September 24, 2006

The Pope and Islam

Well now it’s the Pope’s turn to get it! It’s over his remarks about Islam’s history of spreading religion by the sword. It is true he was quoting a medieval source and, frankly, the record of Christianity in Medieval times was immeasurably worse than Islam. Just recall what happened to the population of Jerusalem when the Crusaders conquered it in 1099. But history is history and no amount of protest is going to erase historical fact or exhortations in the Koran and the later Hadith.

It doesn’t matter if the remarks were taken out of context. It’s a case of being "hoist on your own petard". The majority of the Muslim world seems perfectly happy to tolerate a pervading culture of anti-Semitism and denigration of Jews and Judaism, but the minute anyone says anything against them, from the common man in the street to its senior politicians, are back there demonstrating, burning flags, attacking buildings, hurling abuse and looking like a pack of angry hyenas ("Sorry, we're out of effigies of Bush today; how about the Pope?"). Ahmadinejad can claim there was no Holocaust and display his childish cartoons, but some Danish paper dares to make fun of Mohammad, or the Pope reminds them of their own history, and there’s an explosion of righteous indignation.

Ruth Gledhill, the religion correspondent of the London Times, one of the most balanced and least judgmental of religious correspondents, writes on her blog:
"After all, we in the West have truly suffered at the hands of the Salafi Jihadists, as the Archbishop of York suggests we call them. We've had 9/11, 7/7 and narrowly escaped another. There is Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, and I am among those who firmly resist placing responsibility for the ills committed in these wars solely at the feet of the West. It does seem bizarre that we keep having to apologize to Muslims. "Turn the other cheek," says the Christian religion of the West and we do seem to keep doing just that. In spite of the fact that those responsible for the terrorist atrocities would themselves confess to being of the Islamic faith, and of committing their crimes in the name of Islam, even to write about Islam and terrorism in the same sentence is fast becoming surefire way to end up on Islamophobia Watch at the very least."

I am grateful to Linda Hepner for referring me to an impressive article by Martin Ames that appeared in the Observer earlier this month, noteworthy as much for its style as its content, in which he describes the history and the ideology of that, relatively small, brand of fanaticism that has now taken over, bullied and cowed the Muslim world to the point where moderates dare not speak up and Western liberals fawn and deny and ignore the issue by blaming, Bush, Israel and the Jews. Why just this week when Kofi Annan tried once again to pin it all on Israel, a British Minister was barracked for suggesting that the Muslim community ought to take responsibility for its violent radicals. The so called moderate Muslim response was that it was all the fault of British foreign policy. Of course! Supporting Israel explains Kashmiri violence!

In Europe we are living in a climate of opinion that makes any remark that is in any way negative about any aspect of Islam almost a punishable offense, bringing politicians right out of the woodwork to grovel and apologize. I concede that there are far too many Islamophobic yobs in Europe. But the trouble is that the more the Islamic yobs proliferate so too, action leads to reaction, and you get more skinheads or urban conflict that reflects Indian sub-continent rivalries.

Here we are, living in a free society, where over the years our treasured and hard-won liberties have been slowly challenged. It began with the craven response of the "chattering classes" to the fatwa against Rushdie for a work of fiction. It moved on to censoring plays and entertainment. It progressed to legislation forbidding one from making fun. Then politicians fearing their inner-city seats started to appease. And now it seems one cannot even quote history.

So what was Popey thinking? Apologists say he is an academic, and a man who was cloistered in the Vatican for almost all his post-Hitler-Youth life, so was unaware of the possible impact. Phooey. The Pope is a highly intelligent, politically experienced and sophisticated man. He knew jolly well what sort of impact his remarks would make. In fact, several times this year the Pope has refused to describe Islam as a religion of peace and has said such things as, "I would not like to use. . .generic labels. It certainly contains elements that can favor peace, it also has other elements: We must always seek the best elements." (www.worldnetdaily.com/news).

He sees the total retreat of European religion in the face of the Eastern fundamentalists and he has decided at last, belatedly, to try to put his foot down and start something of a counterrevolution. Even so, all he actually said was that the struggle for religious supremacy should be confined to theology rather than the sword or fire. Big Deal! But thank goodness someone else is saying to the Muslims, “Stop behaving like spoilt, aggressive children.” Except it now seems he was not making a stand, as his apologies indicate, unless we assume he changed his mind or was making a point rather than a stand!

We must combat all manifestations of Islamophobia and not allow one single Muslim to feel threatened on the streets. But at the same time we can expect reciprocity as Jews. And as intellectuals we ought not to allow any fundamentalist to cramp our minds and our freedoms by trying to prevent us thinking and speaking. It’s sad that the fight back is coming from other religions because I’m not entirely happy about their motives. But if no one else will, then at least let there be alternative voices. Certainly the Left Wing has sold out to fascism in its hatred of Israel, so no help is going come from them.

And now I return to us Jews. We, too, have a little, and not exactly comparable tendency to behave like spoilt children. We are so hypersensitive about the Holocaust that we treat any criticism as heresy. Of course it was a genocide unlike an other, in that actual killing factories were built with incredible efficiency and skill and a whole network built to feed them. Rwanda, Cambodia, Darfur were/are terrible modern genocides too, but none created crematoria. Therefore there was justification in picking it as a symbol of humanity’s failure and in Europe in particular something not to be denied by law. But I have always been unhappy about Holocaust memorial days and legislation against ideas. They descend into tokenism. I have, on the contrary, always admired the Charedi response--no special days, just the whole of their lives dedicated to defeating our enemies by surviving and growing and strengthening positively rather than negatively.

Here’s a quote from this week’s Jewish Tribune, the voice of Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy (one of them, at any rate):

Reb M. T. (speaking at the opening of a new Gerrer Hassidic prayer and study centre in North London) made an emotional speech and told the audience how his father was forced by the Nazis to knock down a Beis Hamedrash with his own hands. The young man made a promise that if given the chance he would devote his life to rebuilding Botei Midrash and yeshivas stone by stone.
Isn’t that moving, optimistic and constructive? That’s the spirit!

And so with anti-Semitism, yes, it is reviving and spreading and we must combat it. Today I heard from a friend that at a Muslim Friday service in Camden the Imam was spewing vitriolic hatred against Jews and Mr Blair on council property. Doesn’t the Council have enough Arabic speakers to find out what’s really going on? European anti Semitism "lite" is now the norm rather than the exception. Nevertheless in London there are no gangs of Mosleyites roaming Golders Green... yet. No Nuremburg laws have been passed. No double-parking Jewish housewife is scared she’ll be sent to a concentration camp for flouting the law. Life for Jews in Britain, despite Mr. Livingstone, is still pretty good. We should be focusing on building bridges and being positive. Indeed we ought to be looking at the behavior of some of our own, rabbis and rapacious, not to say devious, businessmen of all religious shades.

Sooner or later the Muslim world will grow up, adjust to living in an open society and realize that, where we and they live, persuasion works far more effectively than coercion. If the only way to protect your religion is by silencing those you don’t agree with or like, then believe me, you might win battles but you’ve already lost the war!

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September 08, 2006

Sliding to the Right

As an interested party, I am delighted at the rejuvenation of Torah in Judaism and the increase in commitment of a very significant section of it. Yet I am very worried about the drift to the right primarily because of its anti-intellectualism, conformism, and fundamentalism. But I have always maintained that this is a phase and it will pass.

Very rarely I come across a book about current Jewish trends and think, "He’s got it absolutely right." The very distinguished New York professor of sociology, Samuel C. Heilman, has written an outstanding description about the ultra-Orthodox transformation of American religious Jewish life. It is called, Sliding to the Right.

He documents "the rise and the rise" of a movement that fifty years ago was regarded as a defunct fossil of marginal importance on the American Jewish scene. And almost everything he says about America applies equally to the rest of Jewry. You cannot understand what is happening to Jewish communities around the world if you do not read this book (or follow my occasional pieces on the subject).

Heilman has researched the massive and exponential growth in population, communities (ghettos), schools and institutions. From near extinction before the Second World War, now 57% of synagogues in the New York area are Orthodox, and from less than 10%, very Orthodox synagogues now account for 40% nationwide. That’s an amazing transformation. Hundreds of thousands attended public celebrations of the Daf HaYomi seven-year cycle of studying the Talmud--the largest gathering celebrating pure study, anywhere.

Suddenly people are aware that ultra-Orthodoxy is the quickest growing, most dynamic sect within Judaism, even if it is still a minority and is always unlikely to appeal to the majority of Jews. The non-Orthodox, much-published Jewish academic, Marshall Sklare, predicted the demise of Orthodoxy in the mid 50’s. He now admits that Orthodoxy has refused to adopt the role of invalid and has transformed itself into a growing and dominating force in American Jewish life.

Perhaps most significant has been the rise of Orthodoxy’s political influence, given that the field used to be totally dominated by Conservative and Reform lobbies. Whereas once the Jewish population was almost totally Democrat (the equivalent of the Labour Party in the UK), now the Orthodox vote is solidly Republican. Only Reform remains predominantly in the Democrat camp.

Heilman tracks back the origin of this revival to pre-war Europe. European Jews were divided between those who lived in societies with attractive features that led them to want accommodate and those who lived in repressive unattractive societies who made a point of rejecting what the outside had to offer. And of course he adds the post War reaction to the Holocaust, a fierce determination to respond to those who wanted to destroy Jews and Judaism by answering with an aggressive survivalist response. I would add the impact of Israel on religious life.

Heilman borrows from the anthropologist Mary Douglas to describe two reactions. The Ghettoists, the "enclavists", responded by trying to create their own communities as different than the outside as possible. On the other hand, the Accommodationists (Douglas’s "contrapuntalists") tried to find ways of dealing with competing interests and loyalties. The one area in Orthodoxy that once accounted for a large measure of, say, United Synagogue in Britain that is fast disappearing is the nominally Orthodox, synagogue on Saturday morning, soccer in the afternoon. Most of those disappear and some migrate to other denominations. To the casual observer of the two trends within Orthodoxy, it appears that the enclavists have won hands down, in number, authority and power. But according to Heilman the doomsday scenario of an Orthodoxy totally black is not actually playing out on the ground in the USA (or anywhere else, either, in my view).

Enclavist Orthodoxy is complex--as complex as Islamic sects. There are Hassidic, Lithuanian, Sephardi and Nouveau Arrivee Orthodoxies of an amazing variety. Whereas outwardly they may appear similar, and come together to combat the outside, the variations are highly significant within and often lead to clashes. Some encourage secular education for career purposes, while others encourage more commercial and entrepreneurial pursuits. Some are eager to reach out. Others turn inwards. One common factor is that the individual does not matter as much as the group and social/religious conformity in dress and behaviour are crucial. Yet within every group Heilman detects a degree of fragmentation. The individualist host societies all encourage free choice, which in enclavist Orthodoxy is played out privately instead of publicly. It’s almost a case of, "Do whatever you want in private so long as you conform in public." This is where the cracks begin to show, where individuals faithful to their religious leaders in public, often ignore them in private.

But whereas twenty years ago Heilman only saw the ghetto Orthodoxy (enclavists) as the growing and new face of Orthodoxy, now it is clear wherever you look that the accommodationist Orthodox are growing too. Frum need not always lead to frummer.

"In a postmodern world…dichotomies are dialectically redefined. In this world one can often avoid the either/or option of fragmentation and choose the both/and one of provisionality." "One need not be either contrapuntalist or enclavist, Modern or Chareidi: One can actually be both." "A postmodern view is suspicious of authoritative definitions and singular narratives of any trajectory of events," Heilman quotes Ryan Bishop.

Whatever the enclavists might like to believe postmodernism is affecting ultra-Orthodoxy too! You can see Hassidim in mufti in almost any nightclub in Manhattan, yet on the weekends they are back in proper garb in their ghettos. Could it happen that people who appear Chareidi are actually taking on aspects of modernity as they study for careers or work in the marketplace or use the internet? On the other hand, the Modern Orthodox, in the desire for greater authenticity, study and passionate religious experience, take on aspects of the Chareidi world without abandoning alternative engagements? Some of the ultra-Orthodox outreach movements are examples of both. Heilman shows beyond doubt how Orthodoxy in the USA is reinventing itself!!

Orthodox Judaism has survived the crisis. It is now going through a fascinating almost unseen transformation that will, in my opinion, leave us stronger, richer and more creative. The Right Wing takeover may only be Phase One of the survival plan. Phase Two will lead to more openness and greater flexibility. It has always been this way. A natural response to a crisis is to tighten up; then, as it passes, relaxation sets in, and that too passes and the cycle begins again. Don’t despair, my individualist, open-minded, postmodern but Orthodox friends--your day will soon come!

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September 03, 2006

Ken Loach and Friends

Golda Meir is reported to have said, "I can forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but I cannot forgive them for making us kill theirs." My variation of this is to say that I can forgive the apparently rational enemies of Israel for criticizing and pillorying the state beyond the bounds of logic and equity, but I cannot forgive them for pushing me further and further to the right in defence of its right to exist. When a man I admire as a film director, Ken Loach, calls for a boycott of Israel, I resent being forced, as I am, to boycott his work. I enjoyed his Hidden Agenda despite its one-sided description of the IRA as jolly, good natured bunch of idealists. (Not a knee-capping, bank-robbing, drug-dealing gangster among them.) But I certainly will not be seeing The Wind That Shakes the Barley.

So here’s my reply to those who call for Israel to be "disenfranchised". You wanna play? I’ll play games too! None of the countries which belong to UN has an inalienable right to exist.

The crude hypocrisy of those who deny Israel’s right to exist is not in their criticism of Israel, but in their refusal to apply the same logic elsewhere! "Prejudice" is not realizing that you are blinded by hatred. So what is sauce for the goose must be sauce for the gander. Yes, let’s scrap all the Muslim and Christian states too for good measure. They have no more right to exist than Israel. What, because Britain and America backs one family of Bedouin camel thieves in the Arabian Peninsula they have an inalienable right to exist as a state? And because some Normans invade and displace the Saxons they have a right to a state? Or because some rejects from England go over and massacre natives the other side of the Atlantic they have a right to a state?

I genuinely believe nations and nationalism is destructive--I mean the political structures, not cultures (but even cultures and religions become tools of death when they are allied to national entities and power brokers). In principle, I believe that all nations should give up their petty selfish powers and be party to a great international common market and government.

I approve of the Marxist anthem, The Internationale, when it calls to "Unite the Human Race". Conflict between nations is both a struggle for supremacy and for markets. The nationalism of the nineteenth century that swept through Europe and then the rest of the world was regressive. It created all these competing states, preoccupied with their boundaries, their honour, their culture, their flags, their armies and weapons and lust for "lebensraum". Whereas Napoleon’s vision of one continent united was the logical ideal that might have prevented terrible wars and the loss of millions of lives, sadly, his personal ambition led him to go too far too quickly and to lose what he had gained. But his idea of giving everyone a stake in a grand international community was a brilliant idea. He was the first to enfranchise the Jews. Europe was not ready for it and regressed into the petty nationalism (most states reintroduced anti-Jewish legislation) that led to two World Wars. Similarly, the great ideals of International Brotherhood that Marx preached were destroyed and made a mockery of by self serving lunatics like Lenin and Stalin.

What’s more, current nation-states often repress minorities and are imposed arbitrarily and unfairly. That is why Basques, Catalans, Welsh, Scots to name the most obvious all campaign against these unfair nationalist impositions upon them.

I know full well that no one is going to give up their state or their power. On the contrary, we are busy creating new states and divisions wherever we look. Besides, the pathetic attempts at world government at the UN or the EU have only produced corrupt bureaucracies, guided by self-interest and material gain, divided by an incompetent gaggle of pathetic and usually corrupt "leaders". Humans evolve very, very slowly. Sadly, attempts at achieving change through Communism, that distortion of Marxism, have failed disastrously precisely because humans inevitably corrupt ideals in the pursuit of material and selfish goals. Ironically China may (and I stress the word "may" because it is still far too early to know) actually prove that a Marxist-based form of government is more successful than current petty nationalisms. Not that you and I would choose to liver there just yet.

But otherwise we humans seem prepared to destroy our universe through the abuse of our ecological system. Most powers do not seem to care a jot about destroying our natural resources—to hell with the consequences, so long as they can go on making more money. The world is mad, and we are slowly heading to disaster, and the oil-crazy rulers of the world claim that nothing’s going on--even though we ourselves are actually experiencing changes in our climate year by year.

European democracy has shown itself congenitally incapable of defending itself (and don’t give me the war against the Nazis because democracies were only hauled reluctantly screaming to battle when their own interests were threatened). The current crisis is of course the fact that in their desperate need for cheap labour they invited into their democracies those who seeks to overthrow the very nature of democracy and the delicate balance between State and Religion. Developing a democratic form of government just about works in situations where enough citizens care about it and its values. Sadly it seems 50% of Europeans don’t even bother enough to vote when given the freedom. If you then add to the mix those who positively want to undermine democracy you have a recipe for disaster of the magnitude of Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and Iran where the majority clearly want a theocratic illiberal autocracy. It is only where autocrats keep the lid on democracy that secularism and some degree of freedom survives. Not as very pretty thought. And the only exception to all this in the Middle East is Israel of course.

The conclusion is that democracy is a failed system as a formula for most countries. I agree we have no clear alternative but that doesn’t mean its failings should not be recognized and nationalism is one of the major culprits. So if you want to dismantle Israel my friends, be consistent and demand the dismantling of all the rest

Tony Blair seems to be the only current leader in power in Europe with the ability to see the danger and with the guts to try to do something about it and to ignore the siren call from mullahs, unemployed radicals and beauty queens that if Britain changes its policies and stops supporting Israel, everything will be fine in the garden. Blair has the strength to stand up to those pathetic dolts who seem to believe that if we lick the backsides of the enemies of our values and support their mewling complaints that it’s all everyone else’s fault, we will be allowed to live in peace. And look how he is excoriated within his own party.

Over two years ago I wrote it was time to get out. The French Jews are seeing it. They are ubiquitous now in Israel buying up all the property they can lay their hands on. As far as Britain is concerned, what’s the betting George Galloway gets welcomed back by the Labour Party the way Livingstone was? Churchill will be turning in his grave. Frankly, give me a land of my own, embattled as it is, with rockets in Lebanon and Gaza, rather than a state of appeasement, with extremists of different colours and creeds in its universities and its media, Ken Livingstone as a mayor and Galloway as a member of Parliament, any day of the week!

Let the left wing hypocrites declare that Israel should be dismantled. Let Ken Loach have his boycott. Before they know what hit them they’ll be banned from making films and be sitting in jail for fornication.

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