines. It holds massive conventions, all around the world, of communal worship and devotion. It puts all other religions combined totally in the shade. Its devotees are to be found in the richest and in the most privileged, and in the poorest and most deprived corners of our globe. It transcends culture, language, faith and politics. It could be Coca-Cola or McDonald’s, but that’s not what I’m referring to. I am, in case you haven’t realized it yet, referring to computer gaming.

It started with primitive ping pong with white "bats" hitting a white "ball" on a dark screen. Originally you could only play it on large desk-like machines to be found in games arcades, then bars, and finally student common rooms. The machines got more sophisticated and along came the Game Boys, and who of my generation did not waste more time than at all justifiable on Tetris or Pacman? Now we have game boxes, modern game machines with greater power than most computers and they can link to the internet so that an American, an Indian, and a Japanese (a rabbi, a guru, and a priest) can compete with each other in real time and grown up adults spend hours flicking or pumping the controls of super sophisticated remote game players. What incredible human resources have gone into this. Games are pervasive--as pervasive as pornography and as accessible, through computers, the internet, and corner shops. Even some films imitate games. They are the culture of our age and we do not yet know their full impact.

Some people think they are benevolent. They teach hand eye coordination, mental agility and alertness. A huge new section of the business is developing with games for older people to prevent deterioration of mind and body, to help aged drivers respond more quickly to emergencies, and some claim to arrest Alzheimer’s. But there is an equally strong body of opinion that is worried about the excessive violence of most games, the emphasis on killing other human beings, terminating them, wiping them out, smoking them and other euphemisms for releasing the most destructive and dangerous of our subliminal urges. We may be producing a generation of kids trained to deal with problems and opponents simply by zapping them like the Columbine murderers. Life has become one great game of simulation!

There once was a game called Sim City that I thought was really educational, building cities, developing infrastructure, accommodating populations and providing utilities and services. But slowly it has "morphed" into a game of battling empires where the whole aim is to acquire power and destroy your enemies. Now you might say that I’m being very silly and it’s no different than the way previous generations used to play with toy soldiers or chess pieces or "Go" counters which all set out to do the same thing. And boys will be boys and they’ll grow out of it. But I think it is much more pervasive. So much that is wrong in our world is precisely because so many sweet little boys have NOT grown out of it, and way too many men still think that zapping is the way to go, instead of self-control or desperately searching for non-violent solutions..

I have just seen a copy of Computer Gaming World and the first thing that struck me was that on virtually every page there is a gun, a tank, a jet, and some one being killed. In August’s edition there is a "must read" but scary article called "Islamogaming". It seems that there is a multi-billion dollar business producing computer games that depict killing Israelis, Zionists and Jews as the aim, the goal, the dream and the ultimate good. Islamic religious organisations are pumping billions into producing computer games that rewrite history, preach hatred of Jews (not to mention Crusaders, Americans, Nonbelievers, and other Muslims who disagree with the particular ideology), and aim at the destruction of the West, and indeed of anyone who is not a true follower of their particular definition of "Allah".

It is argued that these games are only relaxing, therapeutic games. Besides, the beauty of the internet and its allied technology is that now we can combat indoctrination, or faked Reuters photographs or Washington Post depictions of "living dead corpses" in Lebanon precisely because of the universal availability of this kind of technology. Kids can see through the hate message. But I’m not entirely convinced. Otherwise there’d be much less money flowing into these "political" games.

Of course, this is not confined to only one religion or people or nation. We have entered into a war of civilizations and the enemy is a mindset that brooks no disagreement, that preaches universal hatred, that often speaks the language and uses the imagery of computer games to educate a whole new generation of billions of children to lust after blood and destruction, to dehumanize anyone not of their sect. No wonder computer gamers in High Wycombe want to blow up jetliners with hundreds of innocents aboard in the name of their violent creed.

Too many Western politicians are in "hibernate" mode. They do not understand religious fanaticism, of any kind. They have yet to wake up to what happens when fanaticism and technology merge. Simulation, mastering a vast amount of game technology, knowing how to eavesdrop, adapt telephony and adopt a mind set that focuses on zapping your enemies is the way warring is going. It is not just the danger of atomic weapons in the hands of sick minds. It is the technological advance of "real", "grassroots", education that millions of young kids are hooked on, that combines fun with indoctrination. "Real" education has long left the schoolroom and is now embedded in a computer chip.

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August 17, 2006

The Grand Old Duke of York

Oh the Grand Old Duke of York
He had ten thousand men
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again
And when they were up they were up
And when they were down they were down
And when they were only half way up
They were neither up nor down.


Now, I know I am no military expert. I know I don’t have the full picture, and I know I am a total armchair critic. But from where I am sitting, Israel’s campaign against Hezbollah looks just like the Duke of York’s, Go, Stop, Go, Stop, Up, Down, Up and back Down again. If Israel was given a carte blanche by the USA to go get Hezbollah, they failed and have proved a weak ally for America in the war against terror. We saw poor leadership, indecisive command, no plan, and a final capitulation to a settlement that cannot and will not, in a million years, work.

The UN motion 1701 is a pathetic joke and already a dead letter. As dead as all its previous resolutions on Lebanon, 425 (1978), 426 (1978), 520 (1982), 1559 (2004), 1655 (2006), 1680 (2006) and 1697 (2006), none of which was ever adhered to. It has never ever, ever succeeded in any peacekeeping mission, in any disarmament, in any role it has been given. Its motion has already proved to be dishonest and fake. As for the French, big on talk, weak on action, remember they ran out of Lebanon when Hezbollah last said "boo" to them. And no doubt you know the shortest book in the world is the Italian Army Book of War Heroes. Anyway, they are not even empowered to disarm Hezbollah. Who will? The Lebanese Army, that ‘Dad’s Army’ of incompetents who dared not confront Hezbollah up till now, and whose only fighting men actually happen to be members of Hezbollah, themselves? Indeed the Prime Minister (who looks permanently terrified) declared that Hezbollah IS Lebanon. And it has only given significantly added status, authority, and influence to Iran and Syria in the Arab world.

The kidnapped soldiers have not been returned. Hezbollah’s pretext of Israeli occupation of the Sheba Farms was rejected by the United Nations itself, time after time, on the grounds that they belong to Syria. Just watch, now how they will do a volte-face and declare they are Lebanese. I wrote a month ago that whatever the outcome is the UN must not be left in place. And lo and behold there they and Annan are, back in, licking the backsides of the Iranians, the Syrians, and Hezbollah.

Israel has descended into materialist corruption. We knew Olmert was just a manipulative and manipulated politician (and now apparently financially suspect too), but we prayed he’d grow into the job. We believed the Israeli Army was super efficient and well informed. Now we realize it is not. Its generals are more interested in their stocks and shares. Stores were stripped and apparently robbed. Soldiers were not properly trained or briefed. Equipment was ancient compared to Hezbollah’s. Olmert and Peretz have both been reminiscent of Levi Eshkol, the non-military ditherer who followed Ben Gurion and couldn’t decide if he wanted tea or coffee so used to ask for "half and half". Israel has had it too good, firing at stone throwers, and has taken its eye off the ball the way it did before the Yom Kippur war, except this time there was no Sharon to salvage some pride. Many of the soldiers didn’t have the fight in them and some were happy to declare to the worlds press that they just wanted to get back to the night clubs of Tel Aviv.

This is no longer a struggle with the Palestinians. It is a battle for survival with a much larger and more powerful and more fanatical foe. Perhaps the religious black hats are right that prayer and study can achieve what arms cannot. Meanwhile, there had better be a really thorough postmortem. At least an intelligent army learns from its mistakes and will be better prepared next time.

OK, that’s one way of looking at it.

The other way goes like this. Most nations agreed Israel was provoked and had a right to respond. But no one wanted to get bogged down in alien territory again. In fact OImert wisely avoided committing too many men and thus avoided too many unnecessary casualties. The losses were in the main a painful necessity that revealed a great deal about the enemy’s tactics, strongholds, and behind-the-scenes support.

Thomas L. Friedman, who knows Lebanon extremely well, argues that after the dust and the chauvinism have settled, people will ask what Hezbollah’s fanaticism has actually achieved. They may even come to realize the despicable immorality of using women and children as cover for the storage and firing of missiles (though I wouldn’t bet on it).

Israel has shown that although it suffered significantly it can still bomb its enemy states to smithereens. Only by living in underground bunkers and coming up occasionally for a hit-and-run or by using remote controlled rockets could Hezbollah put up any kind of fight. Israel’s integrity as a state has not been undermined one iota. It has lost no territory. Hezbollah has not helped the Palestinian cause. It has not helped the Lebanese and it has shown to everyone that Iran is a real and present danger that must be confronted one way or another.

Olmert indeed was a canny politician. The Duke of York was not such a fool after all. It’s better to march up and march safely back down than do a Charge of the Light Brigade. He feinted and calculated to ensure that others get involved in Lebanon more seriously and obviously than up to now. Israel can still go back in if necessary, but at least it has cleared away a significant part of the Maginot line that the Lebanese clearly encouraged Hezbollah to build.

Frankly, if this is what the world calls defeat, I’ll take it any day. The Arab leadership have always been big loudmouths pretending everything is one glorious victory for Allah after another. Meanwhile, their countries slide farther and farther back into medieval barbarism. Israel still has its lands and army intact and fewer casualties than its annual roster of traffic deaths.

And as for world opinion, or the laughable UN Human Rights hypocrites, we have known all along where we stand. We have seen the dishonest biases and faked photographs and Der Sturmer caricatures and the craven politicians before. Israel itself was founded precisely because we knew we were the only ones who would fight for our own survival, and we have. We are commanded to remember Amalek in each generation and we know as soon as one threat is over another is spawned. It has always been thus. And our enemies are both hidden and revealed, overt and covert, throughout the world.

At least Israel and by implication the Jews, are empowered. Ben Gurion was right to insist on a nuclear deterrent. If people like Vanunu had their way, we’d be defenceless in the face of Iranian nuclear power. One must not take a short-term view. The full impact of this campaign will not be realized for some time yet. We must not give in to jingoism and the natural desire to have our enemies bloodied for all to see. God and History work according to their timetables, not ours. Mistakes ? A Jewish religious response is to ask where we could have done, should have done better in the military, in social attitudes and values and to try to put things right.

Often what looks like victory turns into a defeat and vice versa. What if this campaign leads improbably towards a genuine peaceful settlement? What if the realization that rockets and missiles can fly over the securest of borders, leads to a final agreement on national integrities? What if this is the moment when everyone finally agrees that force is not the answer for ever? What if it brings an end to occupation, assassinations, checkpoints, fences and homicide bombs? Some people on both sides have tried before and failed. But as our prophets ("May they praised"--and why can’t we say it too?!!) tell us, "Out of agony springs hope." Out of the rubble a flower may grow. Can’t we dream?

And if not, at least we live to fight (and hope) another day.

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August 10, 2006

Prejudice

I guess the media (and I) needed a break from Lebanon, since they have got so excited over Mel Gibson’s drunken outburst against Jews for running the world and being the cause of all human suffering. You mean you didn’t know that that’s what millions of people really think?

Three years ago I was invited to a private screening of Gibson’s notorious film about The Passion. I thought it was pornographically violent, but I was struck by the devotion of the mainly Christian audience. I actually burst out laughing at one point, much to the annoyance of everyone else, when the two Mary’s are in a room and they sense that the hero has been arrested. The walls tremble and they utter the only lines in Hebrew in the film (the rest is Aramaic or Latin ), "Ma Nishtana HaLaylah HaZe," "Why is this night different than all other nights!" Obviously someone advised Gibson that this was a suitable reference to Passover. One Christian academic, no friend of the Jews, agreed with me on a subsequent BBC discussion that the film was a reflection of a medieval, masochistic, self-flagellating version of Christianity that he found offensive and barbaric. At the time I said:

The trouble with Gibson and his disturbed father is that they belong to a Catholic sect that thinks the present Pope has gone too far in being nice to the Jews. Gibson’s father quite openly thinks the Holocaust never happened. So one is bound to wonder about Gibson’s motives and, sadly, why the conservatives of the Vatican have triumphed once again over the progressives and refused to qualify the film themselves. In the past, after Easter sermons about the crucifixion, maddened crowds poured out of churches to attack the local Jews in revenge for killing Jesus. But if I were you I wouldn’t worry about this happening after this film. Much more likely is that parents will make for the nearest candy store to soothe their children upset by such crude, bloody violence. Gibson has indeed stirred up a hornet’s nest when he might have contributed to a genuine upswing in brotherhood and spirituality. But the more fuss that is made in public rather than in private, the more publicity he’ll get and the more he’ll laugh all the way to the bank.
I did not agree at the time that we Jews should make a fuss. If the film was going to create more anti-Semitism, that was their problem to deal with rather than ours.

This week I have really enjoyed hearing Jacky Mason’s view on American TV:

Leave Mel aloin! He vas dronk so vat! If vee boddered abaat evry dronk who sed somtink hateful about oder Americans, den hoyf of America vood end up ‘n Jayl. Oll dese guys who make a living looking for hatred, dey are sick. Abe Foxman shoud get a proper job.
Of course, Jacky is a comedian, not a serious pundit. But in one way he’s right. The Ku Klux Klan is a far bigger problem than Mel Gibson. So is Islamofascism, where most anti-Semitism comes from nowadays. Two-time Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan has said far worse things, repeatedly, and yet he’s still on TV regularly. And it’s barely fifty years since universities did away with restrictions on Jewish applicants.

Certainly Gibson has a serious problem, but then that’s not news to anyone who has seen his version of religion. As we say "Nichnas Yayin Yatza Sod," "When wine goes in a secret comes out." Obviously there are deep feelings under the surface. He has other hatreds apart from Jews, too. In The Patriot and Braveheart he made all English out to be either sadistic bastards or bumbling incompetents. Scottish Clan leaders were depicted as corrupt, self-serving hypocrites, and homosexuals were pathetic cowards and incompetents.

The truth is we are all prejudiced one way or another. As Shakespeare says in Hamlet, clothes tell us a lot about a person. We all tend to judge by externals, sometimes trivially, sometimes seriously, otherwise why so much plastic surgery? We accept received generalizations, biased histories, and most humans make assumptions that are often proved to be totally false. Have you never heard an Orthodox rabbi, let alone a common and garden Jew, say awful things about Goyim, how they are all corrupt drunkards who’d as soon kill every Jew as have a ham sandwich? Most Britons I know are prejudiced against Gypsies and Tinkers and wouldn’t want them moving in next door. You think I don’t have a problem with Chelsea (for soccer fans only)? Sure, some prejudices are worse and more serious than others. It’s just that some of us try our level best to overcome our prejudices because we really do believe what our scriptures tell us--that God created all humankind!

Frankly I think the "rabbi" (See--prejudice again!) who invited Gibson to speak in his synagogue on Yom Kippur has a much bigger problem if that is his idea of a spiritually uplifting guest preacher on the most holy day in the Jewish calendar. Invite his father, why don’t you, and get him to explain why the Holocaust never happened.

Yes, Gibson has a problem, and his religion hasn’t helped deal with it so far, which does make me wonder whether he’ll really seek help. But let’s see. Perhaps. Who knows? Meanwhile let’s not play the Hollywood game of Saints and Sinners.

We are faced with such enormous and murderous hatred at this moment that the ravings of a drunken Hollywood producer surely comes way down on our list of priorities. Crying wolf, or making a fuss over every such case, will lose us support on the real challenges.

If we are worried about Gibson’s sick mind, then what ought we to be doing about those diseases called Ahmadinejad and Chavez?

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August 06, 2006

To Be Or Not To Be

Reflections whilst fasting on Tisha B'Av.

The superstitious side of me (yes I do indeed have that little irrational spirit sitting inside my brain that needs to be swatted regularly) says that of course the war would be tough during the Nine Days, but that as soon as it is over and the Shabbat of Comfort begins everything will get better. Sadly, superstition has a rotten record. But hope is good!

I am not pleased with the world, just overwhelmed by hatred on the media, by irrationality and dishonesty and calls for our obliteration that are simply brushed off as unimportant. I ask myself whether it would indeed have been a better world had we Jews not existed? But then there’d be no Christianity, no Western Civilization and no Islam. After all, we Jews started it all. On the other hand, there’d have been no anti-Semitism. Life might be easier.

But since when is "ease" a value? Perhaps our role in this world is to be the grain of sand in the oyster, the irritant that creates something magnificent. People often mistake the idea of "the Chosen People" to mean that we think were better than everyone else. On the contrary, it means we are burdened with an obligation. God has imposed survival upon us. We are chosen to survive.

You could argue that our religion has done its job in spawning much bigger and more powerful monotheistic religions. The only trouble is that they themselves are not doing such a great job. Perhaps we Jews exist if for no other reason than to remind them of this!

Certainly, you could also argue that we have lost the evangelical plot by being concerned with minutiae, having three fridges or buying special equipment to search for bugs. Perhaps the other religions exist to remind us of the bigger issues! Maybe that’s why God wants so many religions, so that no one gets the monopoly and ends up abusing it!

There must be something in a small people that has defied all major civilizations, survived every attempt to annihilate it and indeed is now stronger in many respects than it has been in thousands of years. The question is whether this is because of Israel or despite it. I think it is absolutely clear at this moment that it is because of it.

Does religion justify the existence of Israel? What about all those religious movements that opposed a Jewish homeland? Perhaps the Reform Movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were right. We should have remained Jewish citizens of the countries who were kind enough to let us in. Perhaps the British Jewish aristocracy was right. Better an honor from an English Monarch than a synagogue in Jerusalem.

We could take the Neturei Karta position most pathetically and sycophantically being hawked around the media at the moment. Zionism is a terrible error. It offends against God and history. We were meant to suffer in exile and be disenfranchised and pray for the Messiah to save us. The secular antireligious State of Israel has only brought more hatred and antagonism towards Jews. It has not solved the Jewish problem; it has created a bigger one. And as for a Jewish state, all we have is another excessively materialistic, corrupt, crime-infested national entity, with sex clubs and prostitutes galore, where the priapic gods of pop and Hollywood matter more than any spiritual values. Even if Neturei Karta might have a Midrashic point, it is dangerously facile to think that Nasrulla or Ahamdinejad would distinguish between those with beards and black hats and those without.

Yes, it is so easy to be destructive and negative. It is the human condition to yearn for material comfort and mediocrity. Why, even some of the most Orthodox of Jewish communities are as seduced by materialism as the most godless of humans. Who wants to fight (or pay taxes) if you can find a good excuse?

The fact is that Judaism has never been stronger or more creative, both religiously and culturally, than it is today, thanks to having a state of its own. Diaspora institutions are pale reflections of what can be found there. It is the only place today where really creative, thinking, non-fundamentalist religious life flourishes, and indeed where more ultra-Orthodox institutions have more students than at any time in our history. Both pragmatically and equitably, we need a state of our own. Indeed, according to Nachmanides (1194-1270 Spain) the Torah was intended and given to be lived within a Jewish state, in a holistic context, not as a minority under an alien culture. Judaism should be practiced in a society rather than in a bubble. That’s why we need a homeland, however important the negative reason of having a refuge might be.

I believe that a purely secular Zionism is dead. I only mean the ideology, of course. I do not mean the desire to defend and maintain ones homeland. But the old revolutionary ideology has outlived its original goal which was to achieve a homeland and replace religious Judaism. Despite the efforts of many early pioneers and the bleatings of A. B. Yehoshua, it has not created an Israeli alternative to Judaism. Secular Israelis feel more at home at a rave up in Florida, New York and California than in a synagogue. It is only the religion that gives Israel any identifiably Jewish characteristic.

Yet the religion itself is split between those who want to fight for a land of their own and those who want to live as parasites on them. The parasites have no solution other than giving up. That leaves only those who religiously believe that a home land invigorates and revives our spiritual tradition or those simply born into a state they are committed to defend.

Once upon a time we thought this battle was a battle between states, the Arab States against Israel. Give up a bit, compromise, and we’ll live in peace. Nowadays it is clear that it is not. It is a battle of religions. The majority of the Islamic world sees Israel as a cancerous growth forced on the Muslim world, the Dar el Islam. Israel is the beachhead of the American crusaders who must be repelled at all costs so that Islam can regain its old empire of Al Andalus.

Most of the West is no longer religious, so they simply do not understand religious fanaticism. They do not get it. This is a battle for religious supremacy—except that in our case if we do not fight it, it means obliteration. Oh yes, I can understand those Jews who want Israel out, who want Israel to lie down and hope--the war-weary, the fainthearted and the those who want to be loved by the chattering classes. If you want a land of your own you have to fight for it, and fighting is always painful and messy.

But if we want survive, as the sort of Jew I want to be counted amongst, we have no other option. That’s why I am optimistic, superstition or no!

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